Beginnings of Self-Government

Pakistan Table of Contents

The Government of India Act of 1909--also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms (John Morley was the secretary of state for India, and Gilbert Elliot, fourth earl of Minto, was viceroy)-- gave Indians limited roles in the central and provincial legislatures, known as legislative councils. Indians had previously been appointed to legislative councils, but after the reforms some were elected to them. At the center, the majority of council members continued to be government-appointed officials, and the viceroy was in no way responsible to the legislature. At the provincial level, the elected members, together with unofficial appointees, outnumbered the appointed officials, but responsibility of the governor to the legislature was not contemplated. Morley made it clear in introducing the legislation to the British Parliament that parliamentary self-government was not the goal of the British government.

The granting of separate electorates and communal representation was welcomed by Muslims but opposed by Congress. The Muslim League was pleased by the apparent British intention to support and safeguard Muslim interests in the subcontinent. Separate electorates remained a part of the Muslim League platform even after the independence of Pakistan. Congress opposition was understandable. As the majority community in most provinces, Hindus stood to lose from weighted minority representation. Congress also presented itself as a national secular party and could not support identification of voters with a particular community.

The Morley-Minto Reforms were a milestone. Step by step, the elective principle was introduced for membership in Indian legislative councils. The "electorate" was limited, however, to a small group of upper-class Indians. These elected members increasingly became an "opposition" to the "official government." Communal electorates were later extended to other communities and made a political factor of the Indian tendency toward group identification through religion. The practice created certain vital questions for all concerned. The intentions of the British were questioned. How humanitarian was their concern for the minorities? Were separate electorates a manifestation of "divide and rule"?

For Muslims it was important both to gain a place in all- India politics and to retain their Muslim identity, objectives that required varying responses according to circumstances, as the example of Mohammad Ali Jinnah illustrates. Jinnah, who was born in 1876, studied law in England and began his career as an enthusiastic liberal in Congress on returning to India. In 1913 he joined the Muslim League, which had been shocked by the 1911 annulment of the partition of Bengal into cooperating with Congress to make demands on the British. Jinnah continued his membership in Congress until 1919. During this dual membership period, he was described by a leading Congress spokesperson as the "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity."

India's important contributions to the efforts of the British Empire in World War I stimulated further demands by Indians and further response from the British. Congress and the Muslim League met in joint session in December 1916. Under the leadership of Jinnah and Pandit Motilal Nehru (father of Jawalharlal Nehru), unity was preached and a proposal for constitutional reform was made that included the concept of separate electorates. The resulting Congress-Muslim League Pact (often referred to as the Lucknow Pact) was a sincere effort to compromise. Congress accepted the separate electorates demanded by the Muslim League, and the Muslim League joined with Congress in demanding self-government. The pact was expected to lead to permanent and constitutional united action.

In August 1917, the British government formally announced a policy of "increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and 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 Empire." Constitutional reforms were embodied in the Government of India Act of 1919--also known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (Edwin Samuel Montagu was Britain's secretary of state for India; the Marquess of Chelmsford was viceroy). These reforms represented the maximum concessions the British were prepared to make at that time. The franchise was extended, and increased authority was given to central and provincial legislative councils, but the viceroy remained responsible only to London.

The changes at the provincial level were significant, as the provincial legislative councils contained a considerable majority of elected members. In a system called "dyarchy," the nation- building departments of government--agriculture, education, public works, and the like--were placed under ministers who were individually responsible to the legislature. The departments that made up the "steel frame" of British rule--finance, revenue, and home affairs--were retained by executive councillors who were often, but not always, British and who were responsible to the governor.

The 1919 reforms did not satisfy political demands in India. The British repressed opposition, and restrictions on the press and on movement were reenacted. An apparently unwitting example of violation of rules against the gathering of people led to the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919. This tragedy galvanized such political leaders as Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and the masses who followed them to press for further action.

The Allies' post-World War I peace settlement with Turkey provided an additional stimulus to the grievances of the Muslims, who feared that one goal of the Allies was to end the caliphate of the Ottoman sultan. After the end of the Mughal Empire, the Ottoman caliph had become the symbol of Islamic authority and unity to Indian Sunni Muslims. A pan-Islamic movement, known as the Khilafat Movement, spread in India. It was a mass repudiation of Muslim loyalty to British rule and thus legitimated Muslim participation in the Indian nationalist movement. The leaders of the Khilafat Movement used Islamic symbols to unite the diverse but assertive Muslim community on an all-India basis and bargain with both Congress leaders and the British for recognition of minority rights and political concessions.

Muslim leaders from the Deoband and Aligarh movements joined Gandhi in mobilizing the masses for the 1920 and 1921 demonstrations of civil disobedience and noncooperation in response to the massacre at Amritsar. At the same time, Gandhi endorsed the Khilafat Movement, thereby placing many Hindus behind what had been solely a Muslim demand.

Despite impressive achievements, however, the Khilafat Movement failed. Turkey rejected the caliphate and became a secular state. Furthermore, the religious, mass-based aspects of the movement alienated such Western-oriented constitutional politicians as Jinnah, who resigned from Congress. Other Muslims also were uncomfortable with Gandhi's leadership. The British historian Sir Percival Spear wrote that "a mass appeal in his [Gandhi's] hands could not be other than a Hindu one. He could transcend caste but not community. The [Hindu] devices he used went sour in the mouths of Muslims." In the final analysis, the movement failed to lay a lasting foundation of Indian unity and served only to aggravate Hindu-Muslim differences among masses that were being politicized. Indeed, as India moved closer to the self-government implied in the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, rivalry over what might be called the spoils of independence sharpened the differences between the communities. .

The political picture in India was not at all clear when the mandated decennial review of the Government of India Act of 1919 became due in 1929. Prospects of further constitutional reforms spurred greater agitation and a frenzy of demands from different groups. The commission in charge of the review was headed by Sir John Simon, who recommended further constitutional change, but it was not until 1935 that a new Government of India Act was passed. Three consecutive roundtable conferences were held in London in 1930, 1931, and 1932, at which a wide variety of interests from India were represented. The major disagreement concerned the continuation of separate electorates, which Gandhi and Congress strongly opposed. As a result, the decision was forced on the British government. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald issued his "communal award," which continued the system of separate electorates at both the central and the provincial level.

The principal result of the act was "provincial autonomy." The dyarchical system was discontinued, and all subjects were placed under ministers who were individually and collectively responsible to the former legislative councils, which were renamed legislative assemblies. (In a few provinces, including Bengal, a bicameral system was established; the upper house continued to be called a legislative council.) Almost all assembly members were elected, with the exception of some special and otherwise unrepresented groups. After the elections, provincial chief ministers and cabinets took office, although the governors had limited "emergency powers." Sindh was separated from Bombay and became a province. The 1919 reforms had earlier been introduced in the North-West Frontier Province. Balochistan, however, retained special status; it had no legislature and was governed by an "agent general to the governor general." At the center, the act essentially provided for the establishment of dyarchy, but it also provided for a federal system that included the princes. The princes refused to join a system that might force them to accept decisions made by elected politicians. Thus, the full provisions of the 1935 act did not come into force at the center.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress