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The steel frame of the Raj

By Manohar Malgonkar

THE Raj was said to have been held in place and kept going by what was called its Steel Frame. It was formed by an army of men who served the Empire in some capacity or the other and were known as the Koi-hais: administrators, soldiers, policemen, engineers, forest officials and other functionaries, each in his way helping to make up the whole: bars and beams and struts and nuts and bolts and rivets of a gigantic tower.

At its top was the Viceroy who represented the Monarch himself, King of Great Britain and the Emperor of India. He was referred to as His Excellency. But then the dozen or so provincial Governors, too who came next in the hierarchy were also excellencies, and in their turn, represented the Viceroy. The military chief was also an excellency. After these exalted beings came the senior civil servants, generals, chiefs of police and prisons and forests in bewildering numbers, right down to the base of the structure which was manned by such outlandish functionaries as Inspectors or Smoke and Nuisances, Junior Settlement officers and the box-wallahs, who were Englishmen who held no office in the empire’s hierarchy but were considered important enough to deserve a place in the Warrant of Precedence: The merchant princes.

If the Empire was held together by its steel frame, what held the steel frame together was snobbery. The protocol of the Empire was inflexible. Who outranked whom was decided by a committee of experts and laid down in a book called The Warrant of Precedence. Every important office in civil stations and cantonments had to have a copy of The Warrant; in the sahib clubs, it was usually the most-thumbed-over book.

Did the Chief Pilot of Calcutta port outrank the Chief of Bengal’s prisons — and was either of them deserving of an invitation to dinner at Government house or only to the annual garden party?

These were weighty issues. Every functionary of the Empire — indeed every Englishman living in India had to fit into a slot. Thus the head of the Royal Indian Marine was entitled to all the privileges that went with rank number 75 of The Warrant. And yes, the Governor could invite him to dinner and shake his hand, but not before he had finished shaking the hand of some army major who too might have been invited and who was ranked at No. 74. The sanitary commissioners, at number 76, came after the Chief of Merchant Marine.

How the system worked in practice is best illustrated by a letter reproduced in its entirety in the BBC publication, Plain Tales from the Raj, in a chapter headed ‘The Order of Precedence’. The letter was written by one of the ADCs of the Governor of the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh), to a Mrs Kendall, of 7 Hastings Road, Allahabad.

Governor’s Camp

United Provinces

November 6, 1933

Dear Mrs Kendall

His Excellency will be very pleased if you will reserve dance No. 1 for him on Thursday November 9, at Government House, Allahabad. If you will please be near the dais at the beginning of the dance, I will be there to introduce you to His Excellency.

Yours sincerely

A scribbled signature follows, so we don’t know who the ‘I’ was. But then Mrs Kendall must have known him earlier, for as someone asked to partner a Governor at the number one dance of the evening, she must have been socially prominent and a frequent invitee to functions at Government House. But even if she had not known the ADC before, she could have made him out by his splendid uniform, dashing manner and dazzling smile, as no doubt he would have had no difficulty in identifying the lady who stood expectantly at the edge of the dais when the music for dance number one began — as much by her body language as the glow of pride on her face at being thus singled out as the number one lady of the evening’s festivities. "Ah, Mrs Kendall!"

Rules of behaviour went by the board; to be replaced by requirements of precedence as laid down in The Warrant. The reference in the ADC’s letter to the ‘dais’ is a pointer. It shows that the Governor and his party were seated on a platform from which the invited guests were barred. A platform, as the barrister in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India argued: "Confers authority."

As a rule, governors of provinces were career civil servants on the verge of retirement, sun-dried men pushing 60. This was their hour, their last burst. Elevation to the office of Governor was their reward for lifelong service to the Empire. It brought privileges. They were now to be addressed as Your Excellency. And they could summon some woman of their choice to make sure to be ready and waiting to dance with them when the music began for some particular number.

All this, at the dictates of protocol. Left to himself, the Governor would probably have preferred a quiet evening at home and early bed. But duty called. He owed a dance to the station. So he and his ADCs pore over the book of rules and make a list of the six ranking ladies of the place. "Just make sure that they know the numbers for which they’re required to present themselves at the dais," HE tells his ADC. "I don’t want a mix-up."

That dessicated couple joylessly going through the motions of a dance was an image of the Empire that was itself close to retirement — and indeed its demise was only 14 years away. At that, the participants in the festivities at Allahabad’s Government house that winter evening, themselves never thought there was something unrealistic about the scene they were enacting; that it represented decreptitude more than strength. To them what mattered was its pomp, the grandeur of the setting, the silver and crystal, the liveried servants. To the men who ruled India the rule books of the Empire were sacrosanct — till the very end.

E.M. Forster, who on his earlier visits, had made fun of official attitudes, was to be confronted with their rigidity yet again, on his very last visit, in November 1945 when, let it be emphasised, World War II was already over and the process of winding up the Empire about to begin.

Forster had always been a marked man and his mail was censored. So when, in 1916, he wrote to his friend Masood, that he had been offered a job by the Maharaja of Dewas as his Private Secretary, the Chief of the Political Department dashed off a letter to the Resident responsible for Dewas:

"The man Forster says he has a cable from Dewas. (Please give) Dewas a hint that he is not altogether a desirable person."

"We shall take steps to make sure that the Maharaja does not offer him employment," the Resident wrote back.

Some 15 years later, the publication of A Passage to India had further infuriated the Empire’s servants whom Forster had called its Turtons and Burtons.

The E.M. Forster who came to India in 1945 was a world renowned author, and feted wherever he went. He had come to India at the invitation of its writers. So even if the Turtons and Burtons had never forgiven him for letting the side down, protocol laid down that a man of his repute should be offered official hospitality.

So it came about that, when Forster was due to visit Hyderabad, the British Resident there sent him an invitation to stay at the Residency’s Guest House. Instead of accepting the invitation, Forster went to stay with a friend, Sajjad Mirza. One day his host told Forster that the Resident had been trying to locate him and deliver an invitation to him.

"And did he include you in it?" Forster asked.

"No", said Mirza.

"Then I shan’t go. These people have no manners."Back

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