The story begins with the statement in the Commons by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, on 20 August 1917, in recognition of India’s vital contribution to the war effort, that responsible (Indian) government was the goal of British policy in India. He then came to India and spent five months meeting over a hundred groups representing Indian politicians, civil society and religious organisations on how parliamentary democracy could function in a complex country like India. He and the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, published the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms which proposed that India would have federal structure with two legislatures in Delhi and provincial legislatures in the provinces and that national elections would take place. India still retains this federal structure and some call these Reforms India’s Magna Carta.
The Reforms were put into legislation by the Government of India Act 1919, which was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the British parliament. To mark the importance of the Act, the King issued a rare Proclamation saying :‘ I have given my Royal Assent to an Act which will take its place among the great historic measures passed by the Parliament of this Realm for the better government of India and greater contentment of her people’.
The 1919 Act introduced two classes of administrators in the provinces– Executive Councillors and Ministers. The former were appointed by the Governor and were in charge of reserved subjects such as finance. The Ministers, nominated from the elected members of the Council, were in charge of transferred subjects such as education, health and agriculture. In the Central government, a bicameral legislature was established with two houses – the Legislative Assembly (forerunner of Lok Sabha) and the Council of State (Rajya Sabha). Out of the 8 members of the Viceroy’s council, three had to be Indian. Over 5 million people were given the vote and for the first time, in the provinces, elected Indian ministers were responsible to elected Indian legislators for subjects most closely affecting the Indian people. The Reforms were well received at the beginning. In December 1919, Gandhi writing in the journal Young India said: ’The Proclamation issued by the Sovereign on the 24th instant is a document of which the British people have every reason to be proud and which every Indian ought to be satisfied’.
The first national elections were held in India in the winter of 1920-21. Congress officially boycotted the first elections due to the speeches in the House of Lords following the Amritsar massacre but rejoined the process in 1923. On 9 February 1921 the Duke of Connaught inaugurated the Council of State and Legislative Assembly in Delhi. He first read a message from the King which included the following:’ For years, it may be for generations, patriotic and loyal Indians have dreamt of Swaraj for their motherland. Today you have the beginning of Swaraj within my Empire and widest scope and ample opportunity for progress to liberty which my other Dominions enjoy’. The King’s use of the word Swaraj, which is the Indian term for home rule, is very significant. On the centenary (10 Feb 2021) the current Indian Vice-President, Mr M V Naidu, wrote a detailed article in the Hindustan Times entitled ‘The Dream of an Indian Republic’ explaining the significance of the date.
On the 12th February 1921 the Duke laid the foundation stone of the Indian Parliament building (Lok Sabha) and in his speech he compared the new parliament with the Acropolis in Athens. On the 13th Feb 2021 this anniversary was extensively commemorated in the Indian press. The Duke inaugurated the Bombay Legislative Council on 23 February 1921 and on the 2 August 2021 and 21 October 2021 President Kovind of India attended day-long ceremonies at the Tamil Nadu State Legislature and the Bihar State Legislature respectively to commemorate their centenaries. Another important body that was established by the 1919 Act was the Public Accounts Committee and a major 2-day celebration of this body took place in the Indian parliament on 4-5 Dec 2021, attended by leading dignitaries, to celebrate its centenary and the Indian parliament published a souvenir:
The 1919 Act was followed later by the 1935 Government of India Act. This Act transferred the internal governance of India to Indians. A modified version of this Act was used as India’s constitution for three years after independence and the current constitution of India is largely based on it.
India should be commended for celebrating these anniversaries and it is a measure of the degree of ignorance and political correctness that pervade the media and most academics in the UK that the anniversaries and commemorations were ignored here. One would have expected a book to have been published to coincide with this historic anniversary. Hopefully, this article will present the basic facts to the general reader.
Rohan Fernando was born in Sri Lanka and is a scientist with a first degree and doctorate from Cambridge. Extensive correspondence and some articles of his have been published in the national press in the UK and in Sri Lanka.