Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India, 2015. In the background is the Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque).
(Adnan Abidi/Courtesy Reuters)

IT IS not too much to say that the Report of the Simon Commission is a document of world-wide interest, for it deals with a state of affairs which is unique in the history of mankind; a state of affairs, therefore, giving rise to problems for the solution of which no precedents can be invoked. For the past two and a half years the Commission has been investigating and pondering upon an experiment in the science of government on a vast scale; and it has now given to the world its appreciation of the experiment so far as it has gone and its views as to the lines on which its further stages should be conducted.

The object of the experiment is sufficiently well known; it is, in brief, the establishment of parliamentary self-government in India. That the English have long contemplated the association of Indians with the government of the country is clear from Section 87 of the Government of India Act of 1833, in which it was specifically laid down that no native of the country should by reason only of his religion, place of birth, descent or color, be disabled from holding any place, office or employment under the Company which then administered the country and whose functions were subsequently taken over by the Crown. But this did not necessarily involve the eventual transfer of control from Great Britain to India; and though some form of self-government as the ultimate goal may be said to have been implicit in British policy ever since the creation in 1861 of legislative bodies to which Indians were admitted, it was not until 1917 that the establishment of parliamentary self-government was categorically and authoritatively stated to be the goal at which British statesmanship was aiming. It is true that before this the Legislative Councils, both at the headquarters of the Government of India and in the Provinces, had from time to time been considerably enlarged, and the powers of their members widened. Thus under the India Councils Act of 1892, Indians had acquired the right to discuss the financial proposals of the government and to put questions on subjects of policy and administration; while the Indian Councils Act of 1909 had not only doubled the size of the Councils and placed the non-official members in a majority in all the Provinces, but had introduced the principle of election and empowered their members to move resolutions and to divide the Council both on matters of general public interest and on the budget.

Yet it was never admitted that these measures were intended to pave the way towards the introduction of parliamentary government; and in the case of the Act of 1909 neither Lord Morley, then Secretary of State for India, nor Lord Minto, then Viceroy, was willing to subscribe to the view either that conditions in India admitted of the establishment of parliamentary government, or that the constitution set up under the Act of 1909 was intended to lead to it. The Viceroy's declaration when opening the new Imperial Legislative Council on January 25, 1910, left no possible room for doubt as to the views on this point then held in the highest quarters:

We have distinctly maintained that representative government in its Western sense is totally inapplicable to the Indian Empire and would be uncongenial to the traditions of Eastern peoples -- that Indian conditions do not admit of popular representation -- that the safety and welfare of this country must depend on the supremacy of British Administration -- and that that supremacy can in no circumstances be delegated to any kind of representative assembly. We have aimed at the reform and enlargement of our Councils, but not at the creation of parliaments.

Nothing could have been clearer: the intention in 1910 was to enable Indians to bring influence to bear upon the government in respect of its administration rather than to confer upon them any direct responsibility for the policy or the acts of the executive.

It will be seen, then, that the declaration of policy made by Mr. E. S. Montagu on behalf of the Cabinet in, and with the concurrence of, the House of Commons, on August 20, 1917, constituted a pronouncement of immense historic interest and importance. For when he stated that the policy of His Majesty's Government was that of "the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire," it was made clear that in spite of the conditions in India which in the view of the authors of the Act of 1909 had appeared to present insuperable obstacles to the adoption of such a course, a determined attempt was to be made to set up a system of parliamentary government in India.

The action taken in pursuance of the Declaration of 1917 is too recent to call for more than a brief reference. Mr. Montagu, then Secretary of State for India, took the unusual course of proceeding to India in person, and after exhaustive investigation in company with the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, and a small commission, issued a report embodying recommendations for giving effect to the policy laid down. And in spite of the heavy preoccupations of the post-war period, a scheme based on the recommendations contained in the Report received legislative sanction in the shape of the Government of India Act of 1919. The Act provided for the immediate introduction of an instalment of parliamentary government and contained a promise of more to come. At the expiration of ten years a Commission was to be appointed to inquire into the working of the system of government and to make recommendations with regard to future progress. It is that Commission whose Report is now before us and whose recommendations I propose to examine. But it is impossible to appreciate the extent of the difficulties inherent in the task which Great Britain has deliberately undertaken unless the conditions which Lord Morley and Lord Minto believed to be inimical to the establishment of a parliamentary system in India are borne in mind.

