District Collectors and Magistrates

Henry Cotton dispensing justice in Bengal, 1880s

In these writings we have often come across civilians – men living in far-flung corners of Empire, many hundreds of miles away from their compatriots, entrusted with the task of running a district thousands of miles larger than any county in England. Their task was to be fair, considerate and collect the revenue on time; they were consummate writers of reports no one would ever have time to read, obeying orders from a government that would never visit the mofussil but would draft laws, pass legislation and make decisions, all without ever seeing the people it affected sometimes without even reading any of the hundreds of pages the diligent civilians sent. It was the duty of their men in the field to impose these strange new laws and deal with the consequences while the whiskey and cigar officials in Calcutta could mop the sweat from their brows and admire their Empire.

During the Mutiny, John Colvin, labouring away at Agra, would be done to death by reports – demanded by a relentless government that believed his tardiness in presenting his annual revenues was infinitely more important than keeping the Agra population alive; in the Punjab, with John Nicholson scurrying around the countryside with his irregulars suppressing mutiny, it is no surprise, when he was asked to report how he was dealing with the mutiny and requested to present a detailed account of his doings, he simply turned the paper over and sent it back, scrawled with the terse sentence, “The punishment for mutiny is death”. One civilian routinely used the blocks of reports he received as impromptu door stops, another received a reputation of being so engrossed in his work, that his colleagues set their watches by him – it must be sundown, they quipped, here is Taylor, out with the bats.

The District Officer
“The District Officer, also referred to as District Collector or Deputy Commissioner – and in his role of upholding the peace as District Magistrate – sits at the apex of the district
administration machinery, all through the length and breadth of the country. Typically, he is a young and idealistic officer of the Indian Administrative Service, who is asked to take on the task of district administration quite early, often in the first decade of his career. Officers promoted from the state Civil Service also occupy this post, although after many years of service in the state administration.
There is not, and never has been, an official like the Collector, anywhere else.”
(KK Das, report on reorganization of Collectorates, Lucknow, Government of Uttar Pradesh, 1956)

This was as true in the latter days of the EICo as it was in 1956 but it took a lot of work to arrive at. The District Officer remains the senior most civil official in his jurisdiction, exercising the powers of an executive magistrate, and heads the overall administration of the district. Among his myriad of tasks, the most important remains even in this day and age, the collection of land revenue and preserver of law and order. He is the eyes of government and should, when things work, the heart of the people he rules. He coordinates projects to develop the district, and must ensure the grievances, when put forward, regardless of race, religion or social standing are addressed in a timely and fair manner.
“It is to him that the aggrieved and oppressed flock go to express grievances and protest the injustices done to them. The manner in which they are redressed, and their problems resolved, helps maintain the fiat of the government and enhances or diminishes the prestige and image of the state government.” (The Historical Evolution of the District Officer From early days to 1947, Dr C.K. Mathew, Azim Premji University, 2020)

In the early days of the EICo in India, district officers were commercial agents, promoting the mercantile interests of the company they served – 150 years later, the position had transformed into more than merely representative traders. They had evolved into a singular class of officers with the weight of empire on their shoulders. They were, and still remain in essence, the government the people see. Although the days of the “sola-topeed Collector sahib, on his trustworthy steed, would ride into a village with his staff and paraphernalia, and settle into camp office, tirelessly dispensing rough and ready justice through day and night. With unfettered powers, he soon came to be seen as a saviour of the poor, the destroyer of injustice and the protector of the oppressed.” (Dr. C.K. Mathew) they remain in the India of today, “the mai-baap (mother and father) and
anna datta (provider of grain)..”
– the untiring civilians in far-flung corners of the subcontinent.

The District Officer Before the Advent of the British Raj

It must be remembered, the British did not invent the system of civil service in India. What they did in essence, was build further on the stones of a pre-existing administration.
As far back as the Mauryan Empire the emperor employed advisors (mantrins) and civil servants (amatyas) to assist him – the amatyas were divided into three distinct levels and based on their qualifications acted on his behalf. “Of the amatyas, the two key civil servants were the samahartrs (who kept accounts and prepared the budget) and samnidhatr (who kept record of the taxes and managed the stores). There were many departments in the administration, each managed by a senior civil servant: panyadhyaksha (who headed the trade and commerce department), sitadhyaksha (who looked after land and agriculture), the rathadhyksha (the head of the defence department), the swarnadhyaksha (who looked after the mineral reserves of the state including gold), the vanyadhyaksha (the head of forestry), the bhardhyaksha (the superintendent of weights) ), and the sutradhyaksha (the head of the textile department).” (C.K. Mathew)

The kingdom itself was divided into four distinct divisions each under a civil servant called sthanikas under whom were gopas who were effectually in charge of 5 to 10 villages. The villages each had their own headman who in turn reported to the civil servant whose duty it was to collect, essentially all the records of the villages. These reports were communicated back to the central committee of the empire itself. Corruption among civil servants, when proved, was punishable by death.

