The Government of India Act 1935
was passed during
the "Interwar Period"
and was the
last pre-independence constitution of India
The Act was originally passed in August 1935 (25 & 26 Geo. 5 c.
42), and is said to have been the longest (British) Act of
Parliament ever enacted by that time. Due to its length, the Act
was retrospectively split by the Government of India (Reprinting)
Act 1935 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c. 1) into two separate Acts:
- the Government of India Act 1935 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c.
- the Government of Burma
Act 1935 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c. 3)
References in literature on Indian political and constitutional
history are usually to the shortened Government of India Act 1935
(ie. 26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c. 2), rather than to the text of the
Act as originally enacted.
The most significant aspects of the Act were:
- the grant of a large measure of autonomy to the provinces of
British India (ending the system of
dyarchy introduced by the Government of India Act
- provision for the establishment of a "Federation of India", to
be made up of both British India and some or all of the "princely states"
- the introduction of direct elections, thus increasing the
franchise from seven million to thirty-five million people
- a partial reorganization of the provinces:
- membership of the provincial assemblies was altered so as to
include more elected Indian representatives, who were now able to
form majorities and be appointed to form governments
- the establishment of a Federal Court
However, the degree of autonomy introduced at the provincial level
was subject to important limitations: the provincial Governors
retained important reserve powers, and the British authorities also
retained a right to suspend responsible government.
The parts of the Act intended to establish the Federation of India
never came into operation, due to opposition from rulers of the
princely states. The remaining parts of the Act came into force in
, when the first elections under the Act
were also held.
Background to the Act
Indians had increasingly been demanding a greater role in the
government of their country since the late nineteenth century. The
Indian contribution to the British war effort during the First World War
meant that even the more
conservative elements in the British political establishment felt
the necessity of constitutional change, resulting in the Government of India Act 1919
That Act introduced a novel system of government known as
provincial "dyarchy", ie, certain areas of government (such as
education) were placed in the hands of ministers responsible to the
provincial legislature, while others (such as public order and
finance) were retained in the hands of officials responsible to the
British-appointed provincial Governor. While the Act was a
reflection of the demand for a greater role in government by
Indians, it was also very much a reflection of British fears about
what that role might mean in practice for India (and of course for
British interests there).
The experiment with dyarchy proved unsatisfactory. A particular
frustration for Indian politicians was that even for those areas
over which they had gained nominal control, the "purse strings"
were still in the hands of British officialdom.
The intention had been that a review of India's constitutional
arrangements and those princely states that were willing to accede
to it. However, division between Congress and Muslim
representatives proved to be a major factor in preventing agreement
as to much of the important detail of how federation would work in
this practice, the new Conservative-dominated National
Government in London decided to
go ahead with drafting its own proposals (the white paper).
A joint parliamentary
, chaired by Lord Linlithgow
reviewed the white paper proposals at great length. On the basis of
this white paper, the Government of India Bill was framed. At the
committee stage and later, to appease the diehards
the "safeguards" were strengthened, and indirect elections were
reinstated for the Central
(the central legislature's lower house).
The bill duly passed into law in August, 1935.
As a result of this process, although the Government of India Act
1935 was intended to go some way towards meeting Indian demands,
both the detail of the bill and the lack of Indian involvement in
drafting its contents meant that the Act met with a lukewarm
response at best in India, while still proving too radical for a
significant element in Britain.
Some Features of the Act
No Preamble – The Ambiguity of the British Commitment to
While it had become uncommon for British Acts of Parliament to
contain a preamble, the absence of one from the Government of India
Act 1935 contrasts sharply with the 1919 Act, which set out the
broad philosophy of that Act's aims in relation to Indian political
The 1919 Act's preamble quoted, and centered on, the statement of
the Secretary of State for
, Edwin Montagu
17, 1917 – March 19, 1922) to the House of Commons on August 20,
1917, which pledged:
…the gradual development of self-governing
institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of
responsible government in
India as an integral Part of the British
demands were by now centering on British India achieving
constitutional parity with the existing Dominions such as Canada and Australia, which would have meant complete
autonomy within the British Commonwealth.
element in British political circles doubted that Indians were
capable of running their country on this basis, and saw Dominion
status as something that might, perhaps, be aimed for after a long
period of gradual constitutional development, with sufficient
This tension between and within Indian and British views resulted
in the clumsy compromise of the 1935 Act having no preamble of its
own, but keeping in place the 1919 Act's preamble even while
repealing the remainder of that Act. Unsurprisingly, this was seen
in India as yet more mixed messages from the British, suggesting at
best a lukewarm attitude and at worst suggesting a "minimum
necessary" approach towards satisfying Indian desires.
