Constitutional Reforms during British Rule

The Regulating Act, 1773: The rapacity of the officers of the Company forced the British government to pass the Regulating Act in 1773 the main purpose of which was to give a legalised working constitution to the East India Company’s dominion in India.

Pitt’s India Act, 1784: It was a measure for centralisation of the Company under the control of the British Parliament.

Permanent Settlement: It was the most important revenue system introduced by Lord Cornwallis (1786-93). It placed the Indian Revenue System on a scientific basis. It was introduced simultaneously in Bengal, Bihar and Odisa. It ensured a regular flow of income to the State.

Charter Act of 1833: Under this Act, the title of Governor General of India was substituted for that of Governor General of Bengal.

Doctrine of Lapse: Lord Dalhousie (1848-56) laid it down as a principle that on the death of a ruling prince without direct descendants, the British Government should refuse to sanction the adoption of an heir and declare the dominions of the deceased as “lapsed to the sovereign power by total failure of heirs natural”. This is known as “Doctrine of Lapse”. Mysore State was not annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse.

Queen’s Proclamation of 1858: The most important sequel to the great revolt of 1857 was the end of the East India Company’s rule in India. On 1 November 1858, Queen Victoria issued a proclamation announcing that the Government of India had been taken over directly by the Crown. The proclamation replaced the Court of Directors by a Secretary of State.

The Governor-General who was henceforth to be a representative of the Crown was redesignated as the Viceroy. (The first Viceroy of India was Lord Canning.) The proclamation assured Indians that there would be no interference with their religious beliefs and practices and that they would be accorded equal treatment. The Indian princes were assured that their existing territories would be preserved, and the policy of annexation came to an end. The Proclamation has been described as the Magna Carta of India.

It may be of interest to note that Queen Victoria did not like Lord Stanley’s (afterwards the Earl of Derby and the first Secretary of State for India) original draft containing 75 sections of the Act of 1858 and directed him to frame it “Bearing in mind that it is a female sovereign who speaks to more than a hundred millions of Eastern people on assuming the direct government over them and after a bloody war (of 1857) giving them pledges, which her future reign is to redeem, and explaining the principles of her Government. Such a document should breathe feeling of generosity, benevolence and religious toleration, and point out the privileges which the Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown, and the prosperity following in the train of civilization.”

The new Proclamation was thus drafted in accordance with the Queen’s sentiments and its assumption on 1 November 1858, was looked upon by the people of India as the Charter of their Rights.

For the next sixty years (till 1917), the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 remained the basis of British policy in India. Between 1858 and 1917 the pace of constitutional reform was slow. Some of the important measures introduced during this period were:

The Indian Councils Act of 1861: This piece of legislation was aimed at securing better understanding between the rulers and the ruled. The Act made important changes in the constitution and working of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. It enabled the Viceroy to associate Indians with legislative business. It also vested legislative powers in the governments of Bombay and Madras. In a way it paved the way for complete internal autonomy which was to follow in 1935.

Ilbert Bill: This Bill was prepared in 1883 by Mr C.P. Ilbert, the Law member during the Viceroyalty of Lord Rippon, for the purpose of abolishing “judicial disqualification based on race distinction”. According to Criminal Procedure Code of 1873, no Magistrate or Sessions Judge could try a European British subject unless he was himself of European origin.

Minto-Morley Reforms or the Indian Councils Act of 1909: In 1906, the Viceroy, Lord Minto recommended certain constitutional changes to Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India in London. These recommendations provided the basis for the Indian Councils Act of 1909, also referred to as the Minto-Morley reforms. In terms of the Act, the size of the Legislative Councils was enlarged. In the new set-up, the official majority was replaced by a majority of nominated members. But although the official majority was done away with, yet elected members remained in a minority. The membership of Councils was enlarged, but it was made clear that the new system did not mean introduction of a parliamentary system. The reforms introduced a sort of “benevolent despotism”. Perhaps the worst feature they embodied was the institution of separate electorate for the Muslims. They also gave importance to vested interests like land-holders, the merchant class etc by conceding separate representation to them.

Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms or Government of India Act, 1919 (introduction of Dyarchy): It was passed by the British Parliament in December 1919. The measure made many important changes in the administration of India. In place of the Imperial Legislative Council, a bicameral legislature was set up in New Delhi. A system of direct elections was introduced, although franchise remained very much restricted. The lawmaking powers of the Central Legislature were increased. Central and State subjects were separated. The size of the provincial legislative councils was considerably enlarged. It introduced dyarchy in the provinces which meant a further sub-division of subjects in the State list into (i) reserved subjects to be dealt with by the Governor and his nominees and (ii) transferred subjects to be dealt with by the Governor and his ministers.

Controversy between the Orientalists and the Anglicists in the time of Lord William Bentinck: The controversy between the Orientalists and the Anglicists during the time of William Bentinck had two connected problems: one related to the medium of education and the other to the diffusion of education among the masses i.e., whether education should be confined to the upper classes only or the masses should also be included in the scheme to be adopted.

The Orientalists wanted that the teaching should be confined to the traditional learning of the Hindus and the Muslims, as enshrined in Sanskrit and Arabic languages. While the Anglicists wanted education to be extended to English language and literature and to the learning of western science.

The Anglicists pleaded that English provided Indians, speaking different mother-tongues, with a common language which could be used for a common purpose. English, they asserted, could also be an instrument of inter-communication between all parts of India and could thus help in the development of Indian unity and in strengthening the consciousness of Indian nationality.

Although Bentinck had decided in favour of English, some prominent Indian citizens pressed for the cultivation of Indian languages, pointing out the feasibility of teaching through one’s own language and the beneficial effects on the development of Indian literature.

The cause of spoken language, however, received a setback and English was recognised as the medium of higher education.

As stated by Dr Tara Chand in “History of the Freedom Movement in India, Vol. II, page 194”: “The Orientalists who urged the use of Sanskrit and Arabic were, unfortunately, advocating a lost cause, for these languages, however rich in literature and philosophy, and however revered for their sacred contents, were practically ruled out. They were not spoken languages of any considerable group of Indians; their knowledge was confined to a very small number, and they required prolonged labour for attaining proficiency in them, for which neither the rulers nor the ruled were prepared.”

REFORMS AND REGIMES (During the British period in Indian History)

Reforms, Movements, Conferences etc. During the Regime of
Agrarian Reforms Curzon
Ancient Monuments Preservation Curzon
Cabinet Mission Wavell
Census, First Rippon
Communal Award Wellingdon
Congress Resolution for complete independence Irwin
Cripps Mission Linlithgow
Doctrine of Lapse Dalhousie
Dyarchy Chelmsford
Enlargement of Legislative Councils Dufferin
Factory Act Rippon
Female Infanticide, Prohibition of William Bentinck
Government of India Act, 1935 Wellingdon
INA Trial Wavell
Indian Councils Act Minto-II
Indian Independence Act Mountbatten
Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy Chelmsford
Local-Self Government Rippon
Minto-Morley Reforms Minto-II
Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms Chelmsford
Non-cooperation Movement Chelmsford
Partition of Bengal Curzon
Partition of Bengal revoked Hardinge-II
Partition of India Mountbatten
Permanent Settlement Cornwallis
Poona Pact Wellingdon
Provincial Autonomy Linlithgow
Queen Victoria’s Proclamation Canning
Quit India Linlithgow
Round Table Conference, First Irwin
Round Table Conference, Second Wellingdon
Round Table Conference, Third Wellingdon
Rowlatt Acts Chelmsford
Sati, Prohibition of William Bentinck
Sedition Committee Chelmsford
Separate Electorate Wellingdon
Separate Representation for Muslims Minto-II
Sepoy Mutiny Canning
Subsidiary Wellesley
Thuggee, Suppression of William Bentinck
Transfer of India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi Hardinge-II
Vernacular Press Act, Repeal of Rippon