The Government of India Act, 1858

The Government of India Act, 1858


  • The Charter Act of 1853 had laid down that the Company was to retain the territories and the revenues in India in trust for the Crown not for any specified period as preceding Charter Acts had provided but only until Parliament should otherwise direct.
    • The door was thus left open for the Crown to step in any time and take over the administration from the hands of the Company.
  • Crisis of 1857 Revolt gave the opportunity:
    • The revolt made the English people more aware of the Indian situation and generated popular support for the perpetuation as well as reorganisation of British rule there.
    • The crisis of 1857-58 gave a fillip to the demand that a trading company should not be allowed to continue as a political power.
    • When reorganisation took place after the crisis it furnished an opportunity for transferring control from the Company to the Crown.
  • Since 1833, many English traders and settlers had also developed a vested interest in India and their persistent complaint was that the Company had been neglecting their interests.
  • Both at home and in India there had been now considerable pressure for the abolition of the Company Raj and the establishment of Crown rule.
  • According to Lord Palmerston, the first defect of the Company’s rule was its utter irresponsibility.
    • Another defect was the cumbrous, complex and irrational nature of the system of Double Government.
  • Disraeli (as the Chancellor of Exchequer and Lord Derby as PM) introduced a new India Bill but it was ridiculed by Palmerston who was now in the opposition.
    • The Act for the Better Government of India as passed and received the Royal assent on August 2, 1858.
    • This act provided that India was to be governed directly and in the name of the crown.
    • This act is coterminous with Queen Victoria’s declaration, 1858.

Provisions of the Act

  • Transferred powers from the East India Company to the Crown.
    • The Company’s territories in India were to be vested in the Queen.
    • All the property of the East India Company was transferred to the Crown. The Crown also assumed the responsibilities of the Company as they related to treaties, contracts, and so forth
    • India was to be governed in the Queen’s name.
  • India shall be governed by and in the name of the sovereign through one of the principal Secretaries of State (Secretary of State of India), assisted/ advised by a Council of 15 members.
    • The Act replaced the President of the Board of Control with a Secretary of State for India, who became “in subordination to the cabinet, the fountain of authority as well as the director of policy in India“.
    • A member of British Parliament was made secretary of state of India to exercise powers on behalf of the Crown and was responsible to the British Parliament.
    • Of the 15 members of the Council of the Secretary of State, 8 were to be appointed by the Crown and 7 were to be selected from the now superseded Court of Directors.
      • The vacancy among the Crown nominees would be filled up by the Crown, while among those elected by the Directors would be filled up by the Council by election.
    • At least half of these members must have served in India for not less than ten years and they must not have been away from that country for more than ten years at the time of their appointment.
    • The members would continue in office during good behaviour and would be removed only on petition, to the Crown by both the Houses of Parliament.
  • The Council was to be advisory, in most cases the initiative and the final decision remained with the Secretary of State.
  • The Secretary of State received the powers so long enjoyed by the Court of Directors and the Board of Control.
    • Thus the system of ‘Double Government’ introduced by Pitt’s India of 1784 was abolished.
  • The Crown was empowered to appoint a Governor-General and the Governors of the Presidencies.
  • The Governor General of India received the title of Viceroy.
    • He became the direct representative of the Crown.
    • He would retain all his powers. But instead of a dual control, he would be answerable only to the secretary of state.
    • His prestige, if not his statutory authority, was increased.
  • Provision for the creation of an Indian Civil Service under the control of the Secretary of State.
    • Appointments to the Covenanted Civil Service were to be made by open competition under the rules laid down by the Secretary of State with the help of Civil Service Commissioners.
    • But continuity was maintained in the structure of the civil service, and the same recruitment examination introduced in 1853 was carried on.
  • The Act declared the Secretary of State for India as a corporate body who could sue and be sued in England and in India.


