Contextually Reviewing “Government of India Act” of 1858, 1919 and 1935; and “Indian Council Act” of 1861, 1891and 1909



Administrative and legislative reforms after Revolt of 1857
Administrative and legislative reforms after Revolt of 1857

Let’s take ourselves to 1857 India for better understanding of legislative and administrative reforms in India after 1857… The Revolt of 1857 is a  historical magnified manifestation of arising mass nationalism in India. No armed forces of such gigantic magnitude upsurged thereafter but even such tremendous military troops with the political assistance of Rani Laxmibai, Tantia Tope etc. couldn’t exterminate the deeply-rooted and stable colonial empire from India. However, it certainly compelled Britishers to analyze the prime reasons for such a spontaneously massive upheaval and resultingly they discovered the British East India Company as a major exploitative entity in India. Therefore, the Mutiny of 1857 was an antagonistic voice of opposition against the overpowering colonial policies introduced by the company. ( like Policy of Subsidiary Alliance, Dalhousie Doctrine of Lapse etc.) Eventually, in November 1857, Queen Victoria royally proclaimed herself as the Empress of India and abolished merchandise capitalism in India🇮🇳. She invalidated all preceding policies of territorial expansion and ensured Indian emperors the rights over their provinces. 


Government of India Act

Amidst such a chaotic transition, the British Imperial Government enacted the Government of India Act 1858 for consolidating its hegemony and introducing legislative reforms in India. Under this act, the British East India Company was completely rescinded and their powers were exclusively transferred to the British Parliamentary Government. This act signified the beginning of the direct rule of the British Crown and therefore it was called British Raj.  Government of India Act 1858 was the first legislative reform act and the provisions laid out were as follows:
  • Introduction of Department System: The dual system of political governance designed under Pitts India Act was abolished with the liquidation of the Board of Control and Court of Directors under this statute. Therefore, a new procedure of political governance was constructed under this enactment called the Department System. The topmost hierarchal position of this system was British Parliament and it was responded by Secretary of State for India who was a member of British Cabinet and vested extensive authority and control over Indian Administration. The Secretary of State for India was assisted by a 15-membered committee called Council of India who will function as an advisory body.  In addition to this, Governor-General of India was titled Viceroy of India who will be the direct representative of British Crown in India. He will supervise, administer and control the provincial governments in India. The Viceroy will be responsible to the Secretary of State. 

  • B612 20200819 192450 047 1 Government of India Act
    The diagrammatic representation of the new political system of governance with hierarchy

  • First Viceroy and Last Governor-General of India: Lord Canning
  • First Secretary of State for India: Edward Henry Stanley
  • The prime objective of this act was to create an answerable and accountable government. Therefore, the direct rule of the British Government provided better regulations than the East India Company’s rule. Hence, it’s also known as “An Act for the Better Government of India.”  
The Government of India Act, 1858 captured all components of ascertaining a credible government in India but even such reliable provisions couldn’t enhance the sociopolitical conditions greatly. Instead, it annihilated India more than initial because the superiority over Indian revenue and policies subsisted in the hands of Secretary of State. 
B612 20200831 173840 322 1 Government of India Act


