Government of India Act 1919

Government of India Act 1919 was passed by British Parliament to further expand the participation of Indians in the Government of India. Since the act embodied reforms as recommended by a report of Edwin Montagu {Secretary of State for India} and Lord Chelmsford {Viceroy and Governor General}, it is also called as Montague-Chelmsford Reforms or simply Mont-Ford Reforms. The most notable feature of the act was “end of benevolent despotism” and introduction of responsible government in India. This act covered 10 years from 1919 to 1929.

Background

Edwin Samuel Montagu had remained the Secretary of State for India between 1917 and 1922. He was a critic of the entire system by which India was administered. On 20 August 1917, he made a historic declaration in the House of Commons in British Parliament which is called “Montague declaration”. The theme of this declaration was increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration and gradual development of self governing institutions and responsible government in India.

In November 1917, Montague had visited India to ascertain views from all sections of polity including talks with Gandhi and Jinnah. A detailed report on Constitutional Reforms in India {Mont-Ford Report} was published on 8th July, 1918. This report became the basis of Government of India Act 1919. Key features of this report were as follows:

  • Increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration.
  • Gradual development of self governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British empire.
  • Progress towards responsible government in successive stages.

Preamble

The Government of India Act 1919 had a separate Preamble. Key points of the preamble were as follows:

  • India to remain as an integral part of British Empire.
  • Gradual decentralization of authority with loosening the supreme hold of the central government. Thus, the preamble of this act suggested for a decentralized unitary form of government.
  • The time and manner towards goal of responsible government will be decided by the British Parliament.
  • Partial responsibility in provinces, but no change in character of the central government.

Introduction of Dyarchy: Reserved and Transferred Subjects

In Government of India Act 1919 the spheres of the central and provincial governments were demarcated by a division of subjects into “central” and “provincial”. Generally speaking, the central subjects included all subjects directly administered by the Government of India or in which extra-provincial interests were dominant. The provincial subjects included subjects in which the interests of the provinces essentially predominated.

The Dyarchy was for the Provincial Governments. The provincial subjects were divided into two categories viz. reserved and transferred. The reserved subjects were kept with the Governor and transferred subjects were kept with Governor acting with the Indian Ministers.

Element of Responsibility in Dyarchy

Dyarchy was a gradual transition from irresponsible to responsible government. The provinces were thought to be suitable for experimenting with such scheme. Thus, the provincial subjects were divided into reserved and transferred subjects. The elements of responsibility was as follows:

  • The members in control of the reserved subjects were made responsible to British parliament through secretary of state.
  • The ministers who controlled the transferred subjects were made responsible through the legislative councils to an Indian electorate.

While subjects such as Land revenue administration, famine relief, irrigation, administration of justice, law and order, newspapers, borrowing, forests etc. were kept in reserved list; the subjects such as education, public health & sanitation, public works, agriculture, fisheries, religious endowments, local self governments, medical services etc. were kept in transferred list.

In other words, the subjects which were considered of key importance for the welfare of the masses and for maintaining peace and order in the state were classified as reserved, while subjects in which there was more local interest were treated as transferred.

Changes in Secretary of State for India

No substantial changes were made in the office of Secretary of State for ZIndia. However, his salary was made a charged expenditure on British revenue this time. Further, the legislative council got the opportunity to criticise him at the time of budget.

Changes in Indian Council

The Indian Council was to be made of not less than 8 and not more than 12 members. Half of the members should have 10 years standing in the Indian public service. Further, their tenure was reduced from seven to five years; and salary was increased from £1000 to £1200. Also the number of Indians on the council was increased from two to three.

Governor General’s Executive Council

A provision was made for inclusion of three Indians in the six member Council of the Governor General. The advocates of Indian high Courts of less than 10 years standing were eligible to be appointed as Law Minister in the Council. The Indian Councillors were entrusted with only some unimportant departments.

Central Legislature

Via the Government of India Act 1919, a bicameral legislature was set up at centre with two houses viz. Legislative Assembly  and Council of State. This was a primitive model of India’s Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

Legislative Assembly

Legislative Assembly was the lower house with three years as its tenure. It was made of 145 members of which 41 were nominated and 104 were elected. The 41 nominated members included 26 officials and 15 non-officials. Governor General was authorised to make nominations from Anglo Indians, Indian Christians and Labour to the legislative assembly to safeguard their interests.

The elected members included 52 General Members, 30 Muslims, 9 Europeans, 7 Landlords, 4 Representatives of India Community and 2 Sikhs. This means that the distribution of the seats was not based on population but importance in the eyes of the government.

