Indian Civil Service Examinations and Dalit Intervention in British India

Stalin Rajangam ( is a Dalit writer based in Madurai. A B Rajasekaran ( is an intellectual property attorney based in Chennai.
18 March 2020

During the independence movement in the mid-19th century, the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha from Tamil Nadu prevailed upon the British government to reject the demand from the Indian elite to simultaneously hold exams for the Indian Civil Services in India in addition to London. Dalit organisations at that time felt that such a move would only enable the upper-caste Indians to monopolise the bureaucracy in India.  

Even as the nationalist consciousness was emerging during the Indian freedom movement, there were countermovements within and outside the ambit of the freedom struggle. Their demands, especially from socially disadvantaged groups, would seem anti-national today, or at variance with the objectives of the freedom movement. But, it is essentially due to these movements that modern India is what it is today.

Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in the social justice movement, besides its contribution to the freedom struggle. Dalits were the first to form mass organisations, based on modern social justice ideas, to secure social and political rights in Tamil Nadu, as early as the second half of the 19th century (Geetha and Rajadurai 2008: 54). These ideas continue to reverberate even in the political sphere of modern-day Tamil Nadu. The Dalits perceived the colonial government as a benefactor in their struggle, and found ways to secure such benefits from the colonial authorities that would eventually relieve them from the oppressive caste system. To this end, they organised themselves and used the print media to their benefit (Balasubramaniam 2017). They felt that independence from the colonial government would only give the upper castes the unbridled power to suppress them more. 

The Indian National Congress (hereafter, the Congress), which led the freedom struggle, was “unrepresentative” in the initial days of its existence, comprising only upper-caste Hindus, whose demands reflected solely of their social class. As a result, Dalit organisations opposed the Congress, and extended their support to the British, in pursuit of an anti-caste struggle and the emancipation of their castes. In such a context, Dalit organisations presented numerous petitions and memorials to the British authorities to request them to adopt beneficial policies for Dalits and make amends for historical injustices meted out to them. 

Civil Services in British India

One of the major successes secured by the Dalits in the late 19th century was to prevail upon the British government to not concede to the elite Indians, request of simultaneously conducting civil service examinations both in India and in London, United Kingdom (UK). 

Until the mid-19th century, India was ruled by the East India Company through European civil servants, who were mostly appointed by the means of political patronage and nomination. After the British Crown took over, India was administered through non-Covenanted Services, widely known as Provincial Services, and Covenanted Services, popularly called the Indian Civil Service (ICS). 

Selection to the Indian Civil Services (ICS) in British India was carried out through competitive exams held in London alone until 1921. The Congress, comprising of elite Hindus, made numerous appeals to the British government to hold civil service examinations both in the UK and in India. Supporters of this move pointed out that holding exams only in London prevented many Indians from appearing for them, due to travel costs and caste restrictions on crossing the seas, among others. It was virtually impossible for the Indian graduates to appear for these exams. Between 1862 (when they were first introduced) and 1875, only 40 Indians appeared for them. From 1860 onwards, there was a demand from several quarters in India to hold the exams simultaneously in India and the UK (Compton 1967). However, the Dalits resisted this demand owing to their apprehension that such a move would allow Brahmins and Bengalis to monopolise administrative services, and allow further subjugation of Dalits (Srinivasan 2017: 49–50). In such context, the Paraiyar Mahajana Sabha (hereafter, the Sabha) of Tamil Nadu vehemently opposed the demand, and secured a favourable response from the British. The movement was spearheaded by Rettamalai Srinivasan (1860–1945), a well-known Scheduled Caste (SC) activist from the Madras Presidency of British India. 

Srinivasan founded the Sabha in 1892 and the newspaper Paraiyan in 1893 (Srinivasan 2017). He leveraged the print media of the time, and submitted numerous petitions to the colonial administration on the issue of the ICS examinations. Srinivasan, who was a member of the Madras Legislative Council in the early 1920s, attended the Round Table Conferences organised by the British administration, and was also one of the signatories to the Poona Pact, on behalf of the Dalits, along with B R Ambedkar. The Sabha’s petition to the British, urging them not to conduct civil services exams in India, became a significant intervention from the Dalits at that time to challenge the hegemony of elite Indians.  

