Charter Acts: Significance in Indian History

Charter Acts

Britishers came to India as traders. The British East India Company got the rights of trading in India by Queen Elizabeth I. They gradually gained control over the revenue and civil justice of various provinces. They kept obtaining powers over other provinces, and eventually over most of the country. And the Indians were surely not happy with this. So, the rulers who themselves gave powers to the East India Company, and the sepoys who themselves worked in their army, organized a revolution against the company. However, the Rebellion of 1857 was suppressed by them. The British Crown assumed this as a threat to their control over India and took the powers away from the East India Company and took the responsibility for governing India. So, the Company Rule lasted from 1773 to 1858. Between this period, various Charter Acts were passed which were of great significance in Indian history.

Charter Acts
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Charter Acts

Charter Act of 1793
  • The Charter Act of 1793 continued the Company’s rule over the British territories in India and also continued East India Company’s trade monopoly in India for another 20 years.
  • Enhancing the powers of the Governor-General(Lord Cornwallis), the act extended his overriding powers from his council to all the future Governors-General and Governors of Presidencies, which means he could override the decisions of his council, future Governor-General and the Governors of Presidencies.
    (The Executive Council of four members to assist the Governor-General was established by the Regulating Act of 1773.)
  • The Charter Act of 1793 gave more powers to the Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, over the presidencies of Bombay and Madras, which were already made subordinate to the Governor-General of Bengal through the Regulating Act of 1781.
Charter Acts
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  • The Act also stated that the political powers and functions of the Company were on the behalf of the British Government.
  • The salaries of the staff and the Board of Control were now charged to the Company.
  • The Revenue Courts called Maal-Adalats were removed with the separation of revenue administration and the judiciary functions of the company.
  • The East India Company was given the authority to grant licenses to individuals and employees of the company to carry on trade in India. This ultimately led to the shipments of opium to China.
  • The Act stated that the Commander-in-Chief was not a member of the Governor-General’s executive council unless he was appointed by the Governor-General.

This was one of the most significant Charter Acts as it further increased the powers of the Governor-General of Bengal, which was already increased by other acts such as-

  • The Regulating Act of 1773, which made the governors of Madras and Bombay presidencies subordinate to the Governor-General of Bengal.
  • The Amending Act of 1781, which exempted the Governor-General and his council from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court for the acts done by them in their official capacity. The Act also empowered the Governor-General in Council to frame regulations for the Provincial Courts.
  • Act of 1786, which gave the Governor-General overriding powers (to override the decisions of his council), only in certain special circumstances.

This Act also increased the trade monopoly of the Company in India for 20 more years, which was ultimately abolished by the Charter Act of 1813.

Charter Act of 1813
Image by- Mana Telangana
  • The Charter Act of 1813 abolished the trade monopoly of the East India Company in India, which was extended for twenty years by the Charter Act of 1793. Hence, the Indian market was made open to be exploited by all the other British traders. But the monopoly of the Company over trade with China and trade in tea continued.
  • The Act asserted the British Crown’s sovereignty over the Company’s possession in India. However, the Company’s rule over India was extended for another 20 years.
  • The Charter Act of 1813 allowed the Christian missionaries to come to India and spread their religious teachings and ‘enlighten’ the people of India. It also provided for the spread of Western education among the people of British Indian territories.
  • The Act provisioned financial grants for reviving Indian literature and promoting science.
  • The local governments in India were empowered to tax the people. They were also authorized to punish the people for not paying taxes.

The provision to abolish the East India Company’s monopoly over trade with India was made mainly because the British merchants suffered great losses due to Napolean Bonaparte’s policy that prohibited the import of British goods into French allies in Europe. Hence, they demanded the Crown to dissolve the monopoly of the East India Company and give them a share of trade in Asia and India. So, the British merchants were allowed to trade, but under a strict licensing system. And the Company, for sure, didn’t like this provision.

This also had major consequences for the Indian domestic manufacturers. They were already facing great losses due to cheap and good quality British products, and now other British merchants were also given access to the Indian market.

Charter Acts
Image by- Herald Magazine – Dawn

The Act allowed the Christian missionaries to enter India and ‘enlighten’ people. However, this was not done to actually ‘enlighten’ the people of India with western teachings and ideals but was rather a method for the religious proselytization of Hindus, Muslims, etc.

