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The Government of India Act, 1935

The Government of India Act, 1935

  • The Government of India Act 1935 was originally passed in August 1935 and was the longest British Act of Parliament ever enacted by that time. The Government of Burma Act 1935 was also included in it.

Background to the Act:

  • Indians had increasingly been demanding a greater role in the government of their country since the late 19th century.
    • The Indian contribution to the British war effort during the First World War meant that even the more conservative elements in the British political establishment felt the necessity of constitutional change, resulting in the Government of India Act 1919.
    • That Act introduced a novel system of government known as provincial “dyarchy”.
    • The Congress considered the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 to be “inadequate, unsatisfactory and disappointing”, but while urging the Government to speedily establish full responsible government in accordance with the principle of self determination, it resolved to work them “so far as may be possible” with a view to bringing about at an early date the desired type of government.
  • Even though the Government had successfully suppressed the mass movement during 1932-33, it was aware that suppression could only be a short-term tactic. It could not prevent the resurgence of another powerful movement in the years to come.
    • For that it was necessary to permanently weaken the movement.
    • This could be achieved if the Congress was internally divided and large segments of it co-opted or integrated into the colonial constitutional and administrative structure.
    • The phase of suppression should, therefore, be followed, decided the colonial policy makers, by another phase of constitutional reforms.
  • The Act of 1919 had impressed neither any section of Indian opinion, nor the Conservatives in London. The political agitations made it clear that Congress had to be allowed some share of power, without endangering British control over the central government.
    • So fresh discussions for reform started in the late 1920s, with a parliamentary commission appointed in 1927 under Lord Simon.
    • But when the Simon Commission visited India, it was boycotted by all the political parties as it was wholly European and did not include any Indian member.
  • In October 1929, Lord Irwin made a further concession by making an announcement that full dominion status would be the natural goal of India’s constitutional progress; but in view of Conservative opposition at home, it meant really nothing.
  • The report of the Simon Commission was released in June 1930 and it suggested the replacement of dyarchy with full responsible government in the provinces, with the provision of some emergency powers in the hands of the governors; but no change was suggested in the constitution of the central government.
    • Meant to protect imperial control over the centre, the proposal satisfied none of the political groups in India and could not be implemented because of the beginning of Civil Disobedience movement.
  • After the release and publication of Simon Commission Report when the new Labour Government succeeded in office, it declared that the Report was not final and in order to resolve the constitutional deadlock, the matter would finally considered after consulting representatives of all the Indian communities.
    • Hence, Irwin again offered as a concession the proposal of a Round Table Conference in London to discuss the future system of government.
  • After holding three sessions of Round Table Conference in 1930, 1931 and 1932 respectively, their recommendations were embodied in a White Paper published in 1933, which was considered by a Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament chaired by Lord Linlithgow.
    • However, division between Congress and Muslim representatives proved to be a major factor in preventing agreement as to much of the important detail of how federation would work in practice. So, the new Conservative-dominated National Government in London decided to go ahead with drafting its own proposals “the white paper“.
  • The government also constituted a committee of 20 representatives from British India and 7 from Indian States including 5 Muslims.
    • The committee went in session from April 1933 to December 1934 for deliberation and submitted its report to Parliament in the end of 1934.
    • The Parliament debated the report and passed a bill in February 1935, which got royal assent on July 24th 1935, and it was enforced on April 1, 1937 with the name of Government of India Act 1935.
  • Although the Government of India Act 1935 was intended to go some way towards meeting Indian demands, both the detail of the bill and the lack of Indian involvement in drafting its contents meant that the Act met with a lukewarm response at best in India, while still proving too radical for a significant element in Britain.
  • Among the principal sources from which the Act drew its material were:
    • the Simon Commission Report;
    • the Report of the All Parties Conference (the Nehru Report);
    • the discussions at the three successive Round Table Conferences;
    • the White Paper;
    • the Joint Select Committee Report;
    • the Lothian Report which determined the electoral provisions of the Act.

Provisions of the Act

  • The Government of India Act 1935 was a lengthy and elaborate document and contained:
    • 32 Sections
    • 14 Parts and
    • 10 Schedules and
    • consisted of 2 Major Parts.
  • The three main features of the Act were provisions for:
    • an all India Federation;
    • responsible government with safeguards and
    • separate representation of communal and other groups.

Provincial Part of the Act:- Introduction of Provincial Autonomy:

  • In place of dyarchy the Act of 1935 provided for responsible government in all the departments.
  • But this was balanced off by wide discretionary powers given to the governors about summoning legislatures, giving assent to bills and administering tribal regions.
  • The governors were also given special power to safeguard minority rights, privileges of civil servants and British business interests.
    • And finally, they could take over and run the administration of a province indefinitely under a special provision.

