The Charter Act of 1853

The Charter Act of 1853


  • Although in India, demands were being raised for the abolition of the Company rule, the British government was not yet so sure about such a measure.
  • As the time approached for the renewal of the Company’s Charter there was growing demand that the Double Government of the Company in England should be ended. The demand was made for reasons such as:
    • the Court of Directors had outlived its usefulness and
    • the existence of the Court of Directors and the Board of Control only resulted in unnecessary delay in the dispatch of business and undue expenditure.
  • It was also felt that the existing legislative machinery under the Charter Act of 1833 was inadequate.
  • Voice was also raised against the Governor-General of India continuing also as the Governor of Bengal as this could lead to a bias in favour of Bengal.
  • Also great territorial and political changes had taken place since the Charter Act of 1833.
    • Sind and Punjab had been announced to the Company’s territories in 1843 and 1849 respectively.
    • A number of Indian states had fallen victim to Dalhoune’s policy of ruthless annexation.
    • The newly acquitted territories had to be constitutionally provided for.
  • There was also demand for the decentralisation of powers and for giving the people of India a share in the management of their own affairs for which there was some support in England too.
  • It was under these circumstances that the British Parliament was called upon to renew the Charter of the Company in 1853.

Provisions of the Charter Act of 1853:

  • The charter of 1833 was renewed in 1853, but this time not for another twenty years.
    • The Company was allowed to retain the Indian possessions “in trust for Her Majesty, her heirs and successors until Parliament shall otherwise provide“, thus keeping the door open for a future takeover.
  • 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 number of the members of the Court of Directors was reduced from 24 to 18 out of which 6 were to be nominated by the Crown.
  • The act also provided for the separation of the executive and legislative functions of the governor general’s council by adding new members for legislative purposes.
    • Thus in India, the separation of the executive and the legislative functions was carried a step further.
    • The Law Member was made a full member of the Governors General’s Executive Council and this Council while sitting in its legislative capacity was enlarged by the addition of 6 members:
      • the Chief Justice and a puisne judge of Calcutta Supreme Court and
      • four representatives, one each from Bengal, Madras, Bombay and the North Western Provinces.
    • The provincial representatives wore to be civil servants of the Company with not less than ten years’ standing.
    • The Governor General was empowered to appoint two more civil servants to the Council though this power was newer actually excreted.
  • The procedure of the Council was to be on the lines of the British Parliament.
    • Questions could be asked and the policy of the Executive Council could be discussed, though the Executive Council retained the power to veto a bill of the Legislative Council.
    • Discussion in the Council became oral instead of in writing.
    • Bills were referred to Select Committees instead of a single member.
    • The legislative business was conducted in public instead of in secret.
  • The Company’s control over appointments was curtailed by the introduction of competition for the recruitment of the Indian Civil Service.
    • The Count 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 Macaulay as President was appointed in 1854 to enforce this scheme.
  • The Count of Directors was empowered to constitute a new Presidency or to alter the boundaries of the existing ones to incorporate the newly acquired territories.
    • This provision was made use of to create a separate Lieutenant-Governorship for the Punjab in 1859. 
  • The Act also empowered the Crown to appoint a Law Commission in England to examine the reports and the drafts of the Indian Law Commission which had by then ceased to exist, and recommended legislative measures.

Significance on the Act:

  • Already deprived of its commercial privileges, the Company hereafter hardly ever controlled policies in India.
  • The Act was a compromise between two conflicting views:
    • Those who favoured the retention of the Company’s territorial authority:
      • They were satisfied by the provision that the Company should continue to govern India in trust for the Crown until Parliament should otherwise direct.
    • Those who wanted the substitution of Crown control for that of the Company:
      • They found to their satisfaction that the number of Directors was reduced from 24 to 18 of whom 6 wore to be nominees of the Crown and that the quorum was fixed at 10 so that when the meetings of the Court were thinly attended, the nominees of the Crown were able to have a majority. The Directors lost their patronage.
  • In actual working, the newly formed legislative Council threatened to alter the whole structure of Indian Government.
    • Contrary to intentions of the frames of the Act, the Legislative Council had developed into an Anglo-Indian House of Commons, questioning the Executive and its acts and forcing it to lay even confidential papers before it.
    • It asserted its right to independent legislation. This disturbed its author, Sir Charles Wood, President of the Board of Control. To remove doubts, he declared: “I do not look upon the Legislative Council as some of the young Indians do as the nucleus and beginning of constitutional Parliament in India.
    • The creation of functioning of the Legislative Council made the Act of 1853 an important constitutional measures of the 19th century.
  • But the defect of the Act was the continued exclusion of the people of India with the work of legislation.

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