The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–47

Parliamentary Experiences Under the Raj

by Mohammad Rashiduzzaman (Author)
©2020 Monographs XXXII, 280 Pages


The Central Legislature in British India 1921–47: Parliamentary Experiences Under the Raj is an exceptional exposé of Colonial India’s highest legislative body. With its wealth of materials and in-depth description of the former Indian Legislature’s actual working, its political milieu and its institutional development, this book belongs to the larger genre of the British Indian narratives on the constitutional encounters between the rulers and the ruled. This book touches on a critical range of areas essential to our understanding of the British Raj in India. This book adds a significant depth to a neglected quarter of historical knowledge—the chronicle of parliamentary experiences and the representative institution-building in Colonial India. Undeniably, the Central Legislature was the only acknowledged all-India forum where the Indian legislators and the Imperial Executive, time and again, ran into each other. Yet, even at the lowest ebb of the Indian lawmakers’ disillusionment, the two flanks, intermittently, showed a modicum of mutual respect: though limited, the two sides indirectly shared power, went through the motion and contributed to policy-making typically over a strip of non-controversial subjects.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Preface to the First Edition (1965)
  • Acknowledgements for the Second Edition
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter I. Development of the Central Legislature From 1861 to 1920
  • Chapter II. The Central Legislature and Indian Politics, 1921 to 1947
  • Chapter III. Nature of the Electoral System and Elections
  • Chapter IV. Powers, Privileges, and Procedures in the Central Legislature
  • Chapter V. The Composition and Political Groupings of the Two Houses
  • Chapter VI. The Legislative Influence on Administration
  • Chapter VII. Legislation With Special Reference to the Influence of Non-Official Members
  • Chapter VIII. Financial Procedure in the Central Legislature
  • Chapter IX. Political Grievances in the Central Legislature
  • Chapter X. Relations Between the Two Chambers
  • Chapter XI. Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Appendix I. Certain Provisions of the Government of India Act, 1919, Relating to the Indian Central Legislature Are Reproduced for Reference
  • Appendix II. A Statement Showing the Actual Number of Days on Which the Assembly Sat and the Days on Which Non-Official Business Was Transacted
  • Appendix III. Table Showing the Strength of the Major Political Parties/Groups in the Legislative Assembly From 1921 to 1947
  • Appendix IV. List of Voting Divisions Held in the Legislative Assembly From 1921 to 1947
  • Bibliography
  • Index

| xi →


Table I. Recommendations of the Electoral Size by the Franchise Committee (Southborough).

Table II. Summary of Legislative Assembly Elections From 1920 to 1945.

Table III. Summary of Council of State Elections From 1920 to 1930.

Table IV. Number of Candidates Who Forfeited Their Deposits.

Table V. Distribution of Seats in the Legislative Assembly.

Table VI. Distribution of Seats in the Council of State.

Table VII. Analysis of Seats Filled Without Contest in the Assembly Elections.

Table VIII. Voting Percentages in British & Assembly Elections.

Table IX. Comparison of Voting in Various Types of Constituencies of the Legislative Assembly.

Table X. Provincial Votes Polled in the Contested Constituencies as a Percentage of Electors Entitled to Vote.

Table XI. Percentage of Voting in Different Contested Constituencies in Various Provinces: 1920–1945.

Table XII. Analysis of Women Voters. ← xi | xii →

Table XIII. Number of Re-elected Members.

Table XIV. List of Title Holders Among the Lawmakers.

Table XV. Occupational Background of the Non-Official Members (Including the Nominated Members).

Table XVI. Questions in the Legislative Assembly, 1921–47.

Table XVII. Questions in the Council of State, 1921–47.

Table XVIII. Classification of Resolutions Passed by the Central Legislature.

Table XIX. Non-Official Resolutions Accepted, Rejected, Withdrawn, and Adjourned in the Legislative Assembly.

Table XX. Classification of the Acts Passed by the Central Legislature.

Table XXI. Percentage of Voted Expenditures to Total Expenditures From 1921 to 1947.

Table XXII. Net Expenditures on the Military Forces From 1921 to 1947.

