Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

British Roots of Indian Politics

Chander Pal Singh

On the occasion of sixtieth birthday of Indian parliament on 13
th May, 2012, print media and members of parliament went overboard in celebrating the achievements of Indian democracy. But can any assessment of the six decades of working of Indian democracy be realistic if it is not made in the light of the aspirations of the founding fathers, the fundamental values and inspirations of our freedom struggle, and the cherished expectations of the teeming millions for the newly independent India? In this context it is imperative to sum up the high hopes entertained at the time of independence: establishment of an egalitarian, participatory democratic society; all India nationalism; secular, moral polity; in all making this country finding its rightful place in the comity of great nations consistent with her civilizational ethos.

Comparing with the present day reality, the picture which emerges is very dismal. We find the Indian political system besieged with ills which the founding fathers thought they had done away with by adopting the present constitution. The dream of the egalitarian society has gone to the winds; old evils like caste, communalism, linguism and regionalism have become more reinforced than they were earlier; corruption has penetrated every vein of the system; unholy nexus of money, power and crime has assumed alarming proportions; terrorism and naxalism pose greater threat to the nation than any external enemy; and on the whole people are losing faith in the system.

Though every citizen has the right to vote, the majority of Indian people do not have effective control over their social, economical and political destiny. In fact, the social and economic aspects of democracy do not figure among the so called achievements of Indian democracy. Political-bureaucratic class has reduced the sovereignty of the people to a mere right to exercise their franchise at the time of elections. The representative character of individual legislators, the party in power, and legislature in general, is itself questionable. The fact that fragmentary polity and vote bank politics rule the roost is evident by the statistics that 15-20% of electorate is generally sufficient for individual candidates to win the elections and the central and the state legislatures themselves represent only 20-25% of the electorate. No wonder that caste, community, region and other narrow loyalties decide the fate of elections while the larger concerns vital for the people and the nation hardly matter. It has become impossible to win election without spending huge amount of money; idealism and ideology rarely have a role in electoral politics. Unholy nexus of money, power, crime and politics has sniffed out any morality in public life, leading to the unsavory distinction of being called as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. For the common man, politics has become a dirty word and on the whole people are losing faith in the democratic institutions as amply indicated by the increase in incidences of mob violence, terrorism and naxalism. So the Indian democracy is facing a crisis situation and there is an urgent need to find the remedy for the malady if we have to meet our national goals or even survive as a nation.

A plethora of writings has appeared to discuss the ailments of the political system and suggest suitable remedies. But overall, the debate on the ills besieging the system has remained focused on the working of the political system rather than questioning the system itself. Surprisingly and also unfortunately, the political analysts have altogether ignored the making of the Indian political system i.e. its historical evolution. The fact that the present Indian Constitution has not been able to shake off it colonial legacy has been generally overlooked. There is a general consensus among the political thinkers and analysts that the founding fathers chose the best system possible and it is a case of wrong handling of the right system. In this context, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly on the eve of adoption of the Constitution has been often quoted:

"… I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution."1

Following this approach of ‘good’ system but ‘bad’ people to work with, piecemeal attempts have been made to reform the system from time to time. More than 100 amendments have already been introduced in the Constitution (which itself indicates that something is terribly wrong with our Constitution), but with little result. It is to be noted that problems with the functioning of the democratic institutions in India have been present since the very beginning of the system. It is not that they were not present in the early 1950s when towering personalities from our freedom struggle like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Azad were in commanding positions in the new political system. The situation appears getting bad to worse with the decline of idealism and probity in the public life. The crisis in the political system is spread across the political spectrum, transcending parties and political ideologies. Every player seems to have developed a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They are unanimous in opposing any suggestion of making fundamental changes in the political system.

Now the question is: where are the roots of this crisis? Issues related to the working of the political system cannot be discarded completely but they do not constitute the core causes of the crisis. Need of the time is to suggest a new line of inquiry: whether the present political system based on 1950 Constitution could really be a suitable channel for expression of the democratic ethos of the Indian people, keeping in view their characteristic socio-economic reality resultant’ of a long historical process? Could this system be expected to lead to different results in the Indian situation? Were not these consequences already foreseen before? In short, is not the system itself responsible for the present crisis?

