Government of India Act of 1935

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GOVERNMENT OF INDIA ACT OF 1935 This legislative act by the British government of India initiated significant changes in the colonial administration of India and formed the future substructure of the constitutions of the newly independent dominions of India and Pakistan in 1947. The Government of India Act of 1935 must be contextualized by pointing out that the ebb and flow of Indian nationalist politics had during the interwar years become a raging torrent. Against the backdrop of sustained tension, disillusionment, and economic dislocations of the so-called twenty-year truce, the Government of India Act of 1919 and piecemeal British legislation in the 1920s failed to assuage Indian political demands. Indeed, the extension of the communal electorate in 1919, and its further expansion in J. Ramsay MacDonald's Communal Award in 1932, created seemingly unmanageable fissures in the India body politic. As early as 1927, the British government attempted to address growing contentiousness and disorder (from their viewpoint, of course) by sending the Simon Commission (1927) to India to assess the next step in constitutional development for the colony. There were no Indian members of the commission, and it was met everywhere by cries of "Simon, go back." In the wake of this debacle, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League proposed their own plans for constitutional movement, which simply highlighted the growing divergence of the parties. In rapid succession, the (Motilal) Nehru Report (1928) proposed essentially dominion status for India within the British Empire, followed by a Congress resolution calling for purna swaraj (complete independence) in 1929. Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League responded immediately with their Fourteen Points, rejecting the logic of Congress representation for all Indians, and the following year, as Congress declared Independence Day (26 January 1930), Muhammad Iqbal, poet laureate of the future Pakistan, raised the call for an independent Muslim state in northwestern India. (In 1933 the name Pakistan was coined.)

The tension increased considerably with Mahatma Gandhi's march to the sea in March 1930 and the British government of India's arrest of the entire Congress Working Committee following the ensuing upsurge in civil disobedience. The British government then tried another approach: a Round Table Conference was convened in London. Everyone was there—except Congress, which, as historian Stanley Wolpert notes, "was like trying to stage Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark." Little came of the first Round Table Conference, and before a second conference might convene, some resolution of the impasse had to be effected. Viceroy Lord Irwin concluded the Gandhi-Irwin Pact with Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi in March 1931. Gandhi agreed to attend the Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. Further, he agreed to moderate the svadeshi movement by excluding the burning of British goods, and he agreed to withdraw Congress's demands for a public inquiry into police behavior during the civil disobedience movement.

While Muslims, Sikhs, and Dalits ("untouchables") argued for separate representation, Gandhi repeated his position that Congress represented all Indians, and he was especially adamant that untouchables were, in any case, Hindus. Despite his success in broadcasting to America for the first time, and even after achieving some success in the depressed British midlands that had been deeply affected by his boycott efforts at home, the Second Round Table Conference ended unsuccessfully, and Gandhi returned home. Ostensibly because civil disobedience had erupted during his absence, a new governor-general, Lord Willingdon, jailed Gandhi. When J. Ramsay MacDonald's Communal Award was made public in 1932, Gandhi began a fast unto death, which ended only when the leader of the Dalits, B. R. Ambedkar, concluded an agreement with Gandhi to stand select Dalit candidates within the Congress allocation, but not in any separate electorate. Britain moved ahead with a Third Round Table Conference at the end of 1932 and produced an almost universally disdained White Paper in 1933, outlining the gist of what would become the Government of India Act of 1935.

British administrators believed that any forward step in Indian constitutional development had, logically, to include not just the key players in British India, but also representatives of the over five hundred Indian princes whose territory comprised roughly one-third of the sub-continent outside direct British rule. The cycle of noncooperation and civil disobedience movements, the persistence of communal tensions, and British equivocation between repression and reform as the solution to the "Indian problem" had to end. After three conferences and three years of white papers, drafts, and parliamentary maneuvering, the India Act of 1935 was passed.

The act marked a major step toward conferring "dominion status" on India, but it fell short on several counts. Its key provisions extended fiscal autonomy to the provinces, abolished dyarchy at the provincial level, and enabled Indian ministers to hold key portfolios that had hitherto been reserved for the British. However, Indian politicians were quick to note that provincial authorities retained the technical ability to act independently of their largely Indian legislatures in certain cases. The India Act of 1935 also extended dyarchy to the central government of India. Thus, the act allowed increased participation by Indians at the highest levels of government, but it left certain official members "irremovable" by the people of India and responsible only to the British Parliament. Finally, all acts of the central legislature were still subject to the approval or reservation by the governor-general, or in extreme cases, disallowance by the Crown. This last caveat was somewhat anomalous. The provision approximated the conditions of the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865 applied by Britain to its dominions. Oddly, that restriction, which had been repealed in the Statute of Westminster in 1931, was here being reasserted in the Indian case.

Another significant feature of the 1935 act was the proposal for a federation of British and princely India. Framers of the act envisioned an elected council of state and a federal assembly. But this part of the act was never effected. It had too many "democratic" features for most princes, and it remained a paper plan. The Joint Select Committee of Parliament that drafted the act was headed by Lord Linlithgow, who was then posted to India as viceroy to oversee its implementation.

Overall, the India Act of 1935 shifted the locus of Indian governance to the subcontinent. More Indians than ever participated in local, regional, and national levels of government. Yet, the act retained key provisions for a British veto of important legislation, and more repulsive, from the standpoint of Congress, was its retention of the Communal Award and separate electorate system. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his condemnation of the India Act of 1935, called it a "new charter of slavery." The Muslim League also opposed the act. Nevertheless, all Indian political parties contested elections when the act (without its federal plan) went into operation in 1937. Those elections initiated the penultimate phase of the Raj, but any chance that the act might evolve into a working plan for a united India was interrupted by the advent of World War II. Nonetheless, in 1947 the Government of India Act of 1935 was accepted by both India and Pakistan, with few amendments, as their provisional constitutions.

Arnold P. Kaminsky

See alsoAmbedkar, B. R., and the Buddhist Dalits ; British Crown Raj ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Government of India Act of 1919 ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Linlithgow, Lord ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Princely States


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Bose, Sugata, and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, and Political Economy. London: Routledge, 1998.

Bridge, Carl. Holding India to the Empire: The British Conservative Party and the 1935 Constitution. New York: Envoy Press, 1986.

Moore, Robin. The Crisis of Indian Unity, 1917–1940. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

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