The Commission have been so impressed with the magnitude of the difficulties that they have devoted the first part of their Report -- a volume of more than 400 pages -- to a general description of them. How in the space of a single article am I to convey to the reader any adequate idea of the conditions in India, which are set forth with dramatic emphasis in the 400 pages of the preliminary volume of their Report? Perhaps the best way of making clear the nature of the difficulties is by means of a comparison. Consider, then, the conditions under which parliamentary government has achieved such success as may properly be claimed for it in those countries in which it may be said to be indigenous rather than exotic. The paramount condition has been a reasonable degree of homogeneity on the part of the population. The peoples among whom parliamentary institutions have taken root have usually spoken a common language; they have inherited common religious beliefs and social customs; whatever their racial origins, they have been subjected to that centripetal force which nationhood exerts and they have enjoyed the common outlook that the possession of a common civilization entails.

In all these respects India is the very antithesis of those Western lands where parliamentary institutions have had their birth and have met with the greatest measure of success. Not uniformity but an overpowering and bewildering diversity of race, of language, of religion, of social custom and tradition, of outlook and of culture is the outstanding characteristic of the Indian peoples. When it is suggested -- as has been done by the Indian Central Committee which worked side by side with the Simon Commission -- that the whole of the adult population of British India should be compulsorily enfranchised within the next thirty years, it is well to bear in mind that the peoples living in British India number some 250,000,000 souls; that they speak more than 220 languages belonging to six different families of speech; that of these 250 millions, 229 millions are illiterate; that they comprise adherents of the innumerable sects of no less than nine distinct religions; that they represent every phase of civilization from the stone age to the twentieth century; that no one of the 163 million Hindus may marry any one of the 60 million Moslems; and finally that the 163 million Hindus themselves are separated by an exclusive and fissiparous system of caste into innumerable water-tight compartments whose members are cut off from one another by an elaborate system of social inhibitions and religious taboos. That these religious and social cleavages constitute formidable obstacles in the way of democratic institutions as Western peoples understand them is apparent from the fact that there are still areas where not only the touch but the mere presence of a low-caste Hindu is held to pollute a member of the higher castes and where the outcast is, consequently, precluded from making use, except under cover of darkness, of the village well, or even the public road; and that they have proved sufficiently powerful in the case of two of the great religious communities to compel those who framed the existing constitution to concede to their adherents separate representation in the Legislative Councils by means of separate electorates. Thus throughout India the Mohammedan members of the legislative bodies are elected by constituencies composed exclusively of Moslem electors and in the Punjab a similar concession has been granted to the Sikhs.

Neither can we afford to lose sight of the fact that scattered widely over India are a large number of Native States politically distinct from British India, over whose internal affairs Great Britain exercises no direct administrative control but whose rulers are in treaty relations with the Crown. Such states in various stages of political evolution, governed for the most part autocratically and none as advanced politically as British India, cover almost two-fifths of the total area of the land and embrace nearly one-quarter of its population.

It would be easy to write at great length of the contrasts and the contradictions, the anomalies, the anachronisms and the diversities which stare one in the face at every turn; but enough has already been said, perhaps, to justify the use of the word "unprecedented" when speaking of the experiment now being made in constitution making in India. And we may proceed to a closer examination of the proposals put forward by Sir John Simon and his colleagues for the further prosecution of the experiment.

The form of government which the Commission found in operation as a result of the Act of 1919 was a curious one. In the Provinces, which may be said to correspond roughly to the States in America, the field of administration had been divided into two parts. Such subjects as land revenue and law and order, including control of the law courts, the police and the prisons, were administered by the Governor and an Executive Council responsible not to the Provincial Legislative Council but, through the Secretary of State for India, to the British Parliament, though dependent upon the Provincial legislature for legislation affecting the subjects under its control and subjected to a constant stream of criticism at its hands. This part of the government was known as the "reserved" half. Other subjects such as education, public health, public works, agriculture and local government were administered by ministers selected from, and responsible to, the Provincial Legislative Council. This part of the government was known as the "transferred" half. The budgets of both parts of the government had to be submitted to the Provincial Legislative Council in the form of demands for grants, which might be assented to, reduced or rejected by it; but a demand in respect of a "reserved" subject if reduced or rejected might be restored by the Governor. The Governor functioned in a dual capacity: where "reserved" subjects were concerned, he was the supreme head of the executive; where "transferred" subjects were concerned his position was similar to that of a constitutional ruler. The system as a whole was known as Dyarchy.