It is an undisputed fact that the present Indian Constitution is a product of the historical evolution of constitutional development process during the British rule. Installments of constitutional reform (Acts of 1858, 1861, 1892, 1909, 1919, 1935) were a series of responses, one leading to another, from the colonial government to counter the advance of nationalist movement and prolong the British rule in the new circumstances by creating new divisions in Indian society.

From the very beginning of the debate on application of representative principle in India, British authorities were clear in their mind that the political system of Britain or her white colonies is not applicable on India. John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) was categorical in his assessment that Britain would only succeed in her task in India "through far wider political conceptions than merely English or European practice can supply and through a much more profound study of Indian experience and of the conditions of Indian Government than either English politicians or those who supply the English public with opinions have hitherto shown any willingness to undertake."2 True to this principle, English statesmen from Lord Ripon (Viceroy of India from 1880 to 1884) onwards emphatically denied that they were trying to impose English system in India.

In contrast to the British approach, Congressmen, from the very first session of Indian National Congress in 1885, were more interested in British than in Indian forms of Government. Such was their obsession with British political institutions that Dadabhai Naoroji said at 1885 session of Congress: "If we are denied Britain’s best institutions what good is it to India to be under the British sway? It will be simply another Asiatic despotism."3 Their cherished goal was to adopt the western representative institutions and they were certain that Britain will transfer these gifts slowly. Madan Mohan Malviya articulated this very point at the INC session of 1886: "Representative institutions are as much as part of a true Briton as his language and his literature. Will ... Great Britain deny us, her first born subjects, the first of these when by the gift of the two latter she has qualified us to appreciate and incited us to desire it."4 We can only say that Macaulay was right when he said that European Knowledge will create demand for European institutions.

Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of India (1884-88), reacted to the Indian National Congress’ demand towards the establishment of parliamentary system in India by calling it as "a very big jump into the unknown … which England herself has only reached by slow degrees and through the discipline of many centuries of preparation."5 During the debate on the introduction of electoral principle in India in the British Parliament in 1890, Viscount Cross, the Secretary of State for India during 1886-92, said "that no man in his senses would ever think of having Parliamentary constituencies there such as we have in England. They are absolutely unsuited to the Eastern habits and absolutely unsuited to a country like India."6 His successor, the Earl of Kimberley7 also argued the impossibility of "parliamentary representation of so vast a country—almost as large as Europe— containing so large a number of different races is one of the wildest imaginations that ever entered the minds of men."8 In 1906, while discussing the reform proposals which fructified in the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909, Minto (Viceroy of India, 1905-10) cautioned Morley (Secretary of State for India, 1905-1910), "However much may we admire our own constitutional history, our constitution ... is the result of a long course of historical experience unknown in India, while our political party machinery, which the Bengali would imitate, is, as we know, full of faults, which we ourselves regret, and which it would be fatal to encourage here."9 On his part, Morley reassured Minto: "Not one whit more than you I think it desirable or possible, or even conceivable, to adopt English political institutions to the nations who inhibit India. Not in your day or mine."10

A.J. Balfour, who had been the Prime Minister of United Kingdom from July 1902 to December 1905, made a profound statement in the House of Lords on the feasibility of western representative institutions. "We all admit that representative Government, government by debate, is the best form of government [only] when it is suitable, … when you are dealing with a population in the main homogeneous, in the main equal in every substantial and essential sense, in a community where the minority are prepared to accept the decision of the majority, where they are all alike in the traditions in which they are brought up, in their general outlook upon the world and in their broad view of national aspirations."11 Balfour was speaking with reference to the great divide between Hindus and Muslims and also the water tight boundaries of the institution of caste among the Hindus. Balfour’s arguments on the unsuitability of British style politics in India, interestingly, had been stated by Syed Ahmad Khan while speaking in the Council of the Governor General in 1883. Understandably, Syed Ahmad Khan was making a case to deny Hindus the advantage of majority in electoral politics, but nevertheless he had a point.

