British Rule in India and the Development of the Present Political System

How was the Westminster model transplanted in India, and how were the Indian elite accommodated into it, explains Kamala Sankaran

How was the Westminster model transplanted in India, and how were the Indian elite accommodated into it, explains Kamala Sankaran

The bulk of the Indian sub-continent was brought under British control by the eighteenth century. About three-fifths of the country was annexed by the British Crown by war and conquest. The process of conquest was clearly visible in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 with the Nawab of Bengal, followed by wars with the rulers of Mysore, with the Marathas, with the Amirs of Sind and with the Sikhs in Punjab. Subsequently, in other areas the British did not annex through war. Having established the might of the British army, they were able to ‘persuade’, through a variety of methods and manoeuvres, (such as the infamous Doctrine of Lapse which entitled the British to take over a state where there was no male heir, Oudh, Jhansi being examples) and replace dynasties which were held to have lapsed through lack of lawful heirs. The Indian rulers and their civil and military officers were set aside and the people subjected to direct British administration.

Other areas continued to be governed by Indian rulers and these were known as the Indian States. Under various agreements entered into by the British government in India and these rulers, the rulers surrendered the management of their external relations to the British Crown but continued to control under certain conditions the domestic affairs of their States except in cases of ‘gross mismanagement.’ The ruler was to accept the suzerainty of the British Crown and surrender his external relations with other States to the ‘Paramount Power’; to provide military forces if required for the defence. of India and to allow the development of railways, roads and communications through his territory. These Indian States were scattered all over India in a haphazard fashion.
When the British Parliament decided to take a hand in the Company administration, the process of centra1isation began. By the Regulating Act of 1773 (i.e. even before the formal subjugation of India to  the Crown), the Governor of Bengal became the Governor-General (GG) with power to ‘superintend and control’ the governments of Madras and Bombay. The areas that the British controlled increased dramatically in the next few decades.

Once India was directly taken over by the Crown in 1858, the British created a post of Secretary of State for India based in London who was responsible to the British Parliament. The Secretary of State in turn operated through the GG based in India. The GG was given plenary powers though he reported to the Secretary of State and hence to the British Parliament. The GG was assisted by an Executive Council which consisted initially of officials only, though the GG was not bound to accept their advice in administrative matters. The GG also performed legislative functions within the broad framework set by the British Parliament. For instance the various Government of India Acts of 1858, 1909, 1919 and 1935 were all laws enacted by the British Parliament. Only judicial functions were outside the GG’s scope as they had been separated from the executive and legislative functions in 1773 itself. A Supreme Court had been set up in Calcutta with a Chief Justice at the head. Later on these were split up into the different High Courts.

Thus all sovereign functions were vested in the Crown and therefore in the British Parliament. The GG operated clearly under the dictates of London. After 1858 we see a process of legitimisation of this rule being carefully carried out by the British. In order to disguise the fact that their rule was alien, they began a process of introducing in India ‘representative government’, which had representation of Indian people in it. This was refined at a later stage to take in the principle of ‘responsible government’ i.e. an executive which would be responsible to an elected Parliament.

The British had suffered a rude shock in 1857 when they saw that the kind of ‘enlightened and paternal despotism’ recommended by Macaulay in the 1830’s – when he said India was fit only for an official government (not a parliamentary type)  – was being rejected by the people. The Indian Councils Act of 1861 therefore was passed to establish closer contacts between the government and the governed.

The Act provided for the enlargement of the GG’s Executive Council to form a Legislative Council and provided for such reconstituted Provincial Councils in Madras, Bombay, Bengal, Punjab and NWFP. It provided that at least half the new or additional members would be non-officials i.e. outside the civil service. The Council as proposed could only legislate. The governments were not answerable to them. In that sense they did not conform to the British model of a ‘responsible’ government – responsible to the legislature/parliament. In fact, during the debates in the British Parliament, when the India Council Acts were being debated, speakers likened this expanded Council meant to assist the GG in law-making, to the Indian tradition of durbar   i.e. the channel from which the ruler learns how his measures are likely to affect his subjects, and may hear of discontent before it becomes disaffection.

The Councils Act of 1892 enlarged the Provincial Councils and empowered them to discuss the budget and ask administrative questions of the Provincial governments. The non-official seats continued to be nominated as the British felt Indians were not ready for elections. The fact was that the party system was just taking shape in India with the birth of the Indian National Congress in 1885, an institution whose formation the British were keenly interested in and closely connected with. The nominated seats were to be filled on the basis of the recommendations of religious communities, municipalities, universities, chambers of commerce etc.

