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Indian History

Government of India Act, 1919

  • 25 May 2021
  • 12 min read


  • Background:
    • In 1918, Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State, and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, produced their scheme of constitutional reforms, known as the Montagu-Chelmsford (or Mont-Ford) Reforms, which led to the enactment of the Government of India Act of 1919.
    • Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms which came into force in 1921.
    • The sole purpose of this Act was to ensure Indians of their representation in the Government.
    • The Act introduced reforms at the Central as well as Provincial levels of Government.

Salient Features of the Act

Central Level Government:

  • Subjects:
    • The matters, which were of National importance or related to more than one province were governed at the central level, such as:
      • Foreign Affairs, Defence, Political Relations, Communication, Public Debt, Civil and Criminal Laws, Wire services etc.
    • The Central Legislature was made more powerful and more representative by this Act.
  • Executive:
    • The Act made the Governor-General the chief executive authority.
      • There had to be the Executive Council of the Viceroy of eight members, out of which three were to be Indians.
      • The governor-general could restore cuts in grants, certify bills rejected by the central legislature and issue ordinances.
  • Reforms in Legislature:
    • Bicameral Legislature: The Act introduced bicameral legislature; the Lower House or Central Legislative Assembly and the Upper House or Council of State.
    • The legislators, under the new reforms, could now ask questions and supplementaries, pass adjournment motions and vote a part of the budget, but 75% of the budget was still not votable.
    • The legislature had virtually no control over the Governor-General and his Executive Council.
    • Composition of Lower House: The Lower House would consist of 145 members, who were either nominated or indirectly elected from the provinces. It had a tenure of 3 years.
      • 41 nominated (26 official and 15 non-official members)
      • 104 elected (52 General, 30 Muslims, 2 Sikhs, 20 Special).
    • Composition Upper House: The Upper House would have 60 members. It had a tenure of 5 years and had only male members.
      • 26 nominated
      • 34 elected (20 General, 10 Muslims, 3 Europeans and 1 Sikh).
  • Powers of Viceroy:
    • The Legislature was addressed by the Viceroy.
    • He could call for the meetings, or adjourn the meetings or even repeal the Legislature.
    • The tenure of the Legislature was 3 years, which could be extended by the Viceroy, as he saw fit.
  • Powers of Central Legislature:
    • The central government enjoyed unrestricted control over the provincial governments.
    • The Central Legislature was authorised to make laws for all of India, for all Officers and common people, whether they were in India or not.
  • Restrictions on Central Legislature:
    • Certain restrictions were imposed on the legislature:
      • It was necessary to get the permission of the Governor General to introduce a bill, such as amendment of existing law or amendment of ordinance of Governor General, foreign relations and relations with Indian states, armed forces.
    • The legislature of India could not change or reverse any law passed by the British Parliament in relation to India.

Provincial Level Government:

  • Subjects:
    • It included the matters which were related to a specific Province such as:
      • Public Health, Local Self-government, Education, General administration, Medical facilities, Land-revenue, Water supply, Famine relief, Law and Order, Agriculture etc.
  • Introduction to Diarchy:
    • The Act introduced diarchy (rule of two individuals/parties) for the executive at the level of the provincial government.
    • The diarchy was implemented in eight provinces:
      • Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Central Provinces, United Provinces, Bombay, Madras and Punjab.
    • The provincial governments were given more powers under the system of Dyarchy.
    • The governor was to be the executive head in the province.
  • Division of Subjects:
    • Subjects were divided into two lists: ‘reserved’ and ‘transferred’.
      • The reserved list, under which the subjects were to be administered by the governor through his executive council of bureaucrats.
        • It included subjects such as law and order, finance, land revenue, irrigation etc.
        • All important subjects were kept in the reserved subjects of the Provincial Executive.
      • The transferred subjects were to be administered by ministers nominated from among the elected members of the legislative council.
        • It included subjects such as education, health, local government, industry, agriculture, excise, etc.
    • In case of failure of constitutional machinery in the province the governor could take over the administration of transferred subjects also.
  • Restriction in Interference:
    • The Secretary Of State for India and the Governor General could interfere in respect of reserved subjects while in respect of the transferred subjects, the scope for their interference was restricted.
  • Reforms in Legislature:
    • Provincial legislative councils were further expanded and 70% of the members were to be elected.
    • The system of communal and class electorates was further consolidated.
    • Women were also given the right to vote.
    • The legislative councils could reject the budget but the governor could restore it, if necessary.
    • The legislators enjoyed freedom of speech.
  • Powers of the Governor:
    • The Governor could overrule the ministers on any grounds that he considered special. Also, he retained complete control over the finances.
    • The legislative councils could initiate legislation but the governor’s assent was required.
    • The governor could veto bills and issue ordinances.

