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Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1 - Notes | Study Indian Polity for UPSC CSE - UPSC

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Before 1947, India was divided into two main entities – British India which consisted of 11 provinces, and the Princely states ruled by Indian princes under subsidiary alliance policy. The two entities merged together to form the Indian Union, but many of the legacy systems in British India is followed even now. The historical underpinnings and evolution of the Indian Constitution can be traced to many regulations and acts passed before Indian Independence.

Acts and Reforms Introduced Before 1858

Following Acts and reforms were introduced for the governance of India from time to time before 1858.

Regulating Act of 1773

  • The first step was taken by the British Parliament to control and regulate the affairs of the East India Company in India.

East India House, London East India House, London 

  • It designated the Governor of Bengal (Fort William) as the Governor-General (of Bengal).
  • Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General of Bengal.
  • Executive Council of the Governor-General was established (Four members). There was no separate legislative council.
  • It subordinated the Governors of Bombay and Madras to the Governor-General of Bengal.
  • The Supreme Court was established at Fort William (Calcutta) as the Apex Court in 1774.
  • It prohibited servants of the company from engaging in any private trade or accepting bribes from the natives.
  • Court of Directors ( the governing body of the company) should report its revenue.

Pitt’s India Act of 1784

  • Distinguished between commercial and political functions of the company.
  • Court of Directors for Commercial functions and Board of Control for political affairs.
  • Reduced the strength of the Governor General’s council to three members.
  • Placed the Indian affairs under the direct control of the British Government.
  • The companies' territories in India were called the British possession in India
  • Governor’s councils were established in Madras and Bombay.

Charter Act of 1813

  • The Company’s monopoly over Indian trade terminated; Trade with India open to all British subjects.

Charter Act of 1833

  • Governor-General (of Bengal) became the Governor-General of India.
  • The first Governor-General of India was Lord William Bentick.
  • This was the final step towards centralization in British India.
  • Beginning of a Central legislature for India as the act also took away legislative powers of Bombay and Madras provinces.
  • The Act ended the activities of the East India Company as a commercial body and it became a purely administrative body.

Charter Act of 1853

  • The legislative and executive functions of the Governor-General’s Council were separated.
  • 6 members in Central legislative council. Four out of six members were appointed by the provisional governments of Madras, Bombay, Bengal, and Agra.
  • It introduced a system of open competition as the basis for the recruitment of civil servants of the Company (Indian Civil Service opened for all).

The Company Rule (1773–1858)

Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1 - Notes | Study Indian Polity for UPSC CSE - UPSC

Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
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Acts and Reforms Introduced after 1858

Following Acts and reforms were introduced by the British Government for the governance of India from time to time after 1858, and up to the making of the Constitution

1. The Government of Indian Act, 1858

Changes brought by the Government of India Act, 1858Changes brought by the Government of India Act, 1858

  • In 1858, when the British Crown under Queen Victoria assumed sovereignty over India from the East India Company, the Parliament enacted the first statute for the governance of India under the direct rule of the British government, the Government of India Act, 1858.

The essential features of this Act were

  • The Board of Control and the Court of Director was abolished and instead, the powers of the Crown were to be exercised by the Secretary of State for India, assisted by a Council of fifteen members (known as the Council of India). It was composed exclusively of people from England. 
  • The Governor-General was to be called Viceroy from then on.The Secretary of State, who was responsible to the British Parliament, governed India through the Governor-General, assisted by an Executive Council which consisted of high officials of the government. Thus the administration of the country was not only unitary but rigidly centralized.There was no separation of functions, and all the authority for the governance of India– civil and military, executive and legislative– was vested in the Governor-General in Council who was responsible to the Secretary of State.
  • The control of the Secretary of State over the Indian administration was absolute. Subject to his ultimate responsibility to the British Parliament, he wielded the Indian administration through the Governor-General as his agent and his was the last word, whether in matters of policy or of other details.
  • The entire machinery of administration was bureaucratic, totally unconcerned about public opinion in India.