  • The Act ushered in a new period of Indian history, bringing about the end of Company rule in India.
    • The era of the new British Raj would last until Partition of India in August 1947, at which time all of the territory of the Raj was granted dominion status within the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India.
  • The Government of India Act of 1858 meant rather a formal than a substantive change.
    • The Crown had been steadily increasing its control over the Company’s affairs since the beginning of its territorial sovereignty.
    • Beginning from the Regulating Act, a series of statutes (of 1784, 1793, 1813, 1833, and 1853) had progressively reduced the powers of the Court of Directors, till they had become just nominal.
    • The main rules under which India was governed before the passing of the Act of 1858 were already those of the British parliament.
    • The British administrators, including the Governor General, though nominally the servants of the Company’s Board of Control, were in reality answerable to the British Cabinet with its Indian Minister who was the President of the Board of Control and through them to Parliament.
    • The Charter Acts of 1813 and 1833 had explicitly declared the sovereignty of the Crown over the territories acquired by the Company and the Charter Act of 1853 declared that the Company was to hold the territories and the revenues of India in trust for the Crown till it was determined otherwise.
    • The number of Directors, under the Act of 1853, was reduced from 24 to 18 of whom 6 were to be nominees of the Crown. The choicest flower in the bunch was indeed taken away when the Directors were deprived of their power of patronage. 
    • The Company had been dead as a political power long before 1858, but its skin was still preserved as though it was still alive. All that the Act of 1858 did was to give a decent burial to that corpse.
  • In terms of the administrative structure, the Government of India Act of 1858 meant more continuation than change. (as given in provisions of the Act)
  • India thus passed from Company rule to Crown rule, which meant ironically the rejection of a liberal promise of reforming India in order to prepare her for self-government.
    • It meant, in other words, a “symbolic endorsement of British permanence in India”.
    • The liberal zeal for reform and change had by this time died down and in the aftermath of revolt one could discern in every aspect of British policy in India what Thomas Metcalf has called a “new attitude of caution and conservatism”.
    • There was now an assertion of the racial superiority of the ruling race, which carefully distanced itself from the subject society in order to formalise a more authoritarian regime.
    • Indians were held to be ‘tradition bound’ and therefore beyond reform to live up to the high moral standards of the West.
    • And trust was reposed in their ‘natural leaders’, the landed gentry and the aristocrats, who were restored to prominence, in the hope of securing their loyalty.
    • The situation, which Anand Yang has described as the “Limited Raj” where the colonial regime depended on local power elites like zamindars for the administration of the interior, was indeed contributing to the foundation of a more authoritarian Raj.

Slackening of the control of Parliament

  • It may sound paradoxical but it is true that the control and interest of Parliament over Indian affairs slackened from the time it assumed control in appearance and reality in 1858.
  • When power was in the hands of the Board of Control and the Court of Directors, Parliament asserted its authority.
    • But when the Board of Control and the Court of Directors were replaced by the Secretary of State for India who was responsible to Parliament, the latter was satisfied.
    • It was satisfied because it got what it wanted to get and neglected to exercise the power of continuously controlling and criticising Indian administration.
  • Another reason was that the Secretaries of State for India were far abler men than the members of the Board of Control had been.
    • The quick means of communication between India and England made Indian news available in England much more swiftly than ever before.
    • Parliament was content with leaving the Secretary of State alone to act as he pleased.
    • The Secretaries of State managed the affairs of India efficiently and there were no occasions for Parliament to give any directions to them or interfere in their work.
  • Moreover, from 1857 to 1915, British politicians and parties had their hands full with affairs of their own and they had neither the inclination nor time to study Indian problems.
  • The intricacy and vastness of the Indian problems made it hardly worthwhile to pursue them.
  • As the most brilliant Englishmen had entered the Indian Civil Service and were carrying on the administration of India efficiently, it was thought both ungenerous and unnecessary, from the British point of view, to criticise them.
  • Thus, developed the theory of trusting the man on the spot and supporting him and leaving him alone.
  • The Secretary of State backed the Governor General and the letter in turn the Governors and so on. 

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