Government Organisation

From 1858 to 1909 the government of India was an increasingly centralised paternal despotism and the world’s largest imperial bureaucracy. The Indian Councils Act of 1861 transformed the Viceroy’s Executive Council into a miniature cabinet run on the portfolio system, and each of the five ordinary members was placed in charge of a distinct department of Calcutta’s government-home, revenue, military, finance, and law. The military commander-in-chief sat with this council as an extraordinary member. A sixth ordinary member was assigned to the Viceroy’s Executive Council after 1874, initially to preside over the Department of Public Works, which after 1904 came to be called the Department of Commerce and Industry.

Though the Government of India was by statutory definition the “Governor-General-in-Council” (Governor General remained the Viceroy’s alternate title), the Viceroy was empowered to overrule his councillors if ever he deemed that necessary. He personally took charge of the Foreign Department, which was mostly concerned with relations with princely states and bordering foreign powers. In practice the Viceroys did not find it necessary to assert their full absolute authority, since the majority of their councillors usually were in agreement, but in 1879 Viceroy Lytton (governed 1876-1880) felt obliged to overrule his entire council in order to accommodate demands for the elimination of the government’s import duties on British cotton textiles, despite India’s desperate need for revenue at a time of widespread famine and agricultural disorders.

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