British Administration in India
In the beginning, the British East India Company simply functioned as a trading company, in constant rivalry and competition with other European mercantile companies. It wrenched away trade from the Portuguese and the Dutch, in particular. This activity continued till roughly the mid-eighteenth century. There was then a second stage (around the later part of the eighteenth century till mid-nineteenth century) when the Company consolidated its position and shared its sovereignty over the territories under its hold, with the British Crown.
Subsequently, it lost its trading privileges and it was subjected to inspection by Parliamentary Commissions, and Select and Secret Committees from Britain, followed by reform in its administration.
The British government tightened its control over the affairs of the Company. The Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 against the hegemony of the Company finally led to the British Crown taking over the Company and the administration of the government of India in 1858. From 1858 to 1947, Britain ruled India and handed over power to the Indians on 15 August 1947.
The British East India Company’s power and administrative authority started in August 1765 with the grant of a power to it called diwani by the Mughal emperor, to collect revenues from land in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa against a fee of Rs 26 lakhs per annum. In this way, it became the revenue-collecting agent and administrator of civil justice for the Mughals. The Company appointed two Indian deputies called naibs at Murshidabad and Patna. The period was under dual government which meant that the country was ruled by shared power and responsibility by the Company and the Indian rulers. Even within this framework, there was no intention on the Company’s part to administer directly. Combined with its military might, its power became formidable. Gradually, judicial administration, which was in the hands of the local nawab, was taken away from him and the Company took full charge of judicial, civil and military matters.
The British Parliament had to intervene from time to time in the affairs of the Company because it had become a fertile area for intrigues and corruption, and had frittered away its money and profits. The Regulating Act of 1773 and Pitt’s India Act of 1784 determined the Company’s status vis-a-vis Britain and its Parliament. The Act of 1773 remodeled the Company’s constitution and subjected it to supervision by a minister of the Home government, and the sub-presidencies of Bombay and Madras to that of the Supreme government in Bengal in matters of war, revenue and diplomacy. Pitt’s India Act of 1784 set up six commissioners in England to look after the affairs of India, known as the Board of Control consisting of the chancellor of the exchequer, a Secretary of State and four privy councilors. This government became known for the first time as the government of India. For administering it, they appointed a Governor-General in India, the first one being Warren Hastings, who had a council of three members, all covenanted servants of the Company. The Governor-General’s decisions were the decisions of the ‘Governor General-in-Council’. He had overriding powers over his council and was the commander-in-chief. District administration of the Company’s territories was vested in European district collectors who were made the presidents of the Company’s civil and criminal courts in their districts. A Board of Revenue was set up at Calcutta, to supervise the district collectors.
It was stipulated in Pitt’s Act that the Company’s servants had to declare the property they brought back home from India. This was the beginning of a code of conduct for the Company’s servants. As time progressed, the Company’s jurisdiction over trade slowly eroded as it further squandered its money and its advantages. By the Charter Acts of 1813 and 1833, superintendence, direction and control of the entire civil and military government were expressly vested in the government of India and the Governor-General-in-Council operating from Bengal. A fourth member was added to the Governor-General’s Council for making laws and regulations. A simple code of Hindu and Mohammedan law was drawn up. The policy of admitting Indians to the service of the Company was accepted though not to the covenanted civil service. The 1833 Act was a landmark Act. By 1853, the Company’s commercial function disappeared totally and it became an administrative body under the British Parliament. India was no longer in its possession, but a trust it held for the Crown. With the appointment of a governor in Bengal, the government of India and the government of Bengal became two separate entities.
The 1857 uprising (called ‘mutiny’ by the British) signaled the death of the East India Company, and the British Crown emerged as directly in charge of the government of India through a Secretary of State (a member of the cabinet). The Board of Control was abolished. The Crown appointed the Governor-General and the presidency governors. Naval and military forces were also transferred to the Crown. The Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 transferred the administration of India from the Company to the Crown. In 1877, the Queen of England was proclaimed Empress of India.
Administration by the East India Company: We now pause at the 1857-1858 turn of events to take stock of the steps laid for the foundation of administration during the years of the hegemony in India of the East India Company.
The disintegration of Mughal rule made it necessary for the Company to fortify its settlements in order to protect its trade. It came into conflict with both local rulers and the French in India, as France was its chief enemy in Europe. Conquests and negotiations were followed by consolidation of the Supreme government at Bengal. The Supreme government had a Central Secretariat with four departments: General, Revenue, Judicial, and Commercial. The Secretariat operated through four Boards: Board of Council, Military Board, Board of Revenue and Board of Trade.
Subsequently, a Medical Board was also constituted. There were secretaries to government and departments such as the Treasury, Accounts, the Mint and the Post Office.