India’s Magna Carta

This month marks the 100th year of the publication of the ‘Report on Indian constitutional reforms’, commonly known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Report (MCR). Edwin Montagu, then Secretary of State for India, had advocated for increased participation of Indians in the British Indian administration and had begun consultations nearly a year earlier. After many meetings with Indian representatives, Montagu and the then Governor-General, Lord Chelmsford, published the MCR on July 8, 1918.

Features of the Act:

It relaxed the central control over the provinces by demarcating and separating the central and provincial subjects. The central and provincial legislatures were authorized to make laws on their respective list of subjects. However, the structure of government continued to be centralized and unitary.

It further divided the provincial subjects into two parts—transferred and reserved. The transferred subjects were to be administered by the governor with the aid of ministers responsible to the Legislative Council. The reserved subjects, on the other hand, were to be administered by the governor and his executive council without being responsible to the Legislative Council. This dual scheme of governance was known as ‘dyarchy’—a term derived from the Greek word di-arche which means a double rule. However, this experiment was largely unsuccessful.

It introduced, for the first time, bicameralism. 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 majority of members of both the Houses were chosen by direct election.

It required that the three of the six members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (other than the commander-in-chief) were to be Indian.

It extended the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates for Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans. It granted a franchise to a limited number of people on the basis of property, tax or education.

It created a new office of the High Commissioner for India in London and transferred to him some of the functions hitherto performed by the Secretary of State for India.

It provided for the establishment of a public service commission. Hence, a Central Public Service Commission was set up in 1926 for recruiting civil servants.

It separated, for the first time, provincial budgets from the Central budget and authorized the provincial legislatures to enact their budgets.

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.

How was it received by Indians?

The 1919 reforms did not satisfy political demands in India. The British repressed opposition and restrictions on the press and on movement were re-enacted through the Rowlatt Acts introduced in 1919. The act allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries and permitted internment of suspects without trial.

These measures were rammed through the Legislative Council with the unanimous opposition of the Indian members. Several members of the council including Jinnah resigned in protest. These measures were widely seen throughout India of the betrayal of strong support given by the population for the British war effort.

Magna Carta of Modern India:

The 1919 Act went on to become the basis for the Government of India Act, 1919 and 1935, and, ultimately, the Constitution. The key principles of responsible government, self-governance, and federal structure grew out of these reforms. The Act on Indian constitutional reforms along with the Montagu Declaration is, thus, worthy claimants of the title of the Magna Carta of Modern India.

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