Government of India Act of 1919

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GOVERNMENT OF INDIA ACT OF 1919 World War I had an all-pervasive impact on India—socially, economically, and politically. A wide range of problems emerged after the war, collectively labeled "dilemmas of dominion" by historian Judith Brown, which irrevocably altered relations between Britain and India. Among India-related issues highlighted by the war were the increasingly contentious internecine struggles among British interest groups regarding the administration of the subcontinent and its long-term future. This pressure was exacerbated by the increasingly urgent and divergent demands on British authorities by articulate and well-organized Indian groups. The exigencies of war and the demands by different Indian groups magnified the need for reform on the constitutional front.

Great Britain had moved circumspectly concerning Indian participation in government, both in India and in London. Statements on Britain's willingness to include Indians in administrative positions in India and to selectively expand Indian participation in government were on record from Victoria's Proclamation of 1858 and various India-related acts in 1858, 1861, and 1892. With the Indian Councils Act of 1909, however, the British believed that they had taken major steps forward in Indian constitutional development by introducing even more elements of representative government in India. The number of nonofficial Indian members elected to the central and provincial legislatures in India was increased. For the first time, legislatures could discuss the government of India's budget. Indians were admitted to the inner sancta of Indian governance—the viceroy's executive council in Calcutta, and the secretary of state's Council of India, in London. Significantly, while the British did not introduce truly responsible government to India (many constraints on legislative power remained in British hands), it did interject into the Indian political scene the "communal" or "separate" electorate for Muslims, which remained an element of all subsequent constitutional legislation in India until its eventual culmination in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

The 1909 act did not stem the call for expanded Indian participation in India's governance. The frustration and discontent with the political situation grew unabated into the first years of World War I, and the imperatives for retaining Indian support in a time of crisis—conceding some element of expanded Indian participation in government—led to Secretary of State Edwin S. Montagu's public proclamation of Britain's new goals for India. On 20 August 1917, Montagu announced that the goal of British policy was to establish responsible government in India. He then traveled to India and with the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, issued a report in 1918 that was essentially given life as the Government of India Act of 1919. Indian response to the proposals was at first guarded, the expectation being that the British would reward India for its enormous human and material contributions to the war efforts. That expectation was short-lived.

While the Montagu-Chelmsford Report was being formulated, Indians received perhaps a more accurate barometer of Britain's intentions through other events: the swift enactment of the Rowlatt Acts in 1919 (to sustain martial law and restrict public activities), shock at Britain's ineffective response to a major influenza outbreak, and the Amritsar Massacre in the spring of 1919. Thus, when the act of 1919 was finally issued, harkening a "new era" in British-Indian relations, its constitutional advances were, from the Indian perspective, limited and cosmetic, and actually widened the fractures in Indian polity.

The act of 1919 did not make any substantive change in the legal relationship between the governments at Whitehall and Delhi, and only moderately reshaped the executive council of the central government in India, expanding it to include three Indian representatives. The most radical change introduced by Great Britain was the introduction of "dyarchy" into provincial administration in India. Under this plan, responsibility for some key areas devolved to the provincial level. Some domains were actually transferred to Indian ministers who were responsible to provincial legislatures through the electorate. Transferred areas included agriculture, public works, education, and local self-government. However, several key elements remained in British hands—irrigation, land revenues, military matters, currency, police, justice, and press controls. Although Indian franchise was expanded by almost 10 percent and the official majority ended in both the provincial and central legislatures, British officials could retain the power to "certify" legislation and retained a de facto veto over Indian legislation.

Indians, already anxious about the sincerity of British reforms in the act of 1919, were disheartened by the retention and expansion of the principle of separate electorates in the act. Not only were separate electorates set aside for Muslims, but other minorities received special consideration, and certain privileged groups had reserved seats in Indian government. The act of 1919 was set in motion against the backdrop of increasing Indian anxiety and disappointment at British behavior, and against the backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi's assumption of leadership in the Indian National Congress and the departure of Mohammad Ali Jinnah on a separate search for Muslim identity in India. Yet, in spite of its limitations, the act of 1919 did introduce direct elections based on a wider franchise than ever before. Additionally, it provided expanded opportunities for Indians in both administratively responsible positions and in the consultative process, however circumscribed. One further, albeit important change was built into the act of 1919. For the first time since its creation in 1858, the salaries of the secretary of state, his staff, and operational expenditures of the India Office were placed on the British estimates rather than funded through Indian revenues. This had a progressive effect of allowing the Treasury and Cabinet increased influence in India Office affairs until its end in 1947.

Arnold P. Kaminsky

See alsoBritish Crown Raj ; British India Office, The ; Chelmsford, Lord ; Montagu, Edwin S.


Burke, S. M., and Salimk al-Din Quraish. The British Raj in India: An Historical Review. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. New York: John Day, 1942.

Robb, Peter G. The Government of India and Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Ryland, Shane. "The Making of the Government of India Act, 1919." Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1970.

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Government of India Act of 1919

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Government of India Act of 1919