Government of India Act of 1935: Is Indian Constitution its carbon copy?

Government of India Act of 1935

The Indian Constitution is a carbon copy of the Government of India Act of 1935! I guess we’ve all heard this statement. It’s one of the major criticisms of the Indian Constitution, that its provisions are just a replication of the Government of India Act of 1935. If we look at the Indian Constitution, there is a great deal of similarities between them. In this blog, we’d be discussing the Government of India Act of 1935, and how the critics questioned our framers in this regard, and how Dr B.R. Ambedkar answered the critics.

Government of India Act of 1935
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Government of India Act of 1935: Historical Background

After the Revolt of 1857, the British government understood that its control over India won’t continue smoothly until and unless it cooperates with the Indians on various issues of concern. So, in order to develop the sense of cooperation, the British government passed certain laws which included certain provisions such as-

Indian Councils Act of 1861

Government of India Act of 1935
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  • Associating Indians in the law-making processes with the introduction of representative institutions by the Indian Councils Act of 1861. It provisioned for the appointment of some Indian members in the Viceroy’s council (as non-official members). So, for the very first time, Lord Canning appointed three Indians in his council in 1862-
    1) Sir Dinkar Rao
    2)Raja of Benaras
    3) Maharaja of Patiala
  • The Indian Councils Act of 1861 decentralized the powers and restored the legislative powers of Bengal and Madras provinces. The provisions of this act, to a great extent, provided internal autonomy to the provinces.
  • The new legislative councils of Bengal, Punjab, and North-Western Provinces were established through the Indian Councils Act of 1861.

Indian Councils Act of 1892

  • The number of non-official members was increased in both Central and Provincial legislative councils. However, it retained the official majority.
  • The functions and powers of the legislative councils were also increased by the Indian Councils Act of 1892.

Indian Councils Act of 1909 (Morley-Minto Reforms)

Government of India Act of 1935
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  • The strength of Central and Provincial legislative councils was increased.
  • The official majority was still retained in the Central legislative council, but it allowed for a non-official majority in the Provincial legislative councils.
  • It also allowed the entry of Indian members in the executive councils of the Viceroy and Governors. Satyendra Prasad Sinha was the first Indian to be a member of the Viceroy’s executive council. He was appointed as the Law Member.

Government of India Act of 1919 (Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms)

  • The Government of India Act of 1919 further decentralized the powers by separating the central and provincial subjects. It authorized the Central and Provincial legislatures to make laws on their respective subjects.
  • The act provided that three of the six members of the Viceroy’s executive council were to be Indian.

The Simon Commission, 1928

Government of India Act of 1935

However, this act also provisioned for the formation of a statutory commission to report and inquire about the working of these constitutional reforms (Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms) in India after 10 years. And this ultimately led to the formation of the seven-member statutory commission led by Sir John Simon, the Simon Commission, which arrived in India in 1928.

This commission angered the Indians and all the parties in India boycotted the commission, as all seven members of the Simon Commission were British. A commission, formed to report and inquire about the constitutional functioning of India didn’t have a single Indian member! This greatly outraged Indians and the Simon Commission was greeted with black flags and the slogan Simon go back. 

The Simon Commission, in its report, recommended the following provisions-

  • Abolition of dyarchy (dyarchy- a system of double government introduced by the British through the Government of India Act, 1919)
  • Enlargement of Provincial Legislatures
  • Extension of responsible government in the Indian provinces
  • Establishment of a federation of British India and princely states
  • Continuation of communal electorate

The British government convened three round-table conferences which consisted of the representatives of the British government, Indian princely states, and British India. On the basis of these recommendations, a White paper on constitutional reforms was prepared and submitted to the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament. The recommendation of the Simon Commission, with some changes, was incorporated in the Government of India Act of 1935.