Political Executive:

  • As in the case of the Federation, the Executive authority of a province was vested in a Governor appointed to represent the crown in the province. His position was largely modelled on that of the Governor-General.
  • In the provinces Diarchy was abolished.
    • There was no Reserve Subjects and no Executive Council in the provinces.
    • The Council of Ministers was to administer all the provincial subjects except in certain matters like law and orders etc. for which the government had special responsibilities.
  • The ministers were chosen from among the elected members of the provincial legislature and were collectively responsible to it.
    • The ministers held office during the Governor’s pleasure.
  • The British-appointed provincial governors (who were responsible to the British Government via the Viceroy and Secretary of State for India) were to accept the recommendations of the ministers unless, in their view, they negatively affected his areas of statutory “special responsibilities” such as
    • the prevention of any grave menace to the peace or tranquility of a province,
    • the safeguarding of the legitimate interests of minorities, rights of civil servants etc.
  • In the discharge of his ‘special responsibilities’, he was authorized to act in several matters in his discretion without consulting his ministers, in others he exercised his individual judgment, after considering the advice given to him by his ministers.
  • If a question arose as to the capacity in which the Governor had to act to a particular case, whether as the constitutional head or in his discretion or in his individual judgement, his decision on the question in his discretion was to be final.
    • Hence, the field of ministerial responsibility with respect to any particular matter was as wide or as narrow as the Governor might choose to make it.
  • The Governor under the Act had enormous powers (which included many legislative powers as well as over non votable items, comprising about 40% of the budget).
  • The Governor could and in several cases actually did dismiss the ministers.
    • He could by a proclamation take the entire or partial government of the province into his own hands (in the first instance for six months) if he was satisfied that the government of the province could not be carried on in accordance with the normal provisions of the Act.
  • In the event of political breakdown, the governor, under the supervision of the Viceroy, could take over total control of the provincial government.
    • After the resignation of the congress provincial ministries in 1939, the governors did directly rule the ex-Congress provinces throughout the war.
  • There is true that the provincial ministers under the 1935 Act were certainly superior in power to their predecessors under the 1919 Act.
    • For one thing, now there were no “Reserved” departments in the provinces.
    • The other ministers were to be appointed on the advice of the Chief Minister (who was to be such as commanded the confidence of the legislature) though the Governor had to see that minorities were duly represented in the ministry.
    • The Governor had to encourage collective responsibility. In actual functioning, several factors (e.g. the ministerial party’s strength in the legislature and the personality of the ministers and the Governor) governed the actual position of the ministry.
  • It was generally recognized, that the provincial part of the Act, conferred a great deal of power and patronage on provincial politicians as long as both British officials and Indian politicians played by the rules. However, the paternalistic threat of the intervention by the British governor rankled.

Provincial Legislature:

  • The composition of Provincial legislature naturally varied from province to province.
  • In all Provincial Legislative Assemblies all members were directly elected by the people.
  • But in 6 provinces (Madras, Bombay, Bengal, U.P., Bihar and Assam) there was a bicameral Legislature consisting of a Legislative Council and a Legislative Assembly and in each of these Legislative Councils a few seats were filled by the Governor through nomination.
  • The electoral provisions of the Act were governed by the communal award of the British Government, as modified by the Poona Pact in respect of the Scheduled Castes.
    • Under it, seats in the legislatures were divided among various communities and groups.
    • Besides, there were separate constituencies for General, Muslim, European, Anglo Indian, Indian Christian and Sikh communities.
    • All qualified electors who were not voters in a Muslim, European, Anglo Indian, Indian Christian or Sikh constituency were entitled to vote in a General constituency.
    • Some of the General seats were reserved for the Scheduled Castes.
    • Moreover, there were separate constituencies for Labour, Landholders, Commerce and Industry, etc.