The Delhi Sultanate (1200-1256) introduced land grants to their civil servants, allowing them in turn complete administrative, judicial and political control of their area. Under this system, many of the civil servants would look on these grants as their hereditary right, passing them along to their descendants. Altough they had all started out as servants of the Sultanate, they evolved into defacto rulers, collecting the revenue not essentially for the Sultanate but for themselves. “The head of the civil administration was the wazir, who supervised revenue collection, checking of accounts, regulation of
expenditure, etc. The other three most important civil servants were: the head of the military, the head of inter-state relations and the chancellor who was in charge of spies and collection of intelligence.”
(C.K. Mathew) Although there had been attempt to abolish these grants, it failed.

The Mughals had ideas of their own. Although they preserved the land grants, they instituted a system of transfers, which made it more difficult for the civil servants to take advantage of their erstwhile employer. Under the Mughals, the civil service based not on individual appointments but a pool of eligible civil servants called mansabdars and according to their rank in the service, were given their position.
A subahdar was recruited either from the ranks of the Mughal princes themselves or from officers who were at the top of the pool – they were essentially district officers; the heads of provincial administrations. Under Emperor Akbar, his entire territory was divided into 15 subahs which were further split into mahals or parganas, basically a group of villages in a district. Each province was divided into revenue circles or dastur ( a collection of mahals) with their own rates of revenue and a schedule of individual crops or dasture- amal. This system was put in currency only in those areas and region where the Mughal administration could survey the land and maintain judicious records of accounts. Called the Dahsala system the average produce of different crops (as well as the average prices prevailing over the last ten years) was calculated. One-third of the average produce was the state’s share and villagers were given remission in the land revenue if crops failed on account of drought, floods, etc. An elaborate practice of loans to the villagers was instituted s to advance money in times of hardship.
Instead of outright paying civil servants, they were granted a jagir or land revenue allotment that was only for the duration of the mansabhars lifetime or tenure thus ensuring their loyalty.
Within the administrative hierarchy, we find further divisions – the sipah salar, an army commander with the power of maintaining law and order in the district, the faujdar in charge of the cavalry who controlled not just the cultivators but the revenue collection, the quazis in charge of justice, the kotwal who supervised local issues and assisted the quazi, and the amal-guzar or financial officer at the provincial level.
To keep their various civil servants on the proverbial toes, the Mughals did not disdain from actually visiting them and by insisting they all regularly present themselves at court, the ruler could be kept abreast of the goings-on in his territory. As rising in the ranks was dependent on what the civil servant could give to the emperor in way of gifts, it was in their interest to keep their administrative area running smoothly.

In the midst of all this, the British turned up.