The Government of India Act of 1935

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All India Federation
  • An ‘All India Federation’ was established which consisted of British India and the Princely States. It also gave more autonomy to the provinces by dividing the powers between the Centre and the provinces by the formation of three lists-
    1) Federal List for the Centre, consisting of 59 items.
    2) Provincial List for the provinces, consisting of 54 items
    3) Concurrent List for both the Centre and provinces, consisting of 36 items.
    Residual powers vested in the hands of the Viceroy.
Bicameralism and Decentralization of Powers
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  • It provisioned for the establishment of a bicameral federal legislature.
  • The bicameral legislature consisted of two houses- The Federal Assembly(upper house) and the Council of States(lower house). Both houses had a tenure of five years.
  • Both the assemblies included the members of both the Princely States and the British Indian Provinces. The representatives of British Indian Provinces were elected and that of the Princely States were nominated by the rulers.
  • Bicameral Legislature was also established in six provinces- Bengal, Bombay, Bihar, United Provinces, Madras and Assam.
Abolition of Dyarchy and Responsible Government
  • Considering the recommendations of the Simon Commission, dyarchy was abolished in the provinces. Further enhancing the provincial autonomy, the provinces were given more autonomy in their administration.
  • It also expanded responsible governance in the provinces, as the Governor was required to act with the advice of the council of ministers. And this council of ministers were responsible to the provincial legislatures. The legislature also had the powers to remove the ministers. This provision came into effect in 1937.
  • Dyarchy was introduced at the Centre. Hence, the Federal list, consisting of 59 items, was divided into two subjects- Reserved and Transferred subjects. This provision gave special powers to the Governor-General, as he was given the powers to control the Reserved Subjects with the help of three counsellors appointed by him. And the Governor-General and counsellors were not responsible to the legislature.
Separation of Powers
  • The Reserved Subjects consisted of- defence, external affairs, taxation, justice power, press, police, ecclesiastical affairs (church-related affairs).
  • The powers to administer the Transferred Subjects were also given to the Governor-General with the help of his Council of Ministers, which were responsible to the legislature. The Transferred Subjects consisted of- local government, forests, health, education, etc.
Enhancement of Communalism
  • Communal representation was extended to provide separate electorates for depressed classes, women and labourers.
Direct Elections
  • The Government of India Act of 1935, for the first time, introduced direct elections by providing voting rights to about ten per cent of the population.
Public Service Commission and Federal Court
  • The Council of India, established by the Government of India Act of 1858, was abolished and the Secretary of State for India was provided with a team of advisors.
  • The Act provided for the establishment of the Federal Public Service Commission, Provincial Public Service Commission and Joint Public Service Commission.
  • It also provisioned for the establishment of the Federal Court at Delhi for the resolution of disputes between the provinces and between the centre and the provinces. The Court was established in 1937.
The Reserve Bank of India
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  • The Government of India Act of 1935 also provided for the establishment of the Reserve Bank of India.

However, there were certain provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935 which did not come into effect-

  • The All India Federation never came into being as the Princely States did not join it.
  • The provision which expanded the Responsible Government in the provinces, by requiring the Governor to act with the advice of the council of ministers who were responsible to the provincial legislature was introduced in 1937 but discontinued in 1939.
  • The provision for the introduction of dyarchy at the central level, which divided the subjects into reserved and transferred, never came into being.
The critics

As you can comprehend, the provisions of the Indian Constitution were similar to the Government of India Act of 1935. The critics state that the constitution is a carbon copy or an amended version of the Government of India Act of 1935.

British Constitutional expert Ivor Jennings quoted, “the Constitution derives directly from the Government of India Act of 1935 from which, in fact, many of its provisions are copied almost textually.”

N Srinivasan also quoted that both language and substance of the Indian Constitution is a close copy of the Government of India Act.

P.R. Deshmukh, member of the Constituent Assembly quoted, “the Constitution is essentially the Government of India Act of 1935 with only adult franchise added.”

Dr B.R. Ambedkar responded to the critics quoting-

“As to the accusation that the Draft Constitution has reproduced a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935, I make no apologies. There is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing. It involves no plagiarism. Nobody holds any patent rights in the fundamental idea of a Constitution. What I am sorry about is that the provisions taken from the Government of India Act, 1935, relate mostly to the details of administration.”

Government of India Act of 1935
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