Constitutional Development in India

The British came to India in 1600 as traders, in the form of East India Company, which had the exclusive right of trading in India under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. In 1765, the Company obtained the 'diwani' (rights over revenue and civil justice) of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

This started its career as a territorial power. In 1858, in the wake of the 'sepoy mutiny', the British Crown assumed direct responsibility for the governance of India. This rule continued until India was granted independence on 15 August, 1947.

With Independence came the need of a Constitution. A Constituent Assembly was formed for this purpose in 1946 and on 26 January, 1950, the Constitution came into being. However, various features of the Indian Constitution and polity have their roots in the British rule. There are certain events in the British rule that laid down the legal framework for the organisation and functioning of government and administration in British India. These events have greatly influenced our constitution and polity.

Regulating Act, 1773

The act designated the Governor of Bengal as the Governor-General of Bengal. The First Governor-General of Bengal was Lord Warren Hastings. The act subordinated the Governors of Bombay and Madras to the Governor-General of Bengal.

The Supreme Court was established at Fort William (Calcutta) as the Apex Court in 1774.

Pitt's India Act of 1784

The act established Board of Control over the Court of directors to guide and supervise the affairs of the company in India. It was introduced to remove the drawbacks of the Regulating Act. It was named after the then British Prime Minister.

The act placed the Indian affairs under the direct control of the British Government.

Charter Act of 1833

Company's monopoly of trade with India was completely abolished. The act created the post of Governor General of India. It made the Governor General of Bengal as the Governor General of India. First Governor General of India was Lord William Bentick.

Governments of Bombay and Madras were deprived of their legislative powers. This was the final step towards centralization in the British India. The act ended the activities of the East India Company as the commercial body.

Charter Act of 1853

In 1853, the charter act of 1833 was to time out and had to be renewed. It was renewed but no substantial changes were made. Legislative and Executive Councils were separated.

The charter act of 1833 provided the Haileybury college of London should make quota to admit the future civil servants. However, this system of an open competition was never effectively operated. A The Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Macaulay had prepared the regulations in this context.

Government of India Act of 1858

British Crown assumed sovereignty over India from the East India Company. It provided absolute imperial control without any popular participation in the administration of the country. This Act transferred the Government, territories and revenues of India from the East India Company to the British Crown. The rule of company was replaced by the rule of Crown in India.

The powers of the British Crown were to be exercised by the Secretary of State for India. The secretary of state was a member of the British Cabinet. He was assisted by the Council of India, having 15 members. He was vested with complete authority and control over the Indian administration through the Governor-General as his agent. He was responsible ultimately to the British Parliament. The Governor General was made the Viceroy of India. Lord Canning was the first Viceroy of India 1858.

Indian Councils Act of 1861

It introduced, for the first time, the representative institutions in India. It provided that the Governor General's Executive Council should have some Indians as the non-official members while transacting the legislative businesses.

The act initiated the process of decentralization by restoring the legislative powers to the Bombay and the Madras Presidencies. It accorded the statutory recognition to the portfolio system.

Indian Councils Act of 1892

The act introduced the principle of elections but in an indirect manner. It enlarged the functions of the Legislative Councils and gave them the power of discussing the Budget and addressing questions to the Executive.

Indian Councils Act of 1909

This act is also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms after the Secretary of State for India (Lord Morley and the Viceroy Lord Minto). It changed the name of the Central Legislative Council to the Imperial Legislative Council.

The act introduced a system of Communal representation for Muslims by accepting the concept of 'separate electorate'. It was the first attempt to introduce a representative and popular element in Indian Administration. Lord Minto came to be known as the 'Father of communal electorate'.

Government of India Act of 1919

This act is also called Montegue-Chelmsford Reform after the Secretary of State for India (Montegue) and the Viceroy (Chelmsford). It introduced Dyarchy in the Provinces that is division of subjects of administration into transferred and reserved. Transferred subjects to be the responsibility of Ministers responsible to the Legislative Council. Indian Legislature to become Bi-Cameral (Council of State composed of 60 members and Legislature Assembly composed of 144 members).

Simon Commission, 1927

In November 1927 (2 years before the schedule), the British Government announced the appointment a seven-member statutory commission under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon to report on the condition of India under its new Constitution. All the members of the commission were British and hence, all the parties boycotted the commission.

The commission submitted its report in 1930 and recommended the abolition of diarchy, extension of responsible government in the provinces, establishment of a federation of British India and princely states, continuation of communal electorate and so on. To consider the proposals of the commission, the British Government convened three round table conferences of the representatives of the British Government, British India and Indian princely states.

