BY THE time these words appear in print, Parliament will be well seized of the new Government of India Bill. We shall be within sight of the end of that long process of inquiry and deliberation which began as far back as the autumn of 1927 when the Statutory Commission -- better known as the Simon Commission -- was nominated. Students of Indian affairs will not need to be reminded of the various stages between that inaugural step and the publication of the Joint Select Committee's Report last November. The highest point of importance and interest was reached in the two-years-long Round Table Conference, when the representatives of Great Britain and India met on free and equal terms to take counsel together on the whole question of India's future system of government. The White Paper, based upon those discussions and published in 1933, contained the proposals of His Majesty's Government for the future constitution of India. The Joint Committee has examined and reported on them, and now Parliament itself is called to complete the work of more than seven years. It may be useful, therefore, to look back at the whole great area which has been traversed, and, in the light of the knowledge and experience gained during the past seven years, to reinterpret our subject, setting its outstanding features in just perspective, and marking the spot to which our labors have now brought us.

Fortunately I need not discuss the basic considerations which must govern all serious thinking on the subject of Indian government. This has been done for the readers of FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Lord Reading, my predecessor in the Viceroyalty of India, in the issue for July 1933. His article brought us to the eve of the publication of the White Paper, which has since been examined by the Joint Committee selected from members of the House of Lords and House of Commons, appointed in 1933. The legislation now introduced in Parliament is founded on the Report of this Committee, and it is accordingly with the Committee's recommendations that this article is concerned.

As regards the Committee itself, it would be difficult to conceive of a more authoritative British tribunal than this which was drawn from the two Houses of Parliament. Moreover, in view of the unique importance of its work, this particular Committee was chosen with peculiar care and deliberation. Eighteen out of its thirty-one members had had official connection with Indian Government affairs. Among these eighteen were three ex-Viceroys, three Secretaries of State for India, three Governors of Indian provinces, and three members of the Simon Commission, including Sir John Simon himself. Its Chairman had presided over a Royal Commission appointed to inquire into Indian agriculture, which is the principal foundation of Indian life. Each of the three political parties was represented by distinguished members. It may fairly be said, therefore, that the Committee was about as adequate as humanly possible to the great task entrusted to it.

After eighteen months' concentrated work, the Joint Select Committee published its Report on November 21, 1934. The Report falls into six sections. It opens with a survey of the principles of a constitutional settlement for India, and this is followed by five sections on the provinces of British India; the Federation of All-India; the Central Government (that is, the government of the Federation); and certain special subjects, notably finance. Finally, there is a section on Burma, which the Report recommends should be separated from India.

The main structure of the White Paper proposals is left unaltered by the Report. That is to say, the Report has recommended that provision should be made in an Act of Parliament to put into effect the following three main principles:

a. Autonomy for the British Provinces, with certain reserved powers in the hands of the governor.

b. A Federation of All-India, the constituent units being the Provinces of British India and the Indian States under their own hereditary rulers.

c. Responsibility in the Federal Government, with certain limitations, e.g. defense and foreign affairs are to be reserved to the Governor-General, who is also to have certain special powers to enable him to carry out certain responsibilities to the British Parliament.

This synopsis of the proposals, bald as it is, reveals the scope and range of the suggested changes in Indian government.

It will be seen that the status of the Provinces of British India under the proposals is to be materially different from what it has been in the past. Briefly, in order to enable them to enter into the Federation on even terms with the Indian States, they have to be made autonomous. Dyarchy, that "singular device" as Lord Reading called it, by which part only of the administration was handed over to the control of ministers chosen from and responsible to the provincial legislature, is ended. All departments of government are now to be transferred to the ministers responsible to provincial legislatures, enlarged, and made more representative. The Governors of Provinces are to have special powers to enable them to discharge their responsibilities to Parliament for the peace and good government of their respective charges.

