The attitude of the Indian National Congress towards the constitutional changes

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The British Government played the game of ‘Divide and Rule’.

While suppressing the militant nationalists, it tried to win over moderate nationalist opinion so that the militant nationalists could be isolated and suppressed. To placate the moderate nationalists, it announced constitutional concessions through the Indian Councils Act of 1909 which are known as the Morely-Minto Reforms of 1909.

The Morely-Minto Reforms increased the number of elected members in the Imperial Legislative Council and the provincial councils. But most of the elected members were elected indirectly, by the provincial councils in the case of the Imperial Council and by municipal committees and district boards in the case of provincial councils. Some of the elected seats were reserved for landlords and British capitalists in India.

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For instance, of the 68 members of the Imperial Legislative Council, 36 were officials and 5 were nominated non-officials. Of the 27 elected members, 6 were to represent the big landlords and 2 the British capitalists. Moreover, the reformed councils still enjoyed no real power, being merely advisory bodies.

The reforms in the no way changed the undemocratic and foreign character of British rule or the fact of foreign economic exploitation of the country. They were, in fact, not designed to democratize Indian administration. The real purpose of the Reforms of 1909 was to confuse the moderate nationalists to divide the nationalist’s ranks, and to check the growth of unity among Indians.

The Reforms also introduced the system of separate electorates under which all Muslim were grouped in separate constituencies from which Muslims alone could be elected. This was done in the name of protecting the Muslim minority. But in reality these was a part of the policy of dividing Hindus and Muslims and thus maintain British supremacy in India. The system of separate electorates was based on the notion that the political and economic interests of Hindus and Muslims were separate.

This notion was unscientific because religions cannot be the basis of political and economic interests or of political groupings. What is even more important, this system proved extremely harmful in practices. It checked the progress of India’s unification which had been a continuous historical process. It became a potent factor in the growth of communalism-both Muslim and Hindus – in the country.

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Instead of removing the educational and economic backwardness of the middle class Muslims and thus integrating them into the mainstream of Indian nationalism, the system of separate electorates tended to perpetuate their isolation from the developing nationalist movement. It encouraged separatist tendencies. It prevented people from concentrating economic and political problems which were common to all Indians, Hindu or Muslims.

The moderate nationalists did not fully support the Morel-Minto Reforms. They soon realised that the Reforms had not really granted much. But they decided to cooperate with the government in working the reforms. This cooperation with the government and their opposition to the programme of the militant nationalsits proved very costly to them.

They gradually lost the respect and support of the public and were reduced to a small political group. In 1918, Edwin Montague, the Secretary of state, and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, produced their scheme of constitutional reforms which led to the enactment of the Government of Indian Act of 1919. The Provincial Legislative Councils were enlarged and the majority of their members were to be elected. The provincial governments were given more powers under the system of Dyarchy.

Under this system same subjects, such as finance and law and order, were called ‘reserved’ subjects and remained under the direct control of the Governor; others such as education, public health and local self- government, were called ‘transferred’ subjects and were to be controlled by ministers responsible to the legislatures.

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This also meant that while some of the spending departments were transferred, the Governor retained complete could, moreover, overrule the ministers on any grounds that the considered special. At the centre, there were to be two houses of legislature. The lower house, the Legislative Assembly, was to total strength of 144. The upper house, the council of state, was to have 26 nominated and 34 elected members.

The legislature had virtually no control over the Governor-General and his Executive Council. On the other hand, the Central Government had unrestricted control over the provincial governments. Moreover the right to vote was severely restricted.

Indian nationalists had, however, advanced far beyond such halting concessions. They were no longer willing to be satisfied with the shadow of political power. The Indian National Congress met in a special session at Bombay in August 1918 under the president ship of Hasan Imam to consider the reform proposals. It condemned them as ‘disappointing and unsatisfactory’ and demanded effective self- government instead. Some of the veteran congress leaders led by Surendranath Banerjee were in favour of accepting the government proposals. They left the Congress at this time and founded the Indian Liberal Federation. They came to be known as Liberals and played a minor role in Indian politics hereafter.

The Government of Indian Act of 1935 provided for the establishment of an All Indian Federation and a new system of government for the provinces on the basis of provincial autonomy, the federation was to be based on a union of the provinces of British India and the princely states.

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There was to be a bicameral federal legislature in which the states were given disproportionate weight age. Moreover, the representatives of the states were not to be elected by the people, but appointed directly by the rulers. Only 14 per cent of the total population in British India was given the right to vote.

Even this legislature, in which the princes were once again to be used to check and counter the nationalist elements, was denied any real power. Defense and foreign affairs remained outside its control, while the Governor-general retained special control over the other subjects.

The Governor-General and the Governors were to be appointed by the British Government and were to be responsible to it. In the provinces, local power was increased; Ministers responsible to the provincial assemblies were to control all departments of provincial administration. But the Governors were given special powers.

They could veto legislative action and legislate on their own. Moreover, they retained full control over the civil service and the police. The Act could not satisfy the nationalist aspiration for both political and economic power continued to the concentrated in the hands of the British Government. Foreign rule was to continue as before; only a few” popularly elected ministers were to be added to the structure of British administration in India. The Congress condemned the Act as ‘totally disappointing’.

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The federal part of the Act was never introduced but the provincial part was soon put into operation. Bitterly opposed to the Act though the Congress was, it decided to contest the elections under the new Act of 1935, though with the declared aim of showing how unpopular the act was. The whirlwind election campaign of the Congress met with massive popular response, even though Gandhi did not address a single election meeting.

The elections, held in February 1937, conclusively demonstrated that a large majority of Indian people supported the Congress which swept the polls in most of the provinces. Congress ministries were formed in July 1937 in seven out of eleven provinces. Later, congress formed coalition governments in two others. Only Bengal and Punjab had non-congress ministries. Punjab was ruled by the unionist Party and Bengal by a coalition of the Krashak praja Party and the Muslim League.

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