Modern democracy & constitutional government may be western developments but ancient India was not unfamiliar with republican institutions, democratic assemblies, Panchayats and safeguards that limited the power of the monarch and protected the public from abuse of authority. The concept of the supremacy of dharma was hardly different from the rule of law-or limited government, points out Subash Kashyap. However, it was under British rule that the idea of a modern constitutional form of government develop. As the East India Company gradually changed from a mere trading group into a political authority on behalf of the British Crown-several characters and Acts were passed by the British Parliament to regulate its conduct. Some of these are of significance from the point of view of India’s constitutional history. A brief review of the various Acts is given here.
The chief clauses of the Act were (i) The Directors of the company were required to lay before a secretary of state matters dealing with civil or military administration of the company (ii) The Governor of Bengal was now made the Governor General of all British-territories in India (iii) An executive council of four members was created to assist the Governor General (iv) In matters of foreign policy the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras were made subordinate to the Governor General and his council (v) A Supreme Court of judicature consisting of one Chief Justice and three other members was created (vi) The servants of the company were forbidden- to engage in private trade, accept presents or bribes etc. The Act brought about the British Government’s involvement in Indian affairs.
Pitts India Act-1784
(i) The commercial and political activities of the company were now separated (ii) for the supervision of civil, military and revenue matters, a Board of Control consisting of six members was set up in England (iii) A Secret Committee of three Directors was to transmit the orders of the Board to India. The court of proprietors lost the right to rescind, suspend or revoke any resolution of the Directors approved by the Board, (iv) The members of the Governor Generals Council were to be three instead of four (v) The company was worked to follow a policy of non-intervention the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay were subordinated to the Governor General in council of Bengal in all matters of diplomacy, war and revenue (vii) Only covenants servants were in future to be appointed members of the council of the Governor General. This Act gave the British government a measure of control over the company’s affairs in fact; the company became a subordinate department of the state.
In 1786 Pitt brought another Bill in Parliament relating to India in a bid to prevail upon Cornwallis to accept the Governor Generalship of Bengal. Cornwallis wanted to have the powers of both the Governor General and the Commander-in-Chief. The new Act conceded this demand and also gave him the power to override his council in extraordinary cases but on his own responsibility.
(i) The salaries of the members of the Board of control and other functionaries of the company were to be drawn from the Indian exchequer (ii) The Governor General was given greater control over the Presidencies of Bombay and Madras (iii) The Commander-in-Chief was not to be a member of the Governor General’s Council.
Government of India Act 1858
This Act abolished both the Board of Control and the Court of Directors and substituted them with the Secretary-of State for India. The Governor General came to be called Viceroy from then onwards. All this was done to improve the British administration in India. It marked the end of the Company rule and transferred power to the British Crown, dual government introduced by Pitts Act was abolished. ‘Administration became highly centralized. All powers — civil, military, and executive and Legislature came to be vested in the Governor in council who in turn was responsible to the secretary of state. The authority of the secretary of state over Indian administration was-absolute administration was bureaucratic with little concern for Indian public opinion.
Indian Councils Act-1861
(i) A fifth member was added to the Viceroy’s Executive Council, (ii) The Viceroy was empowered to make rules for the more convenient transaction of business in the’ council. This power was used by Lord Canning to introduce the Portfolio system in the government of India (iii) for purposes of Legislation the Viceroy’s Executive Council was expanded by the addition of not less than six and not more than twelve, additional members not less than half of whom were to be non-officials. Some of the non-official seats were offered to natives of high rank. Hence, a minute element of popular participation was introduced in the Legislative process. The function of the Legislative Council so created was strictly limited to legislation it could have no control over administration or finance or right of interpellation (v) The Legislative powers were restored to the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay. But ho laws passed by the Provincial Councils were to be valid until they received the assent of the Governor General was empowered in cases of emergency to issue without the concurrence of the Legislative Council ordinances which were not to remain in force for more than six months.
Indian Councils Act-1892
Enacted due to the demand of the Indian National Congress to expand the Legislative Councils and the number of non-official members was increased both in the Central and Provincial Legislative Councils. The Universities, District Boards, Municipalities, Zamindars and Chambers of Commerce were empowered to recommend members to the Provincial Councils. The members of the Legislatures were now entitled to express their views upon financial statements which were henceforth to be made on the floor of the Legislatures. They could also put questions within certain limits to the government as matters of public interest after giving six days notice.