Above all, India as we know it today will have, for the first time in her history, a common government; and in this lie latent immense potentialities, both spiritual and material. The creation of an all-India Federal Government is recommended for the eleven Provinces of British India and such Indian States as desire to accede. While there is to be no change in the domestic government of the Indian States, or in the relations between their rulers and the crown, and while practically all that field of government which touches the day-to-day life of the man in the street or village will fall within the provincial sphere, the Federation will deal with such All-India matters as currency and tariffs, migration and immigration from and into India, maritime shipping, a large area of the vastly important field of communications, and most of the scientific activities of the Government and many others. Defense and foreign relations, though essentially of course all-India matters, remain outside the scope of the responsible Federal Government, inasmuch as it seemed to the Committee impossible to place a large portion of the British Army still required for Indian defense under any control but that of the Imperial Parliament; and foreign relations are closely and inevitably connected with defense. For these two important subjects, therefore, the Governor-General will remain directly responsible, as he is at present, to the Secretary of State for India, and, through him, to the British Parliament.

The Federal Legislature is to consist of two houses, in both of which the representatives of British India will be chosen by indirect election. The representatives of the Indian States will be nominated by the States themselves. The Provinces of British India will each have an elected legislature chosen by direct election, on a franchise representing about 14 percent of the adult population of British India. The Committee recommended that five out of the eleven Provinces should have upper as well as lower houses, and both in the Federal and in the Provincial bodies provisions are made to secure a quota of seats to minority communities.

The Report thus visualized an India moving, in respect of political development, along the lines of responsible self-government, as the British peoples all over the world understand that conception. Both in the Federation and in the Provinces, the Governments will be composed of ministers responsible to their legislative bodies, like ministers in this country and the Dominions. Normally, the Governor-General and the Provincial Governors will act on the advice of ministers, but, for reasons peculiar to India, which the Report fully explains, the Governor-General and the Provincial Governors are given certain exceptional powers to ensure that they may be able to discharge the special duties imposed on them under the Constitution. They are all charged, for example, with the duty of safeguarding minority communities, and for coping with any serious threat to peace and order in their respective jurisdictions. The Governor-General has the additional duty of ensuring the financial stability and credit of India.

The Committee gave special attention to the grave problem of terrorism in India, and made certain proposals additional to those contained in the White Paper. The most important of these is that the Governor of a Province, in order to combat terrorism, should have the power to take under his own control any branch of government which he might find it necessary to use for that purpose.

Among the special subjects discussed, the most important outside finance are those relating to law and order, and the safeguarding of British commercial interests in India. The Committee recommended that recruitment in Britain for the Indian Police, the Indian Civil Service, the Civil Branch of the Indian Medical Service, should be continued, and that all rights enjoyed by the members of the public services should be maintained. Particular attention was directed to the protection of police discipline and judicial independence against political attacks. In the matter of trade discrimination the Committee, while disclaiming any desire to hamper any legitimate economic development in India, recommended that the Governor-General should have a "special responsibility" to prevent the imposition of penal tariffs on goods imported from the United Kingdom. Lastly, in order to afford means by which Indian opinion could have the formal opportunity of influencing the opinion of the British Parliament, the Committee advised that the Indian Legislatures should, after ten years, have the right to recommend to the British Government and Parliament the amendment of the Constitution on such matters as the franchise, and the composition of the legislative bodies.

Such, in broad outline, are the Committee's proposals. And here at the outset is a strange and arresting phenomenon -- autonomous Provinces of British India. In future the British Provinces will have a status analogous to that of the States of Australia or the United States, instead of being, as formerly, subordinate members of a unitary government of British India. It is true that dyarchy, the characteristic feature of the 1919 Constitution, modifies this statement to some extent. Under the dyarchic system certain important departments of administration were handed over to ministers chosen from among the elected members of the Provincial Councils and responsible to the latter for their actions. Normally, therefore, the Government of India exercised only potential or ultimate control over these ministerial departments, and Provinces thus became quasi-autonomous in respect of them. But now dyarchy is to go, and the Provinces are to be autonomous and their form of government to be the cabinet form with which we are familiar in other British countries.

