Historical Underpinnings of the Indian Constitution

Historical Underpinnings of the Indian Constitution

GS2 | Indian Polity | Constitution


Table of contents

The Indian Constitution, a cornerstone of the nation’s democratic framework, evolved through significant historical developments under British rule.

These developments can be categorized into two distinct periods:

  • The rule under the British East India Company (1773 – 1858)
  • The rule under the British Crown (1858 – 1947).

This comprehensive overview explores the key legislative acts and reforms that shaped India’s political and administrative landscape during these periods.

Developments under the Company Rule (1773-1858)

1. Regulating Act of 1773

Regulating Act of 1773 | UPSC
  • Governor of Bengal: Designated as the Governor General of Bengal with an executive council of four members. Lord Warren Hastings was the first Governor-General.
  • Centralization of Power: Initiated the trend towards centralization of power.
  • Supreme Court: Established in Calcutta in 1774, comprising a Chief Justice and three other judges.
  • British Government Control: Strengthened by requiring the Court of Directors to report on revenue, civil, and military affairs.
  • Prohibition of Private Trade: Prohibited company officials from engaging in private trade and accepting gifts.
  • Constitutional Importance: Laid the principles of central administration in India.

2. Pitt’s India Act of 1784

  • Separation of Functions: Separated commercial and political functions of the company.
  • Board of Control: Supervised the East India Company's political affairs, consisting of six members, including a Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
  • Dual Government: Introduced a dual system of government by the Company and a Parliamentary Board.
  • British Possession: Territories were referred to as 'British possession in India'.

3. Charter Act of 1813

Charter Act of 1813 | UPSC
  • End of Monopoly: Ended the Company’s monopoly over Indian trade, except for tea and trade with China.
  • Education Provision: Included a provision for the Company to invest Rs. 1 lakh annually on Indian education, though not implemented.
  • Local Governments: Empowered to impose taxes and punish non-payment.

4. Charter Act of 1833 (Saint Helena Act)

Charter Act of 1833 (Saint Helena Act) | UPSC
  • Governor-General of India: Lord William Bentinck became the first Governor-General of India, consolidating all military and civil powers.
  • Law-Making Powers: Conferred on the Governor-General and his Council.
  • Trade Monopoly: Ended, making the Company an administrative body.
  • Law Commission: Directed the setup of an Indian Law Commission, chaired by Lord Macaulay.
  • Civil Services: Attempted to introduce open competition for civil service selection, though opposed by the Court of Directors.

5. Charter Act of 1853

Charter Act of 1853 | UPSC
  • Legislative and Executive Separation: Clearly demarcated these functions.
  • Indian Legislative Council: Introduced with six new members appointed by provincial governments.
  • Open Competition: Introduced for civil service recruitment, implying opportunities for Indians.
  • Provincial Representation: Introduced local representation in the Indian Legislative Council.


Developments under the British Crown’s Rule

1. Government of India Act, 1858

  • End of Company Rule: Transferred powers of government, territories, and revenues to the British Crown.
  • Administrative Improvements: Abolished the Board of Control and Court of Directors.
  • Secretary of State: Established with complete authority over Indian administration, assisted by a 15-member advisory council.
  • Centralized Administration: Established control of the British Parliament over Indian affairs.

2. Indian Councils Acts (1861, 1892, 1909)

  • Act of 1861:
Indian Councils Act 1861 | UPSC
    • Included Indians in the law-making process.
    • Decentralized powers to Bombay and Madras Presidencies.
    • Established legislative councils for Bengal, NWFP, and Punjab.
    • Recognized the 'portfolio' system.
    • Empowered the Viceroy to issue ordinances.
  • Act of 1892:
Indian Councils Act of 1892 | UPSC
    • Increased non-official members in legislative councils.
    • Introduced a limited electoral system.
    • Granted power to discuss budgets and address the Executive.
  • Act of 1909 (Morley-Minto Reforms):
Act of 1909 (Morley-Minto Reforms) | UPSC
    • Increased seats in legislative councils.
    • Introduced separate electorates for Muslims.
    • Allowed Indians in executive councils.
    • Legalized communal representation.