On the basis of these discussions, a 'White Paper on Constitutional Reforms' was prepared and submitted for the consideration of the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament. The recommendations of this committee were incorporated (with certain changes) in the next Government of India Act of 1935.

Communal Award, 1932

In August 1932, Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, announced a scheme of representation of the minorities, which came to be known as the Communal Award. The award not only continued separate electorates for the Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans but also extended it to the depressed classes (scheduled castes).

Gandhiji was distressed over this extension of the principle of communal representation to the depressed classes and undertook fast unto death in Yeravada Jail (Poona) to get the award modified. At last, these was an agreement between the leaders of the Congress and the depressed classes. The agreement, known as Poona Pact, retained the Hindu joint electorate and gave reserved seats to the depressed classes.

Government of India Act 1935

The act provided for federation taking the Provinces and the Indian princely states as units. A federal court was to be established. Burma was separated from India.

The act divided the powers between the centre and the units in terms of three lists, namely the Federal List, the Provincial List and the Concurrent List. It provided for the establishment of a Reserve Bank of India to control the currency and credit of the country.

The act introduced bicameralism in 6 out of 11 Provinces. These six Provinces were Assam, Bengal, Bombay, Bihar, Madras and the United Province.

Indian independence Act of 1947

It was based on the famous Mountbetton Plan (3rd June, 1947). Parliament on July 5, 1947. The Act relieved the assent of the crown on 18 July, 1947 and be became effective on 15 August, 1947. The main provisions were:

  • Two Dominion States, India and Pakistan, came  into existence on 15 August, 1947.
  • The boundaries between the two Dominion States were to be determined by a boundary Commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliff.
  • Both the states had the right to frame their Constitutions by their respective Constituent Assemblies. They also had the right to leave the British Common wealth.
  • Till the new Constitutions were not effective, the governments in the two states would be run on the basis of Provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935.
  • The British Crown ceased to be ruler of India.
  • The members of the civil services appointed before 15 August, 1947 continued to remain in service and to enjoy all benefits, which they were entitled to avail so far.

Composition of Constituent Assembly

The Constituent Assembly was constituted in November 1946 under the scheme formulated by the Cabinet Mission Plan.

The total strength of the Constituent Assembly was to be 389. Of these 296 seats were to be allotted to British India, 93 seats to the Princely States. Out of 296 seats allotted to the British India, 292 members were to be drawn from the eleven governors' provinces and four from the four chief commissioners' provinces, one from each.

Each province and princely state (or group of states in case of small states) were to be allotted seats in proportion to their respective population. Roughly, one seat was to be allotted for every million population. Seats allocated to each British province were to be decided among the three principal communities - Muslims, Sikhs and general (all except Muslims and Sikhs), in proportion to their population.

The representatives of each community were to be elected by members of that community in the provincial legislative assembly and voting was to be by the method of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote. The representatives of princely states were to be nominated by the heads of the princely seats. It is thus clear that the Constituent Assembly was to be a partly elected and partly nominated body.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly (for 296 seats allotted to the British Indian Provinces) were held in July-August 1946. The Indian National Congress won 208 seats, the Muslim 73 seats, and the small groups and independents got the remaining 15 seats. However, the 93 seats allotted to the princely states were not filled as they decided to stay away from the Constituent Assembly.

The constituent Assembly was set up in November 1946 as per the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. The Drafting Committee was appointed on 29 August 1947, with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the Chairman. Originally, the constitution had 22 parts, 395 articles and 8 schedules. The only state having constitution of its own is Jammu and Kashmir.

The Mountbetton plan of 3 June, 1947 announced the partition of the country and a separate constituent assembly for the proposed state of Pakistan.

Working of the Constituent Assembly

The Constituent Assembly held its first meeting on 9 December, 1946. The Muslim League boycotted the meeting and insisted on a separate state of Pakistan. The meeting was thus attended by only 211 members. Dr. Sachchidanand Sinha, the oldest member, was elected as the temporary President of the Assembly, following the French practice.

Later on 11 December, 1946, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and HC Mukherjee were elected as the president and vice-president of the Assembly respectively. Sir B N Rau was appointed as the Constitutional advisor to the Assembly.

The Constituent Assembly worked in three phases:

  • I Phase - 6 December 1946 to 14 August 1947
  • II Phase - 15 August 1947 to 26 November 1949
  • III Phase - 27 November 1949 to March 1952