The other constituents of the Federation, the Indian States, are also to be, vis-à-vis the Federal Government, completely autonomous in their domestic affairs, but there is an evident difference between their approach to the Federation and the approach of the British Provinces. The Indian States have to surrender certain of their autonomous powers to the Federation. On the other hand, the Provinces receive a net increase of autonomy in order to make them appropriate units for Federation. The importance of this change in the status of the Provinces is truly fundamental and lies at the heart of the political situation in India today. For under the new constitution every single department of administration in the Provinces will be controlled by a minister who is a member of the Provincial Cabinet. Even law and order, including the control of the police -- that is, the pith and marrow of the Provincial administration -- are now to go over to ministerial control. And very grave doubts as to the wisdom of this great change, particularly as it affects law and order, have been expressed, not only in Great Britain, but in India too. For the issue is not merely one between this country and India. Indeed, it is primarily one between the different communities and sections of the Indian people themselves.

At this point we touch other elements in the problem, and these must be remembered if we are to understand the full implications of Provincial autonomy and the reason why the forthcoming development is being regarded with some apprehension by large numbers of Indians. Excluding Burma, the boundaries of British India were finally determined in 1849, when the Punjab was annexed. That was the climax of a century of conquest and consolidation, during which not only had the territory which now comprises British India passed under British rule, but our relation with the Indian States and their rulers had been clarified and reduced to a system. Among other things, all military and foreign policy in the Indian States became functions of the Government of India. In other words, the Pax Britannica was extended over all India, British and Princely India alike. But when this great process of conquest and consolidation began with Clive's campaign, India was the theatre of a number of contending states and kingdoms. The titular head of the whole country was the Great Mogul, the Emperor of Delhi, head of a Mohammedan dynasty, nominally at any rate the overlord of India, as the British are today. It is well known how the Mahrattas, the Sikhs, certain rulers in the Karnatic, and one or two of the imperial satraps, were in rebellion against the Emperor's authority and were carving out a number of separate kingdoms. In other words, the political evolution of India was taking place by the age-old method of military force. Such was the situation when the British began to extend their power over India. The rise of the British power "froze" these conditions. During the generations which have elapsed all sorts of influences -- material, intellectual and spiritual -- have modified these conditions, without, however, completely transforming or eradicating them.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, and gathering momentum during the twentieth, a reverse process has been taking place. More and more power has been devolved on Indians themselves. British India has been steadily moving towards self-government based on democratic principles, and a more liberal spirit and expression have been introduced into the constitutions of many of the more important Indian States. In British India at any rate there has been during this period a gradual and steady "unfreezing" of the conditions referred to, and we now find that the process has provided the people of India themselves with some problems of a very formidable kind.

The outstanding problem, as all the world knows, is that which is provided by the relations between Hindus and Moslems, and more generally between the Hindu majority and all the minority communities. It will be remembered that at the Round Table Conference the representatives of the majority and minority communities were unable to reach agreement on such vital matters as the proportion of seats to be allotted to the various communities in the Provincial Legislatures, and also in the Federal Legislature. In the end the British Government had to decide this and other disputes for them. Then came Mr. Gandhi's intervention in September 1932, causing certain modifications in the British Government's award, which undoubtedly operate to the detriment of the Hindus, notably in the Punjab and Bengal. The result of all this is that the major topic of interest for most of the voters in India today is precisely this question of the comparative strengths of the various communities in the Provincial Legislatures. Thus in some Provinces the Hindus, in others the Mohammedans, view the forthcoming autonomy with some misgiving. And always the control of the police is foremost in their minds, for this is the executive arm par excellence of the administration. It was to meet such anxieties that the Committee recognized the necessity of vesting certain extraordinary powers in the Provincial Governors, to enable them to protect minority rights and ensure the peace and order of their Provinces, and it is satisfactory to find that high police officials and the Indian Police Association, the representative body of the Indian police service, have expressed approval of the transfer of law and order to Indian ministers on the basis recommended by the Committee.

Impressive as are these measures for the future government of the Provinces, the conception which overshadows everything else for those who approach the problem remembering the past history of India is the proposed creation of a Federal Government of All-India. Every other proposal -- major and minor -- hinges on this great central theme. It is necessary for readers to appreciate how strange and far-reaching this proposal is.

