Historical Background & Acts during British Rule in India

Notes, Polity

The East India Company (EIC) began controlling Bengal in 1757, initially under influence of shareholders. The British government then established control over the company with the Regulating Act (1773) and India Act (1784), causing the EIC to lose commercial and political control gradually. It lost its commercial monopoly in 1813, and by 1857, was simply managing India for the British government. The EIC officially ended in 1873. Legal reforms during British rule shaped the organization and functioning of government and administration in British India, and influenced India’s current Constitution and polity.

Here is a timeline of EIC:

  • 1600: British came to India; EIC had trading functions.
  • 1765: EIC gained ‘diwani rights’ after winning the Battle of Buxar.
  • 1773-1858: Company Rule.
  • 1857: Revolt of 1857 or First War of Independence or the ‘sepoy mutiny’.
  • 1858-1947: Crown Rule.

Under Company Rule, there were several important acts:

  • Regulating Act 1773: First law to regulate EIC in India. Made the Governor of Bengal the Governor-General of Bengal and established a Supreme Court in Calcutta.
  • Amending Act 1781: Exempted certain officials from the jurisdiction of Supreme Court and excluded revenue matters from its jurisdiction.
  • Pitt’s India Act of 1784: Separated commercial and political functions of the EIC.
  • Charter Acts: Limited the power of the company and allowed the British government to impose taxes.

Under Crown Rule, key acts included:

  • Government of India Act of 1858: Abolished EIC and transferred powers to British Crown.
  • Indian Council Acts: Introduced Indians to the legislative council and decentralized powers.
  • Government of India Acts: Divided powers between central and provincial subjects, introduced bicameralism and direct elections.
  • Indian Independence Act of 1947: Ended British rule, provided for the partition of India, and declared India as an independent and sovereign state.

These Acts helped shape the governance structure of British India and have had a significant impact on the current political system in India.

Regulating Act 1773

This Act was the British Government’s first attempt to oversee the East India Company (EIC) in India. It acknowledged the company’s political and administrative roles. The Bengal Governor was elevated to Governor-General, with the first being Warren Hastings. An Executive Council of four members was created to assist him.

The Governor-General of Bengal gained more authority compared to the Governors of Bombay and Madras. A Supreme Court was established in Calcutta, composed of a Chief Justice and three other judges. This Act also banned company officials from private trading or accepting bribes.

The EIC’s Court of Directors was required to keep the British government informed about the company’s operations.

Amending Act 1781

Also known as the Act of Settlement, it protected the Governor-General and his council from Supreme Court rulings and excluded revenue matters from the court’s jurisdiction. Appeals from the provincial court went to the Governor-General, not the Supreme Court. The Governor-General could also set rules for provincial courts and councils.

Pitt’s India Act 1784

This Act separated the East India Company’s (EIC) commercial and political activities. The Court of Directors handled business, while a new Board of Control managed politics. EIC territories were now called ‘British possessions in India’.

Act of 1786

This Act empowered Lord Cornwallis, the Governor-General of Bengal, to overrule his council’s decisions. He was also made commander in chief.

Charter Act 1793

Cornwallis’s power to override decisions was extended to future Governor-Generals. The Board of Control and its staff were paid from Indian revenues.

Charter Act 1813

EIC’s trading monopoly ended, except for tea and trade with China. British Crown’s sovereignty over the EIC was affirmed. Christian missionaries were permitted in India, and Western education was promoted. Local government could impose and punish non-payment of taxes.

Charter Act 1833

This Act centralized British India. The Governor-General of Bengal became the Governor-General of India, with authority over all British-held areas in India. Governors of Bombay and Madras lost legislative power. The EIC ceased commercial activities. The Act tried to implement open competition for civil servant selection but failed. A law member was added to the Governor General’s Executive Council.

Charter Act 1853

The Governor-General’s legislative and executive roles were separated. A separate Central Legislative Council was created with local representation. The Act introduced open competition for civil servant recruitment. Four of the six new members of the Central Legislative Council were appointed by local governments.

Government of India Act 1858

This Act ended the East India Company and transferred its powers to the British Crown. The Governor General of India became the Viceroy (Lord Canning). The ‘double government’ system ended and a new “Secretary of State for India” was created. This Secretary was assisted by a 15-member Council of India.

Indian Councils Act 1861

Viceroy Canning added three Indians to the legislative council. This Act also started decentralization by giving back legislative powers to Bombay and Madras. New legislative councils were established for Bengal, North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP), and Punjab. The Viceroy gained power to make laws during emergencies. The portfolio system was recognized.

Indian Councils Act 1892

More Indian members were added to the central and provincial legislative councils. However, most officials were still non-Indians. The councils got power to discuss budgets and question the executive. Some non-official members of the central legislative council were nominated by the Viceroy based on recommendations from provincial legislative councils and the Bengal Chamber of Commerce. The Act also made limited provisions for elections to fill some non-official seats.

Indian Councils Act 1909

The size of the legislative councils grew from 16 to 60. The provincial councils had a majority of Indian non-officials, but the Central Council didn’t. Councils’ functions increased, with members allowed to ask more questions and propose budget resolutions. Indians joined the executive councils of the Viceroy and Governors. A system of communal representation was introduced for Muslims.

Government of India Act 1919

This Act separated central and provincial subjects, allowing central and provincial legislatures to make laws on their specific subjects. Provincial subjects were divided into transferred and reserved subjects. Transferred subjects were managed by the governor with ministers who were responsible to the legislative council, while reserved subjects were managed by the governor and his executive council. This dual governance system was called ‘dyarchy’. Bicameralism and direct elections were introduced. Three of the six members of the Viceroy’s executive Council had to be Indian. Communal representation was extended to Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans. Limited voting rights were granted based on property, tax, or education. A new office of the High Commissioner for India was created in London. A public service commission was established, and provincial budgets were separated from the central budget. A commission was to review the Act’s workings after ten years.

Government of India Act 1935

  1. This Act planned an All-India Federation with provinces and princely states as units, but it was never formed.
  2. It split powers into Central, Provincial and Concurrent lists, with residual powers given to the Governor.
  3. The Act ended ‘dyarchy’ in provinces and brought ‘provincial autonomy’.
  4. It proposed ‘dyarchy’ at the Centre with Federal subjects divided into ‘transferred’ and ‘reserved’, but this was not implemented.
  5. Bicameralism was introduced in six out of eleven provinces.
  6. Separate electorates were extended for scheduled castes, women, and laborers.
  7. The Council of India was abolished and advisors were appointed for the Secretary of State.
  8. The Reserve Bank of India was established to manage the country’s currency and credit.
  9. Federal and Provincial Public Service Commissions were established.
  10. A Federal Court was set up in 1937.

Indian Independence Act 1947

  1. This Act ended British rule and declared India independent and sovereign from August 15, 1947.
  2. It provided for the partition of India.
  3. The roles of the viceroy and Secretary of State were abolished, and the British government no longer had any responsibilities towards the governments of India or Pakistan.
  4. The Constituent Assembly was empowered to create, adopt the Constitution, and repeal any British Parliament act, including the Independence act itself.
  5. Indian princely states were given the option to join either the Dominion of India or Pakistan or stay independent.
  6. The Governor-General of India and provincial governors became constitutional heads of states, acting on the advice of their respective councils of ministers.

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