The first Government of India Act (1858, after the Sepoy Rising of 1857) abolished the British East India Company and put India under British government administration.
A second act in 1909 introduced the concept of elected government. Still, Indian troops served in World War I because Britain, not India, declared India at war with Germany. In 1917 Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu promised that India’s government would gradually permit increased Indian participation in the administration of India, with the goal of eventual self-rule. Then the war ended. Although a third Government of India Act in 1919 gave local control of “nation building” areas such as education, it retained law and order and finance for Parliament appointed governors and officials responsible to them. This system of power sharing was called dyarchy. Britain’s harsh measures against alleged political extremists and the Punjab disturbances of 1919, including a massacre of 400 at Amritsar, led to the creation of a national Indian movement against British control. A nationalist leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi, rose to the fore.
Gandhi led a movement of noncooperation against Britain in 1920–22 and a civil disobedience effort in 1930–31. In 1942 he called for the British to “Quit India.” He led the first negotiations for independence in 1930 at the Round Table Conferences in London. Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal Nehru, was also active in the movement for Indian self-government. He chaired a committee of the All Parties Conference that included Muslims. It issued the “Nehru Report” of 1928 that called for a dominion constitution for India written by Indians.
When the all-British Simon Commission visited India in 1927–28, it generated protests that the Indian police repressed violently, leading to the death of Punjabi leader Lalal Lajpat Raj and rallying a new generation of Indian nationalist leaders. Its report in 1930 rejected dyarchy and determined that local autonomy was in order. It proposed the retention of communal electorates for Muslims and Hindus until tensions calmed. The British government drafted legislation to provide the reforms. The Round Table Conferences decided that Britain would unite the princely states with the provinces directly under its administration and eventually give the combined government of India dominion status. The congress and the Muslims split over details, leaving the decisions to the British.
The Government of India Act provided autonomy to the 11 Indian provinces it created. It separated Aden and Burma from India, increased the pool of eligible voters from 7 million to 35 million, and created two new provinces—Sind, split from Bombay, and Orissa, split from Bihar. Provincial assemblies included more elected Indian representatives. The governor, often British, retained the rights of intervention in emergencies. The first elections under the act occurred in 1937.
The act was the longest bill the British parliament ever passed. Parliament did not trust Indians, particularly Indian politicians, and wanted to be sure there was no room for interpretation or adjustment. Theoretically, it provided self-government in all areas but defense and foreign affairs. In practice, it reserved extensive powers for British intervention in Indian affairs through the British-appointed viceroy and provincial governors who were responsible to the secretary of state for India.
The act also had provisions for the formation of a federal government, but because half the states never agreed to its terms, a federation never occurred. It also failed to address the religious problem. Hindus were two thirds of India’s population, leading to concerns by the minority Muslims that they would be treated unfairly. When the Hindu-dominated Congress Party won eight of the 11 provincial elections in 1937 the Muslims led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah began demanding a separate state, Pakistan.
Although the British parliament thought it was realistic to federate states of widely diverging size, sophistication, and structure, it did not happen. The princes failed to recognize that they could control the federation if they united in support of it. Instead, they pursued their own interests with the result that the federation never received the requisite majority.
The act failed to attract significant support from moderates, in large part because they did not trust the British. The Hindu electorate preferred the Congress Party, and the Congress Party wanted dominion status equal to that granted to the white dominions, which included control over foreign as well as internal affairs.
The first viceroy after the act was passed was Lord Linlithgow. He was intelligent, honest, hardworking, serious, and committed to the success of the act. He was also stolid, unimaginative, legalistic, and unable to deal with people other than those in his own circle. Under pressure he turned to administrative details while becoming rigid on strategy. He struggled unsuccessfully to deal with Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. Compromise between the four men was impossible.
Indian provinces enjoyed self-rule after 1937 for two years, until the onset of the war. Linlithgow tried and failed to get the princes to accept the federation, but neither the British government nor the princes supported him. In 1939, when Britain and Germany declared war, India was automatically included. His failure to consult with Indian leaders, while constitutionally correct, offended Indian public opinion. The congress ministers, who were not consulted, resigned, while Muslim leaders in provinces where they had a majority cooperated with Britain in war. Thus, chances for Indian unity died.
John H. Barnhill