Federal Part of the Act:- All India Federation:

  • The India Act 1935 proposed to set up All Indian Federation comprising of the British Indian Provinces and Princely States. The constituent units of the Federation were
    • 11 Governor’s provinces,
    • 6 Chief Commissioner’s provinces and
    • all those Indian states that agreed to joint it. The States were absolutely free to join or not to join the proposed Federation.
  • At the time of joining the Federation the ruler of the state was to execute an Instrument of Accession in favour of the Crown, which would override their previous treaties with the British crown.
    • On acceptance of that Instrument, the state was become a unit of the Federation.
  • The terms on which a State joined the Federation were to be laid down in the Instrument of Accession.
  • The terms offered to the Princes included:
    • Each Prince would select his state’s representative in the Federal Legislature.
    • There would be no pressure for Princes to democratize their administrations or allow elections for state representatives in the Federal Legislature.
    • The Princes would enjoy heavy weightage. The Princely States represented about a quarter of the population of India and produced well under a quarter of its wealth.
  • Federation could not be established until
    • a number of States, the rulers whereof were entitled to choose not less than 50% of the 104 seats of the Council of State and
    • the aggregate population where of amounted to at least 50% of the total population of all the Indian States, had acceded to the Federation.
  • Hence, unlike the provincial portion of the Act, the Federal portion was to go into effect only when half the States by weight agreed to federate.
    • This never happened due to opposition from rulers of the princely states and the establishment of the Federation was indefinitely postponed after the outbreak of the Second World War.
    • The remaining parts of the Act came into force in 1937, when the first elections under the act were also held.

The Federal Executive:- Introduction of Dyarchy at the Centre:

  • Dyarchy, rejected by the Simon Commission, was provided for in the Federal Executive.
    • Hence the Act of 1935 introduced Dyarchy at the centre.
  • The Federal Subjects were divided into two categories:
    • Reserved:
      • The reserved subjects were to be administered by the Governor-General on the advice of executive councilors (appointed by him) not exceeding three in number.
      • The Reserved included Defence, External Affairs, Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Administration of Tribal Areas.
    • Transferred:
      • Subjects other than Reserved subjects were Transferred ones.
      • Transferred subjects were to be administered by the Governor General with the help of a Council of Ministers (not more than 10) to be chosen by him and to hold office during his pleasure but to include representatives of Indian States and Minorities as laid down in an Instrument of Instructions to the Governor General, and to be responsible to the Federal Legislature.
      • The Governor General by his special powers and responsibilities could dominate the ministers.
      • The Governor General had ‘special responsibilities’ regarding certain specified subjects (e.g., the prevention of any grave menace to the peace and tranquility of India or any part thereof); in respect of these subjects he had full freedom to accept or to reject the advice of the Ministers.
  • The British Government, in the person of the Secretary of State for India, through the Governor-General of India (Viceroy), would continue to control India’s financial obligations, defence, foreign affairs and the British Indian Army and would make the key appointments to the Reserve Bank of India and Railway Board.
  • The Act stipulated that no finance bill could be placed in the Central Legislature without the consent of the Governor General.
    • The funding for the British responsibilities and foreign obligations (e.g. loan repayments, pensions), at least 80 percent of the federal expenditures, would be non-votable and be taken off the top before any claims could be considered for social or economic development programs.
  • The Viceroy, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for India, was provided with overriding and certifying powers that could, theoretically, have allowed him to rule autocratically.

Protection of Minorities:

  • A very significant provision was the safeguards and protective armours for the minorities.
  • It was argued that the minorities needed protection from the dominance of the majority community.
  • But the so-called provisions in the Act relating to safeguards were merely a trick to empower the Governor General and the Governors to override the ministers and the legislators.

The Federal Legislature:

  • The proposed federal legislature was bicameral body consisting of
    • the Council of States (Upper House) and
    • the Federal Assembly (Lower House).
  • Upper House (Council of States):
    • Permanent body with one third of its membership being vacated and renewed triennially.
    • The strength of the Upper House (Council of States) was 260 out of which:
      • 104 to represent the native Indian states:
        • nominated by the rulers of the Indian States.
      • 156 elected members of British India to represent Provinces:
        • Out of the 156 which were to represent the provinces, 150 were to be elected on communal basis.
        • Seats reserved for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, were to be filled by direct elections and Seats reserved for Indian Christians, Anglo Indians and Europeans was to be filled by indirect method of a electoral college consisting of their representative members.
  • Lower House (Federal Assembly):
    • Its life was 5 years unless dissolved earlier by the Governor General.
    • It was to consist of 375 members, out of which 250 were to be the representatives of the British India and 125 of the Indian States.
    • The members from the British India were to be indirectly elected who were composed of the members of the Lower Houses of the Provincial Legislatures but were to be nominated by the rulers in case of the Indian States. 
  • In the Upper House, the election was to be direct while in the Lower and theoretically more popular House, it was to be indirect.
  • The princes were to nominate one third of the representatives in the Lower House and two fifths in the Upper House.
  • As regards the extent of Federal and Provincial laws, the Federal Legislature was to have power to make laws for the whole or any party of British India or for any federate State while a Provincial Legislature was to make laws for the Province.
  • Division of Federal Subjects:
    • The scheme of federation and the provincial autonomy necessitated proper division of subjects between the centre and the provinces.
    • The division under 1919 Act was revised and as regards the subject matter of Federal and Provincial laws, the 1935 Act contained three legislative lists i.e.
      • Federal Legislative List,
      • Provincial Legislative List and
      • Concurrent Legislative List.
  • Residuary legislative powers were vested in the Governor General to decide in his sole discretion as to under which list a particular subject fell.
  • The powers of the legislature were “cribbed and confined”. Certain subjects were specially excluded from the purview and jurisdiction of Federal and Provincial Legislatures.
    • For e.g.
      • laws affecting the British Sovereign or the Royal Family,
      • matters concerning the Army Act, the Air Force Act,
      • the Law of Prize Courts,
      • any amendment to the 1935 Act, etc..
    • Discriminatory legislation against British commercial or other interests was banned.
    • There were many subjects of importance on which legislation could not be initiated without the previous sanction of the Governor General (in case of the Federal legislature) or of the Governor General and the Governor (in case of Provincial legislature).
    • Non votable items in the Federal budget constituted about four fifths of its total.
    • Rejected by the Federal Assembly, any budget items could still be placed, by the direction of the Governor General, before the Council of State.
    • In case of disagreement between the two Houses, the Governor General could summon a joint sitting thereof, and even if a Bill was passed by both the Houses, he could veto it or sent it back for reconsideration, or reserve it for His Majesty’s consideration, while even Acts assented to by the Governor General could be disallowed by the king in Council.
  • 6 out of 11 provinces were given bicameral system of legislature.
  • The Act not only enlarged the size of legislature, it also extended the franchise i.e. the number of voters was increased and special seats were allocated to women in legislature.
  • Membership of the provincial assemblies was altered so as to include more elected Indian representatives, who were now able to form majorities and be appointed to form governments.

The Federal Structure:

  • The Act made the Governor General the pivot of the entire constitution of India. It was he who gave unity and direction to its diverse and often conflicting elements.
  • He acted in three different ways or capacities:
    • He was normally to act on the advice of his Ministers,
    • He could act in his individual judgement.
      • In connection with his Special Responsibilities, he could and did act in his individual judgment, consulting but regarding or disregarding ministerial advice.
      • His special responsibilities were in regard to
        • safeguarding the financial stability and credit of India,
        • the prevention of any grave menace to the peace or tranquility of the country, or of any part thereof,
        • the protection of the legitimate interests of the minorities, the public servants and their dependents,
        • the prevention of commercial discrimination against goods of British or Burmese origin,
        • safeguarding the interests and the dignity of the rulers of the Indian States, and
        • securing of the due discharge of his own discretionary powers.
    • There was a third category of matters in which he did not even consult his Ministers, but acted in his discretion. Such matters were:
      • the Reserved Departments of Defence, External Affairs, Ecclesiastical Affairs and Tribal Areas (to help him in his work he appointed three Councillors),
      • appointment and dismissal dismissal of the Council of Ministers,
      • ordinance making and enacting Governor General’s Acts,
      • control over non votable item, comprising 80% of budget,
      • issuing of instruction to Governor which were to be the latter’s special responsibility,
      • powers of summoning a joint sitting of both Houses, of addressing the Legislatures, of sending messages about a certain bills,
      • according sanction to certain types of bills sought to be introduced in the Federal and Provincial legislatures and using his authority to stop discussion in any legislature at any time of any bill or to withhold his assent to any bill passed or to reserve the same for His Majesty’s consideration.
  • Apart from these Departments and Safeguards, the other departments were to be administered by the Governor-General with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers.
    • But in cases where the Governor-General; was empowered to exercise his individual judgement, he might disregard ministerial advice. The ministers would be chosen and summoned by him in his discretion and would hold office during his pleasure.
  • Hence, the responsibility was introduced in a very limited way at the Federal Centre by the Act of 1935.