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(i) Indian Councils Act, 1861

Indian Councils Art, 1861Indian Councils Art, 1861

The improvements made by this Act were:

  • The Governor-General was empowered to frame rules for the more convenient transaction of business in the Legislative Council.
  • A Portfolio system was introduced in the Government of India (introduced by Lord Canning).
  • The Governor-General's Executive Council, which was so long composed exclusively of officials, now included certain additional non-official members, while transacting legislative business as a Legislative Council. Some of the seats for non-officials were offered to the natives of high rank.
  • The members of the Legislative Council were nominated and their functions were confined exclusively to a consideration of the legislative proposals placed before it by Governor-General. It could not, in any manner, criticize the acts of the administration or conduct of the authorities.
  • The legislative powers were restored to the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay. But the laws passed by the Provincial Councils became valid only after receiving the assent of the Governor-General.
  • The Governor-General was empowered, during an emergency, to issue ordinances which were to have the same authority as Acts made by the Legislative Council.

(ii) Indian Councils Act, 1892

  • This act introduced two improvements upon the Act of 1861 as regards the Indian and Provincial Legislative Councils. These were-
    (i) Though the majority of official members were retained, the non-official members of the Indian Legislative Council were henceforth to be nominated by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and the Provincial Legislative Councils, while the non-official members of the Provincial Councils were to be nominated by certain local bodies such as universities, district boards, municipalities, thus introducing the principle of representation.
    (ii) The Council was to have the power of discussing the annual budget to the Executive (but did not have the power to put questions).

(iii) Indian Councils Act, 1909

  • Also known as Morley-Minto reforms, after the names of the then Secretary of State for India (Lord Morley) and the Viceroy (Lord Minto). The act made the first attempt to introduce a representative and popular element in the governance of India.
  • The salient features of the Act are:
    (i) For the first time, Indians were included in the Executive Councils of the Governor-General and Governors.
    (ii) Central and Provincial Legislative Councils were enlarged but the official majority was maintained in the case of central government whereas it was gone in the provincial government.
    (iii) The power of the Legislative Council was increased by this Act by giving them the opportunity of influencing the policy of the administration by moving resolutions on the Budget, and on any matter of public interest, save certain specified subjects, such as the Armed Forces, Foreign Affairs and the Indian States.
    (iv) For the first time, a separate representation of the Muslim community was granted, thus sowing the seeds of separatism that eventually led to the partition of the country. 

Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
Try yourself:Which of the following British Act ended the system of Double Government by abolishing the Board of Control and Court of Directors?
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2. The Government of Indian Act, 1919

The Government of Indian Act, 1919The Government of Indian Act, 1919

  • The Indian National Congress which, established in 1885, was so long under the control of Moderates, became more active during the First World War and started its campaign for self-government (known as the 'Home Rule' movement). As a result, the British government made a declaration called the Policy of 1917.
  • In this declaration, the government promised the responsible government to India as soon as possible after the War. But instead of introducing any responsible form of government in India, it came forward with its 1919 Reforms (also called Montague- Chelmsford reforms) which was formulated by the then Secretary of State for India (Mr. E.S. Montague) and the Governor-General (Lord Chelmsford).
  • Dyarchy was introduced in the provinces. For the first time, Indians were given some share of power in the provincial administration, however little it was. The administration of the provinces was divided into two parts– Reserved and Transferred
  • The Reserved subjects were put directly under the British Governors while the Transferred half were administered by Indian ministers. The legislatures had official and elected members. Bicameral Central Legislature was established – the lower chamber called the Legislative
  • Assembly with 144 members (104 elected's) having a non-official majority and the upper chamber called the Council of State with 60 members (34 elected). This Central Legislature continued till 1947 when power was transferred to Indian hands. The electorates were, however, arranged on a communal and sectional basis developing the Morley-Minto device further. 
    Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
    Try yourself:The Sikhs got special electorates in which of the following Acts?
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  • However, these reforms failed to satisfy the political aspirations of India because no responsible government as promised in the 1917 declaration was granted. In fact, all powers were concentrated in the hands of the Governor-General at the Centre and the Governors in the Provinces. The Ministers worked under the pleasure of the Governors and were subject to their overriding authority. As a consequence, the political movement became militant and radical. From then started the Gandhian era in Indian politics.
    Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
    Try yourself:In which of the following acts the provincial subjects were divided into transferred and reserved subjects?
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3. The Government of Indian Act, 1935

