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Government of India Act of 1919

Government of India Act of 1919

Introduction

  • On August 20, 1917, the British Government declared, for the first time, that its objective was the gradual introduction of responsible Government in India.
  • The Government of India Act of 1919 was thus enacted, which came into force in 1921. This Act is also known as Montagu- Chelmsford Reforms (Montagu was the Secretary of State for India and Lord Chelmsford was the Viceroy of India).

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.

Features of the act  

  • It relaxed the central control over the provinces by demarcating and separating the central and provincial subjects. The central and provincial legislatures were authorised to make laws on their respective list of subjects.
  • However, the structure of government continued to be centralised and unitary.
  • It further divided the provincial subjects into two parts– transferred and reserved. The transferred subjects were to be administered by the Governor with the aid of Ministers responsible to the legislative council.
  • The reserved subjects, on the other hand, were to be administered by the Governor and his executive council without being responsible to the legislative council. This dual scheme of governance was known as ‘dyarchy’–a term derived from the Greek word diarche which means double rule. However, this experiment was largely unsuccessful.
  • It introduced, for the first time, bicameralism and direct elections in the country. Thus, the Indian legislative council was replaced by a bicameral legislature consisting of an Upper House (Council of State) and a Lower House (Legislative Assembly). The majority of members of both the Houses were chosen by direct election.
  • It required that the three of the six members of the Viceroy’s executive Council (other than the Commander-in-Chief) were to be Indian.
  • It extended the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates for Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans. It granted franchise to a limited number of people on the basis of property, tax or education.
  • It created a new office of the High Commissioner for India in London and transferred to him some of the functions hitherto performed by the Secretary of State for India.
  • It provided for the establishment of a public service commission. Hence, a Central Public Service Commission was set up in 1926 for recruiting civil servants. It separated, for the first time, provincial budgets from the Central budget and authorised the provincial legislatures to enact their budgets.
  • It provided for the appointment of a statutory commission to inquire into and report on its working after ten years of its coming into force.

Simon Commission 

  • In November 1927 itself (i.e., 2 years before the schedule), the British Government announced the appointment a seven-member statutory commission under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon to report on the condition of India under its new Constitution.
  • All the members of the commission were British and hence, all the parties boycotted the commission. The commission submitted its report in 1930 and recommended the abolition of dyarchy, extension of responsible Government in the provinces, establishment of a federation of British India and princely states, continuation of communal electorate and so on.
  • To consider the proposals of the commission, the British Government convened three round table conferences of the representatives of the British Government, British India and Indian princely states.
  • On the basis of these discussions, a ‘White Paper on Constitutional Reforms’ was prepared and submitted for the consideration of the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament. The recommendations
  • of this committee were incorporated (with certain changes) in the next Government of India Act of 1935.

Communal Award

  • In August 1932, Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, announced a scheme of representation of the minorities, which came to be known as the Communal Award. The award not only continued separate electorates for the Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans but also extended it to the depressed classes (Scheduled Castes).
  • Gandhiji was distressed over this extension of the principle of communal representation to the depressed classes and undertook fast unto death in Yerawada Jail (Poona) to get the award modified.
  • At last, there was an agreement between the leaders of the Congress and the depressed classes. The agreement, known as Poona Pact, retained the Hindu joint electorate and gave reserved seats to the depressed classes.

Merits of the Government of India Act 1919

  • Dyarchy introduced the concept of responsible government.
  • It introduced the concept of federal structure with a unitary bias.
  • For the first time, elections were known to the people and it created political consciousness among the people.
  • There was the increased participation of Indians in the administration. They held some portfolios like labour, health, etc.
  • Some Indian women also had the right to vote for the first time.

Limitations of the Government of India Act 1919

  • This act extended consolidated and communal representation.
  • The franchise was very limited. It did not extend to the common man.
  • The governor-general and the governors had a lot of power to undermine the legislatures at the centre and the provinces respectively.
  • Allocation of the seats for the central legislature was not based on population but the ‘importance’ of the province in the eyes of the British.
  • The Rowlatt Acts were passed in 1919 which severely restricted press and movement. Despite the unanimous opposition of Indian members of the legislative council, those bills were passed. Several Indian members resigned in protest.

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