Other provisions of the Act: 

  • Establishment of a Federal Court:
    • The India Act 1935 also provided for the establishment of a Federal Court, with original and appellate powers, to adjudicate inter-states disputes and matters concerning the interpretation of the constitution.
    • It was however, not the final court of appeal. In certain cases the appeals could be made to the Privy Council in England.
    • Even though the Federation was not established, the Federal Court came into existence to hear and determine constitutional cases.
    • A federal court began its functioning from October 1, 1937. The chief Justice of the federal court was Sir Maurice Gwyer.
      • It consisted of One Chief Justice and not more than 6 Judges.
  • Federal Railway Authority:
    • The Government of India Act 1935 vested the control of the railways in federal railway authority , a new 7 member body.
    • This authority was kept free from the control of ministers and councilors.
    • The idea was to assure the British Stakeholders of the railways that their investment was safe
  • Reserve Bank of India was established.
  • Another feature of this act was the transfer of financial control from London to New Delhi, in response to a long-standing demand of the Government of India for fiscal autonomy.
  • Electorate was enlarged but with limitations:
    • The electorate was enlarged to 30 million; but the high property qualifications only enfranchised 10 per cent of the Indian population.
    • In rural India, it gave voting right to the rich and middle peasants, as they were presumably the main constituency for Congress politics.
    • So the act, suspects D.A. Low, was a ploy to corrode the support base of the Congress and tie these important classes to the Raj. A “competition for the allegiance of the dominant peasant communities”, he writes, lay at the heart of the conflict between the Congress and the Raj at this stage.
    • Apart from that, in the bicameral central legislature, members nominated by the princes would constitute 30 to 40 percent of the seats, thus permanently eliminating the possibility of a Congress majority.
  • Communal and Separate Electorate and Reservations:
    • Separate electorate was provided for the Muslims and reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes (a new term for the ‘depressed classes’ or untouchables) in the provincial and central legislatures.
    • The Act not only retained the separate electorate (of previous act of 1919) but also enlarged its scope. The Anglo-Indians and the Indo-Christians were also given separate electorate.
    • Women were granted reservation in 41 seats in provincial legislatures as well as limited reservations in central legislature. But women reservation was subdivided in religious lines.
  • Supremacy of the British Parliament:
    • The supremacy of the British Parliament remained intact under the government Act of India 1935.
    • No Indian legislature whether federal or provincial was authorized to modify or amend the constitution. The British Parliament alone was given the authority to amend it.
  • Burma Separation from India:
    • Another important feature of the Act was that Burma was separated from India with effect from April 1937.
    • Aden was also transferred from the administrative control of the Government of India to that of the colonial offices. Thus Aden became a Crown colony.
  • Abolition of the Indian Council of the Secretary of State:
    • The Government of India Act 1935 abolished the Council of the Secretary of State for India, which was created in 1858. The Secretary of State was to have advisers on its place.
      • Advisers might or might not be consulted or whose advice followed or not, except in respect to the Services.
      • The Council was abolished because of much agitation in India against its persistent anti Indian policies.
    • With the introduction of the provincial autonomy and of partial Responsible Government at the Centre, the control of the Secretary of State over Transferred Subjects was greatly diminished.
      • His control, however, remained intact over the powers of Governor General and Governors.
      • Where the Governor General or the Governors acted in their individual judgment or discretion, they were made strictly responsible to the Secretary of State.
  • Reorganisation of Provinces and Creation of Two New Provinces:

    • A partial reorganization of the provinces:
      • Sindh was separated from Bombay
      • Bihar and Orissa was split into separate provinces of Bihar and Orissa
    • Hence, the Act provided for the creation of two new provinces of Sindh and Orissa. The new provinces together with the NWFP formed the Governor provinces making 11 in all.
  • Right and obligations of the Crown in respect of the Indian States:
    • Apart from the control given to the Federation by the Instrument of Accession, the right and obligations of the Crown in respect of the Indian States remained unaffected.
    • These rights and obligations were left in charge of the Crown Representative.
    • The combination of the offices of Governor-General and Crown Representative was allowed.

The Government of India Bill received the Royal assent in August 1935. The British Government decided that Provincial autonomy would be introduced on April 1, 1937, leaving the Federation in abeyance which never came into existence. The operative part of the Act of 1935 remained in force till August 15, 1947, when it was amended by Independence of India Act, 1947.

Analysis of the Act:

