Indian Councils Act 1861

Indian Councils Act 1861 – Historical Background

The Indian Councils Act 1861 was primarily introduced to accommodate Indians in the British administration. The Revolt of 1857 was a big eye opener for the British. In order to  streamline and consolidate the British empire in India the entire Indian administration was transferred to the Crown from the hands of the East India Company with the enactment of the Government of India Act 1858. But in this act one key ingredient was missing and that was the inclusion of Indians in the apex bodies. Though the Civil service was thrown open to Indians in the Government of India Act 1858 itself, it was not sure when Indians would actually start getting selected. The other way out was to co-opt a few Indians in the Legislative Councils. But the scope of that was limited.

 Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in his pamphlet The Causes of the Indian Revolt published after the Revolt of 1857 argued that the mutiny occurred due the failure of the British to involve Indians in the decision making bodies. Thus he suggested that Indians should be included in the Legislative councils. Similar views were also voiced by the then Secretary of State Sir Charles Wood. According to Wood the old autocratic system must be modified in the new circumstances. With this backdrop the Indian Councils Act 1861 was passed in the British Parliament on August 1 1861.

 The expansion of the Legislative Council and the inclusion of Indians in them was an unprecedented step as none of the previous acts (The Regulating Act 1773, Pitt’s India Act 1784, The Charter Acts of 1813, 1833 and 1853 and the Government of India Act 1858) had these provisions.

Indian Councils Act 1861
Indian Councils Act 1861

Key Provisions of Indian Councils Act 1861

  • The council came to be known as the Imperial Legislative Council.
  • Earlier there were 4 members in the executive function. Now a fifth member was added handling independent portfolios namely – finance, military, home, law and revenue. Later a sixth member was added for public works in 1874. In 1904 the name of this department was changed to Commerce and Industry.
  • The legislative council was expanded. Now the Viceroy could now add 6 to 12 additional members. Of these half members would be non-officials who may be British or Indians. In this regard three Indians namely – Raja of Benares, the Maharaja of Patiala and Sir Dinkar Rao were nominated to the council by Lord Canning. These members were appointed for a period of 3 years.
  • The Governor General was given overwhelming powers. All bills relating to foreign affairs, military, revenue and religion would not pass without his assent.
  • During emergencies the Governor General had the power to promulgate ordinances without the concurrence of the Council.
  • The Secretary of State for India was given the power to dissolve any act passed by the Council.
  • The legislative powers of Madras and Bombay Presidencies that were suspended by the Charter Act 1833, were restored by the Indian Councils Act 1861.
  • Calcutta being the seat of power, the Bengal Legislative Council was given powers to make laws for the whole of India.
  • Apart from these the Indian Councils Act 1861 was provided for the creation of new provinces for administrative convinience. Moreover, Lt. Governors could be appointed to these newly created provinces.
  • Thus in this regard Legislative Councils were created in  Legislative councils were formed in other provinces in Bengal in 1862, North-West Frontier Province in 1886 and later in Punjab and Burma in 1897.

Drawbacks of Indian Councils Act 1861

  • The Imperial Legislative Council possessed no powers.
  • It could not discuss the budget or any financial provision or any important bill the government approval
  • No administrative actions could be discussed.
  • Till 1892 the council met for only twenty five days on an average in a year.
  • From the year 1862 to 1892 only 45 members were nominated to the Council.
  • Moreover the type of Indians nominated by no means were representatives of Indian opinion. They were rulers of Princely States, high government officials, big zamindars, wealthy merchants etc.
  • These people invariably toed the official line and did not represent the emerging nationalist opinion.

Performance Of Indians in the Councils 

Pro British Councilors

  • The voting record of Indians was also poor. When the Vernacular Press Bill came up before the Council only one Indian (Maharaja Jogendra Mohan Tagore of the British Indian Association) was present. He as expected toed the official line by voting for it.
  • Similarly in case of Bengal Tenancy Bill the zamindar lobby supported the government line when Surendra Nath Bannerjea was agitating to make it pro tenant.
  • Similarly Jogendra Mohan Tagore and Durga Charan Laha opposed the reduction of Salt tax. Instead they insisted on the reduction of license tax on merchants.
  • In 1888, Dinshaw Petit a big merchant and Peary Mohan Mukherjea a big zamindar supported the enhancement of salt tax. They also supported the non official British members representing British businesses in India.

Nationalist Councilors

  • Though the majority of Indians nominated to the council were pro British, there were a handful of liberal and intellectual Indians such as Sir Sayd Ahmed Khan, Kristodas Pal, Rash Behari Ghosh, V.N. Mandlik and K.L. Nulkar raised issues of national importance.
  • The nationalist Indians through their newspapers described Mukherjea and Petit as ‘gilded shams’ and ‘magnificent non-entities’
  • Madan Mohan Malviya went on to say that there should rather be no non-official members than those who are not in touch with the people.

Demands of Nationalists

 Until 1892, the nationalists played it cautiously as they did not want the government to declare them seditious. Thus their demands were basic and simple. They demanded:

  • Expansion and reform of the legislative councils.
  • Wider participation of elected Indian members.
  • Wider powers for the councils
  • Powers to discuss and deal with the budget and question and criticize day to day administration.


 Though the Indian Councils Act 1861 initiated participation of Indians in the legislature, it could not be seen as a beginning of parliament even of the most elementary kind. The government of India remained an alien despot as before 1858. This despotism remained a fundamental feature of the Government of India till 15th August 1947. 

 Charles Wood, the Secretary of State while moving the Indian Council Bill of 1861 in the parliament stated “All experience teaches us that when a dominant race rules another, the mildest form of government is despotism”. But still despite the shortcomings of the Indian Councils Act 1861, nationalist Indians who entered the councils made an outstanding contribution even though they were in minority.

See Also

Charter Act 1853

Short Note On Revolt Of 1857

Government of India Act 1858


What was the main objective of Indian Council Act 1861?

The main objective of the Indian Councils Act 1861 was to include Indians in the legislature. It is besides the point that the type of Indians nominated were not true representatives of the masses.

Who introduced 1861 Act?

Charles Wood the Secretary of State moved the Indian Councils Bill 1861 in the British Parliament. Lord Elgin was the Governor General of India when it was implemented.

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