Centenary of the introduction of democracy in India

By: R P Fernando, London, UK email: rfernando@live.co.uk


Last year marked the centenary of one of Britain’s greatest achievements, namely the introduction of parliamentary democracy in India. The centenaries of events that took place in 1921 were commemorated extensively in India last year but sadly there was no mention of either the anniversaries or the commemorations in the British media or academia.


The inclusion of Indians in the governance of India began after the Mutiny in 1857. The Indian Councils Act of 1861 set up Legislative Councils in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras containing nominated, non-official members, in addition to the official ones. In 1862 the Viceroy, Lord Canning, appointed three Indians, Maharaja Sir Narendra Singh of Patiala, Raja Deo Narain Singh of Benares and Raja Sir Dinkar Rao Raghunath of Gwalior to the Council. Between 1862 and 1892, forty-five Indians were nominated to the Council, most of them ruling princes or chiefs or zamindar families.

 The next major reform was the Indian Council Act of 1909 (the Minto-Morley Reforms) which changed the composition and function of both the Imperial Legislative Council and the provincial councils. The number of additional members was increased and some were elected by special groups such as landowners, chambers of commerce, trade associations and other local bodies. They were also given greater powers to question the government. The Act created a non-official majority in the Provincial Legislative Councils but maintained the official majority in the Central Legislative Council. The Act, for the first time, gave members of the Council power to move resolutions on any matter of public interest and to divide the Council upon them. The first resolution under the rules was moved on 25 Feb 1910 by Gopal Krishna Gokhale recommending prohibition of indentured labour in Natal, South Africa. Later on the Rowlatt Bill, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya spoke for two and a half hours.

At the same time there was agitation for more Indian involvement in government. The partition of Bengal gave a great fillip and radical turn to the nationalist movement. In 1906 Dadabhai Naoroji, in his Presidential Address to the Indian National Congress, placed before the people Swaraj or self-government as the goal to be attained. The First World War and the vital contribution of the Indian forces influenced the attitudes of both the rulers and the ruled.  In India there was an upsurge of political consciousness. The Home Rule Movement, led by Mrs Annie Besant and B G Tilak created considerable enthusiasm among the masses. In India Lord Hardinge was succeeded Lord Chelmsford in 1916 as Viceroy and in the new coalition government the Liberal, Edwin Montagu replaced Austen Chamberlain as Secretary of State for India. Montagu was well aware of the deterioration in the war situation. The fortunes of the Allies were at a low ebb and the Cabinet felt that only a further advance along the road to self-government would satisfy the educated classes in India.

On 20 August 1917 Montagu made the momentous declaration in the Commons that: ‘The policy of H.M. Government, with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is that of the 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. They have decided that substantial steps in that direction should be taken as soon as possible’. It promised India the dominion status enjoyed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was a bipartisan document whose text had been revised by the Conservative Lord Curzon enunciated by the Liberal Montagu and had the support of the coalition government. The term ‘responsible government’ was deeply significant. The Legislative Councils under the Morley-Minto Reforms were advisory bodies; responsible government meant that the executive would be accountable to the legislature for its actions as in the British parliament.   

Montagu came to India for 5 months from December 1917 to April 1918 and he and the Viceroy toured the whole country and met deputations from 112 groups representing the major communities, religious groups, depressed classes, landowners, political bodies and civil society. They also received addresses from another 110 groups whom they were not able to meet personally. A summary of the contents of these Addresses were published in a parliamentary paper so that legislators in the UK could see what the Indians were demanding.  Following Montagu’s return to the UK, the Montagu-Chelmsford Report was published in July 1918. Officials in two committees, the Franchise and Functions Committees, toured India between November 1918 and March 1919 to liaise between the Secretary of State, the Government of India and the provincial governments on the details of the legislation. The Bill was introduced in parliament in May 1919 and then referred to a Joint Select Committee to which deputations representing all shades of Indian opinion submitted their views. The task of the Joint Committee was a difficult one as there was wide range of views, some thinking that the Bill had gone too far and others that it was not far enough. Montagu directed the passage of the Bill through parliament with great tenacity. Sir S P Sinha was elevated to the peerage and became Britain’s first Indian peer and government minister as Under-Secretary of State for India. Sinha piloted the Bill through the House of Lords and the Bill received Royal Assent in Christmas Eve 1919.

