Occasion: Opening Of Indian Legislature : 9th February 1921
The history of constitutional developments in India under British rule falls into certain fairly well-defined stages. The first of these may be said to have terminated with the Act of 1861. During this period the British Government were engaged in extending and solidifying their Dominions, in evolving order out of the chaos that had supervened on the break-up of the Mughal Empire, and in introducing a number of great organic reforms, such as the improvement of the Police and the Prisons, the codification of the Criminal Law, and the establishment of a hierarchy of Courts of Justice and of a trained Civil Service. The main achievement of administration was, in fact, the construction and consolidation of the mechanical framework of the Government. The three separate Presidencies were brought under a common system, and the legislative and administrative authority of the Governor General in Council was asserted over all the Provinces and extended to all the inhabitants ; while, at the same time, provision was made for local needs and local knowledge by the creation or recreation of local Councils. And it is significant that in the Act which closed this chapter, the principle of associating the people of India with the government of the country was definitely recognised. The Councils set up by this Act were still merely legislative committees of the Government, but the right of the public to be heard and the duty of the Executive to defend its measures were acknowledged, and Indians were given a share in the work of legislation.
The second stage terminated with the Act of 1892. The intervening period had witnessed substantial and many-sided progress. Universities had been established, secondary education had made great strides ; and Municipal and District Boards had been created in the major Provinces. A limited but important section of Indian opinion demanded further advance, and the justice of this demand was recognised by the British Government in the Act of 1892. This Act conferred on the Councils , the right of asking questions and of discussing the Budget, and, to this extent, admitted that their functions were to be more than purely-legialative or advisory. But its most notable innovation was the adoption of the elective principle. It is true that technically all the nonofficial members continued to be nominated ; and inasmuch as the recommendations of the nominating bodies came to be accepted as a matter of course, the fact of election to an appreciable proportion of the non-official seats was firmly established. The Act of 1861 had recognised the need for including an Indian element in the Legislative Councils. The Act of 1892 went further. It recognised in principle the right of the Indian people to choose its own representatives on the Councils.
The third stage will always be associated with the names of Lord Morley and Lord Minto. The experience of the Reforms of 1892 had been, on the whole, favorable. The association of the leaders of the non-official public in the management of public affairs had afforded an outlet for natural and legitimate aspirations and some degree of education in the art of government. But the impulses which had led to the Reforms of 1892 continued to operate, and they were reinforced by external events, such as the Russo-Japanese War. Important classes were learning to realise their own position, to estimate for themselves their own capacities, and to compare their claims for equality of citizenship with those of the British race. India was, in fact, developing a national self-consciousness. The Morley-Minto Reforms were a courageous and sincere effort to adjust the structure of the Government to these changes. The Legislative Councils were greatly enlarged, the official majority was abandoned in the local Councils, and the principle of election was legally admitted. No less significant were the alterations made in the functions of the Councils. These were now empowered to discuss the Budget at length ; to propose resolutions on it and to divide upon them ; and not only on the Budget, but in all matters of public importance, resolutions might be moved and divisions taken. It was hoped by the authors that around this Constitution conservative sentiment would crystallize, and that for many years no further shifting of the balance of power would be necessary. These anticipations have not been fulfilled ; and from the vantage point of our later experience, we can now see that this was inevitable. The equilibrium temporarily established was of a kind that could not for long be maintained. The forces which had led to the introduction of these Reforms continued to gain in intensity and volume ; the demand of educated Indians for a larger share in the government of their country grew year by year more insistent; and this demand could find no adequate satisfaction within the frame-work of the Morley-Minto Constitution. This Constitution gave Indians much wider opportunities for the expression of their views, and greatly increased their power of influencing the policy of Government and its administration of public business. But the element of responsibility was entirely lacking. The ultimate decision rested in all cases with the Government, and the Councils were left with no functions save that of criticism. The principle of autocracy, though much qualified, was still maintained, and the attempt to blend it with the Constitutionalism of the West could but postpone, for a short period, the need for reconstruction on more radical lines.
Such then was the position with which my Government were confronted in the years 1916-17. The conclusion at which we arrived was that British policy must seek a new point of departure, a fresh orientation. On the lines of the Morley-Minto Reforms there could be no further advance. That particular line of development had been carried to the farthest limit of which it admitted, and the only further change of which the system was susceptible would have made the legislative and administrative acts of an irremovable Executive entirely amenable to elected Councils, and would have resulted in a disastrous deadlock. The Executive would have remained responsible for the government of the country, but would have lacked the power to secure the measures necessary for the discharge of that responsibility. The solution which finally commended itself to us is embodied in principle in the declaration which His Majesty’s Government, in full agreement with us, made in August, 1917. By that declaration, the gradual development of self- governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of Responsible Government was declared to be the goal towards which the policy of His Majesty’s Government was to be directed. The increasing association of the people of India with the work of government had always been the aim of the British Government. In that sense, a continuous thread of connection links together the Act of 1861 and the declaration of August, 1917. In the last analysis, the latter is only the most recent and most memorable manifestation of a tendency that has been operative throughout British rule! But there are chaukes of degree so great as to be changes of kind, and this is one of them. For the first time the principle of autocracy, which had not been wholly discarded in all earlier reforms, was definitely abandoned ; the conception of the British Government as a benevolent despotism was finally renounced ; and in its place was substituted that of a guiding authority whose ro1e it would be to assist the steps of India along the road that, in the fullness of time, would lead to complete Self-Government within the Empire. In the interval required for the accomplishment of this task, certain powers of supervision, and, if need be, of intervention, would be retained, and substantial steps towards redeeming the pledges of the Government were to be taken at the earliest moment possible.
