The Indian Political Service (Raj era)

There is not much known about Indian Political Service (IPS); a service that was involved in three important areas of Empire.  It was part of indirect control of Indian states, frontier areas and peripheral areas of the Empire in Persia and Persian Gulf states.  Following was part of an exchange on the subject.


Indian Political Service (IPS) is a very little studied subject.  My two cents worth comments bolded in the main text.  Hope that adds some additional flavor to a savory dish.




By Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid (Retd)


Syed Shahid Hamid was commissioned from Sandhurst in 1933 and joined 3rd Cavalry a recently Indianised regiment in which he spent six years. The second half of this term were not easy as he did not get along well with the second-in-command who was subsequently promoted to command the regiment. Since there were no vacancies for Indian officers in the other two Indianised cavalry regiments, Shahid sought an entry onto the hallowed ranks of the Indian Political Service (IPS).

The IPS was the cadre of officers which dealt with the Princely States and foreign affairs of the Government of British India. Its genesis lay in a department which was created in 1783 by the East India Company for conducting “secret and political business”. Since in the India of that period Persian was the language of diplomatic correspondence, the head of the department was known as the ‘Persian Secretary’. Its primary responsibility was dealing with the Princely States through British Residents appointed from the Department. It also housed the officers of British India’s diplomatic service i.e. its emissaries to the countries surrounding India and the Trucial States in the Gulf. (The early organization performed various functions including intelligence gathering, diplomatic and foreign affairs.  The Secret & Political Department established in 1784 had three branches; secret, political & foreign. This set up remained in place until 1842.  In 1843, the name was changed to Foreign Department.  In 1914, it was named Foreign & Political Department of the Government of India. In 1937, the title was changed to Indian Political Service.)The IPS cadre was generally referred to as Political Officers, or colloquially as “politicals”. Some famous names in the history of the Middle East served as Political Officers including Sir Percy Coxs who masterminded the British policy in this region during the First World War. (on frontier, the name ‘poltical’ in Pushto still generates an aura among tribesmen although they fondly remember British officers of a bygone era.)

The Department was controlled by the Viceroy and when the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) was separated from the Punjab in 1901, to ensure that the new Province was directly under his control Lord Curzon decided that the officers who had chosen to make their careers in the frontier districts of Balochistan and the NWFP were also from this department. They were designated as Political Agents (PAs) and amongst the notables were captains of the Frontier like Sir Roos-Keppel who spoke fluent Pushto and authored a book on the language, Olaf Caroe, the last British Governor of the NWFP and Sir Rupert Hay the Chief Commissioner in Balochistan from 1943–46. The term continues to be applied till to date for the administrators of the Agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In 1914, the department was reorganized as the Foreign and Political Department, with two separate secretaries: the Political Wing dealt with the princely states and other Asian kingdoms, while the Foreign Department a forerunner of the Foreign Service of both Pakistan and India, focused on engagement with the European powers. (It evolved over two centuries that can cause some confusion.  There were not set rules and we cannot generalize.  Few examples will clarify this point.  Kashmir with such a large territory was not under IPS.  Maharaja resisted appointment of a Resident and in this he had support of Secretary of State and Queen.  It was in 1884, when Maharaja was on his death bed that Indian government forced the Resident on the state.  In contrast, the small Malakand tribal agency right from the beginning had direct political relations with central government in contrast to all other tribal agencies.  In early phase of East India Company expansion, traders were also dealing with political and military questions.  When company rule was stabilized, the early functions of political service were under control of provinces.  Most states were in direct political relations with provincial governments and not central government. i.e. western Indian states and even Aden protectorate with Bombay government, Cochin with Madras, Manipur with Assam and Cooch Behar with Bengal.  Tiny states had another intermediary link and managed by local collectors of neighboring districts. In fact, Bombay had its own fairly large political department and almost all of its officers were recruited from military.  In 1924 re-organization, the charge was taken from some provincial governments. Punjab states came under IPS in 1927.)   