The EICo Arrives
In a previous posts, ” A Little History” and “Presidencies and Provinces” in the Before 1857 and Beyond subsection History and Georgraphy on this blog, we have already told the tale of the rise of the EICo. We will take up the story now in 1675 when the EICo set up their own system of administrative hierarchy.
On the very lowest rung were apprentices whose only intention would be, after 7 years to progress to writers. These young men would quite literally sign themselves over to the EICo, pledging their allegiance to the terms and conditions of a “covenant”. As nefarious as this sounds, it would allow them to proceed up the ladder, to the position of factors, who would then be sent to India to manage the trading stations or factories. Running the factory itself was left to the favoured few, called Agents. From here, the mercurial rise of many of these factors would see them evolve into merchants, and if they were particularly talented and lived long enough, senior merchants. Anyone lucky enough to be appointed to run one of the important factories was dignified with the title of “President” and under him, he would have his own council of senior merchants. In 1694, much of this was remodelled and the lowest rank would be designated “Writer” – the lowest yet the most coveted position of many aspiring young men in India, those who wanted to join the civil service in the decades to come.
When the Portuguese left Calcutta (under some duress) the British established the “Bay Council” at Hooghly, settling into the vacancy left by the Portuguese. Job Charnock appointed himself Chief Council in Bengal and founded the city we now know today as Kolkata.
In this city, then called Calcutta the English started to encourage local governments and judiciaries to use their services in their own management and administration. John Sheldon, more enterprising than others, in 1700 was designated a zamindar to oversee the collection of rent and keep the peace in three villages adjoining Calcutta – he presided over his own court, and took under his wing all matters concerning land revenue, law and order. it could be said that here, was the start, in some rudimentary fashion, the start of civil service though not an incorruptible one.
The EICo did not think much of paying their officers – their salaries were quite low and it was up to the officers to line their own pockets with what they could make from private trade. This opened up a whole host of other problems but left the company with little choice but to recognise the right of private trade as private interests soon eclipsed those of the company itself.
After the Battle of Plassey the Clive administration and the EICo took control of the all revenue administration and of course, of all the revenue. The Mughal emperor, in that very humiliating treaty signed in Allahabad in August 1865, was left with very little indeed in way of actual power.
“The rest of administration was left to the Mughal Emperor’s nawab and his ministers. In return for acquiring the rights to all the land revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the
Company agreed to pay an annual amount of £325,000 to Delhi. It also paid another £400,000 to buy London’s acquiescence (Garrett, 2007). Thus, was laid the first pillar in the bulwark of British administration that would, in time, spread across the entire
(C.K. Mathew)
What the emperor agreed to was the formal recognition of all company conquests and of course, he handed all financial control to the EICo. 250 EICo clerks with 20’000 sepoys at their heels would run the finances of the three most profitable provinces in India – Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa. One of the ways they did this was by appointing district officers.
These first civil servants of EICo would have the power to make revenue assessments, collect tax, administer justice and take into their hands all the functions of government related to land and agriculture. The EICo was not just a colonial power it was a corporate state with the freedom to do more else anything it wanted.

After Clive
Following Clive’s departure from India, it became quite apparent that this new civil system was not exactly interested in the plight of the people. These civil servants were not bound by lofty ideals of improvement or self-sacrifice – their only interest in India as such was what they could take out of it. Unshackled from any obligations, with no oversight into their doings and not concerned with either public opinion or legal liabilities, they embarked on their own crusade of how to get rich, and how quickly. Clive himself would face charges of corruption, and of accepting tributes from defeated rulers, while just about everyone else, from the lowly writer to the highest merchant, was scandalously engaged in unscrupulous endeavours, leaving some, like Harry Vereslt who served the EICo as a an administrator, reeling with disgust.

“All who were disposed to plunder assumed the authority of our name, usurped the seats of justice, and carried on what they called trade by violence and oppression…every illiterate mariner who could escape from a ship erected our flag and acted as lord of the district around him.’

They were helped along by Indian brokers who were employed by the EICo to lend a hand in the rapine of the provinces. When Clive returned in 1765 to clean house, he found his task nigh impossible. Bribery and the accepting of bribes was rampant and anything he did to stop it was simply ignored. He filled the offices in Bengal with men from Madras who he felt were less corrupted; free traders who ignored Company law were deported and company servants in their far-away posts were recalled to Calcutta. He also introduced a system of salaries – the idea being if everyone was paid a due amount, they would be less inclined to line their pockets with ill-gotten gains. Not that it saved Clive. He still became the richest man in England. A parliamentary inquiry into his own wealth led eventually to his suicide at the age of 49.

The Experiment of Governance
Without going through too many more details, it is safe to say, the early attempts by the EICo to establish some form of management and revenue administration, failed stumbling again on the problems of corruption.

“.. the Company had to first employ one Mohammad Reza Khan, a former officer of
the Nawab as its NaibDivan (deputy), knowing full well that without assistance from those who had been administering until recently, they would gain no success in their new ventures. Reza Khan, in turn, appointed his deputies and a host of local loyalists as tehsildars and revenue officials for the collection of revenue. To keep a check on the
new activities, the Company appointed a Resident at Murshidabad. The Naib Divan Reza Khan’s functions were supervised by a Select Committee appointed by the Company in Calcutta with Verelst as its President. The Divani arrangement that the Company had
entered into with the Mughal emperor stipulated that a sum of Rs 26 lakhs would be paid to the Mughal emperor and an additional amount of Rs 53 lakhs would be the annual share of the Nazim for his personal expenses and for the upkeep of the Nizamat. The
revenue collected above this sum, totalling Rs 79 lakh, would be the Company’s profit.”
(Mathew 2020)

The foreseeable flaw in this plan of course was the Naib Dewan and his staff who liberally lined their own pockets and did so on the backs of the peasantry who were plundered out of their very existence. Indian officials and their own agents were as unscrupulous as the free traders had been and the Select Committee, realising that this system would rapidly ensure there was no profit, decided to send out English officers, one in charge of each district, to oversee the people who the company had trusted.

