Government of India Act 1919 and its importance as a historical event in the Indian freedom struggle

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Question – Discuss the major changes introduced by the Government of India Act, 1919 and its importance as a historical event in the Indian freedom struggle. – 3 November 2021

AnswerThe Government of India Act, 1919, based on the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, was enacted as a result of the First World War. Indian participation in the war, as well as the Home Rule movement and revolutionary movements during the war, pressured the British government to propose constitutional reforms.

The major changes mandated by the Act were as follows –

  • Diarchy: Dual system of government was introduced at the provincial level. Under it, the provincial subjects were divided into two parts – subjects administered by the elected and responsible provincial government and reserved subjects administered by the governor and his executive council.
  • Responsible Government: Its objective was to free local governments and legislatures from central control and to pave the way for a responsible government in the provinces.
  • Bicameral system and direct elections: A bicameral system was introduced with a Central Legislative Assembly and a State Council. Direct elections were also introduced for the first time by this act.
  • Limited Suffrage: Under this, the right to vote was provided to a limited number of people on the basis of property, tax or education.
  • Representation of Indians: It was determined that three of the six members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (besides the Commander-in-Chief) should be Indians.
  • Formation of Communal Electorates: It expanded the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates to Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans. Under this, for the first time, the provincial budget was separated from the central budget and the provincial legislatures were authorized to enact their own budgets. Provision was made to pay the salary of the Secretary of State for India from the British Treasury.

Despite various reforms, the Act had certain limitations, such as –

  • Diarchy was highly complex to govern, and in addition the governor-general and governors had extensive powers to obstruct the legislature at the center and in the provinces, respectively.
  • Voting rights were limited, and not extended to the common man.
  • The financial powers of the central legislature were also highly limited.

This act had many limitations and it could not meet the expectations of the Indians. However, it can be considered as a historical milestone in the Indian freedom struggle due to the following reasons:

  • The British government continued the policy of rewards and punishments, with the implementation of the ‘Government of India Act, 1919’ and the Rowlatt Act as punishment.
  • The flawed plan of diarchy failed to meet the growing demand for self-government by Indians. This act, as well as the discontent generated by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the subsequent Hunter Committee report, paved the way for the beginning of the historic Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921.
  • The Communal Award (1932) was a further extension of the communal electorate granted to Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans under the Government of India Act, 1919.
  • The British government appointed the Simon Commission to review constitutional progress under the Government of India Act, 1919, which paved the way for future reforms.
  • This Act became the basis of the Government of India Act, 1935 and eventually the Constitution. Through these reforms important principles of responsible government, self-government and federal structure were developed.

Recently the Government of India Act, 1919 completed 100 years. The act introduced some of the most fundamental administrative changes and is known for giving the responsibility of self-government to the provincial legislatures. However, it failed to meet the aspirations and expectations of the Indians.

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