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PROVIDENCE AND THE PARLOUR GAME
AMONG the duties of a District Officer, in his general capacity of Father and Mother of the People, falls the inspection of anything in the nature of a public institution that he may happen to come across. In two days I had the honour of assisting at inspections of a jail, a dispensary, a school, a public garden, a treasury, a police-station, a dak bungalow, the registers of half-a-dozen villages, two Arab stallions, and a stud donkey.
When you meet the Government of India in camp it seems the ideal of a single system adapted to a simple country. It appears to reside, not in ink and paper, but in men. The man knows his business and knows his own mind, and Government appears to work in a string of six-word orders delivered at the rate of a couple of dozen an hour. The Briton understands and commands; the native understands and performs; work is done quickly and cheaply, and there is a responsible man to see that it is done.
Unfortunately that is only half the fact. If that were all, India — provided only that its local rulers were both trustworthy and trusted — would be the best-governed country in the world, But there is another side. The rulers, for the most part eminently trustworthy, are only half-trusted. From that comes supervision, regulations, correspondence, clerks by the thousand, writing by the ream, red-tape by the league. The Government of India, in the one aspect the ideal organisation for work, becomes in the other the inevitable and gigantic joke — a cobweb of rules and checks and references, compared with which eight-pack Patience is simplicity and the House that Jack built terseness.
As soon as you leave the tent and come under a Government roof it is this side of the matter that begins to unroll itself before you. At the police-station alone ten books are brought out for inspection. Every single thing that the police does is carefully written down, even to the cleaning of their Sniders. Every pill that goes out of the dispensary is similarly made a note of, together with the recipient's name and religion. At the school every attendance of every scholar is kept, together with records of all passes and failures and long reports from inspectors. Thus with everything.
So far, of course, all is natural and indeed necessary. You would find almost as much paper covered in similar institutions at home. In India, furthermore, the details of administration must needs be largely in native hands, and of responsibility the ordinary native official is neither desirous nor worthy. Therefore he writes down questions in black and white, and his European superior gives him black and white answers.
It is not only officials who fly to writing as a friendly shelter against responsibility. In all India you will hardly find a native who will take verbal instructions. You send a peon with a letter: he will take no notice when you tell him where to go, but instead will waylay every European he sees in the street and hold out the letter to him, in hopes that the talismanic writing will find its destination for itself. When I first started forth into India I came on a native doctor, or semi-doctor, on plague duty. His instructions were to keep passengers from Bombay in a segregation camp. I assured him, and he must have known, that plague regulations did not apply to Europeans; he replied that if I would kindly wait twenty-four hours on the ground at nowhere-in-particular he would telegraph to his official superior for instructions. When I eventually lost patience, and said I was going on, instructions or not, he asked if, at least, he might telegraph on the number of my ticket. I gave it him: at the sight of a regulation number he quite revived, and of course nobody heard any more of it. Similarly the guard of a railway train writes down the number of your ticket in his notebook — why, Heaven knows. Briefly, the whole ambition of the native is to leave off being a man and to become a sort of pneumatic tube; and the sole qualification for the native public service is to be able to read and write and to know the way to the post-office.
But, to go back to Government, the records of the police-station and the dispensary are meagre compared with those of the patwari, or village accountant. This gentleman keeps a number of books, which together form the minutest record of the economic history of the village. He has a linen map — he lugs it out of his pocket like a very dirty handkerchief — which shows the boundaries, not only of the village lands, but of every field. In his records he puts down the area of land sown with each crop and the amount harvested. In another book he puts down the rent of each field and the land-tax, while any changes of ownership or of occupancy are likewise entered. Everything that the wit of man could hit upon as recordable is recorded. So long as the patwari does his duty — which he usually does, unless he is paid to do otherwise — Government has matter for an economic history of rural India beside which the collected works of Mr. Charles Booth would be a superficial pamphlet.
To the British mind such a system is suspiciously reminiscent of the given moment at which every child in France is saying its multiplication table; and you will ask, What is the use of it all? Much. For the Government of India — you will hardly guess it from the Wedderburns of the age, but it is most true — is the tenderest-conscienced ruler in the world.
Every thirty years it assesses the land revenue, which is its principal source of income, and in this work the village registers are invaluable. They show, as nearly as experience can forecast the future, what the land can pay, and it is assessed accordingly. The theory in India has always been that the land is the State's, and that the State is entitled to the whole of the produce after the cultivator has half-filled his belly from it. In British theory this right has relaxed. In Bengal and parts of the North-West Provinces it has surrendered its rights to zemindars by the Permanent Settlement, which cheats it out of its fair share in the prosperity of the country. Elsewhere the settlement is in the nature of a thirty-years' lease of the land, granted either to a village collectively, as landlord, or directly to the cultivator; and in this case it is considered reasonable to take one-half of the net profit. But in practice the assessment is generally much lower. Sometimes blunders are made, and it is much higher. There is a story of a landowner who bequeathed all his land to the officer who had last assessed it — remarking that, as the sahib had taken all the produce, he might as well have the land itself. But in the main the settlements are equitable, and for that thanks are largely due to the patwari's register.
Only Government is not content with the register. The settlement officer has also to furnish a most elaborate report, beginning with the district's history from the earliest times, telling you not merely what grows there and how much it fetches, but also the race of the people and their local superstitions, a great part of their language, and what they look like, and who has the right of sitting on a chair, and whether the post-office is also a money-order office, and how many people died of ruptured spleen, and what the irrigation system was in the reign of Aurungzebe, and before there was any irrigation system at all what there was where the irrigation system now is, and the deuce knows what besides.
If Government were content with that — it is only once in thirty years. But the curiosity of Government is insatiable and feverish. Every year the District Officer has to make reports on every important branch of his administration — huge piles of foolscap an inch thick. If Government were only content with that — but there are a million subjects on which special reports have to be made. If a wretched babu clerk to a medical officer embezzles Government cash, it is the District Officer who really suffers; for he has to write a special report — Sub-head No. 123,456,789 — on defalcations of Government servants. If a member of Parliament asks a question in the House — purely to waste time, as like as not, or to get his name into the "Times" — the Secretary of State asks the Viceroy for the answer, and he asks the Lieutenant-Governor, and he asks the Commissioner, and he asks the District Officer, and he collects information from his native subordinates. He combines their answers into a report, and the Commissioner combines the reports of the District Officers, and the Lieutenant-Governor combines the reports of the Commissioners, and the Viceroy combines the reports of the Lieutenant-Governors, and sends the result home to Whitehall, which it reaches long after the man who started the inquiry has forgotten that he ever made it. And on the top of that some toy ruler in the Secretariat at Calcutta or Allahabad, or somewhere a thousand miles away, will have the idea to get a series of monographs on the home arts and industries of the people, or the natural history of the bullock, or the extent to which natives wear shoes. So the subject is served out to various wretched civil servants like an essay at school, and each writes a book about it which nobody ever reads.
The people who mostly instigate this sort of thing are always talking to you about "the art of government" and "the way to rule men." It is not ruling men; it is a parlour game. Doubtless the information acquired is very interesting; and if India were rich and had a superabundance of British officers with nothing better to do, it would be a most blameless and intelligent way of working off superfluous cash and the energy of the superfluous staff. But India is poor, and it has one trustworthy administrator to every three hundred thousand of its people. So that in the cities money goes for hundreds of babus to copy and register things that do not matter, to forward them and acknowledge receipt of same. And in the villages the Father and Mother, who should be going in and out among his officials and his people, becomes a parent who writes treatises on education while the children play in the gutter. The Presence might better be called the Absence. He must cease playing Providence to play the Parlour Game.