No Bill of Rights
In contrast with most modern constitutions, but in common with
Commonwealth constitutional legislation of the time, the Act does
not include a "bill of rights" within the new system that it aimed
to establish. However, in the case of the proposed Federation of
India there was a further complication in incorporating such a set
of rights, as the new entity would have included nominally
sovereign (and generally autocratic) princely states
A different approach was considered by some, though, as the draft
outline constitution in the Nehru
included such a bill of rights.
Relationship to a Dominion Constitution
In 1947, a relatively few amendments in the Act made it the
functioning interim constitutions of India and Pakistan.
The Act was not only extremely detailed, but it was riddled with
‘safeguards’ designed to enable the British Government to intervene
whenever it saw the need in order to maintain British
responsibilities and interests. To achieve this, in the face of a
gradually increasing Indianization of the institutions of the
Government of India, the Act concentrated the decision for the use
and the actual administration of the safeguards in the hands of the
British-appointed Viceroy and provincial governors who were subject
to the control of the Secretary of State for
‘In view of the enormous powers and responsibilities
which the Governor-General must exercise in his discretion or
according to his individual judgment, it is obvious that he (the
Viceroy) is expected to be a kind of superman.
He must have tact, courage, and ability and be endowed
with an infinite capacity for hard work.
“We have put into this Bill many safeguards,” said Sir
Robert Horne… “but all of those safeguards revolve about a single
individual, and that is the Viceroy.
He is the linch-pin of the whole system….
If the Viceroy fails, nothing can save the system you
have set up.” This speech reflected the point of view of the
die-hard Tories who were horrified by the prospect that some day
there might be a Viceroy appointed by a Labour
Reality of Responsible
Government Under the Act – Is the Cup Half-Full or
A close reading of the Act reveals that the British Government
equipped itself with the legal instruments to take back total
control at any time they considered this to be desirable. However,
doing so without good reason would totally sink their credibility
with groups in India whose support the act was aimed at securing.
Some contrasting views:
“In the federal government… the semblance of
responsible government is presented.
But the reality is lacking, for the powers in defence
and external affairs necessarily, as matters stand, given to the
governor-general limit vitally the scope of ministerial activity,
and the measure of representation given to the rulers of the Indian
States negatives any possibility of even the beginnings of
It will be a matter of the utmost interest to watch the
development of a form of government so unique; certainly, if it
operates successfully, the highest credit will be due to the
political capacity of Indian leaders, who have infinitely more
serious difficulties to face than had the colonial statesmen who
evolved the system of self-government which has now culminated in
in a talk lasting forty-five minutes, came straight out with his
view on the Bill:
"I agree with the diehards that it has been a
You who are not used to any constitution cannot realise
what great power you are going to wield.
If you look at the constitution it looks as if all the
powers are vested in the Governor-General and the
But is not every power here vested in the
Everything is done in the name of the King but does the
King ever interfere?
Once the power passes into the hands of the
legislature, the Governor or the Governor-General is never going to
…The Civil Service will be helpful.
You too will realise this.
Once a policy is laid down they will carry it out
loyally and faithfully…
We could not help it. We had to fight the diehards here. You could
not realise what great courage has been shown by Mr. Baldwin and
Sir Samuel Hoare. We did not want to spare the diehards as we had
to talk in a different language…
These various meetings — and in due course G.D. (Birla), before his
return in September, met virtually everyone of importance in
Anglo-Indian affairs — confirmed G.D.'s original opinion that the
differences between the two countries were largely psychological,
the same proposals open to diametrically opposed interpretations.
He had not, probably, taken in before his visit how considerable,
in the eyes of British conservatives, the concessions had been… If
nothing else, successive conversations made clear to G.D. that the
agents of the Bill had at least as heavy odds against them at home
as they had in India.
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as
well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and
to steal bread."
Under the Act, British citizens resident in the UK and British
companies registered in the UK must be treated on the same basis as
Indian citizens and Indian registered companies unless UK law
denies reciprocal treatment. The unfairness of this arrangement is
clear when one considers the dominant position of British capital
in much of the Indian modern sector and the complete dominance,
maintained through unfair commercial practices, of UK shipping
interests in both India’s international and coastal shipping
traffic and the utter insignificance of Indian capital in Britain
and the non-existence of Indian involvement in shipping to or
within the UK. There are very detailed provisions requiring the
Viceroy to intervene if, in his unappealable view, any India law or
regulation is intended to, or will in fact, discriminate against UK
resident British subjects, British registered companies and,
particularly, British shipping interests.