As an indication of the importance of the Act, the King issued a rare Royal Proclamation at the same time. The King said: ‘I have given my Royal Assent to an Act which will take its place among the great historic measures passed by the Parliament of this Realm for the better government of India and greater contentment of her people. He went on to say: ‘Equally do I rely upon My officers to respect their new colleagues and to work with them in harmony and kindliness... Let us begin with a common determination among My people and My officers to work together for a common purpose’. The king also offered clemency to political offenders or rioters who were imprisoned following the disturbances earlier in the year.   

The 1919 Act introduced in the provinces two classes of administrators – Executive Councillors and Ministers. The former were appointed by the Governor and were in charge of reserved subjects such as finance. The Ministers, nominated from the elected members of the Council, were in charge of transferred subjects such as education, health and agriculture. In the Central government, a bicameral legislature was established with two houses – the Legislative Assembly (forerunner of Lok Sabha) and the Council of State (Rajya Sabha). Out of the 8 members of the Viceroy’s council, three had to be Indian. In order to vote in a particular constituency, there was a residential requirement and property qualification or one had to occupy certain posts in public bodies. Over 5 million people were given the vote and for the first time, in the provinces, elected Indian ministers were responsible to elected Indian legislators for subjects most closely affecting the Indian people.  

The reforms were received quite well at the beginning. Moderate leaders were full of enthusiasm. Surendranath Banerjee said: ’Let us grasp it with alacrity and enthusiasm; and in co-operation with British statesmen let us march forward to the accomplishment of the high destinies that, under the providence of God, are in store for us’. Following the Amritsar massacre, Congress held its winter conference in Amritsar and during the debate of the 1919 Act there was a vigorous debate and, by a narrow majority, they decided to support the Reforms. Gandhi, writing in the journal Young India on 31 December 1919 said:’ The Proclamation issued by the Sovereign on the 24th instant is a document of which the British people have every reason to be proud and which every Indian ought to be satisfied.. . The Reforms Act coupled with the Proclamation is an earnest of the British people to justice in India’. He wrote of Montagu: Throughout all these years, the one figure that has laboured for India without, for a single moment, turning back is Mr Montagu. We have had many Secretaries of State who have adorned their office. But no Secretary has so well adorned it as Mr Montagu. He has been true friend of India. He has earned our gratitude. And for Lord Sinha? He has added lustre to the country. Indians have every reason to be proud of him’.

This bonhomie did not last long. The Indians were appalled by the speeches in the House of Lords during the debate on the Hunter Report on the Amritsar Massacre in July 1920, the collection of a fund for Dyer and by the terms of the Treaty of Sevres for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Caliphate and initiated a non-cooperation movement and relations between the two sides deteriorated rapidly. Congress asked for a boycott of the first national elections under the 1919 Act during the winter of 1920/21.In spite of this some Congress members still took part and over 1m people voted.

In 1921 the Duke of Connaught came to India to inaugurate the legislatures established by the 1919 Act. Each of these ceremonies was commemorated a century later in 2021 in India. On February 1 1921 the Duke inaugurated the Bengal Legislative Council with the following opening remarks ‘Today, it is my pleasing task to open the second of that series of new legislatures which by the command of His Imperial Majesty, the King-Emperor, I have come to inaugurate...and I can assure you the deep interest which he watches the far-reaching changes beginning with the ceremony today’.

On 9 February 1921 the Duke inaugurated the Council of State and Legislative Assembly in Delhi. He first read a message from the King which included the following: ’For years, it may be for generations, patriotic and loyal Indians have dreamt of Swaraj for their motherland. Today you have the beginning of Swaraj within my Empire and widest scope and ample opportunity for progress to liberty which my other Dominions enjoy’. The King’s use of the word Swaraj, which is the Indian term for home rule, is very significant. The Duke, himself, in his speech referred to the Amritsar massacre: ’The shadow of Amritsar has fallen on the fair face of India. I know how deep is the concern felt by His Majesty, the King Emperor, at the terrible chapter of events in the Punjab. No one can deplore these events more intensely than I do myself’. The Duke’s statement of remorse was generally well received. On the centenary (10 Feb 2021) the current Indian Vice-President, Mr M V Naidu,  wrote a detailed article in the Hindustan Times  entitled ‘The Dream of an Indian Republic’ explaining the significance of the date.


