British India Office, The

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BRITISH INDIA OFFICE, THE From 1858 to 1947 the India Office, in London, was the home government for Britain's largest and most complex overseas possession. Its diverse responsibilities were carried out collaboratively by a secretary of state for India, permanent officials, a mélange of departments and petty officials, and the Council of India—that unique imperial institution designed to provide "currency" and represent the Indian ethos in the policy-making process in London. Established formally by the Government of India Act of 1858, the India Office, in its first decade, was not markedly distinguishable from the "dual government" that had evolved under the Court of Directors and Board of Control of the East India Company. In its first years, the personnel and internal committee system were carryovers from the company, and for all intents and purposes, the new India Office was a change in form but not substance.

The act of 1858, however, did mark out new objectives that would, over time, change completely the functioning of the Office. The most significant overarching change articulated in 1858 was a new alignment of India Office responsibility to Parliament, and thus both implied and real control of Indian affairs from London. The secretary of state for India, now a member of the Cabinet, could, in fact, overrule the Council of India on "urgent" and "secret" matters, something his predecessor, the president of the Board of Control, could not do. However, secretaries of state for India rarely used this power, and de facto, the home government of India operated as a corporate entity, with the secretary of state "in council"—especially important since all matters involving expenditures of funds required council approval.

Although Parliament possessed the technical wherewithal to involve itself routinely in Indian affairs, it by and large remained apathetic to India and the India Office until well into the nineteenth century. As the currents of both British domestic and foreign policy debates brought Indian management (both at home and in India) to the fore, the India Office staff worked meticulously to minimize what they construed as parliamentary "interference." The office had, over time, developed a collective administrative psyche among its permanent officials that often encouraged them to circumvent what seemed an obvious fact: they were, after all, a British department of state. While it was true that secretaries of state rotated the seals with each shift of British administration, and that the India Office was always obligated to liaise with U.K. departments, the unique funding circumstances of the India Office mitigated Parliament's control of the office. From 1858 to 1919 (although a few minor exceptions were left unaffected until 1937), the salary of the secretary of state for India, the permanent undersecretaries, and office operating expenditures were paid for with Indian, not British revenues. The India Office was not subject to the usual Treasury pressures until well into the twentieth century.

The first secretary of state for India, Sir Charles Wood (1859–1866), effected the first structural reorganization of the India Office in 1859. Increasingly concerned that the old system of handling office business was too cumbersome, he designed reforms to streamline the processing of paperwork among the permanent and parliamentary undersecretaries, the departments, and the committees of the Council of India. In particular, he designated specific subjects to be handled by each of the under-secretaries, and he refined the process of dispatch writing to reside primarily with department heads. Gradually, the departments of the India Office and the committees of the Council of India were brought into alignment. As the office ended its first decade, the correspondence departments of the office had become the linchpins for coordinating the flow of paper among the departments, the Council of India, the permanent undersecretary, and the secretary of state for India. The six correspondence departments of the India Office were: financial; judicial and public; military; political and secret; public words; and revenue, statistics, and commerce. This division of labor was further codified and institutionalized by Arthur Godley when he became permanent undersecretary in 1883.

In mid-nineteenth century—a pre–photocopy, pre–carbon paper age—the India Office processed nearly 100,000 documents annually. This paperwork increased significantly as the telegraph reached India in 1870, and in the 1890s, when the typewriter was introduced in the office. Increasingly, the office was consumed not only with spiraling amounts of official paperwork related to Indian affairs, but it also became the focal point of much lobbying by emergent Indian political parties and their allies in Britain. As the India Office tended to shy away from public comments and posturing—especially during the long permanent undersecretaryship of Godley (1883–1909)—it was castigated in the Indian press as the "great manufactory of lies."

The Indian Council Act of 1909 added a new presence in the India Office. For the first time, two Indians joined the Council of India. Perhaps sensing a harbinger of things to come, Lord Crewe introduced a new Council of India Bill to Parliament in 1914 designed to strengthen the power of the secretary of state vis-à-vis his council. Oddly, it was defeated when Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India, championed the Council of India as a bulwark against India Office browbeating of the Government of India in New Delhi. Curzon was reacting to the "Simla versus Whitehall" tensions (such as the differences in perspective between Calcutta and London) that had been writ large in his tenure in India, but was hardly ever absent from Indian governance since 1858. In that contest, however, the India Office almost always held the upper hand.

World War I accelerated the intensity of Indian affairs on many fronts, and no less so in the internal organization of the India Office. Paramount among these was the change effected in the Government of India Act of 1919. Insofar as the home government of India was concerned, it was shifting the expenses of the office from Indian revenues to the British estimates, thus opening the door for active involvement of the Treasury and Parliament in the day-to-day operation of the India Office, which was seminal. The ineptitude of the Mesopotamia campaign in World War I also subjected the India Office to the kind of public scrutiny it had largely avoided in its first half century, and a significant reordering of the office structure was put into place. In the interwar period, the number of Indians on the Council of India was increased from two to three. Further, the six traditional correspondence departments were submerged into three larger units: services and general; public and judicial; and economic and overseas. In response to the new, more direct Treasury link, an establishment officer assumed personnel matters from the accountant general's operations. The Council of India historically met weekly, a practice now cut to once a month, and new requirements were effected to update "currency" in Indian affairs to the council—now, more than ever, moved to periphery of the policy-making process as a purely "consultative" body. The coup de grâce for the Council of India came with the Government of India Act of 1935, implemented in 1937, which transformed the Council of India into a group of "Advisers" to be consulted only at the secretary of state's discretion. Finally, in 1937, Burmese affairs were slivered off from the India Office, although Burmese Office officials tended to simply wear two hats in serving both India and Burma.

During World War II, the India Office coordinated its activities with an assortment of British, Indian, and Allied bureaucracies. Such cooperation was necessary in order to prosecute the war effectively and carefully monitor the increasingly intense and complicated Indian nationalism of the 1940s. In pursuit of these goals, the India Office perspective was not always the same as that of other agencies, and considerable bureaucratic rivalry was evident. When Britain withdrew from India in 1947, the India Office ceased to exist; it was merged with the newly formed Commonwealth Relations Office.

Arnold P. Kaminsky

See alsoBritish Crown Raj


Kaminsky, Arnold P. The India Office, 18801910. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Williams, Donovan. The India Office, 18581869. Hoshiarpur: Vishveshvaranand Vedic Research Institute, 1983.

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British India Office, The

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