This article throws light on the four major acts passed for constitutional development during British Rule in India.
The acts are: 1. Indian Councils Act of 1892 2. Morley-Minto Reforms, 1909 3. Reforms Act of 1919 4. Government of India Act, 1935.
Act # 1. Indian Councils Act of 1892:
By the Councils Act of 1861 a few Indians could be members of the Councils which had the power of enacting laws only.
The Councils had not the power of controlling the executive or the right of interpellation.
With the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885 there was a persistent demand for inclusion of larger number of Indians, on the basis of election, in the Councils and other related rights and powers.
During the administration of Lord Dufferin a Commission was appointed to examine the demands of the Congress. Pursuant to the report and recommendation of the Commission Lord Cross the then Secretary of State for India got the Indian Councils Act of 1892 passed by the Parliament.
By the Act of 1892 the membership of the governor general’s Council and of the provincial councils was increased. But the members were to be nominated as before; the principle of election was not conceded. The only exception was that the District Boards and the Municipal Boards which were allowed to nominate members to the Councils indirectly followed the principle of election, for, the members of the District Boards and the Municipal Boards were themselves elected representatives.
The powers of the Councils were also enhanced in some measures. Formerly the members of the Councils could express their opinion in matters of taxation. But in, the Act of 1892 they were allowed to discuss the government budget, and put question to the Executive on certain matters of administration.
Although the Councils Act of 1892 was an improvement upon the former Councils Act, it did not meet the demands of the people. Majority of the members of the Councils were still nominated by the government. However, in the newly formed Central Council the presence of leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Rashbehari Ghosh, Asutosh Mukerjee, Surendranath Banerjee etc. made the discussions and deliberations lively and if their criticism could not control the government, at least succeeded in influencing it to some extent.
Act # 2. Morley-Minto Reforms, 1909:
Intensity of Congress movement and persistent demand by Congress for constitutional reforms, coupled with the fear complex generated in the British by the revolutionaries made the government introduce reforms of 1909. Morley was the Secretary of State and Minto was the governor general and viceroy, hence the reforms of 1909 are known as Morely-Minto reforms.
These reforms provided for the association of the qualified Indians with the government to a greater extent in deciding public questions. One seat in the governor general’s Executive Council was reserved for an Indian member. S. P. Sinha, later Lord Sinha was the first Indian to attain that honour. The number of members of the Executive Councils of Bombay and Madras was raised to four. Although there was no provision for reserving any seat for any Indian in the Executive Councils of the provinces, Raja Kishori Lai Goswami was appointed a member of the Executive Council of Bengal.
The most striking feature of the Act of 1909 was the introduction of important changes in the composition and functions of the Legislative Councils. The number of additional members of the Central Legislature was raised from sixteen to a maximum of sixty of whom not more than 28 were to be officials.
The governor general was empowered to nominate three non-officials to represent certain specified communities and could as well nominate two more members. The remaining 27 seats were to be filled in by non-official elected members. The membership of the Provincial Councils was also increased and whereas in the Central Legislature the nominated members constituted the majority, in the Provincial Legislatures provision was made so that elected members were in the majority. The Act of 1909 gave separate electorate to the Muslims.
The Legislative Councils under the new Act were given the power to discuss the budget, to move resolutions, to discuss the problems of the country and adopt resolutions on those matters. The government could, however reject any of such proposals or resolutions. About the native states, military department, foreign relations, the Legislative Councils could not move any resolutions.
The Morley-Minto reforms had no doubt marked an important step in the constitutional progress of India, they did not give Parliamentary government to India. These naturally did not come upto the satisfaction of the Indian people and their discontent continued unabated.
Act # 3. Reforms Act of 1919:
Within five years of the introduction of the Morley-Minto Reforms the First World War broke out. Two schemes were put forward one by Gokhale and another by the Congress and the Muslim League jointly. To satisfy the widespread demand of the Indians for constitutional reforms, as also in recognition of their loyal services to the British government during the First World War Mr. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India made the famous announcement in the House of Commons on August 20, 1917 that “the policy of His Majesty’s Government with which the government of India are in complete accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire”.
Mr. Montagu came to India towards the end of 1917 to ascertain public opinion in the country and after an extensive tour, published in April, 1918 the report on Indian constitutional reforms commonly known as Montagu-Chelmsford Report. Mr. Chelmsford was the governor general. The report formed the basis of the reforms of 1919, which became effective in 1921.
The reforms Act of 1919 made a clear division of the functions of the Central and the Provincial Governments. The Centre was entrusted with defence, foreign affairs, principal railways and strategic communications, public debt, posts and telegraphs, currency and coinage, commerce, civil and criminal laws, all-India services, certain research institutions etc.
The Provincial Governments were entrusted with the functions in respect of internal law and order, administration of justice and jails, forest, irrigation, inspection of factories, supervision of labour, famine relief, land revenue administration, local self government, education, medical department, public health and sanitation, agriculture, public works, development of industries, excise and cooperatives. The sources of incomes and heads of revenue of the Central and Provincial Governments were also delimited.
The governor general remained, as before, directly responsible to the Secretary of State and the Parliament and not to the Indian Legislature. The Executive Council of the governor general was enlarged. Although not provided for in the Act, in practice three Indians were chosen as members of the Executive Council.
The Central Legislature was made bi-cameral, i.e., with two chambers: the Council of State and the Legislative Assembly. The members of the Executive Council could be members of one or the other house of the legislature, nominated by the governor general. The Upper House, i.e., the Council of State was to have 60 members of whom 34 were to be elected and not more than 20 were to be officials.