Table XXIII. Reductions Proposed & Carried and Reductions Restored & Accepted by Government.

Table XXIV. Bills Considered by the Joint Committees of the Two Houses.

Table XXV. Bills (Except the Finance Bills) Amended by the Council of State.

| xiii →


Dr. Rashiduzzaman has asked me to write a foreword for his book. I have never wholly understood why one author, however new, should need another author to introduce him to the public; this book itself makes the introduction. But I am happy to acknowledge and in slight measure repay a friendship, and have therefore agreed to the request.

The inter-war period of Indian history is one whose importance we are now beginning to appreciate in a new way. So much of what has happened since partition makes full sense only when regarded in the light of the earlier years. The political movements constitute one vital area for re-examination. Another is the working of the quasi-parliaments through which the bureaucracy explored new relations with representative opinion. It is in this latter field that Dr. Rashiduzzaman has worked with success.

How strange a body was this Central Legislature of his study! —in which a government technically and in some measure actually responsible to the Whitehall learnt to “go through the motions” of being responsive to criticisms of the elected members and by “going through the motions” came genuinely in some degree to be really responsive; and in which a movement of hostile protest learnt to act as if it were a “loyal opposition” and through doing so came in part quite close to being one! Both “sides” were thus changed ← xiii | xiv → by the experience; they entered upon the experiment with reservations but they nevertheless came to discover its value. A dialogue that began as something of a pretence perhaps never wholly lost that character, but still some kind of conversation was maintained. In the circumstances that was a notable achievement.

Dr. Rashiduzzaman’s careful study of this fascinating development merits the attention not only of students of Indian political growth but also of all who are interested in the power of institutions to shape human outlook and behaviour.

| xv →


Unfolding beyond a dissertation-based book, THE CENTRAL LEGISLATURE IN BRITISH INDIA 1921–47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, is an exposé of the highest Indian legislative body of that epoch; it belongs to the larger genre of the British Indian narratives on the continuing constitutional encounters between the rulers and the ruled. What’s more, this book illuminates a neglected quarter of the past—the record of parliamentary practices and the representative institution-building under the British Raj. Definitely, the Central Legislature was the only acknowledged all-India forum where the Indian legislators and the Imperial Executive, time and again, met each other. Yet, even at the worst moments of the Indian members’ political disenchantment, the two flanks showed a modicum of mutual respect, indirect access to power and a share in policy-making typically over a strip of non-controversial subjects.

A matter of record: the Indian members boldly fought for their own turfs when the circumstances demanded for doing so, they did not hesitate to cross the verbal swords with their official counterparts. Not surprisingly, the square-shooter lawyer-politicians inside the legislative rostrum did not offer unruffled logistics for the official members who represented the government and defended their ramparts in that arena. Inside the meandering corridors of ← xv | xvi → power, the Governor General and his Executive Council were not accountable to the Central Legislature; it was patently less than a sovereign parliament. It never rose above its ceiling set by the Colonial juggernaut. Even when they decided to work with it since 1921, the Indian politicians apparently did not have any illusion about the legislative body’s ultimate weakness before the overriding executive. Indeed, the Indian politicians, both inside the legislatures and outside endured a sense of betrayal by the British Imperial Rulers. Conceivably, the British Government promised to offer India an installment of self-government matching the Dominion Status enjoyed by Canada and Australia, as recognition of its sacrifices and support during the WWI. But the Government of India Act 1919 that came into force in 1921 only offered indirect “association” and “influence” through elected non-official members in the Central Legislative Assembly accompanied by a “strange dyarchy” that tendered limited autonomy over a few provincial subjects.

Nevertheless, it was a “center of resistance” against the Central Executive and the stage for constitutional struggle against the Colonial hegemony. Noticeably, it was the beginning of a dent on the old Vice-regal regime, credibly, a majestically impregnable system now facing the parliamentary slings and arrows, in the country’s uppermost legislative podium. Over the stretch of history, neither the Indian legislators nor the Governor General-led regime absolutely ditched that legislative dais even at the peak of the unprecedented anti-British non-cooperation and nationalist campaigns, Hindu-Muslim tumults, periodic terrorist outbursts, World War II, devastating famine in Bengal and the outright “Quit-India” movement to end the foreign control. The Central Legislature had its ups and downs in its aggravation. Different Governor Generals too had different rhythms of their treatment of the legislature during their respective tenures. The reality was a paradoxical interface between the eloquent Indian legislators and the Governor General’s Executive Council, which did not easily nudge. Nevertheless, both sides jolted each other depending on time, circumstances and personalities on the fore.