The failure of Government of India Act 1858 was in parallel accompanied by the advancing Indian perception that believed Revolt of 1857 as a hostile voice of nationals against Britishers who were reluctant to admit Indians for administrative purposes. Simultaneously, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan launched his pamphlet “The Causes of Indian Revolt” in 1859 suggesting the British Government to involve Indian subjects in the legislative councils for preventing any expansive disruption in future. Later in 1861, Indian Council Act was introduced that had monumental implication in the constitutional history of India because it connected the representatives of Indians with the functions of legislation for the first time in the colonial period. It encompassed the following provisions:
  • Decentralization of legislative powers: The legislative powers that were rigidly centralized in Bengal after Charter Act 1833 were now decentralized in Madras and Bombay for effective administration. British Government’s motive of concentrating lawmaking powers in Bengal was to build legislative uniformity but the system wasn’t up to people’s expectations and it overburdened the Governor-General of India with innumerable responsibilities. Therefore, the foregoing provision was amended for administrative convenience.
  • Introduction of Legislative Councils in other states: Additionally, Governor-General was entrusted to establish legislative councils in existing provinces for administrative comfort and he could appoint Lieutenant for legislation in these provinces. Consequently, new legislative councils were defined in Bengal (1862), North Western Frontier Province (1866) and Punjab (1897).
  • The nomination of Non-Official Members of Legislative Council by Viceroy: Under this enactment, Viceroy was sought to nominate Indians as non-official members of his extended legislative council but they weren’t given any resilience and power to question on the administrative decisions. The first such members nominated by Viceroy Lord Canning were Raja of Benaras, Maharaja of Patiala and Sir Dinkar Rao.
  • Enlargement of Executive Council: The Viceroy’s executive council was enlarged by the addition of 5th member called jurist. Later in 1874, a 6th member was also appointed for the public interest.
  • Introduction of Portfolio System: Indian Executive Council that was composed of 6 members delegated by Governor-General were allocated distinct departmental responsibilities of home, revenue, military, law, finance and public welfare separately. Henceforth, a portfolio system started for the first time in India.
  • Viceroy was permitted to issue ordinances (temporary laws) in case of emergency without the consensus of Legislative Council which would be plausible for 6 months.
However, the act failed to bring considerable changes to Indian legislation but the steady yet constructive step of involving Indians into the administrative sector of India initiated with the introduction of this act.
Simultaneously, the discontentment emanated against the colonial regime due to excruciating sociopolitical paralysis led to the formation of several historical foundations like Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, Madras Mahajan Sabha and Indian Association etc. These institutions instigated nationalism amongst people and politically awakened them about their rights. In 1885, Indian National Congress was founded by A.O Hume and others who were resolved to demand “reform and expansion of Supreme and Provincial Legislative Council by-elections of a considerable proportion of members.” Remaining in the moderate phase, the INC constantly urged for the expansion of legislative powers in India that was somewhat fulfilled by Indian Council Act, 1892
B612 20200831 180144 326 1 Government of India Act
The act underlined the following provisions:
  • Enlargement of Central and Provincial Legislative Council: The numeric strength of non-official members was expanded in Central Legislative Council ( between 10 to 16) and variably in Provincial Legislative Council. 
  • Members of the Legislative Council were validated to discuss budget and public interests and articulate the questions to the executives.
  • The nomination of Members of Central and Provincial Council: Under this enactment, Viceroy was designated to nominate non-official members of the Central Legislative Council with the recommendation of Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Provincial Legislative Council while Governor-General was instructed to nominate non-official members of Provincial Legislature by recommendation of certain local bodies like Universities, District Board and Municipalities etc.
Although this enactment induced certain indirect elective” principles to Indian governance through its composition on the broader scale, it was incapable of fulfilling the substantial national demands. The emerging dissatisfaction from the failures of preceding acts was reflected in the radical representation of Indians against British rule in the early 20th century. The British defined the widespread political condition in the country as “Indian Unrest.” 
Frightened by springing nationalism and political consciousness, the British regime partitioned Bengal in 1905 to cultivate communal divisions between Hindus and Muslims and to terminate the impact of nationalists. But interestingly, both religions collaboratively condemned the colonial decision of dividing Bengal and launched “Boycott and Swadeshi Movement exemplifying their contention and to encourage indigenous and swadeshi goods in the popular leadership of Lal Bal Pal.
But later All India Muslim League was founded in December 1906 by Aga Khan, Nawab Salaimullah of Dacca who advocated Partition of Bengal and negated the ongoing Swadeshi Movement. In Shimla Deputation, these elites urged for special safeguards and separate electorates for Muslims. These circumstances intensified the communal distinctions and conflicts between both religions.
Following this in 1907, Indian National Congress broke-down into moderates and extremists in Surat Split due to ideological disparities and dissension. The Viceroy of India Lord Minto criticized the extremists but realized it imperative to connect with moderates and provide them with political concessions, which were popularly remarked as Indian Councils Act, 1909 or Morley-Minto Reforms
B612 20200831 173947 153 1 Government of India Act