  • The basic conception of the act of 1935 was that the government of India was the government of the crown, conducted by authorities deriving functions directly from the crown, in so far as the crown did not itself retain executive functions.
    • This conception, familiar in dominion constitutions, was absent in earlier Acts passed for India.
  • The experiment of provincial autonomy under the act of 1935, definitely served some useful purposes, thus the Government of India Act 1935 marks a point of no return in the history of constitutional development in India.
  • The Act of 1935 did not mention the granting of dominion status promised during the Civil Disobedience movement.
  • No preamble: the ambiguity of British commitment to dominion status:
    • While it had become uncommon for British Acts of Parliament to contain a preamble, the absence of one from the Government of India Act 1935 contrasts sharply with the 1919 Act, which set out the broad philosophy of that Act’s aims in relation to Indian political development.
    • The 1919 Act’s preamble quoted, and centered on, the statement of the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu (1917–1922) to the House of Commons on 20 August 1917, which had pledged: “…the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral Part of the British Empire.”
    • Indian demands were by now centering on British India achieving constitutional parity with the existing Dominions such as Canada and Australia, which would have meant complete autonomy within the British Commonwealth.
    • A significant element in British political circles doubted that Indians were capable of running their country on this basis, and saw Dominion status as something that might, perhaps, be aimed for after a long period of gradual constitutional development.
    • This tension between and within Indian and British views resulted in the clumsy compromise of the 1935 Act having no preamble of its own, but keeping in place the 1919 Act’s preamble. This was seen in India as yet more mixed messages from the British, suggesting at best a lukewarm attitude towards satisfying Indian desires.
  • No “Bill of Rights / Fundamental Rights”:
    • In contrast with most modern constitutions, but in common with Commonwealth constitutional legislation of the time, the Act does not include a “bill of rights” or “fundamental rights” within the new system that it aimed to establish as the draft outline constitution in the Nehru Report included such a bill of rights.
    • However, in the case of the proposed Federation of India there was a further complication in incorporating such a set of rights, as the new entity would have included nominally sovereign (and generally autocratic) princely states.
  • Safeguards:
    • The Act was not only extremely detailed, but it was riddled with ‘safeguards’ designed to enable the British Government to intervene whenever it saw the need in order to maintain British responsibilities and interests.
    • Elaborate safeguards were vital subtraction from the principle of self government.
    • Besides, the restrictions on the law making powers of the legislatures, the Governor General and Governors were empowered to override ministers and legislatures in certain circumstances.
    • In the event of what a General might consider a breakdown of the Constitutional machinery, he could even assume absolute dictatorial powers.
  • Reality of Responsible Government Under the Act – Is the Cup Half-Full or Half-Empty?
    • A close reading of the Act reveals that the British Government equipped itself with the legal instruments to take back total control at any time they considered this to be desirable.
    • However, doing so without good reason would totally sink their credibility with groups in India whose support the act was aimed at securing.
    • Contrasting view of Lord Lothian came straight out with his view on the Bill: “If you look at the constitution it looks as if all the powers are vested in the Governor-General and the Governor. But is not every power here vested in the King? Everything is done in the name of the King but does the King ever interfere? Once the power passes into the hands of the legislature, the Governor or the Governor-General is never going to interfere.”
  • Problem with Federation:
    • The scheme of Federation, as envisaged by the Act, left much to be desired in view of the fact that an attempt was made therein to bring together two disparate elements-
      • Indian States mostly under the autocratic mule of the Princes and
      • British Indian Provinces enjoying responsible government to some extent.
    • The grouping of these two heterogeneous elements could not but result in squabbles hindering the smooth working of the system.
    • Moreover, the process prescribed for the formation of the Federation was ill conceived and illogical.
      • The Federation could not be brought into being unless a number of States had acceded to it.
      • Accession to the federation was entirely voluntary on their part whereas it was s compulsory on the part of the provinces of British India.
    • In order to induce the Princes to join the Federation, they were given preferential treatment in several ways- unduly large representation under a system of nomination by rulers. The Princes were expected to be reactionary factors and checks upon the nationalists.
  • Dyarchy:
    • Dyarchy, though thoroughly condemned, was still proposed at the Centre.
    • Certain important departments like Defence, which got the lion’s share of the budget and External Affairs were kept as Reserved.
  • India’s constitutional status as a dependency, did not improve as powers of constitutional amendment and responsibility for Indian administration still remained with the British Parliament. Moreover, the Secretary of State retained his control over various All India Services.
  • Separate representation of communal and other groups was certainly iniquitous and scandalously unreasonable.
  • False Equivalences:
    • Under the Act, British citizens resident in the UK and British companies registered in the UK must be treated on the same basis as Indian citizens and Indian registered companies unless UK law denies reciprocal treatment.
    • The unfairness of this arrangement is clear when one considers the dominant position of British capital in much of the Indian modern sector and the complete dominance, maintained through unfair commercial practices (Like: Insignificance of Indian capital in Britain and the non-existence of Indian involvement in shipping to or within the UK).
    • There are very detailed provisions requiring the Viceroy to intervene if, in his view, any India law or regulation is intended to, or will in fact, discriminate against UK resident British subjects, British registered companies and, particularly, British shipping interests.
  • British Political Needs vs. Indian Constitutional Needs – the Ongoing Dysfunction:
    • From the moment of the Montagu statement of 1917, it was vital that the reform process stay ahead of the curve if the British were to hold the strategic initiative.
    • However, imperialist sentiment, and a lack of realism, in British political circles made this impossible.
    • Thus the grudging conditional concessions of power in the Acts of 1919 and 1935 caused more resentment and signally failed to win the Raj the backing of influential groups in India which it desperately needed.
    • There is evidence that Montagu would have backed something of this sort but his cabinet colleagues would not have considered it. Considering the balance of power in the Conservative party at the time, the passing of a Bill more liberal than that which was enacted in 1935 is inconceivable.’
  • Relationship to a Dominion Constitution:
    • In 1947, a relatively few amendments in the Act made it the functioning interim constitutions of India and Pakistan.
  • The Act of 1935 was condemned by nearly all sections of Indian opinion and was unanimously rejected by the Congress.
    • The Congress demanded instead, the convening of a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise to frame a constitution for an independent India.
    • In the course of a press statement, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Congress President, reminded the country of April 1, 1937-the day when the “unwanted, undemocratic and anti national” constitution as adumbrated in the Government of India Act, 1935, would be forced upon the country against the wholehearted and unanimous will of the country.”
      • On another occasion Pandit Nehru declared that the new constitution was “a machine with strong brakes but no engine.”