Balfour’s conclusion on impracticality of adopting the British Constitution as a model for development of parliamentary democracy in India, albeit in more refined and developed form was articulated by the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform as to prepare the ground for the coming Government of India Act of 1935 during 1933-34. The report of Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform quoted Lord Bryce, a formidable authority on constitutional matters, to bring home the view that the English Constitution will suit but the England only. "The English Constitution, which we admire as a masterpiece of delicate equipoises and complicated mechanism, would anywhere but in England be full of difficulties and dangers … It works by a body of understanding which no writer can formulate and of habits which centuries have been needed to instill."12 The Report explained that: "The understanding and habits of which Lord Bryce speaks are bound up with the growth of mutual confidence between the great parties in the State transcending the political differences of the hour. Experience has shown only too clearly that a technique which the British people have thus painfully developed in the course of many generations is not to be acquired by other communities in the twinkling of an eye; nor, when acquired, is it likely to take the same form as in Great Britain, but rather to be moulded in its course of development by social conditions and national aptitudes."13 Authors of the report cited examples to show how easily the framers of written constitutions may be mislead by deceptive analogies, succeeding only in reproducing what they suppose to be the letter of British constitutional theory, while ignoring the spirit and the living growth of British constitutional practice. "The classics instance of such misconceptions is offered by the Constitution of the United States, whose authors decided "to keep the legislative branch absolutely distinct from the executive branch," largely because "they believed such a separation to exist in the English, which the wisest of them thought the best, Constitution .… Mere copyist of British institutions would fall into even more dangerous errors to-day if he were to assume that an Act of Parliament can establish similar institutions in India merely by reproducing such provisions as are to be found in the constitutional law of the United Kingdom."14 Authors of the report also said that many safeguards may be incorporated in a statutory form to ensure the proper functioning of parliamentary government, "but which in Great Britain have no sanction save that of established custom; and, when this is done, it will remain true that parliamentary government in India may well develop on lines different from those of government at Westminster."15 Report then went on to give its final judgment as to why a parliamentary government on the Westminster model will not be feasible in India:

"Parliamentary government, as it is understood in the United Kingdom, works by the interaction of four essential factors: the principle of majority rule; the willingness of the minority for the time being to accept the decisions of the majority; the existence of great political parties divided by broader issues of policy, rather than by sectional interests; and finally the existence of a mobile body of political opinion, owing no permanent allegiance to any party and therefore able, by its instinctive reaction against extravagant movements on one side or the other, to keep the vessel on an even keel. In India none of these factors can be said to exist today. There are no parties, as we understand them, and there is no considerable body of public opinion which can be described as mobile. In their place we are confronted with the age-old antagonism of Hindu and Muhammadan, representatives not only of two religions but of two civilizations; with numerous self- contained and exclusive minorities, all a prey to anxiety for their future and profoundly suspicious of the majority and of one another; and with the rigid divisions of caste, itself inconsistent with democratic principle … It is impossible to predict whether, or how soon, a new sense of provincial citizenship, combined with the growth of parties representing divergent economic and social policies, may prove strong enough to absorb and obliterate the religious and social cleavages which thus dominate Indian political life. Meanwhile it must be recognized that, if free play were given to the powerful forces which would be set in motion by unqualified system of parliamentary government, the consequences would be disastrous to India, and perhaps irreparable."16

Now the question arises: Why did Indian leadership in the Constituent Assembly chose to adopt Western political institutions for India against the prophesies and the warnings of the British statesmen and constitutional experts? As mentioned earlier, the answer to this question of immense historical importance lies in the nature of the mainstream of the Indian freedom struggle. Congress leaders, from the very beginning of their movement, dreamed of assimilating British political institutions in India in future. Indeed, they took pride in calling their agitation as ‘constitutional’. Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, which sowed the obnoxious seed of communal electorate in Indian politics, were seen by Surendranath Banerjea as the "growing triumph of constitutional agitation."17 There was divided opinion in the Congress regarding participation in the Legislative Councils formed under the diarchy scheme of Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 and a section of Congressmen participated in the elections and accepted offices. Mahatma Gandhi, who was a bitter critic of the Westminster model, calling the parliament a prostitute in Hind Swaraj in 1909, reconciled his stand by early 1930s under the pressure of the Congressmen to participate in electoral politics and approved the formation of Congress Parliamentary Board. Congress, in the beginning, opposed and rejected the Government of India Act of 1935 but later participated in the elections under the Act and was able to form governments in 8 provinces. Besides Gandhi and a few like Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and Subhash Chandra Bose, most of the Congress leaders remained under the spell and charm of the incorrigibility of the English political institutions. Congress leadership failed to distinguish between the British constitutional experts’ opinion about the unsuitability of British institutions in India and the British imperial resolve of not transferring substantial power to natives in India. At the same time, though Congress leaders vehemently opposed communal and caste agenda of the constitutional reforms but still they viewed them as steps towards the growth of representative polity in India.

