To get the maximum support of the Indian political elite for their war efforts, the British government promised more representative governments for the Indians. Consequently, in 1918, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms were introduced to gradually introduce self-governing institutions to India and formed the basis of the Government of India Act 1919. Salient features of the Act were as follows:
- Preamble: This Act had a separate preamble that declared that the objective of the British Government was the gradual introduction of responsible government in India. It read as follows: The Act which has now become law entrusts the elected representative of the people with a definite share in the government and points the way to a fully responsible government hereafter”.
- Diarchy: Diarchy was introduced at the provincial level, whereby a dual set of governments were established in the provinces: one was accountable to the provincial legislature for the transferred subjects (public health, education, agriculture, local self-government, etc.), while for reserved subjects (finance, law and order, army, police, etc.), it was not accountable to it. The reserved subjects were kept with the governor, and the transferred subjects were kept with the Indian ministers.
- Subjects Classification: The Government of India Act of 1919 made a provision for the classification of the central and provincial subjects in clear-cut terms. The central list included rights over defence, foreign affairs, telegraphs, railways, postal services, foreign trade, etc. The provincial list dealt with affairs like health, sanitation, education, public work, irrigation, jail, police, justice, etc. The powers that were not included in the state list were vested in the hands of the Center. The Act kept the income tax as a source of revenue for the Central Government.
- Governor General: No bill of the legislature could be deemed to have been passed unless assented to by the governor-general. The latter could, however, enact a bill without the assent of the legislature.
- Bicameral Legislature: This Act made the central legislature bicameral. The lower house was the Legislative Assembly, with 145 members serving three-year terms; the upper house was the Council of States, with 60 members serving five-year terms.
- Public Service Commission: The Act provided for the establishment of a Public Service Commission in India for the first time.
- Expanded Communal Representation: The communal representation was extended, and Sikhs, Europeans, and Anglo-Indians were included. The franchise (right to vote) was granted to a limited number of only those who paid certain minimum “taxes” to the government.
- Distribution of Seats: The seats were distributed among the provinces not based on the population but based on their importance in the eyes of the government, and on communities, and the property was one of the main basis for determining a franchisee. Those people who had property, taxable income, and paid land revenue of Rs. 3000 were entitled to vote.
- The number of Indians in the Viceroy’s Executive Council would be three out of eight members.
- There would henceforth be direct election
Significance of the Government of India Act 1919
The Government of India Act 1919 was another important milestone in the history of the constitutional and political development of the subcontinent.
- Through this Act, the British colonial government provided for a partial transfer of power to the electorate through the system of diarchy.
- It also prepared the ground for Indian Federalism, as it identified the provinces as units of fiscal and general administration.
- Although the financial powers of the central legislature were also very limited, it did provide valuable experience to the Indians in budget-making and financial management.
- These reforms represented the maximum concessions the British were prepared to make at that time. The franchise was extended, and increased authority was given to central and provincial legislative councils, but the viceroy remained responsible only for London.
- It represented the end of benevolent despotism and began the genesis of responsible government in India. The changes at the provincial level were very significant, as the provincial legislative councils contained a considerable majority of elected members.
- In 1921, another change recommended by the report was carried out when elected local councils were set up in rural areas, and during the 1920s, urban municipal corporations were made more democratic and “Indianized.
Indian nationalists considered that the reforms did not go far enough and did not satisfy political demands. At the grassroots level, many young Indians wanted faster progress toward Indian independence and were disappointed by the lack of advancement as Britons returned to their former positions in the administration. At the Indian National Congress annual session in September 1920, delegates supported Gandhi’s proposal of Swaraj or self-rule—preferably within the British empire or outside it if necessary.