Hitherto the word "India" has been very loosely used. The average person with no Indian experience regards the words "India" and "British India" as synonymous. The better instructed distinguish between "British India" and the Indian States, which comprise roughly about two-fifths of the area of the whole entity properly known as India. There is no need for me to describe here the extreme fragmentation of "Princely" India, since that is one of the facts with which the controversies of the past few years have made us all familiar. What is not so widely known, however, is that all India has never yet formed one country for the purpose of government. At different times in the past, as in the days of Akbar and of the great Asoka Maurya, nearly the whole of India has been subject to the sway of one monarch, but the historic Andhra Kingdom of the south was always independent. Moreover, many of the large Indian States, ruled by members of dynasties of great antiquity, had never been fully incorporated into the political life of the Mohammedan or Hindu empires of the past. They have gone their own way and lived their own lives.

It will be seen, therefore, that the creation of a Federal Government of All-India is something far more than the mere agreement of a number of autonomous units to combine together for certain common purposes. It is the first step in the creation of a nation. Further, it is a step which has to be taken in concert by contracting parties of widely different outlook and status. First, there is the British Government, representative of the British people, upon whom must still rest their share of responsibility for the good government of India. Next come the 240 millions or so of British-Indian subjects, with their different and in some cases conflicting interests and communities. Lastly, the Princes, with their peculiar status and multiplicity of rights, legal, personal and customary. It would take me too far afield to discuss the extraordinary complexity of the issues raised by the problem of welding all these different parties, interests, races, communities, rights, claims and counter-claims into one harmonized organic whole. I mention them here in passing because their existence, together with the newness and magnitude of the task which Britain and India are attempting in common, forms the reason for the particular balance of autonomy and limitation which the Joint Select Committee's Report creates.

Of course there is criticism -- from different and even opposing quarters -- of these proposals. The gravamen of all the criticism is that no clear-cut plan of a new Constitution emerges. The plans for the Provincial Governments are reasonably precise, although, as we shall see, there unavoidably are certain indeterminate lines even there, and, again inevitably, when we get to the Federal Government. We cannot say, for example, exactly how cabinets will be formed. The dividing lines between Federal, Provincial and Indian State functions and powers have still to be defined in legal form, setting just lines of demarcation without opening wide doors to litigation. Experience is required in order to adjust the relations between the Provinces of British India and the States, just as it is in order to effect the balance of responsibility between the Federal and the British Governments. But nothing of this can conceal for a moment either the magnitude of the changes now proposed in the Indian Government, or the great extent of power now being devolved on Indians themselves.

Attention has also been drawn by British and foreign as well as Indian critics to the "safeguards" with which the scheme is not too sparingly studded. A more accurate phrase for these would be "emergency powers." For the British Government has always taken the view that there are certain broad parliamentary purposes, such as the preservation of order, the protection of minorities, the credit of India, the fair treatment of British commerce, and the legal rights of the services, for which in the last resort provision must be made in any transfer of power. Actually, it is not easy to estimate the validity of the criticisms of these emergency powers. Some have said that they are so real and all-pervasive that they make responsible government a sham. Others say that these powers are worth no more than the paper they are written upon, and that self-government will, therefore, be a dangerous reality. The Committee felt that in the special conditions of India the measure of responsibility which in their judgment must continue to rest upon this country was not inconsistent with that which they desired to see devolved on Indian shoulders. Rather, the two are complementary and the provision made for continuing British responsibility is meant to foster, and not to strangle, the nascent Indian Constitution.

Again I mention these things for a reason. They arise, as I said above, out of the historic and political and social conditions of India, and they reflect all the fundamental conditions which govern public life and politics in India today. They are not merely artificial devices to protect British interests. There is, indeed, nothing unnatural or artificial in these proposals. They are rather the definition, in more or less precise constitutional form, of the conditions in which a new nation is being brought to birth by the Mother of Parliaments herself. And this offspring is as legitimate as her other children, the Constitutions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. We are witnessing a process of evolution, and that which now occupies the attention of the British Parliament, as it occupied that of the Joint Select Committee, is the effort to interpret correctly the lines which the evolution is taking, and to establish the conditions for its future safe and healthy progress.

