Historical Background of Indian Constitution

Historical Background of Indian Constitution

The British came to India in 1600 as traders, in the form of East India Company, which had the exclusive right of trading in India under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. In 1765, the Company, which till now had purely trading functions obtained the ‘diwani’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This started its career as a territorial power. In 1858, in the wake of the ‘sepoy mutiny’, the British Crown assumed direct responsibility for the governance of India. This rule continued until India was granted independence on August 15, 1947.

Historical Background of Indian Constitution, History of Indian Constitution, Indian Polity notes, Studywrap.com

Constitution of India as it took shape in 1949 was in fact the product of a long process of evolution starting with the early days of the British Empire. The colonial administration looking for maintenance of order and collection of revenue in the territories it had conquered set about introducing measures to support these two objectives. Over a period of time, these assumed the form of Acts and Regulations, which is referred as the historical background of Indian constitution.

So, that said, let’s begin the journey for the Historical Background of Indian Constitution.

The Historical Background of Indian Constitution

The Historical Background of Indian Constitution can be divided into two parts –

  • The Company rule (1773 – 1858)
  • The Crown rule (1858 – 1947)


The Company rule (1773 – 1858)

1. Regulating Act, 1773

      • The first step was taken by the British Government to control and regulate the affairs of the East India Company in India.
      • It laid the foundation of Central Administration in India.
      • It designated the Governor of Bengal (Fort William) as the Governor-General (of Bengal).
      • the first Governor-General of Bengal – Lord Warren Hastings
      • Executive Council of the Governor-General was established consisting of four members. There was no separate legislative council.
      • The Governors of Bombay and Madras were made subordinate to the Governor-General of Bengal.
      • The Supreme Court was established at Fort William (Calcutta) as the Apex Court in 1774. It consists of 1 chief Justice and 3 judges.
      • It prohibited servants of the company from engaging in any private trade and accepting bribes from the locals.
      • Court of Directors (the governing body of the company) will report to British Government on its revenue, civil and military affairs in India.

2. Pitt’s India Act,1784

      • Distinguished between commercial and political functions of the company.
      • Court of Directors for Commercial functions and new body of Board of Control for political affairs was formed. Hence, Double Government.
      • Empowered the Board of Control to supervise and control the civil, military and revenues affairs of the British Possession in India.
      • Reduced the strength of the Governor General’s council to three members. Governor’s councils were established in Madras and Bombay.
      • Placed the Indian affairs under the direct control of the British Government giving them Supreme power over the company’s affairs in India.
      • The companies’ territories in India were called “the British possession in India” for the first time.

3. Charter Act, 1813

      • The Company’s monopoly over Indian trade terminated; Trade with India open to all British subjects.

4. Charter Act, 1833

      • This was the final step towards centralisation in the British India.
      • It made Governor-General (of Bengal) as the Governor-General of India and vested him all civil and military powers.
      • First Governor-General of India was Lord William Bentick.
      • Beginning of a Central legislature for India as the act also took away legislative powers of Bombay and Madras provinces.
      • The Act ended the activities of the East India Company as a commercial body and it became a purely administrative body.
      • The Government of India was created for the first time which was having authority over entire territorial area possessed by the British.

5. Charter Act,1853

      • The legislative and executive functions of the Governor-General’s Council were separated.
      • It established a separate Governor-General’s legislative council which came to be known as the Indian (Central) Legislative Council. Also known as Mini Parliament. Thus legislation was treated for the first time as a special function.
      • It provided for addition of 6 new members called legislative councillors to the council. Four out of six members were appointed by the provisional governments of Madras, Bombay, Bengal and Agra. Thus, introduced, for the first time, local representation in the Indian (Central) Legislative Council.
      • It introduced the system of open competition for the selection of civil servants and stated that Indians would not be barred from holding any place, office and employment in the Company. Accordingly, the Macaulay Committee (the Committee on the Indian Civil Service) was appointed in 1854.
      • Satyendra Nath Tagore became first Indian Civil Servant.
      • It extended the Company’s rule and allowed it to retain the possession of Indian territories on trust for the British Crown.
      • It introduced a system of open competition as the basis for the recruitment of civil servants of the Company (Indian Civil Service opened for all).