Such was the form of government in the Provinces. Above the Provincial governments was the Government of India exercising general supervision over the whole, and dealing directly with such matters as fall naturally within the sphere of a federal government -- foreign relations, the army, railways, posts and telegraphs and maritime customs. Here the executive was still constitutionally responsible to the British Parliament, though subject to the powerful influence of an Indian legislature consisting of two houses known as the Legislative Assembly and the Council of State.

The qualification for an elector to the various legislative bodies was generally a property one; and it was here -- in the creation of an electorate -- that the extent of the area to be dealt with and the size and diversity of the population were found to have produced some curious anomalies. The proportion of electors to population was small -- about 2.8 percent in the case of the Provinces -- and it followed that the area of the constituencies was large -- in some cases preposterously so. In the Bombay Presidency three Mohammedan members represented rural areas as large on the average as Scotland; in the Punjab a Sikh member represented the electors of 72 different urban areas scattered over a region 100,000 square miles in extent, a constituency which seemed to the Commission to form "a quite impossible unit." On the other hand the necessity of providing for the representation of special classes and interests had resulted in the creation of electorates which, compared with the general territorial constituencies, were ridiculously small. In Madras the representative of the European trading interest was chosen by a constituency of only sixteen electors; in the same Presidency two representatives of the commercial interest were returned by 96 electors; and each of the 32 Indian members representing the landholding interest in the various Provincial legislatures was responsible to a constituency which averaged less than 200 voters.

The difficulties of direct representation -- sufficiently great in the case of the Provincial legislatures, as the above examples show -- were inevitably greater still in the case of the Legislative Assembly at the center. Here no single rural constituency covered an area of less than 6,000 square miles; the 73 rural seats varied, in fact, from this figure to 62,000 square miles with populations running to 6,000,000. Three Mohammedan members from the south of India had the honor of representing at Delhi -- separated from the source of their authority by a railway journey of 60 hours' duration -- constituencies of 10,000, 38,000 and 83,000 square miles in extent, or, to put it differently, countries half as large again as Wales, Scotland and England respectively.

When it is borne in mind that only a minute fraction of the population lives in towns; that of every 100 persons living in India, 72 depend upon agriculture in one form or another for their livelihood; that the typical agriculturist "is still the man who possesses a pair of bullocks and cultivates a few acres with the assistance of his family and occasional hired labor;" that these people live in half a million villages scattered widely over a countryside almost incredibly vast; that few of these villages are approached by a metalled road and that fewer still are within reasonable distance of a railway; that an odd few only in every hundred of their inmates can read -- when all these circumstances are borne in mind, it will be apparent that to talk of the responsibility of the member to his constituents is simply ludicrous. And so thought the Commission.

To deal with the difficulty -- so far at any rate as the central legislature is concerned -- the Commission have put forward a perfectly definite proposal. But before I touch upon that, let me dispose of the prior question which the Commission were required to answer, namely, how the system of government established by the Act of 1919 had worked. The main object of Dyarchy was to introduce a sense of responsibility into the relations between the Legislative Councils and part at least of the executive in the Provinces, that part, namely, which consisted of ministers drawn from the Legislative Councils themselves. The weakness of the Minto-Morley Constitution had been that it had invited irresponsible criticism of the Executive; and it had been realized in the discussions in the Cabinet in London which had preceded the Announcement of August 20, 1917, that to increase the size of the Legislative Councils in India without changing the conditions under which they performed their work would be merely to add to the volume of irresponsible criticism with which the Administration was being assailed. Hence the introduction of the principle of responsibility, or in other words, of the system under which the critics might be called upon to give effect in office to the views which they had expressed in opposition.

To what extent had the introduction of this system under the Dyarchic Constitution proved successful? The verdict of the Commission is definite and clear; in this the main object of Dyarchy it has failed. In the eyes of the legislatures and of the public, ministers in the "transferred" half of the government have become tarred with the same brush as the executive councillors in the "reserved" half. They are all part of the government, and the legislatures, like the proverbial Irishman, are by tradition "agin the government." It had been laid down at the inception of the scheme that when in agreement ministers and executive councillors should be at liberty to support one another by speech and vote; but that when this happy state of harmony did not prevail they should not oppose, but remain silent with regard to, one another's proposals. "The temperature of Indian politics," observe the Commission, "is seldom so tepid as to make such detachment practicable;" and what has usually happened in practice has been that "the two halves of Government have been thrown into each other's arms through their relations with the legislature no less than by the impossibility of conducting the administration in compartments." Of the result of this tendency towards the unification of the two halves of the government which were intended to remain distinct, the Commission have little doubt -- it "has probably been all to the good from the point of view of the efficient conduct of business; but the underlying and fundamental conception of the Dyarchic system -- complete responsibility of ministers in a certain defined field, and in that field only -- has become almost hopelessly obscured."