In one of the most striking passages of its Report the Committee has shown that any attempt to copy British institutions by the mere reproduction of the written provisions of the constitutional law of the United Kingdom would ignore the existence of many important factors necessary to the proper working of parliamentary government, but which in the United Kingdom have only the sanction of centuries of custom. The successful working of parliamentary government in India therefore is bound to depend on the translation of these conventions of the British Constitution into statutory emergency powers. To sum up, the latter are designed to secure four main objectives: flexibility, so that the Constitution shall contain within itself the seeds of growth; strong executives in the Provinces, essential in the absence of disciplined political parties; efficient administration -- for no country depends to a greater degree than India upon its administration; and an impartial authority to hold the scales between conflicting interests.

One other important matter, in which the conclusions of the Joint Select Committee diverged from the White Paper, calls for mention -- the recommendation of a system of indirect election for the British Indian members of the Federal Legislature. This recommendation has given rise to much adverse comment, and it is desirable to repeat that the Committee make it possible for the Indian Legislature to lay their own proposals before Parliament in regard to this matter at some future date. It is obvious that constituencies which might contain almost half a million electors, and be as large as England, are not really practical units for a democratic representative system. Indirect election may fairly be judged more workmanlike and equitable, and, as I have said, it is open to the Indian Legislatures themselves to recommend the adoption of another system if they desire to do so after a certain lapse of time.

I have now outlined the great scheme which the Imperial Parliament has before it. It is no less than the drafting of a new Constitution for one-fifth of the earth's inhabitants; drawn from a multiplicity of races, speaking many different dialects and languages, some with civilizations more ancient than ours, others sunk from all time in an abyss of depression; cleft by religion into seemingly unbridgeable divisions, divisions themselves subdivided into mutually antagonistic groupings of caste and subcaste. Yet over this vast diversity, in the short span of years for which we have been in any way responsible for Indian destinies, the British have brought an amazing transformation and a sense of national unity such as India had never known. The Committee were not slow to apprehend what had been the inevitable reaction of all these contacts which the circumstances of nearly two centuries had been instrumental in creating. They said:

The plea put forward by Indian public men on behalf of India is essentially a plea to be allowed the opportunity of applying principles and doctrines which England herself has taught; and all sections of public opinion in this country are agreed in principle that this plea should be admitted. No one has suggested that any retrograde step should be taken, very few that the existing state of things should be maintained unaltered. . . . By general admission, the time has come for Parliament to share its power with those whom for generations it has sought to train in the arts of government; and, whatever may be the measure of the power thus to be transferred, we are confident that Parliament, in consonance with its own dignity and with the traditions of the British people, will make the transfer generously and in no grudging spirit.

It is the proposals to give reality to these purposes which both Houses of Parliament have approved by overwhelming majorities. The British people are prepared to play their part. The next immediate step is with India.

Few who know India at all intimately will have been surprised that the Joint Select Committee's Report should have evoked much sharp and bitter comment from Indian critics. It could hardly have been otherwise, and those who see in the results of the general elections to the Indian Legislative Assembly last October and November a conclusive and final proof of Indian disapproval fail to allow for powerful forces that will be steadily at work to redress the balance. In this matter the public both of Great Britain and India must be on its guard against short views that come in to distort true perspective. Prophecy is proverbially dangerous. But I see no reason to doubt that Indians will work this Constitution, or that, in doing so, they will realize how great an opportunity it offers them; because it contains the vital principle of responsibility which all our constitutional experience has shown to be the true seedbed of growth for every British Dominion in turn. For this reason I dare confidently to predict that when such a Constitution as is foreshadowed is in operation it will be found invested with a magnetic force strong enough to make it impossible for responsible men in India to stand aside.

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  • VISCOUNT HALIFAX, who as Lord Irwin was Viceroy of India from 1926 to 1931; member of the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform; author of " Indian Problems" and other works
  • More By The Earl of Halifax