Following the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909, the principle of election at the Centre (GG’s Legislative Council) and in the Provinces was introduced. They were to be based on constituencies based on communities and groups. In the Centre, the officials i.e. non-elected members still retained a majority but in the Provinces the nominated plus elected members had a majority. Indians were also appointed as officials in the GG’s and provincial Executive Council as also in the Secretary of State’s Council office in London. Thus the principle of representation was introduced in the executive and legislative aspects of the British rule.

Following the growth of the freedom movement in India, the Congress Party demanded the speeding up of constitutional reforms along British lines. The first step in this was the creation of political parties, a process which had begun in 1885 when the Congress Party was formed. The next was the selection from among parties/groups through the method of election of those who would be members of the Legislative Assemblies, to whom in turn the executive government would be responsible. This would complete the constitutional framework of governance along British lines. The major issue was how constituencies/electorates were to be organised in order that Indians could be elected as representatives in the Provincial and Central Legislative Assembles. The signing of the ‘Lucknow Pact’ in 1916 between the Congress party and the Muslim League solved a major hurdle with the Congress agreeing to separate electorates on communal lines.

The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms on the basis of which the Government of India Act, 1919 was drafted was the next. major step. Its main provisions included giving provincial governments relative autonomy in certain subjects free from the control of the central government i.e. the GG’s Executive Council. Through the principle of ‘dyarchy’, vital subjects such as law and order were reserved, to be exercised by the GG and his Executive Council in respect of the Provinces. The rest was ‘transferred’ to the Indian Ministers responsible to their Provincial Legislatures. The Act converted the existing central Legislative Council into a bi-cameral (two house) legislature for British India directly elected by the electorate. These were the Central Legislative Assembly and the Council of State. Dyarchy was not introduced in the central legislature. The result was that the executive, that is, the GG, was responsible not to the central legislature but to the Secretary of State in London and the British Parliament as before. It introduced a third House, Chamber of Princes, representing the rulers of Indian States having no legislative but only deliberative powers. This was done to facilitate their inc1usion gradually into the constitutional framework in the Government of India Act, 1935 and to create one composite Indian State.

Elections to the Provincial Legislative Councils were on the basis of separate electorates for Muslims, and the division of seats between Muslims and the rest was on the basis of the Lucknow Pact. In addition separate electorates were created for Sikhs in Punjab, and Europeans, Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians in most of the Provinces. Seats were also set aside for landowners and commercial interests. All the elections were based on high property franchise. Similar provisions existed for elections to the Central Legislative Assembly (both Houses). The property qualification for voting was highest for the Council of State, lower for the Central Legislative Assembly and lowest for the Provincial Assembly.

The Congress party now demanded Dominion status i.e. a Government responsible to an elected Indian legislature not to the British Parliament. The Simon Commission and the Round Table Conferences were aimed in this direction. Eventually the British Parliament enacted the Government of India Act, 1935.

The 1935 Act did away with the practice of ‘reserved’ and ‘transferred’ subjects. Provinces were given full autonomy in legislative matters within certain areas. It established ‘full responsible government’ in the eleven provinces. It established a federation of India comprising both the provinces of British India and the princely Indian States. This provision could not come into force as half the Indian States which needed to ratify the provision did not do so before the War broke out and stalemated the issue. The Act, which abolished dyarchy in the Provinces, reproduced it in the Centre. The subjects of foreign affairs and defence were, ‘reserved to the control of the GG i.e. he exercised them on the advice of the Secretary of State in London. The other Central subjects were ‘transferred’ to central Ministers who were responsible to the Central Legislative Assembly. The members of this latter body were elected indirectly by the Provincial legislatures (unlike in the 1919 Act when they were directly elected). The seats for the elections were on communal lines and separate electorates were continued as also property qualifications for voting.

It was from the provincial legislatures elected in 1937 and then again in 1946 that the members of the Constituent Assembly were elected in 1947. They were responsible for drafting and enacting the constitution of present day India The India Independence Act, 1947 liberated the GG from the responsibility of reporting to the Secretary of State and hence British Parliament, from the ‘appointed day’ i.e. 15 August, 1947. He was thenceforth responsible to the Constituent Assembly. In 1950 when the Constitution came into force, the legislative power was transferred to Parliament and the executive power from the GG to the President of India and through him to the Cabinet headed by a Prime Minister. Thus the manner in which political power is exercised today and the institutions that wield power have their clear roots in the form of ‘responsible’ and ‘representative’ governments  that the British designed for their rule over this vast sub-continent.                                                 

Dr Kamala Sankaran teaches in the Law Faculty of
Delhi University


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