Facets of a civil servant

Print edition : October 27, 2001

Witness to the Century: Writings of C.S. Venkatachar, ICS, edited by S. Sapru and K.M. Acharya; privately published at 1 Fourth Main Road, Jayamahal, Bangalore; Rs.349.

THIS volume is a collection of book reviews and assorted writings by C.S. Venkatachar, who joined the Indian Civil Service (neither Indian, nor civil, nor service, said M.V. Kamath after resigning) in 1923. He served in Uttar Pradesh and was associated closely with the Census of India, 1931. From 1939 to 1941 he was Agent of the Government of India in Singapore. In the "Quit India" year he was Commissioner of Allahabad. For a while he was Secretary in the State's Ministry under Sardar Patel. He was secretary to Dr. Rajendra Prasad from 1953 to 1958. His last posting was as High Commissioner to Canada. He died on June 16, 1999, a few days before his 100th birthday.

I have given these details because not many would know who Venkatachar was. Ramachandra Guha in his An Anthropologist Among Marxists has a charming and affectionate essay on C.S. Venkatachar. I am not a great admirer of the ICS. I saw them at very close quarters for almost two decades in the Indian Foreign Service. Most were monuments of mediocrity with a chip on their shoulder. A few, like S. Dutt, B.K. Nehru, T.N. Kaul, B.N. Chakravarty were exceptions. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, might have over-stated the case, but there was much truth in what he wrote about the ICS:

It is to me a melancholy and inscrutable thing that the Indian Civil Service, the proudest and most honourable in the World, turns out from time to time and as it seems to me with increasing frequency, some of the meanest and most malignant types of disappointed humanity whom it has been my misfortune to meet.

I once asked C. Rajagopalachari his view of the ICS. He wrote, "About the ICS people - my experience was that the Englishmen were on the whole better than brown people who suffered from an inferiority complex and overdid their arrogance."

C.S. Venkatachar, judging from this volume was not a routine-bound, pen-pushing, boss-pleasing toady. He had a mind of his own. A lover of books and good conversation, he had much to contribute and much to say. Witness to the Century is divided into three sections. The first section deals with the pre-1947 era. The second is devoted to the events leading up to Partition and the final one deals with C.S. Venkatachar's musings and book reviews.

Venkatachar was a Patelite, not a Nehruite. For Gandhiji, he had profound respect. He worked closely with Nehru and Patel. As secretary to the President, he was privy to what was happening at the top-most echelons of government. His boss, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, did not see eye to eye with Nehru on several major issues. C.V.S. thought that the Prime Minister could have shown more consideration to the Rashtrapati. Nevertheless, he recognised that India owed much to Nehru:

The survival of India as a democratic state - at least in its present form - is his (Nehru's) greatest achievement. Another great achievement is the liberalisation of the Hindu Social Structure through the modification of the Hindu Code. He took Hindu India out of the mainstream of Hindu orthodoxy without changing the Indian character. He was the most determined practical modernisers of present day India... He strengthened the democratic spirit by a scrupulous respect for the freedom of the press and for the Independence of the judiciary.

C.S. Venkatachar was a man of culture and a man of learning. He was familiar with Western thinking. Well-versed in Indian philosophy and ancient Indian history, he was equally at home in the less serene north India, speaking Urdu fluently. His knowledge was deep, his insights penetrating and refreshing. As an able administrator, C.S. Ven- katachar knew the difference between "administration" and "government". His understanding of India's plurality was acute.

When he ventures into the arena of diplomacy and foreign policy, he is less sure-footed, even superficial. He fails to appreciate that non-alignment is a process, which needs renovation and restructuring. The Non-Aligned Movement is not an event or episode. It is a state of mind. It is not irrelevant even today. He is, however, not the only one to fall into this fashionable trap set up by pseudo-intellectuals of south Delhi.

So many civil servants go to pieces after retirement. Some go to seed. Only a handful know how to cope with retirement and convert it into something creative. C.V.S. spent the evening of his long life reading, reflecting, writing and enjoying the company of friends and family.

This book would never have appeared but for the financial help of the Government of Karnataka. I only got to know of it when a friend gave me a copy. It is an interesting and lively volume sorely in need of an index.

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