Growth of Legislature In India

Indian Councils Act 1861


The Act of 1858 made changes in the Home government in particular. The administration of India was left untouched. The revolt of 1857-1858 had established the fact that significant changes were required in the constitution of India if it was to establish closer contacts with the Indian public opinion. The Home government continued to legislate for millions and the only way of knowing its suitability to them was via rebellion from masses. The act wanted to eliminate such discrepancies.

Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay said “unless you have some barometer or safety valve in shape of a deliberative council, I believe, you will always be liable to very unlooked for and dangerous explosions.”

Syed Ahmed Khan attributed want of contact between the rulers and ruled as the reason for the crisis of 1857-1858.

By the Charter Act of 1833 the legislative council had the power to legislate for the whole of country. Legislation thus was centralised. The council was completely ignorant of prevailing conditions in different parts of the country. The council lacked the will or time to seek out certain common legislative standards applicable to all parts of the country. The legislative council had become a sort of debating society or Parliament and had arrogated to itself all the functions and privileges of a representative body. It sometimes acted independently against the wishes of Home government. It sometimes called for secret information from the Indian Government. The authorities in England wanted to change this.

The cumulative effect of these led to passage of Indian Council Act 1861 .

Key Provisions

A fifth member was added to Viceroy’s executive council. He was to be a gentleman with the legal profession as his background. With this act the Governor General was empowered to make rules for smooth transaction of the business in the council. Canning used this power to introduce a portfolio system in the Government of India. With this, hitherto, the cumbersome business was divided among the members of the council. The rudiments of cabinet form of government can be traced to this change. Now the routine matters of administration were disposed of by the member in charge. Only matters of general policy came before the Executive Council as a whole.

From 1854 additional members had met with the viceroy’s Executive Council for legislative purposes, and by the Act of 1861 their permissible number was raised to between 6 and 12 , no fewer than half of whom were to be nonofficial and who would be nominated by the Governor General and would hold the office for two years. Despite the fact that the Viceroy appointed all such legislative councillors, he was also empowered to veto any bill passed on to him by this body. Its debates were to be open to a limited public audience, and several of its nonofficial members were Indian nobility and loyal landowners. Its function was strictly limited to legislation and excluded control over administration or finance or right of interpretation. For the Government of India the legislative council sessions thus served as a crude public-opinion barometer and the beginnings of an advisory “safety valve” that provided the Viceroy with early crisis warnings at the minimum possible risk of parliamentary-type opposition.

The power to legislate and amend laws was reinstated to the provinces of Madras and Bombay. A law passed by provincial council gained validity only after it was approved by Governor General. On certain matters like currency, post and telegraphs, naval and military matters, prior approval of the Governor General was made obligatory. The Act laid for the establishment of legislative councils in Bengal, North Western provinces and Punjab. Under the provisions of this Act the Governor General was authorised to promulgate ordinances during the time of emergency.

Obervations on the Act

  • This act paved the way for gradual construction and strengthening of the framework of the government.
  • The practice of recognising local needs and local knowledge started from here.
  • The three presidencies were brought into common system.
  • The act laid the process of legislative devolution and culminated in grant of autonomy to the provinces in Government of India Act, 1935.
  • But the legislative councils established by the Act of 1861 were not legislatures in true sense in terms of their composition and function.
  • The act did not establish a representative legislature as was prevalent in England or in some of its white colonies at the time.

Charles Wood, secretary of state, at the time of introducing the bill made it clear that the queen’s government had no intention of introducing a representative law-making body in true sense. According to him the functions of proposed legislative councils was like the durbar of an Indian ruler where the nobles expressed their opinion but the ruler was not bound by it.

Indian Councils Act, 1892


The legislative council created by the Act of 1861 failed to satisfy the aspirations of the people of land. Non-official member did not represent people; instead they consisted of retired officials, Indian princes or big zamindars, none of whom had any understanding of the problems of the people.

Nationalism began to grow in the second half of 19th  century. This was contributed to by number of factors. Some of them are discussed here.

Setting up of universities had spread education but also brought up strands of nationalism to the fore. Use of English improved contact among people. Arrogant behaviour of civil servants, repression by twin acts – Vernacular Press Act and Arms Act – greatly exasperated the people. Abolition of 5% cotton duties sacrificed the interests of Indian merchants for the sake of Lancashire manufacturers. This opened the eyes of Indians. It was followed by Ilbert bill controversy. All these events underlined the fact that justice could not be expected from the English rulers where their own interest was involved. The foundation if the Indian National Congress was laid down in such circumstances with the objective of mobilising the opinion of India, to ventilate the grievances of people and to press for reforms.

In its first session the Congress passed a resolution stating that reform and expansion of existing legislative council by admission of elected members was essential. It demanded that all budgets be referred to these councils for consideration.

Dufferin appointed a committee of his council to prepare a plan for the enlargement of provincial councils and secretly sent to England proposals for liberating the councils. He was an astute statesman to understand the significance of movement launched by Congress.

The conservative ministry in England introduced in 1890 a bill in House of Lords on the basis of these proposals which was passed at the end of two years as the Indian Councils Act.

Provisions of the Act

The Act of 1892 further expanded the council’s permissible additional membership to 16 , of whom 10 could be nonofficial, and

It was an exclusive act for powers, functions and composition of legislative councils in India. additional members not less than 10 nor more than 16 were to be added. 2/5th  of the total members of the council were to be nonofficial. The increment which was described as paltry and miserable was defended by Curzon who said that efficiency of a deliberative body does not depend on its numerical strength. The Act also increased their powers, though only to the extent of allowing them to ask questions of the government and to criticise formally the official budget during one day reserved for that purpose at the very end of each year’s legislative session in Calcutta. However, the members of legislatures were not authorised to move resolutions against the budget. On certain matters of public importance they were allowed to question the government. The Supreme Council, however, still remained quite remote from any sort of Parliament any scrutiny.

Indian Councils Act, 1892 is notable for its principle of election. The central legislature was to have elected non officials whose number was to be five and who were to be elected, one each, by the non-official members of the four provincial legislatures of Madras, Bombay, Bengal and North Western provinces and one by the Calcutta Chambers of Commerce. In case of the provincial legislatures, the bodies permitted to elect members were municipalities, district boards, universities and chambers of commerce.

Observations on the Act

The Act of 1892 expanded the functions of the legislatures. The members were allowed to seek information through their questions from the executive. With the widening of the legislative functions, country’s best talents were attracted, whose eloquence and political wisdom amply demonstrated the parliamentary capacity and patriotism of educated Indians.

Because of its defects and shortcomings the Act of 1892 failed to satisfy Indian nationalists. The election of nominated members was subject to approval of the Government. The functions were circumscribed as they were not allowed to ask supplementary questions and any question could be disallowed anytime. Certain classes were over-represented while others did not get any representation at all.


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