How the Sabha managed to prevail upon the British government in London is a fascinating story, but very little is known about it. In the latter part of the article, the authors piece together documentary evidence collected from the India office records section of the British Library, London, to present the efforts made by the Sabha. 

Dalits Triumph over Elite Indians 

As mentioned earlier, a number of associations both in India and Britain impressed upon the British government from 1860 onwards to hold civil service exams in India. Indian-origin British parliamentarian, at that time, Dadabhai Naoroji also played a key role in the matter. 

On 2 June 1893, the House of Commons resolved to hold civil service examinations both in London and in India, after Liberal Party MPs Herbert Paul and Naoroji had moved the motion to the effect. The House of Commons resolved

 [T]hat open competitive Examinations heretofore held in England alone for appointments to the Civil Services of India shall henceforth be held simultaneously both in India and England, such Examinations in both Countries being identical in their nature, and all who compete being finally classified in one list according to merit. (Hansard nd [a])

After about a year, and following numerous requests from the Members of Parliament (MPs) about the implementation of the resolution, the British government disclosed that it was reluctant to hold exams simultaneously in London and in India. On 19 April 1894, Secretary of State for India John Wodehouse read out a statement in the House of Commons:

[Her Majesty’s Government] have arrived at the conclusion that there are insuperable objections to the establishment of that system (emphasis ours), and that by far the best method of meeting the legitimate claims and aspirations of the natives of the country is to bestow such of the higher posts as can be made available for them on those who distinguish themselves by their capacity and trustworthiness in the performance of subordinate duties; and that upon a careful review of the whole question Her Majesty's Government agree with the Government of India that the system lately established is based on just and wise principles, and are of opinion that, subject to such alterations in detail as experience may prove to be necessary, it should be maintained. (Hansard nd [b])

Naoroji squarely blamed Wodehouse for the turn of events. In his statement before the Welby Commission in October 1895, he said, 

[E]ven before the despatch was sent to India, Lord Kimberly [John Wodehouse] himself showed his full hand and let the Government of India, by anticipation, his entire resistance to the resolution, within 10 days of the passing of the resolution, and 10 days before the despatch was sent to India. (Naoroji 1917: 456–58)

There could be several reasons for the British government’s reluctance to conduct exams in India. But, only one reason was mentioned to Parliament: “There are insuperable objections to the establishment of that system” (Hansard nd [b]). Nothing was spelt out explicitly. It was at this juncture that Srinivasan and his Sabha played a significant role which led to the change of mind for the British government. 

Srinivasan was of the view that conducting civil service examinations in India would only enable upper-caste Hindus and the Bengalis to participate in the exams. As influential bureaucrats, he feared that the new crop of Indian civil servants would discriminate against the Dalits, and become a stumbling block in their progress. 

After knowing about the resolution passed by the House of Commons, the Sabha organised a large meeting attended by the Dalits at the Wesley Mission Hall in Madras on 23 December 1893. A petition was signed by 3,412 people to express their displeasure at the resolution (Srinivasan 2017: 33). It stated that the Brahmins and Bengalis had monopolised whatever nominated posts were available until then, and would also monopolise the Covenanted Services, should the competitive examination be conducted in India. Coming down heavily on the Brahmins, the petition said that a Brahmin would wear his English language and education only as a mask to hide his outdated outlook of the world. It also drew attention to the condition of the “Pariahs” as to how they were not admitted to institutions run by the Hindus, and how they were not even allowed to enter streets inhabited by the Brahmins. The situation outside Madras had been worse, the petition emphasised (Srinivasan 2017: 51).  

In his biographical notes, En Jeeviya Sarithiram (History of my life), Srinivasan notes that the petition was submitted to the Madras governor of the time who then forwarded it to British Parliament through General George Chesney, a British MP. He ends his narration of the episode nonchalantly, as is his wont, by simply stating that that the petition was responsible for not holding civil service exams in India, without revealing much.  

Interesting Turn of Events

The authors' investigation into the episode in September 2019 enabled them to obtain a set of documents with the possession of the British Library, London, which sheds light on the events preceding Wodehouse’s statement in the House of Commons that announced the British government’s decision not to hold civil service exams in India.  