  • The Government of India Act, 1935 was passed in 1935 and came into operation on April 1, 1937. This Act provided for a federation for India in which the Indian State was to join British India and granted full Provincial Autonomy. The Act provided for the political separation of Burma from India. Two new provinces of Sindh and Orissa were created.
  • Dyarchical system of government was established in the British Indian provinces and a similar type of government was proposed to be introduced at the Centre. The provincial part of the Constitution, which introduced autonomy in the provinces, was acceptable to the Congress to some extent, but the central part of the Act was categorically rejected. 
  • The Congress took part in the elections to the provincial assemblies and won a thumping majority in a number of provinces. It formed governments either independently or in cooperation with other groups in eight out of the 11 provinces. The federal part of the Act never came into operation. 
  • This Act was described by Jawaharlal Nehru as a "Charter of slavery". The executive was armed with wide discretionary and overriding authority. In the Centre, the native States were to join a federation and would have always sided with the British government against the nationalist forces. Except for the Hindu Mahasabha, all other parties had rejected the central part of the Act. 
  • However, the Congress participated in the 1937 elections and swept the polls to form governments in many provinces. But at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Congress ministries resigned on the issue of Indian participation in the War. The present Constitution is to a very large extent an adaptation of the 1935 Act to the changed conditions of free India. 

Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
Try yourself:Which act separated Burma from India?
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August Offer

August Offer, 1940August Offer, 1940

  • The British government made an offer, known as the August Offer, in August 1940. It promised dominion status after the Second World War. The Constitution was to be framed by Indians subject to the due fulfillment of obligations which Great Britain's long connections with India had imposed upon her. 
  • During the War period, the Executive Council of the Governor-General was to be expanded to include the popular representatives of the people of India. Congress rejected the offer. Gandhiji started individual Satyagraha.
  • Instead of reacting favorably and initiating discussions for an amicable settlement, the government of India declared an emergency all over India, and the administration of the whole country was concentrated in the hands of the Governor-General through the Governors and the Indian Civil Service. A series of new emergency ordinances were passed to meet any opposition from the popular forces in the country. Most of the national leaders were arrested and sent to jail.

Points to Be Noted

The Preamble The Preamble 

  • Laws made before the Charter Act of 1833 were called Regulations and those made after are called Acts.
  • Lord Warren Hastings created the office of District Collector in 1772, but judicial powers were separated from District collector later by Cornwallis.
  • From the powerful authorities of unchecked executives, the Indian administration developed into a responsible government answerable to the legislature and people.
  • The development of the portfolio system and budget points to the separation of power.
  • Lord Mayo’s resolution on financial decentralization visualized the development of local self-government institutions in India (1870).
  • 1882: Lord Ripon’s resolution was hailed as the ‘Magna Carta’ of local self-government. He is regarded as the ‘Father of local self-government in India’.
  • 1921: Railway Budget was separated from the General Budget.
  • From 1773 to 1858, the British tried for the centralization of power. It was from the 1861 Councils act they shifted towards devolution of power with provinces.
  • 1833 Charter act was the most important activity before the act of 1909.
  • Till 1947, the Government of India functioned under the provisions of the 1919 Act only. The provisions of the 1935 Act relating to Federation and Dyarchy were never implemented.
  • The Executive Council provided by the 1919 Act continued to advise the Viceroy till 1947. The modern executive (Council of Ministers) owes its legacy to the executive council.
  • The Legislative Council and Assembly developed into Rajyasabha and Loksabha after independence. 

Question for Historical Development of the Constitution of India- 1
Try yourself:Which Act allowed Indians to elect their representatives for the first time? 
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Question: State the missing words in the following sentences.
(a) The three pillars of the Indian state derive their authority from the __________.
(b) The __________ Act allowed Indians to elect their representatives for the first time.
(c) __________ was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly.
(d) India celebrates Constitution Day on __________.

(a) Constitution          
(b) Government of India Act, 1919          
(c) Rajendra Prasad          
(d) 26 November

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