India Councils Act of 1909 (Morley - Minto Reforms)

Lord Minto
Lord Minto

During the late 19th century British-educated Indians began to demand a role in their government, which later developed into the independence movement. In 1885 an Englishman founded the Indian National Congress, although most of its members were highcaste Hindus. The congress met annually to promote the goal of greater participation of Indians in government.

By the early 20th century a radical wing had developed in the congress that was not content with the slow pace of reform. They were energized by the partition of the huge province of Bengal into two in 1905: East Bengal (including Assam) with a Muslim majority, and West Bengal (including Bihar and Orissa) with a Hindu majority.

A storm of protest against the partition ensued and included an economic boycott of British goods and acts of terrorism. The congress was split over this issue, and a radical wing split off to form the New Party.

The new viceroy, Lord Minto (1845– 1914), on the one hand acted to repress the unrest, while on the other he worked to enact reforms with the secretary of state for India of the newly elected Liberal government in Great Britain, John (later Lord) Morley (1838–1923).

The partition of Bengal was a catalyst for Muslim political consciousness. Since the decline and fall of the Muslim Mughal dynasty, Indian Muslims had fallen behind Hindus in attaining a modern education and adjusting to new conditions. Unlike Hindus, Indian Muslims were encouraged by the formation of East Bengal.

Realizing that constitutional reforms were in the works and that they would be a minority in a representative government, Western-educated Muslims led by Aga Khan organized the All-India Muslim League in 1905 and lobbied Minto for a "fair share" for the Muslim community in any representative system. Like the congress, the league also met in annual conventions to formulate goals.

John Morley
John Morley

In 1909 the British parliament passed the Indian Councils Act. It increased membership of legislative councils in both the central and provincial governments (all appointed up to then) to make elected members the majority in the provincial legislatures.

Importantly, educated men who paid a certain sum of taxes were allowed to vote for the first time in Indian history. Some seats were reserved for Muslim candidates, and only Muslims could vote for them. Moreover, the elected members were also empowered to question officials; to debate legislation, including the budget; and to introduce laws.

However, the viceroy and the governors still had total control and could veto any laws that were passed. The first elections were held in 1910 and elected 135 Indian representatives, who took their seats at various legislatures throughout India.

This act and other measures gradually restored calm to India. The act is important because it established representative responsible government as the goal for India and introduced the elective principle to a nonwhite possession of Great Britain.