Between half to two thirds of the Politicals were recruited from the army (with one exception when 1901 NWFP province was created, more than two third were civilian ICS from Punjab. Majority of army officers came from Central India Horse.  This is due to the nature of deployment of CIH and experience of officers.) because they were cheaper to employ and in larger number than the civil servants who were the next most abundant. Employees of the political service were predominantly British although small numbers of Indians were employed. (Some police service and medical service also served with IPS.  Up to 1930s, natives were mainly in subordinate positions.  They were mainly Extra Assistant Commissioners from Provincial Civil Service.  This part was a double edged sword.  They were very powerful compared to any other native position in British administered India in view of the nature of their job.  They were very effective as most were familiar with local dynamics and spoke local languages.  The down side was that corruption was a bit more common in this cadre that sullied the image of British administration. On the whole benefits outweighed the downside and hence this lot was respected by British officers. Some outstanding gentlemen of this cadre served with IPS.  Sharbat Khan Afridi (father of LG Joe Afridi), Quli Khan (father of LG Bibo Khattak & grandfather of LG Ali Quli Khan), Mir Shams Shah and Lehna Singh are examples of such officers. The most famous was Sahabzada Abdul Qayyum Khan.  He really groomed during his long career.  I have seen his detailed notes in the files of Political Agent Khyber Agency.  Another towering personality was Rai Bahadur Hitu Ram.  He had served as secretary to Robert Sandeman.  Later, in his career he would preside the Shahi Jirga where tough nut Baluchi sardars would pay their due respects to this Dera Ghazi Khan Hindu. He had also served as Regent of Las Bela state.  At the time of partition, many of these officers held important posts and probably were more qualified for permanent positions.  However, arrival of more educated and suave Muslim ICS officers from India who had no knowledge or experience about frontier matters resulted in rapid eclipse of this class. Native ICS and army officers came very late on IPS scene.) The Politicals were a small body of about 150 officers, whose varied functions were little to known even to their colleagues in India. (The most robust resistance to Indianization of IPS came from Indians. When British consulted princes about Indianization of IPS, all princes with the exception of Maharaja of Gwalior were against it. Their argument was their relations were with Crown and not Indian government therefore British officers were most appropriate intermediaries.  In fact, Khan of Kalat was so suspicious of fellow Muslims in 1947 that he had a British advisor D. Y. Fell; a former political as his foreign minister to negotiate with newly created state of Pakistan.) They were held in awe and referred to as ‘The Twice Born’, a progression of the terminology sometimes used in respect of members the Indian Civil Service: ‘The Heaven-Born’. Those jealous of its stature referred to the IPS cadre as ‘civil servants who didn’t want to work and soldiers who didn’t want to fight’. (Another interesting quote is that ‘we need lean and keen men on the frontier and fat and good natured in the states.’)

Shahid Hamid applied as a Lieut. for the IPS when he was commanding a detachment of 3rd Cavalry in Allahabad. The first letter in the correspondence trail sent by his regiment in Aug 1937 in response to a telegram sent by Shahid informs him that as per an extract governing the terms of application to the IPS, he should have corresponded directly with the Foreign and Political Department. It appears that Shahid was unaware of this and had applied through the Headquarters Deccan District. However it also appears that the regiment had not informed the officer in time since the extract was received in Jan 1937 but forwarded to the officer in July.  His subsequent application to the right quarters drew a response in Aug 1937 from the Department’s office in Simla, the summer capital of British India. He was informed that the selection for that year had already been made but that he would come up for consideration the following year. By now Capt. Iftikhar Khan (‘Ifty’ to his friends) had been appointed as the first Indian adjutant of the regiment. In a private letter to Shahid he regretted that due to “the Regtl officer’s slackness” his chances of getting into the IPS had been ruined for that year. Following Independence, Iftikhar was being groomed to be the first Pakistani C-inC but sadly died in an air crash in 1949.

In Dec 1937, Shahid was informed that the interviews for 1938 would be either conducted at Delhi ‘at the end of the Delhi Season’, or during the Simla Season in August and advised to correspond with the Under Secretary, Capt P.C. Hailey for necessary particulars. Hailey too was a Political who in 1933 had served as the Escort Commanding Officer in Gyantse, Tibet. Shahid persisted for an early interview and wrote directly to Sir Bertrand Glancy, the head of the Political Department. (a good representative of his generation.  He was ICS Punjab cadre.  He was political secretary and later Political Advisor to the Crown Representative 1938-41 and later Governor of Punjab) Glancy was from the cadre of ‘Heaven Born’ and was subsequently the Governor of Punjab during the Second World War. Shahid was informed by Hailey that Glancy was prepared to meet him in the first week of Feb 1938 but then there is a break in the correspondence followed by another letter from Hailey in Jul 1938 regretting that Shahid could not get a passport for Persia. Apparently the interview was successful but then the letter goes onto say that no final selection has been made. In Oct 1938 came the disappointing news from Hailey that he had not been selected. A letter of condolence from a certain Azizuddin Ahmed gives a surprising reason for his rejection that ‘apparently … they (the British) give preference to Punjabis’ (sic). Shahid Hamid was from a Talukdar family of the United Provinces.