Indian Councils Act-1909
Popularly known as the Minto-Morley Reform, the Act made the first attempt Jo bring in a representative and popular element in the governance of the country. With regard to the central govt. an Indian member was taken in the Executive Council of Governor General. The Central Legislature was enlarged on the other hand in the matter of Provincial Government. The members of the Provincial Executive Council were, increased from two to four. The Provincial Legislative Councils were enlarged and non-official members were increased in number compared to the officials. The powers of the Legislative Councils were increased.
Government of India Act-1919
Based on what are popularly known as the Montague-Chelmsford Reform the Act introduced diarchy in the provinces which indeed was a substantial step towards transfer of power to the Indian people. All administrative subjects were divided into two groups-central and provincial. The principle of communal representation was extended.
Government of India Act-1935
The Act contemplated the establishment of an All-India Federation in which Governor’s provinces and the Chief Commissioner’s provinces and those Indian states which might accede to be united were to be included. Diarchy rejected by the Simon Commission was provided for in the Federal Executive, defense, External affairs, Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Administration of tribal areas were reserved in the hands of the. Governor General to be administered by him with the assistance of a maximum of three councilors to be appointed by him. The other Federal subjects were to be administered by the Governor General with the assistance and advice of a council of ministers to be chosen by him and to hold office during his pleasure.
The August Offer-1940
On August 8, 1940 the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow made a fresh offer which promised the expansion of the Governor General’s Executive Council to include more Indians, the establishment of an advisory War Council giving full weight to minority opinion, recognition of- Indian’s rights to frame their own constitution etc. In return it was hoped that all parties and communities in India would co-operate in Britain’s war efforts. The declaration marked important advance over the existing state of things as it recognized at least the natural and inherent right of the people of the country to determine the form of their future constitution and explicitly promised dominion status. However the Congress rejected this offer and Gandhi viewed it as having widened the gulf between nationalist India and British rulers.
When the Japanese army began to knock at the doors of India after the fall of Singapore and Burma, the War Cabinet of Britain sent Sir. Stafford Cripps with certain proposals to India on March 23, 1942, to elicit Indian’s co-operation. The envoy promised the fulfillment of past promises of self government for the Indian people. The scheme was that the future of India would be an Indian Union which would enjoy the privileges of a “Dominion” associated with the United Kingdom and other dominions owing allegiance to the British Crown.
C.R. Rajagopalachari presented the C.R. Formula by which the Muslim League would support the Congress demand for complete freedom. After the war a plebiscite was proposed which would decide whether the Muslim majority areas wanted to stay with the Indian Union or not. But plan was rejected. After Gandhi was released on May 5, 1944 on grounds of ill health, Wavell urged the need to set up a Provisional Political Government at the centre based on a Congress League Coalition to ensure fuller Indian Co-operation in the war effort. As correspondence between Gandhi and Wavell quickly confirmed “in July-August 1944 the Viceroy’s offer fell far short of the minimum Congress demands of a genuine national government responsible to the assembly with only war operations temporarily under British control and an immediate and unambitious promise of post war independence.
Under this plan India was to be granted Dominion Status in the near future. The Indians would themselves draft the constitution. The Hindu and the Muslims would be equally represented besides the members of the scheduled castes and the depressed classes. The position of the Secretary of State and the Viceroy would remain the same. The Viceroy would retain his power of veto. But these proposals were not to be applied to the Indian states. The plan was rejected by the Muslim League.
Cabinet Mission Plan
In March 1946, Lord Attlee sent a Cabinet Mission to India consisting of three Cabinet Ministers namely Lord Pethick Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and Mr. A.V Alexander. The object of the mission was to help India achieve its independence as early as possible and to set up a Constituent Assembly. The main recommendations of the Mission were (i) there should be a Onion of India embracing both British India and the states which should deal with foreign affairs, defense and communication with finances of its own (ii) below the union govt. there should be three group government each consisting of some provinces (iii) a Constituent Assembly should be set up to draw up the future constitution of the country (iv) till the constitution was ready a provincial government consisting of representative of the main political parties be set up at the centre.
Indian Independence Act-1947
In July 1947, the British Parliament passed the Independence of India Act. According to the Act power would be transferred from the British govt. to the Indians on August 15, 1947. Two dominions namely India and Pakistan would be established. The Constituent Assembly of both the ‘Dominions would be empowered to pass any law. It would be free to decide whether their dominions would remain within the British Commonwealth of Nations or leave it.