Significance of the Act

  • Awakening Among Indians: Indians received secret information about administration and became aware of their duties.
    • This instilled a sense of nationalism and awakening among Indians and they moved towards achieving the goal of Swaraj.
  • Expansion of Voting Rights: Election areas expanded in India and people began to understand the importance of voting.
  • Self Government in Provinces: The Act led to the existence of provincial self-government in India.
    • The Act gave the people the power to administer and administrative pressure from the government was greatly reduced.
    • It prepared Indians to discharge responsibilities in the provincial administration.

Drawbacks of the Act

  • Irresponsible Central Government: No responsible government was envisaged in the Act at the all-India level.
  • Spread of Communalism: The flawed electoral system and limited franchise failed to gain popularity. It promoted a sense of communalism in a separate electoral system.
  • Limited Extension of Electorates: The electorate was extended to some one-and-a-half million for the central legislature, while the population of India was around 260 million, as per one estimate.
  • Lack of Administrative Control: At the centre, the legislature had no control over the viceroy and his executive council.
    • The provincial ministers had no control over finances and over the bureaucrats; this would lead to constant friction between the two.
    • Ministers were often not consulted on important matters too and could be overruled by the governor on any matter that the latter considered special.
    • The Governor enjoyed unrestricted powers, he could also take a decision against the decision of his council and ministers.
      • Almost all important matters related to administration depended on the governor.
  • Inappropriate Division of Subjects: Division of subjects was not satisfactory at the centre.
    • The central legislature was given very little power and no control over finances.
    • At the level of provinces, division of subjects and parallel administration of two parts was irrational and, hence, unworkable.
      • Subjects like irrigation, finance, police, press and justice were ‘reserved’.

Outcomes of the Act

  • Public Reaction: The Congress met in a special session in August 1918 at Bombay under Hasan Imam’s presidency and declared the reforms to be “disappointing” and “unsatisfactory” and demanded effective self-government instead.
    • The Montford reforms were termed “unworthy and disappointing - a sunless dawn” by Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
    • Annie Besant found the reforms “unworthy of England to offer and India to accept”.
    • Veteran Congress leaders led by Surendranath Banerjea were in favour of accepting the government proposals.
  • Encouraged the Struggle for Power: The Act encouraged the struggle for power in both Indians and the British.
    • As a result a large number of communal riots took place which continued to increase from 1922 to 1927.
    • The Swaraj Party was founded in 1923 and won a substantial number of seats in the elections, except Madras.
      • Whereas in Bombay and Central Provinces were successful in blocking the majority of other supplies with the salaries of ministers.
      • Thus the governors of both the provinces were forced to abolish the diarchy regime and took the transferred subjects under their control.
  • Enactment of the Rowlatt Act: While trying to appease Indians, the Government of India was ready with repression.
    • Throughout the war, repression of nationalists had continued. The terrorists and revolutionaries had been hunted down, hanged and imprisoned.
    • The government now decided to arm itself with more far-reaching powers, which went against the accepted principles of rule of law, to be able to suppress those nationalists who would refuse to be satisfied with the official reforms.
    • In March 1919 it passed the Rowlatt Act even though every single Indian member of the Central Legislative Council opposed it.
      • This Act authorized the government to imprison any person without trial and conviction in a court of law.
      • The Act enabled the government to suspend the right of Habeas Corpus which had been the foundation of civil liberties in Britain.
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