Indian Councils Act of 1861

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With the passage of time the British Government decided to associate the people of the subcontinent with the law making process. For this end the Indian Councils Act was passed on 1st August 1861. It was “an act to make better provision for the Constitution of the Council of the Governor-General of India and for the local Government of several Presidencies and Provinces of India, and for the temporary Government of India in the event of vacancy in the office of the Governor-General”.

According to this act the ‘Executive Council of the Governor General’ was enlarged. Now at least 6 members were to be appointed and the total number of members was assumed to be not more than 12. These members were called ‘Additional Members’ of the Executive Council. The act said that half of the Members, necessarily non-official, were to be nominated by the Governor General for a period of two years. There would be five Members of the Executive Council and the Commander-in-Chief was appointed as an Extraordinary Member. In the absence of the Governor General, the Senior Ordinary Member was empowered to preside over the meetings. The Additional Members, however, could neither raise questions nor move any resolution in the Executive Council. The act also provided limited powers to the Presidencies of Bengal and Madras and the Governor-General was authorized to create similar Councils for the Provinces of Frontier and the Punjab. But the assent of the Governor-General was required for all the bills and regulations passed by the Provincial Council. The Governor General was authorized to issue ordinances, while the Crown had the power to disallow any law and regulation if it was considered as invalid by reason and/or affected the prerogative of the Crown. Before the Indian Council Act of 1861, the Executive Council at Calcutta behaved like a ‘petty parliament’. This Act enabled the Secretary of State for India to limit the powers of Calcutta council.

The Act of 1861 had drawbacks including the selection and role of the Additional Members who were just handpicked and ineligible to participate in the discussions. The Additional Members nominated to the Imperial Legislative Council were also ineffective as all of them were Indian princes, big landlords, rich merchants or retired officers, inept to be called as the representatives of the Indians at large showing no eagerness to the meetings of the Council. Most of the bills were passed without discussion and often at a single sitting. For instance, in 1978 the ‘Vernacular Press Bill’ wasn’t opposed by any Indian member on the floor of the Council though it was highly condemned and criticized throughout India as a ‘Black Act’. However, despite all its limitations and drawbacks the Indian Councils Act of 1861 was a milestone in the constitutional history of India because once the Indians were admitted into the Legislative Councils the demand to enhance their number as well as powers naturally arrived on the scene.

This article was last updated on Wednesday, Jan 04, 2006