The administration of the country was taken over directly by the British Crown in 1858. A notable fall-out of the conflict in 1857 was the discovery by the British that the Princely States in India could be a source of strength for the maintenance of the British power. As a result, they discontinued their policy of expanding further their ‘direct rule’ in the sub-continent and preferred ‘indirect rule’ for these States.

But the bulk of the 500 and odd Princely States were ‘autonomous’ only to a limited extent. In all important matters, they were no less submissive in practice to the suzerain power than the British Indian Provinces. In the remote and inaccessible areas, strong local tribal customs and beliefs had to be given due regard and these areas, with long history of isolation, retained varying degrees of autonomy.

Indian Councils Act, 1861

Too centralised an administration was found to be incompatible with the size and diversity of the country. It bred administrative inefficiency and local discontent. Some decentralisation became inevitable. The first small but significant step in this direction was taken by the Indian Councils Act, 1861. It reversed the centralising trend that had been set by the Charter Act of 1833.

It provided for participation by non-officials in the Legislative Council of the Governor-General. Similarly provisions were made for the Legislative Councils of the Provinces. The principle of indirect election to these Legislative Councils was established in 1892 and the functions were enlarged to include the right of discussion of the budget and interpellation in matters of public interest.

Mayo Scheme 1871

An important factor which helped and sustained the evolution of a ‘dispersed’ political system in India, was the decentralisation of finances. This process started with the Mayo Scheme in 1871 and continued till it was formalised by the Government of India Act, 1919.

Lord Ripon Reforms, 1882

Association of Indians with local self-government through elected municipalities and district boards was initiated in 1882 by Lord Ripon, along with the gradual transformation taking place in the legislative sphere. The authority allowed to these institutions was, however, very limited and was to be exercised under the watchful eyes of the officials.

The long-drawn-out struggle for self-government by the Indian National Congress, joined by the other political parties formed later, led to the growth of Indian nationalism. Modulating their strategy step by step with the mounting demands and persistent pressures of the nationalist movement, the British started devolving more and more powers to the Provinces, involving increasing association of Indians on the one hand and promoting divisive forces on the other.

Indian Council Act, 1909 (Morley-Minto Reforms)

By the Indian Council Act, 1909 (Morley-Minto Reforms) the British further extended the association of Indians with the governance of the country but on the basis of separate electorates, narrow franchise and indirect election.

Government of India Act, 1919

The Government of India Act, 1919 ushered in the first phase of responsible Government in India. It was a significant step in the development of a two-tier polity. While conceding representative government in a small measure in the Provinces under a ‘dyarchical’ system, it demarcated the sphere of Provincial Governments from that of the Centre.

By the Devolution Rules framed under the Act, powers were delegated to the Provinces not only in the administrative but also in the legislative and financial spheres. For this purpose, separate Central and Provincial Lists of subjects were drawn up. The last item in the Provincial List allotted to the Provinces “any matter though falling within the Central subjects is declared by the Governor- General-in-Council to be of a merely local or private nature within the Province”.

The subjects in the Provincial List were further subdivided into ‘reserved’ and ‘transferred’ subjects. The Departments dealing with the ‘transferred’ subjects were placed in the charge of elected Ministers responsible to the Provincial Legislature, while Departments in respect of ‘reserved’ subjects were administered by the Governor with the assistance of an Executive Council nominated by him.

Although with respect to ‘transferred’ subjects, the Provinces derived substantial authority by devolution from the Central Government, yet the Governor-General-in-Council remained in control at the apex of this centralised system, ultimately responsible to the Secretary of State for India in the U.K. There was also a third List regarding taxation powers of local bodies.

The reforms of 1919 failed to meet the aspirations of the people for full responsible government. In reality, the structure remained unitary with the Governor-General-in-Council in effective ultimate control. Finance was a ‘reserved subject’ in charge of a member of the Executive Council and no progressive measures could be put through without his consent.

The main instruments of administration, namely, the Indian Civil Service and Indian Police were under the control of the Secretary of State and were responsible to him and not to the Ministers. The Governor could act in his discretion otherwise than on the advice of the Ministers. No Bill could be moved in a Provincial Legislature without the permission of the Governor-General. No Bill could become law without his assent.

Simon Commission

The intense India-wide agitation carried on by the political parties for full responsible government, evoked a partial response from the British Government. In November 1927, they appointed a Statutory Commission under Sir John Simon for considering the grant of a further instalment of responsible Government. All the seven members of the Commission were British. The Indian National Congress and all other leading political parties boycotted the Commission. The Congress pressed the British Government to accede to the national demand for convening a Round Table Conference or Constituent Assembly to determine the future Constitution of India.

White Paper 1933

The British Government published a White Paper in 1933, embodying the principles of constitutional reforms in India. This, inter alia, sought to extend ‘separate’ electorates further to Scheduled Castes and Tribes, which had to be withdrawn after a protest “fast unto death” by Mahatma Gandhi. These proposals were considered by the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament.

Government of India Act, 1935

On the basis of the Select Committee’s Reports, a Bill was drafted and enacted in 1935 as the Government of India Act. The Federal subjects were classified into ‘reserved subjects’ and ‘transferred subjects’. The Governor-General administered the ‘reserved subjects’ with the assistance of Councillors, and the ‘transferred subjects’ with the aid of the Council of Ministers responsible to the Central legislature.