3. Government of India Act, 1919 (Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms)

 Government of India Act, 1919 (Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms) | UPSC
  • Responsible Government: Declared the objective of introducing responsible government.
  • Dyarchy in Provinces: Divided governance subjects into transferred and reserved.
  • Bicameralism: Introduced at the Centre.
  • Direct Elections: Introduced for the first time.
  • Public Service Commission: Established in 1926.
  • Communal Representation: Extended to various communities.

4. Government of India Act, 1935

Government of India Act, 1935 | UPSC
  • All-India Federation: Proposed but not implemented due to non-participation of princely states.
  • Provincial Autonomy: Introduced, allowing provinces to act autonomously in defined spheres.
  • Dyarchy at the Centre: Divided subjects into reserved and transferred, but not implemented.
  • Bicameralism in Provinces: Introduced in six provinces.
  • Federal Court: Established at the Centre.
  • Other Provisions: Included formation of provinces, communal representation, separation of Burma and Aden, and establishment of the Reserve Bank of India.

Other Intermediate Developments

1. Communal Award (1932)

Separate Representation: Provided to various communities.
Opposition: Opposed by Gandhi, leading to the Poona Pact with Dr. Ambedkar.

  • After the Second Round Table Conference, in August 1932, the British PM, Ramsay Macdonald gave his ‘Communal Award’. According to it, separate representation was to be provided to the forward castes, lower castes, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Dalits. The Dalits were assigned a number of seats to be filled by election from special constituencies in which voters belonging to the Dalit community only could vote.
  • The award was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi, who fasted in protest against it. After lengthy negotiations, Gandhi reached an agreement - called the Poona Pact - with Dr. Ambedkar to have a single Hindu electorate, with Dalits having seats reserved within it.

2. Cripps Mission (1942)

Draft Declaration: Proposed a Constituent Assembly and dominion status post-WWII.

In March 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the British cabinet came with a draft declaration on the proposals of the British Government. These proposals were to be adopted at the end of the Second World War, provided the Congress and Muslim League could accept them.

According to the proposals:

  • The Constitution of India was to be framed by a Constituent Assembly elected for the purpose by the Indian people.
  • The Constitution should provide India, a dominion status.
  • There should be one Indian Union comprising all the provinces and Indian states.
  • Any province (or Indian state) not accepting the Constitution would be free to retain its constitutional position existing at that time, and with such a non-acceding province, British Government could enter into separate constitutional arrangements.

3. Cabinet Mission (1946)

Independence Preparation: Aimed to help India achieve independence and set up a Constituent Assembly.

  • In March 1946, Lord Clement Atlee sent a Cabinet Mission to India consisting of three Cabinet Ministers, namely Lord Pethick Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and Mr. A.V. Alexander.
  • The object of Cabinet Mission was to help India achieve its independence as early as possible, and to set up a Constitutional Assembly. According to the Cabinet Mission Plan, there was to be a Union of India, comprising both British India and the States, having jurisdiction over the subjects of foreign affairs, defence and communication. All residuary powers were to be vested in the provinces and the states.
  • The Union was to have an executive and a legislature consisting of representatives of the provinces and the states. The provinces could form groups with executives and legislatures, and each group could be competent to determine the provincial subjects.

4. The Mountbatten Plan (1947)

  • Transfer of Power: Formalized the transfer of power and partition of India and Pakistan.

5. Indian Independence Act, 1947

On February 20, 1947, the then British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, declared that the British rule in India would end by June 30, 1948. Other provisions of the Indian Independence Act, 1947 were:

  • End of British rule in India was declared independent and sovereign.
  • Partition of India and Pakistan.
  • Abolition of the post of Viceroy and appointment of a Governor-General for both India and Pakistan.
  • Empowering the Constituent Assemblies of both the dominions of India and Pakistan with legislative and executive powers to frame and adopt a Constitution for their respective nations.

The historical underpinnings of the Indian Constitution reflect a complex interplay of legislative reforms, administrative changes, and political developments under British rule. These foundational elements significantly influenced the framing and evolution of the Constitution, shaping India's journey towards independence and its democratic governance structure.

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