The Crown rule (1858 – 1947)

1. Government of India Act, 1858

      • Enacted in the wake of Revolt of 1857.
      • Also known as Act of Good Government in India and it abolished the Company rule in India.
      • The powers of the British Crown were to be exercised by the new office of Secretary of State for India with complete authority over Indian Administration.
      • The Secretary of State for India was a member of British Cabinet and was responsible to British Parliament. He was assisted by the Council of India, having 15 members
      • It changed the designation of The Governor-General to the Viceroy of India.
      • Lord Canning was the first Viceroy of India.
      • Abolished the system of Double Government I.e. Abolished Board of Control and Court of Directors.
      • This act was largely meant for improving administrative machinery by which Indian government was supervised and controlled in England.

2. Indian Councils Act, 1861

      • It introduced for the first time Indian representation in the institutions like Viceroy’s executive + legislative council (non-official). 3 Indians entered Legislative council.
      • Legislative councils were established in Center and provinces.
      • It provided that the Viceroy’s Executive Council should have some Indians as the non-official members in his expanded council while transacting the legislative businesses. Hence, in 1862, Lord Canning, nominated three Indians to his legislative council – the Raja of Benaras, the Maharaja of Patiala and Sir Dinkar Rao.
      • It accorded statutory recognition to the portfolio system.
      • Initiated the process of decentralisation by restoring the legislative powers to the Bombay and the Madras Provinces.
      • It provided for the establishment of new legislative councils for Bengal, NWFP and Punjab in 1862, 1866 and 1897.
      • It empowered the Viceroy to issue Ordinance without the concurrence of legislative council during an emergency. The life of such an ordinance was six months.

3. India Council Act, 1892

      • Introduced indirect elections (nomination).
      • Increased the number of additional non official members In the Central and provincial legislative councils.
      • Enlarged the functions of the Legislative Councils and gave them the power of discussing the Budget and addressing questions to the Executive.
      • It provided for the nomination of some non-official members of the –
        1. Central Legislative Council by the viceroy on the recommendation of the provincial legislative councils and the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, and
        2. That of the Provincial legislative councils by the Governors on the recommendation of the district boards, municipalities, universities, trade associations, zamindars and chambers.

4. Indian Councils Act, 1909 (Morley- Minto Reforms)

      • This Act is also known as the Morley- Minto Reforms. (Lord Morley was the then Secretary of State for India and Lord Minto was the then Viceroy of India).
      • Direct elections to legislative councils; first attempt at introducing a representative and popular element.
      • It changed the name of the Central Legislative Council to the Imperial Legislative Council.
      • Considerably increased the size of Central and Provincial Legislative Council was increased to 60 from 16.
      • It retained official majority in the Central Legislative Council but allowed the provincial legislative councils to have non-official majority.
      • Introduced a system of communal representation for Muslims by accepting the concept of ‘separate electorate’. Thus, the Act ‘legalised communalism’ and Lord Minto came to be known as the Father of Communal Electorate.
      • Indians for the first time in Viceroys executive council. (Satyendra Prasad Sinha, as the law member)
      • It also provided for the separate representation of presidency corporations, chambers of commerce, universities and zamindars.

5. Government of India Act, 1919

      • This Act is also known as the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms. (Montagu was the Secretary of State for India and Lord Chelmsford was the Viceroy of India).
      • This act was a step toward the Gradual introduction of Responsible government of India.
      • It relaxed the central control over the provinces as the Central subjects were demarcated and separated from those of the Provincial subjects. However, the structure of government continued to be centralised and unitary.
      • The scheme of dual governance, ‘Dyarchy’, was introduced in the Provincial subjects.
      • Under Dyarchy system, the provincial subjects were divided into two parts – transferred and reserved. On reserved subjects, Governor and his executive council was not responsible to the Legislative council whereas with transferred subjects it was directly responsible to legislative council.
      • The Act introduced, for the first time, bicameralism at centre. Thus, the Indian Legislative Council was replaced by a bicameral legislature consisting of an Upper House (Council of State) and a Lower House (Legislative Assembly).
      • The Act also required that the three of the six members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (other than Commander-in-Chief) were to be Indians.
      • Legislative Assembly with 140 members and Legislative council with 60 members.
      • Direct elections of members to councils was introduced for first time.
      • Provided for the establishment of Public Service Commission.
      • New office of High Commissioner for India in London with some powers of Secretary for India.
      • It extended the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates for Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans.
      • It provided for the appointment of a statutory commission to inquire into and report on its working after ten years of its coming into force.