Objectives of the British Government:

  • B.R. Tomlinson said: “The progress of constitutional advance in India is determined by the need to attract Indian collaborators to the Raj.” 
    • If any change happened at all, as B.R. Tomlinson has pointed out: “The apex of the system of imperial control moved from London to Delhi.
    • The viceroy was now to enjoy many of the powers previously exercised by the secretary of state and thus Indo-British relationship was provided with a new orientation that would best protect essential imperial interests.
  • The federal part of the Act was designed to meet the aims of the Conservative Party.
    • Over the very long term, the Conservative leadership expected the Act to lead to a nominally dominion status India, conservative in outlook, dominated by an alliance of Hindu princes and right-wing Hindus which would be well disposed to place itself under the guidance and protection of the United Kingdom.
  • The Labour opposition argued in London that the act only proposed to protect British interests in India by sharing power with the loyalist elements
  • Reforms, it was hoped, would revive the political standing of the Liberals and other moderates who believed in the constitutional path, and who had lost public favour during the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • In view of the severe repression of the movement, large sections of Congressmen would be convinced of the ineffectiveness of extra-legal means and the efficacy of constitutionalism. They would be weaned away from mass politics and guided towards constitutional politics.
    • It was also hoped that once the Congressmen in office had tasted power and dispensed patronage they would be most reluctant to go back to the politics of sacrifice.
    • Reforms could be used to promote dissensions and a split within the demoralized Congress ranks on the basis of constitutionalist vs. non constitutionalist and Right vs. Left.
  • Retain British control of the Indian Army, Indian finances, and India’s foreign relations for another generation;
  • Win Muslim support by conceding most of Jinnah’s Fourteen Points;
  • Ensuring that the Congress could never rule alone or gain enough seats to bring down the government.
    • This was done by over-representing the Princes, by giving every possible minority the right to separately vote for candidates belonging to their respective communities (separate electorate), and by making the executive theoretically, but not practically, removable by the legislature.
  • Provincialization of the Congress:
    • By giving Indian politicians a great deal of power at the provincial level, while denying them responsibility at the Centre, it was hoped that Congress, the only national party, would disintegrate into a series of provincial fiefdoms.
    • The Congress would, thus, be provincialized; the authority of the central all-India leadership would be weakened if not destroyed.
    • Linlithgow wrote in 1936, ‘our best hope of avoiding a direct clash is in the potency of Provincial Autonomy to destroy the effectiveness of Congress as an All-India instrument of revolution.”
    • Its aim was to divert Congress attention to the provinces, while maintaining strong imperial control at the centre.
    • But, the congress High Command was able to control the provincial ministries and to force their resignation in 1939.
    • The Act showed the strength and cohesion of Congress and probably strengthened it.
  • Convince the Princes to join the Federation by giving the Princes conditions for entry never likely to be equaled.
    • It was expected that enough would join to allow the establishment of the Federation.
    • The Federation, as planned in the Act, was not viable and would have rapidly broken down with the British left to pick up the pieces without any viable alternative.
  • The significance of the Government of India Act of 1935 can be best summed up in the words of the then Viceroy Lord Linlithgow himself: “After all we framed the constitution … of 1935 because we thought it the best way … to hold India to the Empire.”