The New Supervisors
Harry Verelst was entrusted to bring about this change – and he had some clear ideas of what he wanted. In his directions to his new civil servants he had this to say:

Amongst the chief effects which are hoped for
from your residence in that province, and which
ought to employ and never wander from your
attention, are to convince the Ryot that you will
stand between him and the hand of oppression;
that you will be his refuge and the redresser of
his wrongs, that honest and direct applications
to you will never fail producing speedy and
equitable decisions; and that after supplying the
legal due of Government, he may be secure in the
enjoyment of the remainder; and finally to teach
him a veneration and affection for the humane
maxims of our Government

The exploring and eradicating numberless
oppressions which are as grievous to the poor
as they are injurious to the Government; the
displaying of these national principles of honour,
faith, rectitude and humanity which should ever
characterise the name of an Englishman; the
impressing the lowest individual with these ideas,
and raising the heart of the Ryot from oppression
and despondency to joy, are the valuable benefits
which must result to our nation from a prudent
and wise behaviour.

Versed as you are in the language, depend on
none where you yourself can possibly hear and
determine. Let access to you be easy, and be
careful of the conduct of your dependents. Aim at
no undue influence yourself, and check it in all
others. Great share of integrity, disinterestedness,
assiduity and watchfulness is necessary not
only for your guidance, but as an example to all
others; for your activity and advice will be in vain
unless confirmed by example. Carefully avoid all
interested views by commerce or otherwise in the
province whilst on service… for though ever so
fair and honest, it will awaken the attention of
the designing…You have before a large field to
establish a national and private character.

Following the horrific famine in Bengal of 1770 which killed off a third of the population, and was directly caused by the impossibly high taxes imposed on the already suffering people, the EICo revoked the rights of the Naib Diwani in 1772, and they sent out a Committee of Circuit under the leadership of Warren Hastings to settle the question of land revenue over the next 5 years working closely together with the zamindars. Under Hastings, the district officer was created. They were to carry the voices of the people to government.

Interestingly enough, the early district officers were barely given any real authority. They remained fettered by government and they were severely restrained in what they could actually do. In part, the EICo did not actually trust the men it appointed. They did nothing however to curtail the excesses of those who were sitting in their lofty towers in Calcutta and Murshidabad. For them, shaking the pagoda tree continued without check.

Over the next decades, different systems were tried out and succeeded or failed in varying degrees. It was only after the departure of Hastings that a new system was thought out and recognisable districts were formed. These geographically distinct areas comprising of all the various parganas and divisions would be run by the collector – and he as chief administrator would now have full responsibility to maintain it. He was lord of all he surveyed and all he did not – and he was expected to do so with energy, justice and economy. Under his hat he also had the positions of civil judge and magistrate. Not that this lasted very long. In 1793, Lord Cornwallis put an end to this unfettered power.
Under him, the collector was relegated to managing revenue; an appointed magistrate would now take care of everything else. Yet the actual burden still weighed on the collector and he was answerable for everything within his district even as far as the actions of those subordinates who worked for him. It did not however stop the rampant self-enrichment still practised by the collectors who continued to practice private trade. Cornwallis’ solution was to pay them – the EICo would give them some salary while the rest they could earn by commission at the rate of 1% of all revenue collections. Cornwallis went one step further -he set up criminal courts with defined and enforceable laws, thus sweeping away arbitrary justice. Until 1859 when the collector and the district magistrate were once again merged into 1 position a much wider spectrum of administration would come into effect.

It would take men of exceptional zeal and intelligence to make this system work and many would succeed in making names for themselves – not as ruthless, corrupt individuals but men of vision and ability. It was a civilian named Herbert Edwardes who wrote the legal code for the Punjab in 1849, translated it into Persian and single-handedly administered it, under the very watchful eyes of Henry Lawrence – the first resident of the newly annexed province. They were men ” around whom the old commercial traditions did not cling, who had not graduated in chicanery, or grown grey in fraud and corruption, and who brought to their work not only a sounder intelligence but purer moral perceptions and a higher sense of what they owed to the people of the soil.” (Kaye, 1853) Although there was still much work to be done, the foundations for a civil service had been laid in India that was now held accountable for its actions.