The provisions laid out were as follows:

  • Enlargement of Central and Provincial Legislative Council: The numeric strength of non-official members was increased in the Central Legislative Council from 16 to 60 and non-uniformly in Provincial Legislative Council. The element of the election was installed in Central Legislative Council retaining the official majority but the non-official majority was ascertained in Provincial Legislative Council.
  • Extension of powers of non-official members: The powers of non-official members of Legislative Council were extended and they were now entrusted to discuss budget and matters of public interest. They could also move resolutions and ask supplementary questions to executives. 
  • It welcomed the association of Indians with the executive council of Viceroy and Governors. Satyendra Prasad Sinha was the first member to join the Viceroy’s executive council in 1909.
  • Communal Representation of Muslims: On the consistent demand of the Muslim League, the concept of communal representation i.e. separate electorates for Muslims were accepted. Under this act, some constituencies were set aside for Muslims and only Muslims could vote for their representatives. Therefore, it certified communalism in India and Lord Minto is known as “Father of Communal Electorates in India.”
The nationalists were profoundly dismayed by the communal representation of Muslims in this act because they believed it as a demarcation of communalism and separatism in India but they welcomed it to gain the privileges in Legislative Councils. The pace of nationalist spirit that had slowed down or almost halted after the breakdown of INC and the imprisonment of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1907 on the pretext of preaching nationalism was revived by the launch of Home Rule Movement in 1915. Amidst such chaos, the atrocious First World War started and England slightly loosened its political and economic grasp on India. The national leaders who were constantly stressing for provincial autonomy were asked to support Britishers in the global war for the attainment of the same. Eventually, the nationalists actively supported Britishers in the First World War but they were left empty-handed even after strong participation. Later in 1919, Montague-Chelmsford Report or Government of India Act,1919 or Montford Reforms were introduced in response to Montague Declaration that claimed to engage Hindus and Muslims into Indian administration.
Government of India Act

The Government of India Act 1919 encapsulated the following provisions:

  • Introduction of Dyarchy System in Provinces: Under this enactment, the administrative subjects were split into the Central Subjects and Provincial Subjects. Central Subjects were kept under the supervision of the Central Legislative Government while the Provincial Subjects were slightly given to Provincial Legislative Council. Provincial Subjects involved Transferred Subjects i.e issues supervised by Governor with the aid of Ministers and Reserved Subjects i.e. issues operated independently by Governor of Provincial Legislative Council. This administrative system of division of power is termed as Dyarchy System.
  • Introduction of Bicameralism in Central  Legislative Council: It introduced Bicameralism in Central Legislative Council. It proposed that the legislature should consist of Upper House called ‘Council of State‘ and Lower House called ‘Legislative Council‘ whose majority of members would be directly elected.
  • The act mandated that three of six members of Viceroy’s Executive Council were to be Indians.
  • Extension of Communal Representation for Sikhs, Christians, Anglo-Indians etc.: The concept of communal representation was extended for other religions and provided separate electorates for Sikhs, Christian, Anglo-Indians etc.
  • Limited Franchise for People on basis of one’s tax payment, property and educational qualifications
  • Creation of High Commissioner: The new office for High Commissioner was organized and he/she was given the extra functions that were so far performed by Secretary of State.
  • Establishment of the Public Service Commission: Public Service Commission was established in London (in 1926) under this provision.
  • A Statutory Commission was to be appointed to inquire into and report on its working after ten years of its coming into force.
This provisions of this enactment infuriated nationalists who were predicting provincial autonomy because the major administrative powers (like defence, finance etc) still weren’t handed over to provinces. In addition to this, the extension to Defence of India Arms Act, 1915 or Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act or Rowlatt Act was announced in 1919 based on recommendations of Rowaltt Commission (headed by Sir Sydney Rowaltt) that rendered the colonial government uncontrolled powers to crush the political and nationalist activities in India and allowed them to arrest people without judicial trial for two years on mere suspicion of a crime. The introduction of this act provoked outrage amongst Indians national leaders whose voices were blatantly neglected by the authorities in the Imperial Legislature. To demonstrate the opposition against the act, the elected Indian members like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, M.M. Malviya etc. resigned from their positions and Mahatma Gandhi launched ‘Rowaltt Satyagraha‘ which was followed by two major popular national movements between 1920 to 1922 i.e. Khilafat Movement and Non-Cooperation Movement. 
The Statutory Commission that was expected to be appointed after ten years of Government of India Act,1919 was constituted two years before i.e in 1927 under the leadership of Sir Simon to suggest constitutional reforms (Simon Commission). It arrived in India in 1928 and was widely criticized by Indians because it consisted of no Indian member. After consistent political metamorphosis and debates, it presented its report in 1930 and the Government of India Act ,1935 was drafted based on its recommendations along with the suggestions of Lothian Report, Nehru Report and White Paper Report of Round Table Conferences. 

