BOOK REVIEW / Bandits, canals, lawsuits and plagues of locusts: Anglo-Indian Attitudes - Clive Dewey: Hambledon, pounds 15.99

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IT WAS probably the only time in history that intellectuals were let loose on an empire. They numbered no more than 1,000, yet the cadres of the Indian Civil Service governed more than 300 million Indians. Recruited from Oxbridge, where they took firsts in Greek, mathematics and history - not the obvious gear for colonial conquerors - the Civilians, as they were called, acquitted themselves reasonably well.

They may have relaxed on their verandahs at sunset with Herodotus and a neat whisky, but on duty they quelled riots, chased bandits, dug irrigation canals, judged lawsuits and fought locust plagues. They did it all. As Clive Dewey puts it: 'They were hard-working in a debilitating climate, incorruptible in a society riddled with bribery, celibate until middle age in a subcontinent that marries at puberty. Above all, they were intellectuals. Yet they pretended to be men of action.' As long as the cash flowed in, London left the colony alone. Decision-making inevitably fell on the Civilians. Some turned into aloof tyrants, others burnt out early.

Over-romanticised by novelists and dissected by academics, the British Raj is seen from a new slant by Mr Dewey, who examines the ideological forces driving these elite civil servants. He argues that the Civilians were divided, irreconcilably, into those who thought the Indians were a lazy, sinful and extravagant lot in urgent need of 'Uplift', and those humanists who wanted to befriend the natives. It is a hard case to prove; I suspect that many cadres, burdened with paperwork and wearied from so many miles on horseback, simply muddled through without caring the slightest what their tutors back at Oxbridge might have thought.

Two middle-ranking Civilians, one representing the Uplift corner, the other the humanists, are singled out by Mr Dewey, who has probed the influences in their lives in impressive, lucid detail. Both Frank Brayne and Sir Malcolm Darling were contemporaries, serving their entire careers in India until shortly before the 1947 Partition. Both came from church families, yet the similarity ends there. Brayne and Darling probably detested each other.

A rector's son who was educated at Pembroke, Cambridge, Brayne was a priggish moral reformist. He found the natives vile and rode mercilessly over their customs. He outraged the upper castes by insisting that they - and not the Untouchables - dig their own latrines for the sake of 'disciplined defecation'. He ripped gold rings out of the ears of his Indian petitioners because it offended his puritanism, even though such ornaments were a poor farmer's only savings. He wanted children with soapy hands to run around slapping mosquitoes.

Mr Dewey means to focus only on the guiding philosophies behind British rule in India, but his analysis is bent a bit by his obvious dislike for Brayne - an annoying braggart with many enemies within the colonial administration. Darling was a more sympathetic and intriguing fellow. His forefathers were noted theologians, economists and philosophers. He ignored the club gossip about his homoerotic history at Eton and King's, and fraternised with educated Indian townsfolk and villagers. He tutored the maharajah of Dewas Senior, who was to become his closest Indian 'friend'.

Dewey wants us to believe that Britain's colonial adventure swung between these two extremes. I came away doubting that Brayne and Darling were entirely representative. The two were misfits. Still, the author's diligence and his novel tack forces us to reappraise British imperialist attitudes.

Even today the intellectual rigour persists. I met one candidate for the Indian Administrative Service who was asked by his examiners to recite T S Eliot's The Waste Land. And he knew it.