District administration was not of course solely on one man alone. He would have under him a bevvy of subordinates – a head clerk, judicial assistant, revenue assistant, records
keeper, copying clerks, payment clerk, receipt clerk, pension clerk, personal ledger clerk, special clerk, money tester, readers (or peshkars), judicial ahlmad (superintendent) and then even further down the line, the lowly copiers whose only duty was to copy every single report, paper and chit in the office sometimes in many copies, under him would be record keepers, arrangers, bundle lifters who were charged with the very physical job of lugging the files from shelves and back again, then came weeders – literally menial clerks who “weeded out” records of lesser or short-term importance. Attached to any such office would then be a host of peons, orderlies, bhistis and sweepers.

He would also have a sub-divisional officer who would have beneath him, a tehsil, taluk or township and these could comprise of several hundred villages in one or two even further sub-divisions. Known as a tehsildar, he would have overview of everything within his area – the physical collection of revenue and keeping the peace being but 2 of his myriad of duties. Nor was the hierarchy by far complete – every village itself would be presided over by village accountants, record keepers and their very own headmen.

In this system, each office was obliged to report to the one above him all the way up to the District Officer who had to assess the performance of all his officers. He would go on extended tours of his district in which he would be able to assess for himself how his territory faired, from the zamindar to the ryot. And he would rely on what can only be described as “a small army of non-official collaborators” (Matthew) – people who would be rewarded with titles such as rai, sardar and khan sahib for their cooperation and the information they provided. An energetic District Officer could very quickly become a popular one.

The District Officer (certainly in Madras) is essentially head of the district. He is not only
responsible for the collection of land revenue, by far, the largest source of provincial revenue, nor only the chief magistrate who, though he may not try many cases himself, has to review the judgements and sentences of all the subordinate magistrates in the district, but he is also head of all the other district administrative departments.
The District Officer, in fact with the jurisdiction greater both in area and population than the larger English counties, does the work undertaken in England by the Chief Constable and by the County and District Councils in addition to his revenue and magisterial work.”

(Hunt & Harrison, 1980, p. 91)

In 1857, we have already met some of the civil officers from those who died at their posts and others who fled. We will meet others who at the risk of incurring governmental wrath would remain at their posts to do what was right for the people they had been charged with administering. To them the functioning of empire was more than an endeavour on a piece of paper and it would give rise to a civil service that endures in India to this day.

Powers, Duties and Responsibilities District Magistrate/Collector

The functions and responsibilities of the District Magistrate Collector may be classified as follows:

District Magistrate
Deputy Commissioner

Duties and responsibilities of a collector are as follows:

Land assessment
Land acquisition
Collection of land revenue, maintenance of land records, land reforms, consolidation of holdings etc
Collection of income tax dues, excise duties, irrigation dues etc.
Distribution of agricultural loans
Disaster management during natural calamities
Management during riots or external aggression

Following are the duties and responsibilities of a District Magistrate:

Maintenance of law and order
Supervision of the police and jails
Supervision of subordinate Executive magistracy
Hearing cases under the preventive section of the Criminal Procedure Code
Supervision of jails and certification of execution of capital sentences
To submit the annual criminal report to the government

It is interesting to note, one officer would be led to say his day only ended when there was nothing left to do.

Bruce, J. (1810). Annals of the Honorable East-India Company: From their establishment by the charter of Queen Elizabeth, 1600, to the union of the London and English East-India Companies, 1707-8. Black,
Parry, and Kingsbury.

Gilmour, D. (2007). The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj. Pimlico

Hunt, R., & Harrison, J. (1980). The district officer in India, 1930-1947. Scolar Press.

Kaye, J. W. (1853). The administration of the East India company; a history of Indian progress. London, R. Bentley. http://archive.org/details/administrationof00kayeuoft

Mathew C.K. Dr.(2020) The Historical Evolution of the District OfficerFrom early days to 1947. Azim Premji University

Trevelyan, G. (1895). The Competition Wallah. MacMillan and Company. http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.93629

Verelst, H., & Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress) DLC. (1772). A view of the rise, progress, and present state of the English government in Bengal: Including a reply to the misrepresentations of Mr. Bolts, and other writers. London, J. Nourse [etc.]. http://archive.org/details/aviewriseprogre00veregoog