K.M. Munshi, a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly, sums up the overall approach of the Constituent Assembly of looking no further than the British constitutional model:

"We must not forget a very important fact that during the last hundred years, Indian public life has largely drawn upon the traditions of British Constitutional Law. Most of us have looked up to the British model as the best. For the last thirty or forty years, some kind of responsibility has been introduced in the governance of this country. Our constitutional traditions have become Parliamentary. After this experience, why should we go back upon the tradition that has been built for over a hundred years and buy a novel experience?"18

The Constitution Assembly which prepared the Constitution for independent India was itself a creation of the colonial Government. It was neither sovereign nor truly representative in nature. It was promulgated by the joint statement of Cabinet delegation and Viceroy dated 16th May 1946 (paragraphs 18-21). This statement decided its mandate, composition, method of working, limitations as well as its framework. Members of the Assembly were indirectly elected by the Provincial Assemblies which were themselves elected under the Government of India Act of 1935 on a highly restrictive franchise covering barely 11% of the population of British India. Native States, constituting 23% of the population of India, were denied even this restrictive and indirect franchise because the princes were given the right to nominate 93 members.19 In all, the Assembly represented only the English educated, Western oriented elite and eluded the representative cross-section of the Indian society. Muslim League, a major constituent in the original plan stayed away from the Constituent Assembly. Highlighting the crippling shortcomings of the Assembly, Gandhi asked Congress to boycott it as it would not be able to deliver an acceptable Constitution.20 But Congress leaders had come too close to replace the British rulers, they could no longer wait. Hence they did not heed the advice of the Mahatma and went ahead with the task of constitution making.

The actual task of Constitution making was conducted by a few experts among whom Sir B.N. Rau deserves special mention as he was appointed as the Constitutional Adviser to the Assembly in July 1946 by the Viceroy. Rau, a career administrator, who played an important role in finalizing the 1935 Act in the Reforms Office of the Government of India, was later appointed as Secretary on the Governor General’s Secretariat.21 Rau played a leading role in piloting the prototype draft of the Constitution he had prepared. He guided the various expert committees on different aspect of Constitution in the making. He almost singlehandedly collected material from abroad. With minor changes, it was Rau’s prototype draft which formed the crux of the final Constitution. Rau’s role in the Constitution making has been frankly accepted by eminent members of the Constituent Assembly. "If Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was the skillful pilot of the constitution through all its different stages, Sri B.N. Rau was the person who visualized the plan and laid its foundation", writes Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly.22 But, what has not been properly realized and openly accepted is the significance of his role as an agent of Viceroy in the Constituent Assembly, to whom he was responsible.

Most crucial fact about Rau’s draft and also the final draft was that they were based on the Government of India Act of 1935. Dr. Ambedkar confirmed the import from the 1935 Act in the following words, "As to the accusation that the Draft Constitution has produced a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935, I make no apologies. There is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing. It involves no plagiarism. Nobody holds any patent rights in the fundamental ideas of a Constitution." 23 It is interesting to know that Dr. Ambedkar, up till 1945, was not in favour of constituting a Constituent Assembly as in his opinion the task of an Assembly would merely be to duplicate the work done by the 1935 Act .

