An Analysis of the Government of India Act, 1935

The Government of India Act, 1935 was one of the lengthiest acts ever to be introduced in India by the British. Keeping in view the sheer length of the Act, with 321 sections and 10 schedules, it was further sub-divided into two. These were the Government of India Act, 1935 and the Government of Burma Act, 1935.

The Act of 1935 was brought into being as the result of a very lengthy process. The genesis or the root cause of this Act was the failure of the Government of India Act, 1919 which had introduced dyarchy in the provinces. This experiment by the British was hence deemed unsatisfactory and so was the Simon Commission and its Report.

The Government of India Act, 1919 was based on the recommendations of a report by Edwin Montagu and was hence also popularly known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. It marked the end of the policy of benevolent despotism, and thus initiated the genesis of the responsible government in India. It was for the first time, that elections to the legislatures became known to the people creating political consciousness among the masses. The Act gave certain powers to the executive councillors, elected ministers and the Governor-General, but the powers of the elected representatives were curtailed by those of the British appointed to a great extent.

Indian politicians were unsatisfied as area they had “official” control over was still essentially under the British. To check and review India’s constitutional arrangements and make changes too it, the Simon Commission was appointed. It recommended that dyarchy be scrapped and ‘the government made responsible to the province.’ This report brought us one step closer to the establishment of the Government of India Act, 1935.

The material derived from the 1935 Act not only came from the Simon Commission Report but also other sources. These sources were the Third Round Table Conference, reports of the Joint Select Committee and the White Paper of 1933.

The Genesis of the Government of India Act, 1935

Government of India Act, 1919

Due to outbreak of the First World War and the contribution made by the Indians to it, and the pressure generated by the Home Rule Movement and Revolutionary movement, the Indians had to be given more rights in the form of Dyarchy enunciated by the Act of 1919.

The Act of 1909 did not produce the rule of responsible government in India. The focal authority over the Provinces continued to be as tight and smothering as ever before. The executive did not surrender or share its arbitrary powers with the legislature which at best were transformed into debating clubs.  The Reforms were shadowy as well as decidedly horrible.  The arrangement of communal representation on the basis of separate electorate alienated the Muslims from the surge of national life and made them rank communalists.

The Act had a Preamble with certain key features like India continuing to remain a part of their colonisers and the provinces being given partial responsibility with no change in the properties of the central government. Dyarchy was introduced in the provinces which, on paper, provided the Indians representation in their own government, powers of electing their representatives and decentralization. In practice, however, the elected ministers’ responsibilities were curtailed to a great extent due to the majority powers including that of supervision was entrusted in the officials merely appointed by the British. Furthermore, the voting system was deeply flawed with no universal adult franchise and the preconditions to being able to vote only enabling those with valuable assets to their name.

Thus, even though the Act of 1919 marked the end of benevolent despotism, and sowed the seeds for responsible government in India, it was a failed experiment. The provisions were short to be implemented nationwide and were nowhere close to adequate for fulfilling the Nationals Aspirations of the masses. Hence arose the need for reformation.

The Simon Commission

The Simon Commission (originally known as the Indian Statutory Commission) was a group of 7 MPs from Britain who was sent to India in 1928 to study constitutional reforms and make recommendations to the government. It came to be known as the Simon Commission after its chairman Sir John Simon.

The Commission was a result of the Government of India Act, 1919 as it stipulated the appointment of a commission in 10 years to review the working of the reforms. Due to political distress in the UK, the formation of the commission was hastened by a year and it had no Indian members. Its report was published in 1930 before which the government assured that henceforth, Indian opinion would be considered and that the natural outcome of constitutional reforms would be dominion status for India.

It recommended the abolition of dyarchy and the setting-up of representative governments in the provinces. It also recommended the retention of separate communal electorates until the communal tensions had died down. Thus, the Simon Commission led to the Government of India Act 1935 which acted as the basis for many parts of the current Indian Constitution. In the long run, the Commission even gave an impetus to the Indian independence movement by galvanizing leaders and masses.

Other factors that led to the Act of 1935 were the Third Round Table Conference and the White Paper of 1933.

Government of India Act, 1935

There was a growing demand for constitutional reforms in India by Indian leaders. India’s support to Britain in the First World War also aided in British acknowledgment of the need for the inclusion of more Indians in the administration of their own country.

Great Britain was diminished by the terrible losses it suffered during World War I (1914–1918). Its grasp on its vast colonial empire—including India—was weakened which became a major problem for London.[1] India was subjected to strict governance during the war and Indians expected London to relax its grip after the war, thus protesting aggressively and inviting Britain’s response, which was one of deadly force.[2]

In 1919, hundreds of Indians were massacred at Amritsar by a troop of British soldiers, led by General Dyer, infuriating the masses. Mahatma Gandhi responded with the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920–1922). His policy of non-violent resistance posed a major challenge to British rule. Lamentably, Gandhi could not unite all Indians behind him. Indian Muslims, for example, had their own goals which were often at odds with those of Gandhi.

London’s belated response to the growing question of India’s status was the Government of India Act of 1935. The Act gave Indians a much more important role in Indian governance, but London retained its veto powers. It was a compromise that lasted for about a decade, post which India gained full independence from the Crown.[3]

The salient features of the Act are discussed below.

An All-India Federation was envisaged including both British Indian provinces and the Princely States which never came to fruition due to lack of unity. There was a division of powers between the Centre and Provinces vis-à-vis the Federal, State and Concurrent List and the Viceroy being vested with residuary powers.[4]

There was a provision for Provincial Autonomy whereby dyarchy was abolished in the decentralised sectors. The Governor was made head of executive with a council of ministers to aid and advise him. These ministers were responsible to the legislature that could also remove them. However, the British still possessed the supreme authority and could suspend a provincial government.[5]

The Federal List was further sub-divided into Reserved and Transferred to facilitate dyarchy at the Centre. The Governor-General controlled the reserved subjects along with counsellors appointed by him and not responsible to anyone but could also interfere in transferred subjects via his ‘special powers’. In addition to this, there was a bicameral legislature in a few provinces like Bombay and Bihar. Both the houses (lower- Federal Assembly and lower- Council of States) had representatives from Princely States and there were separate electorates for the minorities, the women, and the depressed classes.

A Federal Court was established in Delhi and the Indian Council was abolished. Direct election in India was introduced for the very first time with almost 10% of the population acquiring voting rights, a stark increase from before. States were reorganised. For example, Bihar and Orissa were split and Burma was severed from the Indian landmass.

The Government of India Act of 1935 had a multitude of other provisions as well. Some of them were the British Parliament retaining its supremacy over its Indian counterpart; establishment of the Federal Railway Authority and the Reserve Bank of India; the setting up of the Public Service Commission – federal, provincial and joint. The Indian leaders, however, were not pleased with or enthusiastic about the Act as the Viceroy still had a considerable amount of ‘special powers’ and the separate communal electorates came across as a means of keeping the masses divided.[6]

The Act was a milestone in development of constitutional government in India and was replaced by the Indian Constitution post-independence.

Analysis of the Act of 1935

Due to a lack of Indian involvement in the Act and a lack of specificity, those within India were less than thrilled with the initial result. Conversely, the Act was viewed as being too radical by many in Britain. In spite of the rough start, the current Constitution pulls many of the principles and administrative services from the Government of India Act of 1935. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the act was that it granted much more autonomy to the British Indian provinces — ending the dyarchy system that was established in 1919. 

The Act had many implications. A Federation of India did not materialize due to lack of co-ordination among the British India provinces and the Princely States. This was owed to the provision that those Princely States that acceded would be entitled one half of the seats in the Upper House and thus, the Central Government of India would essentially continue to be governed by the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms aka the Act of 1919.

On the other hand, a few aspects of the Act did, in fact, materialise. The Federal Bank, now known as the Reserve Bank of India was established and so were the Federal Courts in 1935 and 1937. The first elections of the country in 1937 too, were enabled by the provisions of this Act.

Being that as it may, the ‘Dominion Status’ that was explicitly promised by the Simon Commission was not turned into a reality. By contrast, the Indian masses were further disintegrated using the separate electorates as a tool. The various diversities residing in the country vis-à-vis Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Europeans, etc. began viewing each other with an increased degree of hostility than before.