On the 10th February 1921 the Duke laid the foundation stone for the All-India War Memorial. Having read a message from the King, the Duke said:’ On this spot on the central vista of the Capital of India, there will stand a Memorial Archway, designed to keep present the thoughts of the generations that follow after, the glorious sacrifices of the officers and men of the Indian Army who fought and fell in the Great War’. On the 12th February the Duke laid the foundation stone of the new Legislative chambers. In his speech the Duke said;’ These buildings will not only be the home of new representative institutions which mark a vast stride forward in the political development of India and of the British Empire but will, I trust, stand for future generations as the symbol of India’s rebirth to yet higher destinies’. On the 13th February 2021, the anniversary was widely reported in the Indian media.  The Duke inaugurated the Bombay Legislative Council on 23 February 1921 and on the 2 August 2021 and 21 October 2021 President Kovind of India attended day-long ceremonies at the Tamil Nadu State Legislature and the Bihar State Legislature respectively to commemorate their centenaries.




 Another important body that was established by the 1919 Act was the Public Accounts Committee and a major 2-day celebration of this body took place in the Indian parliament on 4-5 Dec 2021, attended by leading dignitaries, to celebrate its centenary and the Indian parliament published a souvenir:


Unsurprisingly one of the first debates in the new legislature was on the Punjab tragedy. An Indian MP, Mr Jamnadas Dwarkadas on the 15th February 1921 demanded that the Governor-General should declare that India should be governed on the principle of perfect racial equality, to express regret that the Martial Law administration departed from that principle and that adequate compensation should be paid to the families of those killed or injured at the Jallianwala Bagh. It should be noted that he asked for an expression of regret as that is how apologies were given in the 1920s. In reply, Sir William Vincent, Home Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, made plain the deep regret of the administration at the improper conduct and improper orders of certain individuals; and their firm determination that so far as human foresight could avail, any repetition would be forever impossible. He repudiated any suggestion that Indian lives were valued more lightly than lives of Englishmen, expressing his deep regret that the canons of conduct for which the British administration stood had been in certain cases been violated. He announced the government’s intention to deal generously with those who have suffered in the disturbances. Vincent was the ideal person to deliver the apology as he was the person who introduced the Rowlatt Bills in the Indian parliament. Following this apology and the earlier speech by the Duke of Connaught, the Indians did not ask for an apology for the Amritsar massacre in the 1920s, 30s or 40s.     

On April 20, 1921, the Punjab government appointed a committee consisting of three Indian members of the Legislative Council and an Indian High Court lawyer with A Langley, Commissioner of the Lahore Division as President. They submitted their report on December 22 1921 and compensation was paid in 1922. The levels of compensation ranged from a few thousand rupees to daily workers to 1 lakh to a family of an Amritsar based businessman. In the case of the Jallianwala Bagh victims, nearly Rs 2m were paid to families of 218 who were killed and 348 who were injured. The new parliament also appointed two committees, one to look into the draconian Press Act and the other to look into repressive legislation. Following their reports the Press Act, the Rowlatt Acts and 22 other repressive laws were repealed in March 1922. All these measures helped to assuage the pain of Indians and enabled the Congress Party to join the constitutional process in 1923.

The next major constitutional reform was the 1935 Government of India Act in which the internal governance of India was transferred to Indian ministers with the British retaining foreign affairs, defence and communications. This act, suitably modified, was retained as the constitution of India for three years after independence and by Pakistan for 9 years after independence. The new constitution of India, adopted in 1950, was largely based on the 1919 and 1935 Government of India Acts.  Hence India, today, has a federal structure based on the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, has a constitution based on two British Acts of Parliament and MPs sit in a chamber built by the British in the 1920s.

India should be commended for celebrating these anniversaries and it is a measure of the degree of ignorance and political correctness that pervade the media and most academics in the UK that the anniversaries and commemorations were ignored here. One would have expected a book to have been published to coincide with this historic anniversary. Hopefully, this article will present the basic facts to the general reader.



India in 1921-1922 (1922), Rushbrook Williams

Transfer of Power in India (1957), V P Menon

Montagu Chelmsford Reforms (1965), V P Menon

Outline of the Constitutional History of India (1965), V P Menon

Democracy in India (1942), A Appadorai

Speeches and Documents on the Indian Constitution 1921-47, M Gwyer and A Appadorai

Britain in India (1960), R P Masani