The remedy is obvious -- the abolition of the Executive Councils and the transfer of the whole field of government in the Provinces to ministers drawn from, and responsible to, the legislatures. This is, in fact, what the Commission propose.[i] And if a further substantial step in the direction of self-government is to be taken, it is difficult to see what else they could have advised. The dangers are obvious, particularly in connection with the proposed transference of control of the police from official hands to those of elected ministers responsible to representative bodies which have always hitherto adopted an attitude of scarcely veiled hostility towards the branch of the administration responsible for the maintenance of law and order. The danger is twofold; for the effects of the change will be felt both within and without the police force -- by the police themselves and by the public for whose protection they exist. In normal times one of the most frequent causes of disturbance calling for the intervention of the police is the antagonism generally latent, but liable at any moment to break into open flame, between the two great religious communities of India, the Mohammedans and the Hindus. It is a widely accepted belief that the impartiality of the police in dealing with situations which might not unnaturally be expected to excite their own communal predilections, has been due not only to discipline but to the individual constable's knowledge that in supreme control is the Englishman who alone is capable of taking a detached and completely impartial view in all cases of communal rivalry. What, it is asked, will be the position of a Mohammedan policeman under a Hindu minister or of a Hindu constable under a Moslem minister when he is called upon to take action in a Hindu-Moslem dispute?

Similar considerations arise when the attitude of the public towards the police is taken into account. "We have had abundant evidence," say the Commission, "to show that in times of communal excitement one or other of the communities at variance, and sometimes both sides, express a wish that local police administration should be in the hands neither of a Hindu nor of a Mohammedan;" and they ask this pertinent question: "Whether the confidence of the ordinary public in India in the impartiality of police administration may not be seriously affected by placing its control in the hands of an Indian minister?" And it is supremely significant that the Indian Central Committee, a body consisting of eight Indians and one European, all members of the Legislative Assembly and the Council of State, which sat side by side with Sir John Simon's Commission, were so impressed with the state of communal feeling in Bengal and with the certainty that to hand over the portfolio of Law and Order to an elected minister would create a large measure of distrust and apprehension, that they recommended that in that Province the subject should not be transferred to the control of the Legislative Council.

Nevertheless the Simon Commission consider that the risk should be taken in the interests of the wider political desideratum that the measure of self-government to be conferred upon the Indian peoples in the Provinces should be complete. To this extent only is the administration of law and order in normal circumstances to be safeguarded -- that the Governor is to have the right when appointing his Cabinet to include one or more non-elected persons who will thereupon become ex-officio members of the Legislative Council and will share jointly with the other members of the Cabinet responsibility for the policy of the government. It will thus be possible for the Governor to entrust the portfolio of Law and Order to an administrator drawn from the ranks of the officials of the Province, who may or may not be a European.

In times of grave emergency, should such arise, the Governor is to be armed with special powers. His position will not be an enviable one, for with the Executive Council, through whose agency he now administers the "reserved" subjects, abolished, and in the teeth of a hostile legislature, he will be expected to resume complete control of the administrative machine and govern the Province himself. No man in the position of a Governor will contemplate such a task with anything but feelings of the most profound dismay; yet in view of the present temper of the Indian Nationalists it is impossible to deny that such an emergency not only may, but quite probably will arise. This, then, is the outstanding feature of the Commission's Report -- the definite recommendation that in the Provinces of India, with their vast and varied populations, the whole wide range of administration should been trusted to national governments responsible to elected chambers.

The Report contains, of course, many other recommendations of great importance to which only brief reference can be made here. In the Provinces, communal electorates for Sikhs, Mohammedans and Europeans are to be retained; the size of the Legislative Councils is to be increased; the area of the constituencies is to be reduced and an attempt made to extend the franchise so as to embrace approximately 20 percent of the adult population. Direct election for the central legislature is to be abandoned; the members of this body, to be known in the future as the Federal Assembly, are to be elected by the members of the Provincial Legislative Councils and according to the system of proportional representation. It is urged that an incidental advantage of the adoption of this system will be the disappearance of communal electorates in the case of the federal legislative body.