6. Simon Commission, 1927

      • In November 1927, the british Government announced the appointment of 7 membered statuary commission under chairmanship of Sir John Simon.
      • To report on the condition of India under its new Constitution.
      • All the members of the commission were British and hence, all the parties boycotted the commission.
      • The Committee submitted its report in 1930 –
          • Abolition of Dyarchy
          • Extension of responsible government in the provinces
          • Establishment of federation of British India and its princely states
          • Continuation of communal electorates etc.
      • To consider the proposals of the commission, the British Government convened three round table conferences of the representatives of the British Government, British India and Indian princely states.
      • White paper on Constitutional reforms was prepared and submitted for the consideration of the joint select committee of the British Parliament.
      • This recommendations were incorporated in the next Government of India Act, 1935 with certain changes.


7. Government of India Act, 1935

      • The Act provided for the establishment of an All-India Federation consisting of the Provinces and the Princely States as units, though the envisaged federation never came into being.
      • Three Lists: The Act divided the powers between the Centre and the units into items of three lists, namely the Federal List, the Provincial List and the Concurrent List.
      • The Federal List for the Centre consisted of 59 items, the Provincial List for the provinces consisted of 54 items and the Concurrent List for both consisted of 36 items
      • The residuary powers were vested with the viceroy.
      • The Act abolished the Dyarchy in the Provinces and introduced ‘Provincial Autonomy’. The provinces were allowed to act as autonomous units of administration in their defined spheres.
      • It provided for the adoption of Dyarchy at the Centre.
      • Introduced bicameralism in 6 out of 11 Provinces. These six Provinces were Assam, Bengal, Bombay, Bihar, Madras and the United Province consisting of a legislative council (upper house) and a legislative assembly (lower house)..
      • Provided for the establishment of Federal Court.
      • Abolished the Council of India.
      • It provided for the establishment of a Reserve Bank of India to control the currency and credit of the country.
      • It further extended the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates for depressed classes (scheduled castes), women and labour (workers).
      • It further established the Provincial Public Service Commission and Joint Public Service Commission with Federal Public Commission

8. Indian Independence Act, 1947

      • On February 20, 1947, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee declared that the British rule in India would end by June 30, 1948.
      • On June 3, 1947, the British Government made it clear that any Constitution framed by the Constituent Assembly of India (formed in 1946) cannot apply to those parts of the country which were unwilling to accept it.
      • It declared India as an Independent and Sovereign State from August 15, 1947.
      • It provided for the partition of India and creation of two independent dominions of India and Pakistan with the right to secede from the British Commonwealth.
      • Established responsible Governments at both the Centre and the Provinces.
      • Designated the Viceroy India and the provincial Governors as the Constitutional (nominal) heads.
      • It empowered the Constituent Assemblies of the two dominions to frame and adopt any constitution for their respective nations and to repeal any act of the British Parliament, including the Independence act itself.
      • It assigned dual functions (Executive and Legislative) to the Constituent Assembly and declared this dominion legislature as a sovereign body.
      • It proclaimed the lapse of British paramountcy over the Indian princely states and treaty relations with tribal areas from August 15, 1947.
      • Granted freedom to the Indian princely states either to join the Dominion of India or Dominion of Pakistan or to remain independent.

Points to be noted : Historical Background of Indian Constitution

    • Laws made before Charter Act of 1833 were called Regulations and those made after are called Acts.
    • Lord Warren Hastings created the office of District Collector in 1772, but judicial powers were separated from District collector later by Cornwallis.
    • From the powerful authorities of unchecked executives, the Indian administration developed into a responsible government answerable to the legislature and people.
    • The development of portfolio system and budget points to the separation of power.
    • Lord Mayo’s resolution on financial decentralisation visualised the development of local self-government institutions in India (1870).
    • 1882: Lord Ripon’s resolution was hailed as the ‘Magna Carta’ of local self-government. He is regarded as the ‘Father of local self-government in India’.
    • 1921: Railway Budget was separated from the General Budget.
    • From 1773 to 1858, the British tried for the centralisation of power. It was from the 1861 Councils act they shifted towards devolution of power with provinces.
    • 1833 Charter act was the most important act before the act of 1909.
    • Till 1947, the Government of India functioned under the provisions of the 1919 Act only. The provisions of 1935 Act relating to Federation and Dyarchy were never implemented.
    • The Executive Council provided by the 1919 Act continued to advise the Viceroy till 1947. The modern executive (Council of Ministers) owes its legacy to the executive council.
    • The Legislative Council and Assembly developed into Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha after independence.

So, that’s all about this post on Historical Background on Indian Constitution.

In the next post (Click Here), we will study about the Salient Features of Indian Constitution.

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