The Lower House, i.e., the Legislative Assembly was to consist of 140 members, later raised to 145. 105 were to be elected, 26 nominated officials and 14 nominated non-officials. Election to both houses was direct and franchise was on high property qualification. The life of the Upper House was five years and of the Lower House three years. The Upper House was to have a President to be nominated by the governor general from among its members and the Lower House was to have a President and a Deputy President. For the first four years the President of the Lower House was to be appointed by the governor general and thereafter to be elected by the House.
The Central Legislature had the power to make laws for the whole of British India. Prior permission of the governor general was necessary to introduce bills in certain matters. If any bill recommended by the governor general be thrown out or amended unsatisfactorily by either house, the governor general might certify the bill as essential for the safety and tranquillity of British India in which case the original bill would take effect.
The governor general was empowered to promulgate ordinance in case of emergency which would remain in force for six months unless reduced into Act by the legislature. There were votable and non-votable grants. Interest on loans and sinking fund charges, salaries or pensions of -persons appointed by His Majesty, of the Secretary of State etc., were non- votable giants.
Each province had a governor at the head of the executive government. He was appointed by His Majesty. The reforms Act of 1919 introduced a dual government or diarchy in the Provincial Executive. The governor with his Executive Council was invested with authority over Reserved Subjects for the administration of which the he was responsible to the governor general and Whitehall and not to the legislature.
The Transferred Subjects were placed in charge of the governor generals, and his ministers who were to be appointed from among the provincial legislature. Important matters like law and order were included in the Reserved Subjects, whereas education, health and sanitation, local self government etc., were included in the Transferred Subjects. It is evident that in the Transferred Subjects those subjects were included the mismanagement of which would not affect the British but the people of the country.
As regards the power of the governor in matters of bills introduced in the Provincial Legislature there is similarity with the powers of the governor general. As regards Reserved Subjects the power of the provincial legislature was strictly limited. Insofar as the Transferred Subjects were concerned the Provincial legislature could—cut down, or refuse any demand.
The Act of 1919 gave real responsibility to the representatives of the people although in a limited sphere of administration. Judged from truly democratic stand point, the Act had certain defects both in the Central and Provincial Governments. Yet it must be agreed that the Act was an important step forward in the constitutional progress of India.
The Act of 1919 did not meet the demands of the Indians, since real power was all vested in the hands of the governor general and the governor. Demand for constitutional reforms naturally continued. Greatest objection to the Act was that by dividing the provincial administration into Reserved and Transferred halves, it gave power without responsibility into the hands of the governor general and the governor and responsibility without power into the hands of the provincial legislatures.
Act # 4. Government of India Act, 1935:
In 1927 that British government appointed a Commission under the Chairmanship of Sir John Simon, earlier than provided in the Act of 1919 to report on the working of the reforms of 1919. As all the seven members of the Commission were British, the Congress, the liberals and important section of the Muslims boycotted it when it reached India in 1928. There was also a wider ground on which the Congress took its stand.
It held that it was not in accord with the principle of self-determination to have constitutional changes effected on the recommendations of a Commission appointed by an outside authority and without any Indian member on it. Lord Irwin, the then governor general wrote to Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister belonging to the Labour Party which had come to power in 1929 that after the publication of the report of the Simon Commission a conference of the representatives of British India and of the Indian states should be held before final decisions were taken.
This suggestion was accepted. The report of the Commission was published in May, 1930 which recommended responsible government in the provinces, transfer of police, justice to ministers responsible to the legislature, legislatures to be formed on the basis of wider franchise. In Centre there was, however, to be complete British authority and control. It also envisaged an all-India federation including the native States. The British government then summoned a Round Table Conference in London in 1930. The second session met in 1931 and the third session in 1932. But no tangible results could be obtained.
However, on the basis of the report of the Simon Commission and discussions in the Round Table Conference, the British government drafted its proposals for the reform of the Indian constitution which were embodied in a White Paper published in March, 1933. A Joint Committee of both the Houses of the Parliament examined and approved of the proposals subject to certain modifications. On the report of this Committee a bill was prepared and the Government of India Bill, 1935 was drafted, which became Act with minor modifications, on August 2, 1935.
The Act of 1935 embodied two main principles: first an all-India Federation comprising governors’ provinces, Chief Commissioners’ provinces and federating Indian native States, secondly, provincial autonomy with a government responsible to the elected legislature.
All powers hitherto before exercised by the Secretary of State were resumed by the Crown and redistributed between the Central and the Provincial Governments.
As regards the Indian States the powers of paramountcy were to be exercised henceforth by His Majesty’s representative and not by the government of India. Important departments like foreign affairs, ecclesiastical affairs and defence were to be administered by the governor general under the supervision of White Hall alone.
The governor general and the governors of provinces were invested with special powers in respect of functions transferred to the control of ministers for which they were responsible to the British Parliament. Thus even under the Act of 1935 the constitutional status of India was that of dependency though it was gradually gravitating towards that of a Dominion.
The Congress opposed the Act of 1935 on the ground that in it governor general and the governors were given power of controlling and overriding the activities of the legislatures and the ministries. It was after Lord Linlithgow had given an assurance that no interference would be made in day to day functioning of the governments that the Congress agreed to work out only the self-government in provinces.
In the election held in 1937 the Congress got absolute majority in seven provinces, in Assam and Sind Congress obtained single majority. Out of eleven provinces in as many as nine the Congress formed ministry whereas in Punjab and Bengal the Muslim League came out with single majority.