Essay on Government of India Act 1935
We must first briefly trace the administrative changes through the Government of India (GOI) Act of 1935, until the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was passed.
The Labor party came into power in Britain in January 1924. Earlier, when it was out of office, it had raised the hopes of Indians, hinting at dominion status for India as the essential condition for imperial unity. But when it assumed office, the policy adopted was a continuation of that of the Conservatives, namely to follow the status quo. Everyone, no matter which party he belonged to, stated that Great Britain would not relinquish her ‘responsibility’ to India. But again, it was not clear what the responsibility was and how and when it would be relinquished. The return of the Conservative government saw the continuation of the traditional policy.
In 1929, the British government suddenly appointed the Simon Commission to review, ostensibly, the working of the 1919 Reforms, but, according to some, it was to preempt the incoming government (possibly the Labor party which was more pro-India than the Conservatives) from being sympathetic to India’s aspirations for self-government. Indians were excluded from this Commission because as Viceroy Lord Irwin justified it, they could not be expected to be “unbiased and unprejudiced”. The Indians boycotted it, stating that no Constitution framed by the British would be acceptable. The Simon Commission proposed a unitary and federal type of government to embrace all of India, and recommended that diarchy in the provinces should be abolished.
In the Madras Session of the Indian National Congress, a Report (known as the Nehru Report) was adopted, envisaging a sovereign Parliament with an Upper and Lower House with powers like that in other Dominions of the British Empire, and a federal system and joint mixed electorates throughout India for the central and provincial legislatures. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, brought in amendments regarding representation of Muslims in the legislature, but these were not accepted. This blue print may be said to be the harbinger of the Constitution of India as finally drawn up. But at that time, it created division of opinion with regard to what should be demanded from the British – nothing short of independence, or purna swaraj, was the view of the younger groups.
Several events and developments followed from here. The Civil Disobedience Movement and the Dandi March; the Salt Satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi on 12 March 1930, to oppose the salt tax by violating the salt laws; the Press Ordinance passed by the government reproducing the stringent provisions of the repealed Press Act of 1910; wholesale arrests of satyagrahis including leaders and the subsequent reign of repression; the Round Table Conference (and its several sub-committees) discussed the Simon Commission Report; Mahatma Gandhi’s Pact with the Viceroy Lord Irwin (it was quoted as an event more than any other to show how seriously the
British took the Indian National Congress and its spokesman, Mahatma Gandhi; communal riots at Kanpur; Bhagat Singh’s execution soon after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact; and the Second Round Table Conference, which exposed the inability of the government to solve the communal question of representation and which discussed inter alia the mode of accession of the states to the Federation.
As nothing much happened at the Conference, Gandhiji returned to India with empty hands. The Poona Pact (1932) modified the government’s ‘Communal Award’, relating to reservation of seats for depressed classes. The Third Round Table Conference (an extension of the first two) took place; the last phase of the Civil Disobedience Movement began. The other events were the great Bihar Earthquake of 1934 (which, in a way, made the Disobedience Movement pale into insignificance), the issue of a White paper in 1933 which outlined the new Indian Constitution with diarchy at the Centre and a responsible government in the provinces. Chaired by Lord Linlithgow, the group which drew up the White paper consisted of 16 members. It invited persons from British India and the Indian states to give their viewpoints.
The Government of India Act, 1935
The culmination of all this was the Government of India Act 1935. This Act provided for an All India Federation. It envisaged that the provinces would join the federation automatically, and provided for voluntary entry by the prince of each state executing an Instrument of Accession in favor of the Crown.
The princely states could send 125 members to the Federal Assembly and 104 to the Council of States; the provinces, 250 to the Assembly and 156 to the Council of States. In the case of provinces, election was on communal lines. The Act provided for a federal list, provincial list and concurrent list of subjects.
It provided for ‘diarchy’ at the Centre (that is, defense, external affairs, ecclesiastical affairs and administration of tribal areas were to be handled by the Governor-General with the assistance of three counselors appointed by him. In the other federal subjects, the Governor-General was to be aided and advised by a council of ministers not exceeding 10 in number). The federal ministry was to be formed on the usual cabinet lines, and in addition, was to include the representation of important minorities. The Governor-General had an Instrument of Instructions to secure the best representation. Collective responsibility, with the ministry being responsible to the federal legislature, was its essential feature. The Government of India Act provided for a Federal Court of India to interpret the Constitution, with jurisdiction over the states and provinces.
The Secretary of State’s India Council was replaced by an advisory body of three to six people. Just like the Governor-General the governor of a state had three-pronged powers. He could act
1) in consultation with his ministers as a constitutional head,
2) in his individual judgment though he was required to consult his ministers, or
3) at his own discretion, depending on the subject, the urgency, and the context.
The position of the ministers in terms of real responsibility was better under the 1935 Act than ever before; however it was not ideal, considering the enormous powers of the governor.
Seats were reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Separate representation on communal lines was given to Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Indian Christians. Seats were also reserved for the representatives of commerce, industry, mining, plantations, labor, universities, and landholders.
The first general elections were held in 1937. One had to be 25 years of age to contest for the provincial legislative assembly and 30 for the legislative council. Residence in the constituency for a certain minimum number of days in the year was necessary for franchise. Although, the 1935 Act was many steps ahead, the Congress party decided to accept office only under conditions where the Congress would command a majority in the legislature, and provided there was an assurance that the governor would not interfere with the minister’s role and responsibility. Upon Lord Linlithgow’s assurance, the challenge was accepted. The Congress wanted the cooperation of all the communal groups and stated that they must come under the control of the Congress High Command. The Muslim League refused to do so.
Several beneficial results took place after the implementation of the Government of India Act, 1935. Many laws dealing with prohibition, education, rural indebtedness and land relations were passed.
But the Govenrnment of India Act was still half-hearted. There was remote control from London. The princely states were unwilling to join the federation particularly as, they were already assured a privileged position. The Indian princes could make nominations, to the Assembly while those from the provinces had to be elected. Indirect elections to the federal assembly went against the spirit of democracy. Control of the Secretary of State over the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Police was not liked. Indians did not control the ‘defense’ part of administration though they contributed men and materials for the war effort. The communal award governing filling up of seats in the legislature was also not popular. The British still dominated the federal legislature and the federal executive like a colossus, and provincial autonomy seemed a farce. There was a yawning hiatus between the provisions of the Act and the ‘dominion status’ that was being dangled like a carrot all the time. The Government of India Act 1935 was called the anti-India Act. All, including Jinnah, found it unacceptable.
The Government of India Act 1935, however, had introduced several features which form the nucleus of our Constitution. Provision was made for amendments after frequent reviews.