“The Joint Committee considered a suggestion that trade
with foreign countries should be made by the Minister of Commerce,
but it decided that all negotiations with foreign countries should
be conducted by the Foreign Office or Department of External
Affairs as they are in the United Kingdom.
In concluding agreements of this character, the Foreign
Secretary always consults the Board of Trade and it was assumed
that the Governor-General would in like manner consult the Minister
of Commerce in India.
This may be true, but the analogy itself is
In the United Kingdom, both departments are subject to
the same legislative control, whereas in India one is responsible
to the federal legislature and the other to the Imperial
British Political Needs vs. Indian Constitutional Needs – the
From the moment of the Montagu statement of 1917, it was vital that
the reform process stay ahead of the curve if the British were to
hold the strategic initiative. However, imperialist sentiment, and
a lack of realism, in British political circles made this
impossible. Thus the grudging conditional concessions of power in
the Acts of 1919 and 1935 caused more resentment and signally
failed to win the Raj the backing of influential groups in India
which it desperately needed. In 1919 the Act of 1935, or even the
plan would have
been well received. There is evidence that Montagu would have
backed something of this sort but his cabinet colleagues would not
have considered it. By 1935, a constitution establishing a Dominion
of India, comprising the British Indian provinces might have been
acceptable in India though it would not have passed the British
‘Considering the balance of power in the Conservative
party at the time, the passing of a Bill more liberal than that
which was enacted in 1935 is inconceivable.’
Provincial Part of the Act
The provincial part of the Act, which went into effect
automatically, basically followed the recommendations of the
dyarchy was abolished; that is, all provincial portfolios were to
be placed in charge of ministers enjoying the support of the
provincial legislatures. The British-appointed provincial
governors, who were responsible to the British Government via the
Viceroy and Secretary of
State for India
, were to accept the recommendations of the
ministers unless, in their view, they negatively affected his areas
of statutory “special responsibilities” such as the prevention of
any grave menace to the peace or tranquility of a province and the
safeguarding of the legitimate interests of minorities. In the
event of political breakdown, the governor, under the supervision
of the Viceroy, could take over total control of the provincial
government. This, in fact, allowed the governors a more untrammeled
control than any British official had enjoyed in the history of the
Raj. After the resignation of the congress provincial ministries in
1939, the governors did directly rule the ex-Congress provinces
throughout the war.
It was generally recognized, that the provincial part of the Act,
conferred a great deal of power and patronage on provincial
politicians as long as both British officials and Indian
politicians played by the rules. However, the paternalistic threat
of the intervention by the British governor rankled.
Federal Part of the Act
Unlike the provincial portion of the Act, the Federal portion was
to go into effect only when half the States by weight agreed to
federate. This never happened and the establishment of the
Federation was indefinitely postponed after the outbreak of the
Second World War
Terms of the Act
The Act provided for Dyarchy at the Centre. The British
Government, in the person of the Secretary of State for India,
through the Governor-General
of India – Viceroy of India,
would continue to control India’s financial obligations, defence,
foreign affairs and the British
Indian Army and would make the key appointments to the Reserve Bank of
India (exchange rates) and Railway Board and the Act
stipulated that no finance bill could be placed in the Central
Legislature without the consent of the Governor General.
funding for the British responsibilities and foreign obligations
(eg. loan repayments, pensions), at least 80 percent of the federal
expenditures, would be non-votable and be taken off the top before
any claims could be considered for (for example) social or economic
development programs. The Viceroy, under the supervision of the
Secretary of State for India, was provided with overriding and
certifying powers that could, theoretically, have allowed him to
Objectives of the British Government
The federal part of the Act was designed to meet the aims of the
Conservative Party. Over the very long term, the Conservative
leadership expected the Act to lead to a nominally dominion status
India, conservative in
outlook, dominated by an alliance of Hindu princes and right-wing
Hindus which would be well disposed to place itself under the
guidance and protection of the United Kingdom. In the medium term,
the Act was expected to (in rough order of importance):
- win the support of moderate nationalists since
its formal aim was to lead eventually to a Dominion of India which,
as defined under the Statute of Westminster 1931 virtually equalled
- retain British of control of the Indian Army, Indian
finances and India’s foreign relations for another
- convince the Princes to join the Federation by
giving the Princes conditions for entry never likely to be equaled.