I shall not attempt to recount in detail the processes by which subsequently the new policy was given definite form and expression in the Act of 1919. They are set out in documents all of which have been published.
It will thus be noticed that the expression, “ successive stages,” as used in the second clause of the preamble, cannot possibly exclude the stages of progress already achieved by India up to the moment when the Act of 1919 was passed ; and it would be wholly unwarranted to hold that, for the purposes of the realisation of Responsible Government, the first stage must be deemed to have commenced with the passing of the Act of 1919. The third clause of the preamble provides that the time and manner of each advance can be determined only by Parliament, and it is recognised in it that “ the responsibility for the welfare and advancement of the Indian peoples” lies on Parliament. This clause has been severely criticised in certain political quarters in India as excluding, by necessary implication, the moral right of Indians to determine the time and manner of each advance. Constitutionally, Parliament is sovereign, and until India has got complete Responsible Government, it is correct in that sense to say that the responsibility for its welfare and advancement lies upon Parliament. But this constitutional position is by no means incompatible with the undoubted right of all subjects of the King to say when and how and on what lines further advance should be secured. No doubt, when such a demand is made by the people, Parliament may, constitutionally, claim the right to be satisfied that it is a proper demand and conforms to the tests laid down in the fourth clause.
The tests laid down in the fourth clause for the guidance of Parliament in regard to the time and manner of each advance are two : (a) “ The co-operation received from those on whom new opportunities of service are conferred ” ; and (b) “ the extent to which experience shows that confidence can be reposed in their sense of responsibility ”. These tests necessarily involve questions of fact.
At this stage it may be necessary to supplement the consideration of this clause of the preamble by a reference to S. 84 A (2) of the Government of India Act. The Commission, which is to be appointed at the expiration of ten years after the passing of the Government of India Act of 1919, is required to enquire into : (1) The working of the system of Government, (2) the growth of education, (3) the development of representative institutions in British India and matters connected therewith. Having enquired into these matters, the Commission is to report : (1) As to whether and to what extent it is desirable to establish the principle of Responsible Government, (2) or to extend or modify the degree of Responsible Government, then existing in India, including the question whether the establishment of Second Chambers in the Local Legislatures is or is not desirable. The Commission may also enquire into and report on any other matter affecting British India and the Provinces which may be referred to the Commission by His Majesty ; vide S. 84 (3).
Can it be said that there is anything in the nature of an inconsistency between the preamble and clauses (2) and (3) of S. 84 A ? Can it, further, be urged that S. 84 A adds to the tests laid down by the preamble ? Prima facie, there does not seem to be any inconsistency between the preamble and S. 84 A (2). The co-operation and the confidence in the sense of responsibility of the people, on whom new opportunities of service are conferred, must be judged in the light of the system of Government, the growth of education, the development of representative institutions and matters connected therewith. If the Commission is satisfied about the growth of education and the development of representative institutions, some of the important tests would have been fulfilled. But in addition to these and cognate matters, it will also have to satisfy itself as to the working of the system of Government. Now, as regards this, if the Commission comes to the conclusion that the system of Government has worked well, and that, in working that system, those who were entrusted with it have shown a due sense of responsibility, there is no reason why there should not be further development. If, on the other hand, the Commission finds that the system of Government has not worked well, then it must make recommendations for a change in that system, so as to achieve the object laid down in the preamble. It is true that the language of S. 84. A (2) is not as precise as it might, and should,have been ; but taking a broad view of it, and reading it along with the preamble, it is not difficult to have an approximately correct idea as to what the object of Parliament was.
Coming next to the penultimate clause of the preamble, it is to be observed that Parliament considered it expedient, concurrently with the gradual development of self-governing institutions in the Provinces of India, to give to those Provinces the largest measure of independence of the Government of India compatible with the due discharge by the latter of its own responsibilities. Now, so far as this clause is concerned, there are two observations to be made. In the first place, the largest measure of independence is not synonymous with the largest measure of Responsible Government. A Province may enjoy the largest measure of independence of the Government of India, and yet it may not have an equally large measure of Responsible Government. Secondly, there are two checks imposed on the independence of the Provinces. The first of them is the express check exercised by the Government of India. The second is the implied check of the Secretary of State for India to whom the Government of India is subordinate. The Secretary of State may, in accordance with the Act, relax his control over the Government of India.