But the outstanding advantage of the formation of the central legislature in this way will be that it opens a door to the inclusion of the Native States in an all-India system. If Provinces differing so widely as do the Provinces of British India can enter a federal system without jeopardizing their own internal autonomy, why should it not be possible for other self-contained units such as the Native States to do so too? Whether they will do so must remain a matter for their own decision.

The Commission hold that with changes of such momentous importance in progress in the Provinces the time is not ripe for rendering the Central Executive -- the Governor-General and his Executive Council -- responsible to the Federal Assembly. That does not mean that the Government of India will not consist, as it does at present, of Indians as well as Englishmen, nor that it will not be subject in an ever-increasing degree to the influence of the legislature. But it does mean that the Viceroy in his capacity of Governor-General will continue to be the head of the central government and that neither he nor his colleagues can be dismissed from office by a vote of the Assembly.

Finally, a word must be said on one of the most difficult of all the problems which arise out of the attempt to confer self-government upon India, namely, the control of the army. The security of India within her borders, and her protection from invasion from without, is ensured by an army consisting roughly of 60,000 British and 150,000 Indian troops, the latter commanded by British officers. What is not generally realized is the extent to which the troops composing the Indian Army are drawn from a limited number of the more martial Indian fighting races. The 54 million people of Bengal and Assam do not contribute a single soldier to the regular army. On the other hand the virile races of the Punjab supply 86,000 out of the total, while the next largest contribution -- 19,000, -- is made by Nepal, which is an independent state and not part of British India at all. It may be said with complete confidence that the fighting Moslem of the Punjab has less than no respect for, let us say, the high-caste Hindu of Madras, whose 40 million people contribute the modest quota of 4,000 combatants to the Indian army. And the Commission state an undeniable fact when they write that "the presence of British troops and the leadership of British officers secure that the fighting regiments of India . . . shall not be a menace to the millions who are conducting their civil occupations without any thought of the consequences which might ensue if British troops were withdrawn and the Indian army consisted of nothing but representatives of the Indian fighting races."

What, then, is to be the position of the army in any scheme which contemplates a progressive advance towards complete self-government not only in the Provinces but at the center? The experiment which has already begun of training up Indians to hold commissioned rank in the Indian army must continue; but years must elapse before a body of Indian officers capable of commanding even a portion of the Indian army can come into existence, and the Commission are merely facing the hard facts of the situation when they point out that the army as at present constituted cannot possibly be placed under the control of an Indian legislature. They suggest that henceforth the defense of India should be accepted not as a purely Indian interest but as an imperial obligation and that the army, both British and Indian, should be controlled by the Viceroy -- not as head of the Government of India, but as the agent of the Imperial Government, acting of course in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief, who shall cease to be a member of the Indian Government.

Such, then, so far as it is possible to describe it is in so small a compass, is the experiment which is in progress in India, and such are the lines on which the Simon Commission advise that it should proceed. For some years past, spokesmen of the Indian Nationalist Party have demanded a round-table conference for the discussion of a constitution for India. With a gesture of undeniable good will, the British Government have recently acceded to this request, and have invited representatives of all shades of opinion in India to a conference this autumn, which will be free to discuss both the proposals put forward in the Report and such alternative suggestions as the delegates may wish to make. It is a melancholy proof of the intransigent attitude of the left wing of the Indian Nationalists that, before even the Report of the Commission had been published, they should have brushed aside the offer for which they had themselves never ceased to press, and declared their intention of boycotting the promised conference. Such an attitude is scarcely calculated to further the prospects of an amicable settlement.

But whether the extreme nationalists come to London in October or whether they do not, matters cannot rest where they are. Great Britain is pledged to go forward with an experiment fraught with momentous consequences, whether for better or for worse, to peoples numbering not less than one-fifth of the human race; and she cannot now withdraw from the furrow which she has set forth to plough.

[i] The Commission recommend the separation of Burma from India; and when speaking of the Provinces of India I am referring to the eight major Provinces into which the peninsula is divided.

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  • THE MARQUESS OF ZETLAND, Governor of Bengal 1917--22, former President of the Royal Geographical Society, author of the three-volume "Life of Lord Curzon" and other works
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