By empowering the local governments to tax people and even punish them for not complying gave more draconian powers in the hands of local British officers. Bluntly speaking, they gave them the power to arbitrarily humiliate and torture the locals.

Charter Acts
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Charter Act of 1833
  • The Governor-General of Bengal was made the Governor-General of India. Hence, all the powers and authority over civil and military were given to the Governor-General of India.
  • The administration over the British Indian territories was unified under one control.
  • As the powers were centralized, the Governors of Bengal and Madras lost their legislative powers, and the Governor-General of India was given total legislative powers over the whole British Indian territories.
  • This ultimately led to the formation of the Government of India as the Governor-General’s government was called the Government of India and his council, consisting of four members, was called the India Council.
  • The Act provided that any law made in India was to be scrutinized by the British Parliament. It also stated that the laws made in India which were earlier called regulations, would now be called as Acts.
  • The Act provided for the formation of the Indian Law Commission, which was chaired by Lord Macaulay.
  • The status of the East India Company as a commercial body was abolished and was made a purely administrative body. And the control over civil and military affairs was transferred to the Governor-General of India, which was under the control of the East India Company.
  • It further asserted the Crown’s authority over the British Indian territories by stating that Company’s territories in India were held by it in trust for His Majesty, His heirs, and successors. 
  • The Charter Act of 1833, for the first time, allowed the Indians to be appointed as civil servants and be a part of India’s administration. However, this provision was firmly opposed by the Court of Directors (the executive body of the East India Company).
  • The presidency of Bengal was divided into the presidencies of Agra and Fort William. However, this provision never came into effect.
  • Further enhancing the presence and teachings of ‘western education’ in India, the Charter Act of 1833 provided for the appointment of three Bishops in India.
Image by- ApnaOrg

The Charter Act of 1833 was also one of the major Charter Acts for several reasons, mainly because the Crown made its intentions clear to directly govern the British Indian territories.

It led to the formation of the Government of India and centralized the powers of administration and legislation on one hand, the Governor-General of India. So, this was another major step by the Crown to limit the powers of the Company and assert its sovereignty over the territories.

Another significance of this act was that it led to open competition in the appointments of civil servants in India. Hence, the Indians were given the opportunity to be a part of the country’s administration. This step was welcomed by the Indians. But at the same time, the Court of Directors were reluctant to make Indians a part of the administration, due to which this provision remained ineffective.

And, it tried to further enhance the western teachings in India. Another objective of this proposal was the same, religious proselytization.

Charter Act of 1853
  • The Charter Act of 1853 further extended the Company’s control over the British possessions in India. However, unlike other Charter Acts, it didn’t specify the period of this extension.
  • The Act provided for the separation of Legislative and Executive functions of the Governor-General’s Council. It led to the formation of the Indian Legislative Council and the parliamentary form of government, as the Legislative wing of the Governor-General was called the Indian Legislative Council and acted as the Parliament for the country following the British parliamentary model.
  • The Charter Act of 1853 ultimately led to the formation of Indian Civil Services, as it provided for an open competition for the recruitments of civil servants. Due to this provision, Indians could enter the Civil Services.
  • This Act provided for the formation of the Macaulay Committee on the Indian Civil Services. The committee was appointed in 1854.
Charter Acts
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  • Further Increasing the British Crown’s influence over the Company, it provided that 6 members of the Board of Directors were to be nominated by the Crown.
  • The Charter Act of 1853 introduced local representation in the Indian Legislative Council. So, four members of the Governor-General’s Council were appointed by the local governments of Bombay, Bengal, Agra, and Madras.

The Charter Act was the last one in the series of Charter Acts.

The Charter Act of 1853 did not specify the period of extension given to the East India Company, this indicated that the British Crown could take over the Company’s possessions in India anytime soon. And this was finally done by the Government of India Act of 1858.

It was also a major breakthrough for the inclusion of Indians in the administration, as it provided for the recruitment of civil servants through a free and fair selection process. However, this provision was also made in the Charter Act of 1833, but due to the opposition of the Court of Directors, this provision remained ineffective.

Image by- Wikipedia

Hence the Charter Acts were introduced in 1793 which authorized and increased East India Company’s rule over India, and ultimately ended with the Charter Act of 1853, which limited their powers and monopoly over trade, asserting the Crown’s sovereignty over India.

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