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‘Our Rule in India rests wholly on ourselves’: The District Officer in Bengal 1850 – 1905

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis focuses on the role of district officers in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) in Bengal from 1850 to 1905. Existing historiography incorrectly portrays the ICS as a passive coherent institution. This has limited our understanding of the significant role of district administration in the governance of British India. This thesis demonstrates that an imagined and practised idealised district official influenced policy and was integral in the reciprocal production of the practices of colonial government. This thesis establishes that this model persona existed outside of the Punjab, and had a specific realisation in Bengal. This idealised district officer was envisioned as an autonomous man-on-the-spot who could act as a decision maker. However, this discretionary capacity conflicted with an increasingly codified, professional and bureaucratic ICS. These contradictions were not only between idea and reality but existed within the idealisation of the district officer. The tensions produced by the imagined and practised district officer shaped debates about governance, the rule of law, and bureaucracy. This thesis demonstrates that despite the expansion of bureaucratic control over the practices of local administration, the district officer continued to be an autonomous decision maker. Through examining key moments of construction and contestation this thesis charts the working life-cycle of the idealised district officer. Using a discursive methodology this thesis interrogates an underutilised source group, the ‘governing literature’ of British India. These manuals, guides and handbooks were instrumental in the crafting of an idealised role. This model district officer was integrated into the policies and practices of government. By following the idealised district officer as imagined in texts, as a candidate for the examinations, as a revenue official, as Magistrate and Judge, in his failures and in his final days, this thesis asserts that this model persona had a significant influence on the governance of Bengal.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2017

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