Government of India Act, 1935, was the culmination of the Constitutional reform process initiated by Colonial rulers after the great Revolt of 1857 to secure the Empire. Through the various installments of reform i.e. 1861, 1882, 1892, 1909 and finally 1935, colonial administration, in successive stages tried to counter nationalist challenge by introducing and fomenting the divisive tendencies of class, interests, caste, creed and region. An example would suffice here. In 1907 when Minto-Morley reforms were in the making and British officials were considering the proposal of separate electorate, R.C. Dutt (civil servant and economic historian, twice elected the President of the Indian National Congress), made a prophetic analysis of a system of elections based on classes, castes and religious creeds.

"To create electorates or hold elections in India according to caste and creed would be attended with greater danger in the future than in any European country. It would be fanning the embers to a flame which might, under unforeseen and unfortunate conditions, leading to a conflagration. It would be creating jealousies, hatreds and evil passions in every village and in our everyday life. It would be teaching us to disunite, to vote according to religion, to nurse sectional differences, and to rekindle dying hatreds and jealousies. It would assuredly lead to an increase of religious riots and disturbances in the future ..."24

With the Government of India Act of 1935 becoming the foundation of the present Constitution, the evil legacy of the constitutional reform process was passed to the post- independence political system. Soon after the new Constitution began to work, its imperfections began to manifest, leading many to become disillusioned. Dr. Ambedkar was one of them. He vented his embittered heart in the Rajya Sabha on 2nd September 1953. "People always keep on saying to me, "Oh you are the maker of the Constitution" My answer is I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will." He added: "I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody…"25

In a nutshell, independent India did not cut the umbilical chord from its colonial past. Maladies designed to keep it enslaved through fragmentation remained in its body politic only to grow worse with the passage of time. The problems being faced by the nation are embedded in its genes in the form of a colonial constitution. What is needed is genetic engineering. Superficial treatments won’t cure.


1 B. Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution, vol. IV, The Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, 1968, p. 939.

2 R. Coupland, The Constitutional Problem in India, Oxford University Press, Madras, 1944, p.22.

3 Deniel Argov, Moderates and Extremists in the Indian National Movement, 1883-1920, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1967, p.32.

4 Ibid, p.33.

5 Dufferin’s speech at St. Andrew’s Dinner given in Calcutta on November 20, 1888 quoted in A.C. Bannerji, Indian Constitutional Documents, Vol. II, A. Mukherjee &Co. , Calcutta, 1961, op. cit., p. 92.

6 Viscount Cross’ speech in British Parliament on 6th March 1890.

7 Secretary of State for India during 1882-86 and 1892-94.

8 Earl of Kimberley’s speech in British Parliament on 6th March 1890.

9 Minto to Morley, 16 May 1906, cited in M.N. Das, India under Morley and Minto, Georg Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1964, pp. 183-184.

10 Morley to Minto, 6 June 1906, cited in John Viscount Morley, Recollections, Vol. II, Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London, 1918, p. 172

11 R. Coupland, op. cit., p. 26.

12 Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform, Vol I, Part I, Report, 1934, p. 7.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., pp. 7- 8.

16 Ibid., p. 11.

17 Subhash C. Kashyap, Reforming the Constitution, UBS Publishers Distributers Ltd., New Delhi, 1992, p. 6.

18 Ibid. p. 7. Dr. Rajendra Prasad also said, "(W)e have derived from the British Parliament, and we still continue to derive inspiraton from its proceedings from its history … (and) from its traditions." Cited in Granville Austin, Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.11.

19 First batch of members from the native states joined the Constituent Assembly on 28th April 1947, a year after the Assembly was planned while the last batch completed the formality of joining the Constituent Assembly on 24th January 1950, only two days before the new Constitution started working.

20 Gandhi’s Note on the Constituent Assembly, 3 December 1946, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 93, (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publication Division, Government of India, 1999, pp. 93- 94. Also see Gandhi to Patel, 4 December 1946, Ibid., p. 104.

21 Sir Benegal Rau, India’s Constitution in the Making, Allied Publishers, Madras, 1963, p. xxi.

22 Ibid. p. vi.

23 Subhah Kashyap, op. cit., p. 7.

24 R. C. Dutt, member of the Decentralization Commission to H.H. Risley via Dunlop Smith, dated March 10, 1908 [Home Public A, October 1908, 143].

             25 A.G. Noorani, Constitutional Questions in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000, p. 8.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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