Government Of India Act 1858 – Introduction
The Government of India Act 1858 marked a turning point not only for the British rule in India but also for the Constitutional development in India. Turning point for British rule because now the entire Indian administration was transferred to the British Crown from the hands of the East India Company. The primary reason for the transfer was the Revolt of 1857, which according to the British government occurred due to the ineptitude of the East India Company in handling Indian affairs.
Initially the bill pertaining to transfer of Indian administration to the British Crown was introduced by Lord Palmerson, the then Prime Minister. Lord Palmerson was forced to resign from the office on some other issue, so the bill could not pass in the Parliament. Later Lord Edward Stanley who went to become the first Secretary of States for India introduced another bill originally titled “An Act for the Better Governance of India”. The bill was passed on 2nd August 1858 just 2 months after Lord Canning announced victory over the Revolt of 1857.
The bill after becoming the act came to be known as the Government of India Act 1858. Since then India was to be directly governed under the name of the Crown. This was conspicuously different from the previous acts passed in the British Parliament namely – Regulating Act 1773, Pitt’s India Act 1784, Charter Acts of 1813, 1833 and 1853.
Key Provisions of Government Of India Act 1858
- The most outstanding feature of Government of India Act 1858 was the liquidation of East India Company. Henceforth all Indian territories would be directly governed by the Crown.
- The Board of Control and the Court of Directors was abolished and all their powers, duties and functions were vested with the Secretary of State for India. Accordingly the first Secretary of State was Lord Stanley.
- According to the Government of India Act 1858, the Secretary of State was to be a Cabinet rank minister and would be assisted by a 15 member ‘India Council’. India Council was to have 8 members nominated by the Crown and 7 members from the former Court of Directors.
- The Governor General of India was to report to the Secretary of State. Thus his office was a prime medium of communication between the Indian administration and the British government.
- The Secretary of State was also empowered to send secret despatches to India without consulting the India Council.
- The Secretary of State was answerable to the Parliament for the state of affairs in India.
- Prime Minister Palmerson had alleged that the primary defects of the Company’s rule were due the cumbersome, complex and irrational nature of the dual government. Thus the system of Dual Government as envisaged in the Pitt’s India Act 1884 was scrapped.
- The Governor General of India would henceforth be called Viceroy as now he represented the Queen. Thus the first Viceroy of India was Lord Canning.
- From now onwards the Viceroy and the Governors of Provinces would be appointed by the Crown.
- The policy of annexations was abandoned and the much criticized policy of Doctrine Of Lapse introduced by Lord Dalhousie was put to rest.
- The act provided that the remaining Princely States numbering more than 560 would have an independent status as long as they accepted British suzerainty.
- The Government of India Act 1858 allowed Indians to appear in the Civil Services Examination held in London. With this, Satyendranath Tagore the uncle of Rabindranath Tagore became the first Indian to pass the exam in 1860s.
- It was decided under this act that the participants of the Revolt of 1857 would be pardoned except those who killed British subjects.
- The Queen’s proclamation vowed for a perpetual support to the native princes and non intervention in the religious beliefs of Indians.
Government of India Act 1858 – Defects
- With the passing of this act, there ushered in a new era of despotic rule in India that lasted till 15th August 1947. According to Charles Wood – “In a situation where a superior race rules over others the mildest form of government is despotism”.
- The Indian opinion suffered further alienation as the controlling power center of India was shifted thousands of miles away.
- The supreme authority i.e. the Secretary of State was answerable to the British Parliament and not to the Indian people.
Impact of Government of India Act 1858
- The government stopped interfering in socio-religious matters. It took almost 35 years after the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act 1856, for a new social legislation in the form of the Age of Consent Bill in 1892 that sought to increase the marriage age of girls from 10 to 16.
- Henceforth the Britons tried to remain as aloof as possible from the native contamination in their private clubs and well guarded cantonments.
- British contacts with Indian society diminished as now very few British men consorted with Indian women.
- Earlier the British used to sympathize with Indian life and culture. This attitude was now replaced with suspicion, indifference and fear.
- The strength of British soldiers in the army was increased. This aggravated the racial arrogance.
- From 1858 onwards the Indian administration was run by the world’s largest imperial bureaucracy with a highly centralized despotic rule.
- The Viceroy’s executive council became a miniature cabinet with a portfolio system. Each member was assigned one of the 5 portfolios (home, revenue, military, finance, and law). The Commander in Chief sat as the 6th extraordinary member.
- In 1874 a sixth ordinary member was added to head the Public Works Department. In 1904, the department’s name was changed to Commerce and Industry.
- The foreign department was personally handled by the Viceroy which was responsible for relations with the Princely States and neighbouring countries.
- The cost incurred to curb the 1857 mutiny was equivalent to one year’s revenue. This was recovered by enhanced taxation in the next 4 years.
- The railway network was rapidly expanded which gave mixed blessings to both Indians and British.
- Post 1858, the Indian economy got more and more linked to international economy and thus got exposed to the fluctuations of world markets. The Indian peasantry was the worst sufferers of this phenomenon.
The Government of India Act of 1858 was a significant step in the process of the British government’s control over India, and it marked the end of the East India Company’s rule in India. It established a new system of governance in India, known as the “British Raj” that lasted till 15th August 1947. By the Government of India Act 1858, the British government was given complete control over the administration of India and provided for the establishment of a new administrative structure, legal system, education and training of civil servants. This act also created the office of Viceroy of India, who would be appointed by the British Crown and would act as the representative of the British Monarch in India. The act was a major step towards modernizing the administration of India and making it more effective.
Although the office of Secretary of State was held by some of the most powerful politicians, the real effective power lay with the Viceroy who divided his time between Calcutta and Shimla.
Later in 1876, on the prompting of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the Queen was given an additional title ‘Empress of India’.
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The main result of the Government of India Act was that Indian voice got further alienated because the effective controls of Indian administration moved thousands of miles away to London.
There is no specific name to this act but when it was introduced in the British Parliament it was called “An Act for the Better Governance of India”.