It was expected that enough would join to allow the establishment
of the Federation. The terms offered to the Princes included:
- The Princes would select their state’s representatives in the
Federal Legislature. There would be no pressure for them to
democratize their administrations or allow elections for state’s
representatives in the Federal Legislature;
- The Princes would enjoy heavy weightage. The Princely States
represented about a quarter of the population of India and produced
well under a quarter of its wealth. Under the Act:
- The Upper House of the Federal Legislature, the Council of
State, would consist of 260 members (156 (60%) elected from the
British India and 104 (40%) nominated by the rulers of the princely
- The Lower House, the Federal Assembly, would consist of 375
members (250 (67%) elected by the Legislative Assemblies of the
British Indian provinces; 125 (33%) nominated by the rulers of the
- ensuring that the Congress could never rule alone or
gain enough seats to bring down the government
This was done by over-representing the Princes,giving every
possible minority,the right to separately vote for candidates
belonging to their respective communities(see separate electorate
), and by making the
executive theoretically, but not practically, removable by the
Gambles Taken by the British Government
- Viability of the proposed Federation. It was
hoped that the gerrymandered federation, encompassing units of such
hugely different sizes, sophistication and varying in forms of
government from autocratic Princely States to democratic provinces,
could provide the basis for a viable state. However, this was not a
realistic possibility (see eg. The Making of India’s Paper
Federation, 1927-35 in Moore 1988). In reality, the Federation, as planned in
the Act, almost certainly was not viable and would have rapidly
broken down with the British left to pick up the pieces without any
- Princes Seeing and Acting in Their Own Long-Range Best
Interests - That the Princes would see that their best
hope for a future would lie in rapidly joining and becoming a
united block without which no group could hope, mathematically, to
wield power. However, the princes did not join, and thus exercising
the veto provided by the Act, prevented the Federation from coming
into existence. Among the reasons for the Princes staying out
- They did not have the foresight to realize that this was their
only chance for a future;
- Congress had begun, and would continue, agitating for
democratic reforms within the Princely States. Since the one common
concern of the 600 or so Princes was their desire to continue to
rule their states without interference, this was indeed a mortal
threat. It was on the cards that this would lead eventually to more
democratic state regimes and the election of states’
representatives in the Federal Legislature. In all likelihood these
representatives would be largely Congressmen. Had the Federation
been established, the election of states’ representatives in the
Federal Legislature would amount to a Congress coup from the
inside. Thus, contrary to their official position that the British
would look favorably on the democratization of the Princely States,
their plan required that the States remain autocratic. This
reflects a deep contradiction on British views of India and its
‘At a banquet in the princely state of Benares Hailey
observed that although the new federal constitution would protect
their position in the central government, the internal evolution of
the states themselves remained uncertain.
Most people seemed to expect them to develop
Whether those alien grafts from Westminster would
succeed in British India, however, itself remained in
Autocracy was "a principle which is firmly seated in
the Indian States," he pointed out; "round it burn the sacred fires
of an age-long tradition," and it should be given a fair chance
Autocratic rule, "informed by wisdom, exercised in
moderation, and vitalized by a spirit of service to the interests
of the subject, may well prove that it can make an appeal in India
as strong as that of representative and responsible
This spirited defense brings to mind Nehru's classic
paradox of how the representatives of the advanced, dynamic West
allied themselves with the most reactionary forces of the backward,
Under the Act,
‘There are a number of restrictions on the freedom of
discussion in the federal legislature.
For example the act forbids ... any discussion of, or
the asking of questions about, a matter connected with an Indian
State, other than a matter with respect to which the federal
legislature has power to make laws for that state, unless the
Governor-General in his discretion is satisfied that the matter
affects federal interests or affects a British subject, and has
given his consent to the matter being discussed or the question
- They were not a cohesive group and probably realized that they
would never act as one.
- Each Prince seemed consumed by the desire to gain the best deal
for himself were his state to join the Federation – the most money,
the most autonomy.
- That enough was being offered at the Centre to win the
support of moderate nationalist Hindu and Muslim support.