Wide discretionary powers were given to the Governor-General. Instrument of Instruction issued under the Act enabled the Governor-General to include, in his discretion, in his Council of Ministers representatives of the minorities and Indian States.

The Act envisaged an all-India Federation which was to consist of 11 Governor’s Provinces, 6 Chief Commissioner’s Provinces and such Indian States as would agree to join the federation. So far as the British Provinces were concerned it was obligatory for them to join the federation. The Governmental subjects were divided into three Lists—Federal, Provincial and concurrent.

The Legislatures of the Provinces were given exclusive power to legislate with respect to matters in the Provincial List. Similarly, the Central Legislature had the exclusive power to legislate with respect to matters in the Federal List. The Centre and the Provinces had concurrent jurisdiction with respect to matters in the Concurrent List.

The Act thus introduced Provincial autonomy with responsible Government. However, certain safeguards by way of special powers and responsibilities were provided, which detracted from the concept of responsible government. Subject to the limitations provided therein, the Act allocated to the Federal and Provincial Legislatures plenary powers, making them supreme within their respective spheres.

The part of the Act which contemplated the inclusion of the Princely States never came into operation as the States did not opt to join the federation. However, its provisions relating to the Provinces came into effect in 1937 when elected governments responsible to legislatures, assumed office in the Provinces. But there was a deadlock when the Government of India declared a “state of war” without consulting the Legislatures. Governments in Provinces led by the Congress Party resigned in protest in 1939.

Further, during the Second World War, a number of measures were introduced which considerably curtailed the powers of the provincial governments and virtually nullified provincial autonomy.

The Government of India Act, 1935, is nevertheless an important milestone in the history of constitutional devolution of power particularly from two stand-points.

Firstly, it constitutionally distributed powers between the Centre and the Provinces.

Secondly, subject to certain safeguards, it introduced representative government at the Provincial level responsible to the Provincial Legislature.

Crips Mission 1942

In March, 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps came with proposals of the British Government to resolve the political deadlock in India. These proposals envisaged that a Constituent Assembly, elected through proportional representation by the Provincial Legislatures, would frame a new Constitution for India after the cessation of hostilities. The British Government would accept the new Constitution subject, inter alia, to the condition that any Province would opt out of it and retain its constitutional position as in the 1935 Act. The Cripps proposals were rejected by all sections of public opinion in the country.

Cabinet Mission Plan 1946

The next important event in the Constitutional history was the announcement of the British Cabinet Mission Plan by Mr. Attlee, the British Prime Minister, on May 16, 1946. It envisaged a Central Government with very limited powers and relatively strong Provinces having considerable degree of autonomy with all the residuary powers.

The Indian National Congress had, on the other hand, throughout its long struggle for independence, emphasised the need to safeguard the unity and integrity of India. In the hope, however, of securing the co-operation of the Muslim League and thereby preventing the threatened partition of the Country, they accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan.

The Objectives Resolution moved by Pandit Nehru on December 13, 1946 in the constituent Assembly, was based on this Plan, although he was all along very apprehensive about it. But, all such concessional resolutions, conciliatory gestures and persuasive efforts failed to keep the country united. And, the partition of the Country was announced on June 3, 1947.

The Constituent Assembly thereupon sharply reversed its approach and resolved in favour of a Strong Centre. This reaction found unequivocal expression in the Second Report of the Union Powers Committee, dated July 5, 1947:

“Now that partition is a settled fact, we are unanimously of the view that it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak Central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace, of co-ordinating vital matters of common concern ………….. and that the soundest framework of out Constitution is a federation with a “strong Centre”.

The primary lesson of India’s history is that, in this vast country, only that polity or system can endure and protect its unity, integrity and sovereignty against external aggression and internal disruption, which ensures a strong Centre with paramount powers, accommodating, at the same paramount time, its traditional diversities. This lesson of history did not go un-noticed by the framers of the Constitution.

Being aware that, notwithstanding the common cultural heritage, without political cohesion, the Country would disintegrate under the pressure of fissiparous forces, they accorded the highest priority to the ensurance of the unity and integrity of the country.

It was realised that, in India, democracy was yet in its infancy and to prevent or remedy possible breakdowns of Constitutional machinery in the constituent units, it was essential to invest the Union with over-riding powers.

The contemporary events also had an inevitable impact on the formulation of the Constitution. The large-scale communal violence and the influx of millions of uprooted persons from Pakistan brought in their train colossal problems which could be tackled only with the pooled strength and resources of the nation.

Even as the Government was struggling to deal with the problems arising out of the partition, Jammu and Kashmir was invaded by outside forces. The consequences of this invasion are too well-known to require any recounting. The Princely States also posed a delicate problem which was solved in a statesman-like manner averting further fragmentation of the country. Eruption of violence in the neighbouring country, Burma, and the wanton killing of its Cabinet, spelt out clearly the possible dangers from extremist violent groups.

The new Government and its leaders had more than what anyone could be expected to cope with. The external aggression in Kashmir and the out-break of extremist violence in some parts of India under-scored the imperative of building a strong Centre capable of protecting the independence and integrity of the country against dangers from both within and without.

In a country too large and diverse for a unitary form of government, they envisaged a system which would be worked in co-operation by the two levels of government—national and regional—as a common endeavour to serve the people. Such a system, it was conceived, would be most suited to Indian conditions as it would at once have the advantages of a strong unified central power, and the essential values of federalism.