Council of State

The Council of state of upper house had 60 members of which 33 were elected while 27 were nominated.  Out of the 33 elected members, 16 were general, 11 Muslims, 3 Europeans and 1 Sikh. Out of 27 nominated members, 17 were officials and 10 were non-officials. The tenure of Council of State was five years.

Powers of the Assembly and Council

The Legislative Assembly and Council of State enjoyed similar and concurrent powers except in matters of finance. A bill needed to be passed on both the houses before becoming a law. The budget was presented in both the houses in same day, however, all other money bills were first introduced in lower house and then in upper house. Voting on grants could take place only in legislative assembly. Further, if a money bill was passed by assembly but rejected or returned by the assembly with some amendments, the amendment were not acceptable to the assembly until so certified by the Governor General.

Financial Powers

The act separated, for the first time, provincial budgets from the Central budget and authorised the provincial legislatures to enact their budgets. But the financial powers of the central legislature were also very much limited. The budget was to be divided into two categories, votable and non-votable. The votable items covered only one third of the total expenditure. Even in this sphere the Governor-General was empowered to restore any grant refused or reduced by the legislature, if in his opinion the demand was essential for the discharge of his responsibilities.

Conflict between Legislative Assembly and Council

There were three instruments to resolve the deadlock between the two houses. These instruments were: Joint Committees, Joint Conferences and Joint Sittings. Joint committees meant to avoid the possibility of deadlock. Joint Conferences meant to solve the differences by agreeing to a conference of equal number of representatives of both the houses and Joint Sittings was convened by the Governor as a last resort within six months of the difference.

Elections and Franchise

Under the Government of India Act 1919, the franchise was restricted. There was no universal franchise, no adult suffrage and no voting powers for women. The qualifications for voting were as follows:

  • They should have a property with rental value, taxable income or paid land revenue of at least Rs. 3000 in a year.
  • They must have past experience in the legislative council.
  • They must have membership of university senate.
  • They should hold certain offices in local bodies.
  • They should have some specified titles.

The above qualifications were so much restrictive that there were only 1700 voters for election of 33 members.

Powers of the Governor General

No bill of the legislature could be deemed to have been passed unless assented to by the governor general. However, the later could enact a Bill without the assent of the legislature. He possessed the power to prevent the consideration of a Bill or any of its part, on the plea that it was injurious to the peace and tranquillity of the country. He could disallow a question in the legislature. He had the power to withhold his assent to any bill passed by the legislature without which it could not become an Act. He also had the power to disallow an adjournment motion or debate on any matter. He could enact a law, which he considered essential for the safety and tranquility of the empire even if the legislature had refused to pass it.

Other Important Provisions

  • The act provided for the establishment of a Public Service Commission in India for the first time.
  • This act also made a provision in its part V, that a statutory commission would be set up at the end of 10 years after the act was passed which shall inquire into the working into the system of the government. The Simon commission of 1927 was an outcome of this provision.
  • The communal representation was extended and Sikhs, Europeans and Anglo Indians were included. TheFranchise (Right of voting) was granted to the limited number of only those who paid certain minimum “Tax” to the government.

Critical Assessment

The above description makes it clear that the Government of India Act provided for partial transfer of Power to the electorate through the system of Dyarchy. It also prepared the ground for the Indian Federalism, as it identified the provinces as units of fiscal and general administration. But the growing nationalism was not satisfied. The Act of 1919 had three major defects from the nationalist point of view:  (a) absence of responsible government at the center, (b) separate electorates for different communities.  Although the Mont-ford Report had declared that the separate electorate was a very serious hindrance to the development of the self-governing principles, yet separate electorate came to be significant feature of the Indian political life. The introduction of diarchy in the province was too complicated to be smoothly worked.

Analysis: Merits (despite limitations) of GOI Act 1919

Despite of several limitations, the GOI Act 1919 had some merits. The GOI act 1919 marked the end of the policy of benevolent despotism, and thus began the genesis of the responsible government in India. It was for the first time, that elections to the legislatures were known to the people and this created political consciousness among the masses. However, those people who had a property, taxable income & paid land revenue of Rs. 3000 were entitled to vote. The number of the Indian in the was raised to 3 in the Governor General in Council of 8. These Indian members were entrusted to some portfolios such as labor, health and industry.

It was the GOI Act 1919, whereby, the Indians came in direct contact with administration for the first time. This was a very useful experience. It was also for the first time that a number of Indian women got the right to franchise for the first time.

Now, under the Indian ministers , some of the far reaching measures were taken such as enactment of Madras State Aid to Industries Act, 1923, the Bombay Primary Education act, the Bihar and Orissa village administration Act, the Bombay local boards act, 1923, etc.

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