The Government of India Act 1919

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The Government of India Act 1919; the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms

The Government of India Act 1919, often referred to as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, refers to one of the most popular legislative milestones in the history of British India. It marked a pivotal movement towards self-governance for India and laid the foundation for numerous reforms in the constitution. In addition to this, the act was in effect for ten years starting from 1919 to 1929. In this blog, we will explore the background, features, and limitations of the Government of India Act 1919.  

What is the Background of the Government of India Act 1919?

Edwin Samuel Montagu remained the Secretary of State for India between 1917 and 1922. He was a critic of the existing system of administration in the country and thus, wanted to introduce new reforms. On the 20th of August 1917, Montagu made a historic declaration in the House of Commons in the British Parliament, it is also known as the Montagu Declaration. 

During the 20th century, India was undergoing numerous economic, political, and social challenges across the nation. Moreover, there was a growing need for active Indian participation in governance. Consequently, the Government of India Act of 1919 was passed in response to these mounting pressures, as the British government realised the need for reforms to address India’s unique political aspirations.

Apart from this, the act was based on a report formed by the Secretary of State for India at that time, Edwin Montagu as well as Lord Chelmsford, India’s Viceroy (1916-1921). It is also known as the Councils Act 1919. 

Also Read: What was the August Declaration of 1917?

What are the Key Features of the Government of India Act 1919?

Furthermore, here are the key features of the Government of India Act 1919:

1. Diarchy in Provinces

One of the most significant features of the Act of 1919 was the introduction of diarchy on a state-by-state basis. In simple words, diarchy refers to the presence of two governments for the bifurcation of powers and duties. Moreover, by dividing certain subjects into central subjects and state subjects, the government could exercise better control over the country. 

Subjects in the reserved category included law and order, land revenue, finance, etc. On the other hand, subjects in the transferred category included local government, industry, education, health, etc. 

2. Bicameral Legislative Councils

The Government of India Act 1919 established bicameral legislative councils at the state and central levels. After its implementation, the Legislative Assembly became the lower horse with 145 members for three years on the board. On the other hand, the state council became the upper house with 60 members for five years.

Also Read: Lord Amherst: The 1st Earl and Governor General of India

3. Separate Electorates

The Act also promoted the concept of separate electorates which guarantees that different communities can vote according to their interests. Most importantly, it reserved seats for minority communities in both central and state legislatures. 

4. Executive reforms

The Government of India Act 1919 came up with numerous executive reforms as well. For instance, the act made the Governor-General the chief executive authority. Moreover, they retained greater control over the reserved subjects of the nation. Apart from this, the vice council’s team of eight members needed to have at least three Indians. 

5. Financial powers

It was for the first time in the history of India that the act separated provincial budgets from the Central budget. Additionally, the act divided the budget into two categories votable, which covered one-third part of the total expenditure, and non-votable. The Governor-General’s powers include granting, refusing, or reducing the grant. 

Also Read: The Simon Commission: A Watershed Moment

What are the Qualifications for Voting in the 1919 Act?

The Government of India Act 1919 restricted the franchise and hence, there was no universal adult suffrage for citizens. Nonetheless, a few qualifications were laid down such as:

  • Voters must have experience in the legislative council.
  • They must possess the membership of the university senate. 
  • Eligible voters must have taxable income of at least Rupees 3000 in a year.
  • They should be entitled to hold offices in local bodies.

Also Read: Charter Act 1813: History and Provisions

What are the Limitations of the Government of India Act 1919?

In addition, the Limitations of the Act of 1919 are:

  • Limited Self-Government: Although the act introduced and promoted the concept of self-government in India, it provided limited powers to Indian representatives. This is because the majority of power remained in the hands of British forces.
  • Separation of Powers: Moreover, by facilitating the separation of powers, the act limited the effectiveness of legislative councils and gave more authority to British officials. 
  • Restrictions: The Government of India Act also imposed various restrictions on voting rights. Thus, this automatically limited the franchise to a small percentage of the population, especially favouring wealthy people. 
  • Exclusion of certain issues: Although the Act of 1919 divided numerous essential subjects like law and order, education, and health, it failed to address socio-economic issues in India. For instance, the need for land reforms and labour rights was ignored for the majority of the time. 

Also Read: Government of India Act 1935

What were the Outcomes of the 1919 Act?

The Outcomes of the Government of India Act 1919 were as follows:

  • Bal Gangadhar Tilak criticized the reforms as “unworthy and disappointing – a sunless dawn,” while Annie Besant deemed them “unworthy of England to offer and India to accept.”
  • Surendranath Banerjee and veteran Congress leaders supported accepting the government’s proposals, while the Act sparked power struggles among Indians and the British, hence leading to escalating communal riots from 1922 to 1927.
  • The Swaraj Party emerged in 1923, gaining significant electoral success except in Madras, where it was less prominent. Moreover, in Bombay and the Central Provinces, effective blockades on supplies, including ministerial salaries, forced the governors to abolish the diarchy regime and assume control over transferred subjects.
  • Amidst attempts to pacify Indians, the Government of India also prepared for repression, continuing its crackdown on nationalists during the war, including hanging and imprisoning terrorists and revolutionaries such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
  • In March 1919, despite unanimous opposition from Indian members of the Central Legislative Council, the government passed the Rowlatt Act, granting authority to imprison people without trial and suspend the right of Habeas Corpus, a cornerstone of British civil liberties.

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