Why Princes did not join Federation:

  • It was hoped hat the Princes would see that their best hope for a future would lie in rapidly joining and becoming a united block without which no group could hope, mathematically, to wield power. However, the princes did not join, and thus exercising the veto provided by the Act prevented the Federation from coming into existence.
  • Among the reasons for the Princes staying out were the following:
    • They did not have the foresight to realize that this was their only chance for a future.
    • Their main objection was that the act did not resolve the issue of paramountcy. The Government of India as a paramount power still enjoyed the right to intervene in the affairs of their states or even overthrow them if necessary.
    • They were not a cohesive group and probably realized that they would never act as one.
    • Each Prince seemed consumed by the desire to gain the best deal for himself were his state to join the Federation: the most money, the most autonomy.
    • The larger states did not want to surrender their fiscal autonomy, while the smaller states complained of their inadequate representation in the legislature.
    • Their other fear was about joining a democratised federal central government, where the elected political leaders of British India would have little sympathy for their autocratic rules and would provide encouragement to the democratic movements in their territories.
      • Congress had begun, and would continue, agitating for democratic reforms within the Princely States.
      • Since the one common concern of the 600 or so Princes was their desire to continue to rule their states without interference, this was indeed a mortal threat.
      • It was on the cards that this would lead eventually to more democratic state regimes and the election of states’ representatives in the Federal Legislature.
      • In all likelihood, these representatives would be largely Congressmen.
      • Had the Federation been established, the election of states’ representatives in the Federal Legislature would amount to a Congress coup from the inside.
      • Thus, contrary to their official position that the British would look favorably on the democratization of the Princely States, their plan required that the States remain autocratic. This reflects a deep contradiction on British views of India and its future.

Indian Reaction to the proposed Federation:

  • So little was offered that all significant groups in British India rejected and denounced the proposed Federation.
  • A major contributing factor was the continuing distrust of British intentions for which there was considerable basis in fact.
  • No significant group in India accepted the Federal portion of the Act. Under the Act, external affairs, defence, currency and exchange were all under Governor General effectively.
  • Reserve Bank Bill just passed has a further reservation in the Constitution that no legislation may be undertaken with a view to substantially alter the provisions of that Act except with the consent of the Governor-General…. there is no real power conferred in the Centre.
  • The Muslim leaders, first of all, were afraid of Hindu domination and felt that the proposed federal structure was still very unitary.
    • All the representatives of British India to the central legislature were to be elected by the provincial assemblies and this would go against the Muslims who were minorities in all but four provinces.
    • So although they did not oppose federation in public, they certainly preferred decentralisation, with a weak central government, allowing more autonomy for the provincial governments in the Muslim majority provinces.
  • The Congress too did not like the proposed structure of the federation, where one-third of the seats in the federal assembly were to be filled in by the princes, thus tying up the fate of democratic India to the whims of the autocratic dynastic rulers.
  • However, the Liberals, and even elements in the Congress were tepidly willing to give it a go.
    • Linlithgow asked Sapru whether he thought there was a satisfactory alternative to the scheme of the 1935 Act. Sapru replied that they should stand fast on the Act and the federal plan embodied in it.
  • Birla said that It was not ideal but at this stage it was the only thing.
    • He thought that Congress was moving towards acceptance of Federation.
    • He said that Gandhi was not over-worried by the reservation of defence and external affairs to the centre, but was concentrating on the method of choosing the States’ representatives.
    • Birla wanted the Viceroy to help Gandhi by persuading a number of Princes to move towards democratic election of representatives.
  • Hence, the provincial part of the 1935 act took effect with the elections of 1937; but a stalemate prevailed at the centre and the federal part of the act remained a non-starter, as no one seemed to be really interested in it.

The Working of the Act:

  • The British government sent out Lord Linlithgow as the new viceroy with the remit of bringing the Act into effect.
    • Linlithgow was intelligent, extremely hard working, honest, serious and determined to make a success out of the Act.
    • However, he was also unimaginative, stolid, legalistic and found it very difficult to “get on terms” with people outside his immediate circle.
  • In 1937, after the holding of provincial elections, Provincial Autonomy commenced.
    • From that point until the declaration of war in 1939, Linlithgow tirelessly tried to get enough of the Princes to accede to launch the Federation.
    • In this he received only the weakest backing from the Home Government and in the end the Princes rejected the Federation en masse.
  • In September 1939, Linlithgow simply declared that India was at war with Germany.
    • Though Linlithgow’s behaviour was constitutionally correct it was also offensive to much of Indian opinion that the Viceroy had not consulted the elected representatives of the Indian people before taking such a momentous decision.
    • This led directly to the resignation of the Congress provincial ministries.
  • From 1939, Linlithgow concentrated on supporting the war effort.

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