The lack of Preamble in the Act of 1935 was a stark contrast to that of 1919. It strengthened the perception of ambiguity of the British towards their commitment to providing ‘Dominion Status’. Indian demands were centred around achieving constitutional parity with other dominions like Canada, i.e., complete autonomy under the British Commonwealth. The clumsy compromise between the colonisers and their colony resulted in no new preamble but kept intact that of 1919 showing, at best, a lukewarm attitude by the British.

The Act was riddled with a multiplicity of ‘safeguards’ that permitted the British to intervene whenever it deemed fit in all aspects of governance. Further scrutiny reveals that the British Government had equipped itself thoroughly with all the legal instruments enabling it to take back complete control at any time.

Imperialist sentiment and a lack of realism in the British political circles made it extremely difficult for the British to hold strategic initiative to stay ahead of the curve that was formed ever since Montagu’s report in 1917. The grudging concessions of power through the Acts of both 1919 and 1935 caused more resentment than appreciation and failed to win the Raj the backing of influential groups, hence weakening it considerably.

Certain British officials thought that the Act made transfer of power to India handy but the Indians felt otherwise, and very strongly so. The keynote of the Act was overtly construed as mistrust and the fact that dominion status didn’t even have a paltry mention in the whole act was problematic. It was nothing but the illusion of being democratic on the face of it, but being absolutely hollow in reality. Admittedly, the Act did act as the interim Constitution for the country for a few years after the power was transferred from the Crown to the Indians but this was not without certain well thought out and pin-pointed amendments.

Conclusion

The Government of India Act of 1935 was the lengthiest Act that was made before the year 1935. It consisted of 321 Sections, 14 Parts, and 10 Schedules and was without a doubt a major step towards the independence of colonial India from the Raj. It was, however, also a great failure to a certain extent. The honourable Jawaharlal Nehru said that the Act for Indians seemed like “Driving a car with all breaks but with no engine”.

The Act certainly had a few merits to its name. States such as Sindh was separated from the province of Bombay, Aden was severed from India as a country and made a separate Crown colony altogether. The Federal Bank, which is known as the Reserve Bank of India in present times is as indispensable, if not more, to the smooth functioning of the cogs in the machinery this is the economy of India. Franchise was extended as it introduced direct elections for the first time along with taking nearly 10% of the voters under its umbrella. The Privy Council was also abolished under the aegis of this Act via the Abolition of the Privy Council Jurisdiction Act. All the pending matters of the Privy Council were handed over to the Federal Court.

The above being as it may, the Act did more harm than good. Dyarchy which was introduced at the Centre was a disaster, and the ‘Dominion Status’, which was the main objective of the Act was nowhere close to actually materialising. The Indian masses were disintegrating at a time when unity was crucial to the country via the provision for separate electorates. It did not, in fact, curb any of the difficulties brought about by its predecessor, the Government of India Act of 1919 and merely strengthened and made more overt the dominion of the British over India. It was very clear that the introduction of the Act for the colonisers’ benefit and not their colony.

The Act of 1935 was a rigid one and could not be amended or modified by any Indian legislature, be it Federal or Provincial. Some features were adopted by the Constituent Assembly and are still a salient part of the current Constitution of India, but these were also amended to a considerable degree.

Therefore, it is contended that the Government of India Act of 1935 did more harm than good but was admittedly a very crucial milestone in achieving the independence India has today.


[1] P.N. Masaldan, Provincial Autonomy under the Government of India Act, 1935 … Some Observations, 5 IJPS 80, 82 (1943).

[2] https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/174777/9/09_chapter%203.pdf (last visited Jan 12, 2020).

[3] https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/174777/10/10_chapter%204.pdf (last visited Jan 13, 2020).

[4] Diva Rai, The Government of India Act 1935, iPleaders Intelligent Legal Solutions (Jan 13, 2020, 3:06 PM), https://blog.ipleaders.in/government-of-india-act-1935-2/.

[5] Anubhav Pandey, The Government of India Act 1935, iPleaders Intelligent Legal Solutions (Jan 13, 2020, 5:00 PM), https://blog.ipleaders.in/government-of-india-act-1935/.

[6] P.N. Masaldan, The Sphere of Provincial Government under the Government of India Act 1935, 8 IJPS 761, 765-66 (1947).

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