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Insights into Editorial: India’s Magna Carta


Insights into Editorial: India’s Magna Carta


 

Context:

This month marks the 100th year of the publication of the ‘Report on Indian constitutional reforms’, commonly known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Report (MCR).

Edwin Montagu, then Secretary of State for India, had advocated for increased participation of Indians in the British Indian administration.

After many meetings with Indian representatives, Montagu and the then Governor-General, Lord Chelmsford, published the MCR on July 8, 1918.

 

Significance of Montagu-Chelmsford Report (MCR)- India’s Magna Carta:

The MCR stands out for proposing some of the most radical administrative changes and for giving provincial legislatures the mantle of self-governance.

To this extent, the report advocated the need “to emancipate the local governments and legislatures from central control; and to advance, by successive stages, in the direction of conferring responsible government on the provinces.”

The Montagu-Chelmsford Committee visited Madras Presidency to gather the views of political leaders and included the “creation of municipalities and local body institutions with sufficient autonomy to handle their local issues… bereft of the intrusive control of the Government.”

They further demanded that administration of the Presidency be eventually moved to the local legislature. To this end, they suggested that departments in administration be placed under the control of legislatures.

Ultimately, the MCR established the framework for devolution of powers and gave credence to the cry for self-governance. This cannot come as a surprise because the report recommended that “the Provinces are the domain in which the earlier steps towards the progressive realisation of responsible government should be taken”.

Another one of the most far-reaching objectives of the report was to elucidate the principle of accountable governance by directing that the “Government of India must remain wholly responsible to Parliament.”

 

Important Features of the 1919Act:

  • It relaxed the central control over the provinces by demarcating and separating the central and provincial subjects. The central and provincial legislatures were authorised to make laws on their respective list of subjects. However, the structure of government continued to be centralised and unitary.
  • It further divided the provincial subjects into two parts—transferred and reserved. The transferred subjects were to be administered by the governor with the aid of ministers responsible to the legislative Council.
  • The reserved subjects, on the other hand, were to be administered by the governor and his executive council without being responsible to the legislative Council. This dual scheme of governance was known as ‘dyarchy’—a term derived from the Greek word di-arche which means double rule. However, this experiment was largely unsuccessful.
  • It introduced, for the first time, bicameralism and direct elections in the country. Thus, the Indian Legislative Council was replaced by a bicameral legislature consisting of an Upper House (Council of State) and a Lower House (Legislative Assembly). The majority of members of both the Houses were chosen by direct election.
  • It required that the three of the six members of the Viceroy’s executive Council (other than the commander-in-chief) were to be Indian.
  • It extended the principle of communal representation by providing separate electorates for Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and Europeans.
  • It granted franchise to a limited number of people on the basis of property, tax or education.
  • It created a new office of the High Commissioner for India in London and transferred to him some of the functions hitherto performed by the Secretary of State for India.
  • It provided for the establishment of a public service commission. Hence, a Central Public Service Commission was set up in 1926 for recruiting civil servants.
  • It separated, for the first time, provincial budgets from the Central budget and authorised the provincial legislatures to enact their budgets.
  • It provided for the appointment of a statutory commission to inquire into and report on its working after ten years of its coming into force.

 

Drawbacks:

The reforms had many drawbacks:

  • Franchise was very limited.
  • At the centre, the legislature had no control over the governor-general and his executive council.
  • Division of subjects was not satisfactory at the centre.
  • Allocation of seats for Central Legislature to provinces was based on ‘importance’ of provinces for instance, Punjab’s military importance and Bombay’s commercial importance.
  • At the level of provinces, division of subjects and parallel administration of two parts was irrational and hence unworkable.
  • The provincial ministers had no control over finances and over the bureaucrats, leading to constant friction between the two. Ministers were often not consulted on important matters too; in fact, they could be overruled by the governor on any matter that the latter considered special.
  • On the home government (in Britain) front, the Government of India Act, 1919 made an important change the secretary of state was henceforth to be paid out of the British exchequer.

 

Response from Indian National Congress:

However, in the 32nd session (Dec. 26-29, 1917) of the Indian National Congress, led by British theosophist Annie Besant, there was strong opposition to the Montagu declaration as something that “was unworthy of England to offer and India to accept.”

However, Besant later accepted the reforms as essential for the progress of British India. This was laid the platform for the development of a responsible government.

 

Conclusion:

The MCR would go on to become the basis for the Government of India Act, 1935, and, ultimately, the Constitution.

The key principles of responsible government, self-governance and federal structure grew out of these reforms. Montagu-Chelmsford Report on Indian constitutional reforms is a watershed in India’s constitutional history.

The MCR on Indian constitutional reforms along with the Montagu Declaration are, thus, worthy claimants of the title of the Magna Carta of modern India.