In fact, so little was offered that all significant groups in
British India rejected and denounced the proposed Federation. A
major contributing factor was the continuing distrust of British
intentions for which there was
considerable basis in fact. In this vital area the Act failed
‘I don't believe that… it is impossible to present the
problem in such a form as would make the shop window look
respectable from an Indian point of view, which is really what they
care about, while keeping your hand pretty firmly on the things
that matter.’ (Irwin to Stonehaven, 12 November 1928)
- That the wider electorate would turn against the
Congress. In fact, the 1937 elections showed overwhelming
support for Congress among the Hindu electorate.
- That by giving Indian politicians a great deal of power
at the provincial level, while denying them, responsibility at the
Centre, it was hoped that Congress, the only national party, would
disintegrate into a series of provincial fiefdoms. In
fact, the congress High Command was able to control the provincial
ministries and to force their resignation in 1939. The Act showed
the strength and cohesion of Congress and probably strengthened it.
This does not imply that Congress was not made up of, and found its
support in, various sometimes competing interests and groups.
Rather, it recognizes the ability of Congress, unlike the British
Raj, to maintain the cooperation and support of most of these
groups even if, for example, in the forced resignation of Congress
provincial ministries in 1939 and the rejection of the Cripps Offer
in 1942, this required a negative policy harmful, in the long-run,
to the prospects for an independent India which would be both
united and democratic.
Indian Reaction to the Proposed Federation
No significant group in India accepted the Federal portion of the
Act. A typical response was:
‘After all, there are five aspects of every Government
worth the name: (a) The right of external and internal defence and
all measures for that purpose; (b) The right to control our
external relations; (c) The right to control our currency and
exchange; (d) The right to control our fiscal policy; (e) the
day-to-day administration of the land….
(Under the Act) You shall have nothing to do with
You shall have nothing to do with defence.
You shall have nothing to do, or, for all practical
purposes in future, you shall have nothing to do with your currency
and exchange, for indeed the Reserve Bank Bill just passed has a
further reservation in the Constitution that no legislation may be
undertaken with a view to substantially alter the provisions of
that Act except with the consent of the Governor-General…. there is
no real power conferred in the Centre.’ (Speech by Mr Bhulabhai
DESAI on the Report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Indian
Constitutional Reform, 4 February 1935.
However, the Liberals, and even elements in the Congress were
tepidly willing to give it a go:
“Linlithgow asked Sapru whether he thought there was a
satisfactory alternative to the scheme of the 1935
Sapru replied that they should stand fast on the Act
and the federal plan embodied in it.
It was not ideal but at this stage it was the only
A few days after Sapru's visit Birla came to see the
He thought that Congress was moving towards acceptance
Gandhi was not over-worried, said Birla, by the
reservation of defence and external affairs to the centre, but was
concentrating on the method of choosing the States'
Birla wanted the Viceroy to help Gandhi by persuading a
number of Princes to move towards democratic election of
…Birla then said that the only chance for Federation
lay in agreement between Government and Congress and the best hope
of this lay in discussion between the Viceroy and
The Working of the Act
The British government sent out Lord Linlithgow
the new viceroy with the remit of bringing the Act into effect.
Linlithgow was intelligent, extremely hard working, honest, serious
and determined to make a success out of the Act. However, he was
also unimaginative, stolid, legalistic and found it very difficult
to "get on terms" with people outside his immediate circle.
In 1937, after a great deal of confrontation, Provincial Autonomy
commenced. From that point until the declaration of war in 1939,
Linlithgow tirelessly tried to get enough of the Princes to accede
to launch the Federation. In this he received only the weakest
backing from the Home Government and in the end the Princes
rejected the Federation en masse
. In September 1939,
Linlithgow simply declared that India was at war with Germany.
Though Linlithgow's behaviour was constitutionally correct it was
also offensive to much of Indian opinion. This led directly to the
resignation of the Congress provincial ministries which undermined
From 1939, Linlithgow concentrated on supporting the war
- Shah 1937.
- Keith 1937, p. viii.
- Ross, p. 99 ff.
- Anatole FRANCE, The Red Lily, 1894.
- Moore 1988, p. 63.
- Terms of the Act.
- Jinnah’s Fourteen Points at Story of
- Cell, p. 210.
- Gwyer & Appadorai, p. 320.
- Viceroy at Bay pp. 87–8.
- GANGULEE, The making of federal India, p. 165.
1 Keay, John
. India: A History
Grove Press Books, distributed by Publishers Group West. United
States: 2000 ISBN 0-8021-3797-0, pp. 490
2 Keay, John
. India: A History
Grove Press Books, distributed by Publishers Group West. United
States: 2000 ISBN 0-8021-3797-0, pp. 490