While this may have been the case in the late 1930s, most of the Muslim officers selected for the IPS in the 1920s and early 1930s were either Pathans of from aristocratic families. Amongst the Pathans was Abdul Rahim Khan, Guides Cavalry, the son of Khan Bahadur Abdul Ghafoor Khan who was elected to the provincial assembly in 1932. After Independence, Rahim Khan served Pakistan as its first representative to the UN in 1947-48. Like Rahim Khan, Sahibzada Muhammad Khurshid, 1/14th Punjab Regiment was also from the Mardan District and was the first Pakistani Governor of NWFP. From the Hindko speaking Syed family of Peshawar was Agha Syed Bad Shah (known as A.S.B. Shah) who also joined 1/14 Punjab. He was fluent in seven languages; Urdu, English, Hindi, Pushtu, Punjabi, Persian & Arabic and served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul. Members of aristocratic families who were permitted to be ‘Twice Born’ included Mirza Osman Ali Baig, 7th Light Cavalry, who was from Hyderabad Deccan and the son of Sir Abbas Ali Baig a decedent of the Chughtais who accompanied Emperor Babur to India in 1526. He subsequently served as foreign secretary of Pakistan. Finally but not the least was Iskander Mirza, the first Indian (and Muslim) to be commissioned from Sandhurst who ultimately served as the President of Pakistan.  He was from the family of the Nawab of Bengal and transferred to the IPS after serving for four years in Poona Horse. If successful at the Interview, candidates served on probation for over 3 years at the end of which they had to pass some rigorous test in history and frontier matters. (There was some difference between military and civil members of IPS.  Civil candidate already had experience of ICS and appeared in examination after six months.  On the other hand, army officer had to spend 18 months in civil training in Punjab or UP.  In addition, he had to pass Indian Civil Service departmental examination. After that all IPS officers were on probation for 3 years. On Frontier this time was spent in a frontier district.  In states, he served as personal secretary to Resident learning on the job. Army officer was retired at the age of 55 while civil ICS officer after 35 years of service that gave civil ICS 3-5 years edge.  This is the reason that most senior positions at political secretary and foreign secretary levels were occupied by civil ICS as army men had faded by that time.) Mirza and Rahim appeared together in the 1928 exam and received very high marks beating the British officers. (There is a technical issue.  IPS was technically not a separate service.  Officers posted to IPS were on secondment until they retired although military officers had severed their links with the army. For protocol purposes, these officers were given honorary higher ranks although they left army very early.  The highest rank was that of Colonel and usually given to resident of a large and important state i.e. Hyderabad. Sikandar Mirza and Abdur Rahim were Lt. Colonels and ASB Shah Major. Pay and pension of army and ICS officers was different but this anomaly was later rectified.)

In 1939, Shahid managed to get out of the regiment by being transferred to the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. He tried once again for the IPS but his efforts came to a stop by a letter from the Political Department that fresh applications by officers who have been rejected were not entertained and further on account of the war, there was to be no recruitment in the IPS. The Almighty had his own plans for Shahid who after serving in Burma where he was badly injured, attended the Staff Course at Quetta, returned as a member of the Directing Staff and his final assignment before Independence was the most coveted post for a Lt Col in the British India Army: Private Secretary to Commander-in-Chief India.


(There was strong pro-Muslim bias when IPS was Indianized.  In 1947, there were about 170 officers of IPS but only 124 serving.  There were seventeen (17) Indians and out of these twelve (12) were Muslims, four (4) Hindus and one (1) Sikh).


Acknowledgement: I am grateful to the eminent scholar Hamid Hussain for providing me information on the Muslim officers who were selected for the IPS and to Brig Dogar for his valuable comments on the first draft which have been incorporated.