The petition of the Sabha was presented to the governor of Madras Presidency on 23 December 1893, who promptly forwarded it to the Government of India. Lord Elgin, the Governor General, in turn, forwarded the petition “from Pariahs of Madras” on 28 February 1894, with a cover note, to Wodehouse in London. The petition was recei ved at the India Office in London on 19 March 1894, and it was duly filed by the judicial and public department (JPD) in a separate file.

Governor General Lord Elgin forwards petition from "Pariah" community to Secretary of State for India John Wodehouse
Governor General Lord Elgin forwards petition from "Pariah" community to Secretary of State for India John Wodehouse in London.
Source: The British Library, London.


The department, after consultation with the Secretary, decided that it was not a practice of the India Office to forward memorials to Parliament, and such memorials addressed to Parliament could only be presented by an MP. So, it decided to return the memorial to memorialists through the Government of India. The decision was recorded as a minute in the JPD file. Accordingly, a draft letter was prepared by an officer at the India Office and put up for the perusal of P P Hutchins, the JPD head, on 5 April 1894. Now, the events take an interesting turn.  

Minutes of meeting between John Wodehouse and the department of Judicial and Public Department held on 22 March 1894. 
Source: The British Library, London.


Minutes of meeting (continued) between John Wodehouse and the department of Judicial and Public Department held on 22 March 1894.
Source: The British Library, London.


Judicial and Public Department recommends India Office in London to return the petition of "Pariah" Community to the Government of India.
Source: The British Library, London.

 Judicial and Public Department recommends (Continued) India Office in London to return the petition of "Pariah" Community to the Government of India.
Source: The British Library, London.


The secretary of state for India suddenly decided not to return the petition to India, but, instead, placed it before the India Council, which had been scheduled to meet later that week. The undersecretary explained to Hutchins through a handwritten letter dated 5 April 1894, about the change of the plan, and instructed him not to return the petition from “Pariahs of Madras.” The authors have no record of what transpired in the India Council meet later that week. A week after the India Council meet, on 19 April 1894, the secretary of state forwarded Parliament Resolution of 2 June 1893 to the Government of India for its opinion. But, he was careful enough to let them know what was on his mind. He merely said,  

I will only point out that it is indispensable that an adequate number of members of the civil service shall always be Europeans and that no scheme would be admissible which does not fulfil that essential condition. (Naoroji 1917) 

It, therefore, seems plausible that the secretary of state may have used this petition to influence the final decision of the government. However, there is no reason to believe that Srinivasan was aware of the events that had unfolded in Whitehall, the headquarters of the British government. But, Naoroji was furious at the turn of events. Paraiyan, dated 22 September 1894, reported a meeting of the Madras Congress Committee at Pachaiyappas Hall in Madras where Naoroji’s letter addressed to them on the civil services issue was read. Many of the speakers passed disparaging comments on the Sabha, for obstructing a move that could have helped many civil aspirants of Indian origin (Ravikumar 2008: 72). 

In another article, Paraiyan explained its position on the issue. It visualised the struggle for independence through the eyes of the oppressed. It observed that the Brahmins were determined to monopolise higher administrative posts in India, even before other castes began acquiring necessary education and skills to compete in any exam. Coming down heavily on the upper castes, the article pointed out that if they shed off their caste and religious prejudices, and embraced equality and fraternity, foreign rulers would automatically leave India.   

Thus, the “Pariahs of Madras” prevented the conduct of the simultaneous exams in India at least for the next 25 years, until 1922, when the exams for the Covenanted Services were first held in India. In the process, they brought to the fore the dangers of the upper castes alone administering a caste-ridden hierarchical society. The petition and its outcome showed that the fight for freedom has no meaning when the same people who were demanding freedom continue to oppress a vast majority of people. It is true that colonial administration was not entirely guided by a sense of justice, but their concern for order rather than progress turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Dalits. Campaigns such as these later metamorphosised into the demand for reservations, when civil services were Indianised. The efforts made by the Sabha had a lasting impact not only on the social justice landscape of Tamil Nadu, but also on the entire country. 

Stalin Rajangam ( is a Dalit writer based in Madurai. A B Rajasekaran ( is an intellectual property attorney based in Chennai.
18 March 2020