Constitutional Developments During British Rule

Constitutional Developments During British Rule

The constitution of India was a result of the various Acts passed by the British parliament to regulate the affairs of the East India Company and later the British Indian Government.

Constitutional Developments – Regulating Act, 1773

The first important Parliamentary Act regarding the Company’s affairs was the Regulating Act of 1773. This Act made changes in the constitution of the Court of Directors of the Company and subjected their actions to the supervision of the British Government. In India, the Government of Bengal was to be carried on by a Governor-General and his Council, who were given the power to superintend and control the Bombay and Madras Presidencies in matters of war and peace. The Act also provided for the establishment of a Supreme. The court at Calcutta administers justice to Europeans, their employees, and the citizens of Calcutta. The Regulating Act soon broke down in practice. It did not give the British Government effective and decisive control over the Company. In India, it placed the Governor-General at the mercy of his council. Three of the Councillors could combine and outvote him on any matter. In practice, Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General under the Act, and three of his Councillors quarrelled incessantly, often creating deadlocks in the administration.

Constitutional Developments – Pitt’s India Act, 1784

The defects of the Regulating Act and the exigencies of British politics necessitated the passing of another important act known as Pitt’s India Act. This Act gave the British Government supreme control over the Company’s affairs and its administration in India. It established six Commissioners for the affairs of India, popularly known as the Board of Control. It was to guide and control the work of the Court of directors and the Government of India. The Act placed the Government of India in the hands of the Governor-General and a Council of three so that if the Governor-General could get the support of even one member, he could have his way. The Act clearly subordinated the Bombay and Madras Presidencies to Bengal in all questions of war, diplomacy, and revenues. With this Act, began a new phase of the British conquest of India. The Company saved its monopoly of the Indian and Chinese trade and its Directors retained the profitable right of appointing and dismissing its British officials in India. Most of the conquests in India were made after 1784.

While the Pitt’s India Act laid down the general framework in which the Government of India was to be carried on till 1857, later enactments brought about many important changes which diminished the powers and privileges of the Company. In 1786, the Governor-General was given the authority to overrule his Council in matters of importance affecting safety, peace, or the interests of the Empire in India, thereby increasing his power. Charter Act, 1813: By the Charter Act of 1813, the trade monopoly of the Company in India was ended and thrown open to all British subjects. But trade in tea and trade with China was still exclusive to the Company. The Government and the revenues of India continued to be in the hands of the Company.

Constitutional Developments – Charter Act, 1833

It brought the Company’s monopoly of tea trade and trade with China to an end. The Government of India continued to be run by the Company under the strict control of the Board of Control. As per the Charter, the Governor of Bengal was named Governor-General of India, For the first time, administrative offices were theoretically declared open to people of all races. But in practice, the Company still made all the appointments. At the same time, it was recognised that the day to day administration of India could not be run or even superintended from Britain, which was 6000 miles away.

Supreme authority in India was, therefore, delegated to the Governor-General and he, therefore, became the real, effective ruler of India, functioning under the superintendence, control and direction of the British Government. As per a rule established earlier, the Charters given by the British parliament were to be reviewed every 20 years. There was criticism of the 1833 Act by the legislators as being biased towards Bengal.

Sind was annexed in 1843 and Punjab in 1849 and these new territories had to be constitutionally provided for. There was also a demand for decentralization of powers and giving Indians a greater share in the administration of the country.

Constitutional Developments – Charter Act, 1853

The Act renewed the powers of the Company and allowed it to retain possession of Indian territories “in trust for Her Majesty, her heirs and successors until Parliament should otherwise provide”. The Act provided that the salaries of the members of the Board of Control, its Secretary and other officers would be fixed by the British Government but would be paid by the Company.

The Court of Directors was dispossessed of its power of patronage as services were thrown open to competitive examinations, in which no discrimination of any kind was to be made. A Committee with Lord Macaulay as its President was appointed in 1854 to enforce this scheme for the recruitment of civil servants. However, it should be noted that the Indians had virtually no say in the governance of their own country at any level.

Constitutional Developments – Government of India Act, 1858

The Revolt of 1857 gave a severe jolt to the British administration in India and made its reorganisation inevitable. The Indian society, Government and economy underwent significant changes in the decades following the Revolt. An Act of Parliament in 1858 transferred the power from the East India Company to the British Crown. While authority over India had previously been wielded by the Directors of the Company and the Board of Control, now this power was to be exercised by a Cabinet Minister called the Secretary of State for India aided by an India Council who was responsible to Parliament. Thus the ultimate power over India remained with Parliament. The Council of the Secretary of State was to advise the Secretary of State who could overrule its decisions.

Most of the members of the India Council were retired British Indian officials who have put in a certain number of years of service in India. Under the Act, the government was to be carried on as before by the Governor-General who was also given the title of Viceroy or Crown’s personal representative. With the passage of time, the Viceroy was increasingly reduced to a subordinate status in relation to the British Government in matters of policy as well as execution of policy.

Though India had been conquered by the East India Company for its own benefit, it had gradually come to be ruled in the interests of the dominating sections of British society. The India Act of 1858 further strengthened this tendency. But, in the past, a great deal of decision-making power was in practice left in the hands of the GovernorGeneral, because Britain was very far away. But by 1870, a submarine cable had been laid between England and India and so orders from London could now reach India in a matter of hours. No Indian had a voice in the India Council or the British Cabinet or Parliament. The Indian administration now became even more reactionary than it was before 1858 as all pretences of liberalism were given up. After the revolt, the British were of the opinion that the revolt of 1857 was due to the lack of contact between the rulers and the ruled and so there is a need for a forum to gauge Indian public opinion. So the Indian Councils Act was passed in 1861 for associating Indians in the legislative process in a small way.

Check out History of India notes in detail. 

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