The Government of India Act 1935 highlighted the following changes in Indian administration:

  • Establishment of All India Federation: The act prescribed the establishment of All India Federation, considering the consent of provinces and princely states. Three lists were formulated for the division of power- Federal List (for Centre consisting 49 subjects), Provincial List (for provinces consisting 54 subjects) and Concurrent List (for both centre and provinces consisting 36 subjects). Residuary legislative powers vested in the hands of Governor-General.  Since princely states rejected the provision, the Federation couldn’t be ascertained.
  • Provincial Autonomy reclaimed: The dyarchy system at provinces was abolished under this enactment and the provinces were empowered to act as autonomous administrative entities that could take its independent decisions subject to certain safeguards and limitations. The Governor was proclaimed as the head of the province who will be assisted by Ministers. However, this provision came into effect in 1937.
  • Introduction of Dyarchy at Centre: Under this provision, the British Parliamentary Government divided the subjects of the federal list into two categories- Reserved Subjects and Transferred Subjects. Reserved subjects were controlled by Governor-General with the advice of three counsellors and it included issues like defence, justice, external and tribal affairs. Transferred Subjects were controlled by Governor-General with the assistance of the Council of Ministers and it included education, health and forest-related subjects. 
  • Establishment of Federal Court: It provisioned to create a Federal Court for interpretation of controversial clauses of this act which was finally constructed in 1937. It also functioned to sort out the disputes between the Federal Government and the provinces and amongst the provinces.
  • Introduction of Bicameralism: Bicameralism (provisioned in GOI 1919) was now properly introduced in six out of eleven provinces. It included Bengal, Bombay, Madras, Assam, Bihar and United Provinces.
  • Extension of Franchise: Almost 10% of British Indian Population was empowered to vote in elections.
  •  Extension of Separate Electorates: The concept of separate electorates was now extended to depressed sections, women and minorities.
  • Abolition of Indian Council: Indian Council (structured under GOI 1858) was abolished under this provision and instead Secretary of State was provided with a team of advisors. 
  • Re-organisation of States: Burma (now Myanmar) was separated from British India and two new provinces catalogued- Orissa and Sind were created.
This Government of India Act was vehemently criticized by nationalists who were expecting “Dominion Status” for India. Pt. M.M. Malviya claimed-” The new act has been thrust upon us. It has somewhat a democratic appearance outwardly but it is hollow from inside.” Formally, it provided provincial autonomy to India but realistically, it had given extensive control to the Governor-General who is dictating all legislative matters. Also, the principle of separate electorate for depressed sections, workers and women was a major point of contention…

{ FOR PRECEDING CHARTER ACTS 1773-1853, refer to How colonial East India Company was ruled by Charter Acts till 1857?}


Gaurav Rathi

An enthusiastic Delhiite, Gaurav Rathi is pursuing B.A. English Hons. in Delhi University. Rather than reading history, he likes re-inventing and re-approaching history and while not researching and writing blogs, he is reading novels or celebrating life with family and friends.

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  1. Unknown

    Perfect blog to understand the revolt of 1857 and other related.