Amazingly, the Indian lawmakers survived the seismic tides of history of their time; it also demonstrated the quasi-parliament’s institutional resilience. As an institution, the Central Legislature did not collapse under the stupendous Vice-regal authority or during the stunning pro-Home Rule struggle in the streets. Those demonstrators cared little for the predetermined outlets of grievances in the legislative platform. Though the Governor General was above the legislative compulsion with his endowed special powers, he did not readily and dramatically silence the lawmakers from saying what they wanted ← xvi | xvii → to speak. Remarkably, the Indian politicians’ buoyancy was their forte against the British Raj and their account needs to be told in more than one forum. Once a leader of the Swarajist group, the virtual legislative wing of the Indian National Congress Party in the 1920s publicly warned that they came to the Central Assembly only to “break the system from within.” But they stayed on and nonetheless played a constructive role inside the legislative chambers. Only a few are possibly aware now what the Indian members could or couldn’t accomplish in the legislature at the cusp of the most trying times in the sub-continent’s political history.

Sadly, the recount of Colonial India, brilliantly recorded by numerous outstanding historians from all over the world, stated very little about the legislative encounters during the British rule. Their consistent narratives are more about the nationalist movements and host of other socio-economic issues spread across the panorama. Few of them explored how the Indian lawmakers, both at the central and provincial legislatures, delineated their restraints and hauled the independence struggle inside the legislative platform and adroitly battled with the keepers of the Raj and even with their local promoters. Ordinary readers or historians are less familiar with a bunch of outstanding Indian representatives who rocked the legislative chambers with high oratory and statesman-like speeches while the anti-British roil and communal blood-letting continued in the Indian cities and towns.

Why did the Central Legislature, the modern Indian Parliament’s earlier predecessor, by and large, escape the deserving intellectual as well as popular concentration in independent India and Pakistan? Within the limits of this preface, I can only outline the answer to such a seminal query and that’s what makes this volume meaningful. Habitually, the post-colonial narratives are dominated by the outstanding leaders who become larger than history. Ordinarily they bypass the less flamboyant constitutional experiences and institutional development of the pre-independence days. Under charismatic Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru) and his luminous cohorts who took up the independent Indian leadership, the Indian Parliament paled into the background and it was apparently less than the “grand inquest” and the “mother of all national policy making.” In Pakistan, during M. A. Jinnah’s brief stint as the Governor General, the new National Assembly was overshadowed. In post-independent India, there is a tsunami of books on Gandhi, Nehru and most other nationalist personalities as well as the Indian National Congress. But only a few volumes came out on the Indian Parliament and its political inheritance excluding, perhaps, the solitary scholars who authored them: one ← xvii | xviii → such innovative academic was late Professor Morris-Jones; he was my Ph.D. supervisor.

The British Indian Central government, virtually a unitary political system, never had the equivalent of an elected/nominated Indian prime minister or such Indian ministers who were answerable to the Central Assembly. However, most provinces had popularly chosen premiers and ministers accountable to their respective legislatures since 1937. A few provinces had prominent leaders in charge of the new provincial autonomy under the Reforms of the Government of India Act, 1935. Bengal, for example, had A. K. Fazlul Huq, a populist leader, as its first premier in 1937. He attracted national attention in the wake of catastrophic events in India. As a result, the provincial legislatures and their parliamentary experiences attracted relatively more interest from the scholars, historians and even novelists. Another likely explanation: the Western social scientists, historians and their South Asian adherents, who otherwise enriched the Indian political genre, had been more tuned to research on the perceived dichotomy over tradition versus modernity in the post-colonial subcontinent. Political modernity in South Asia, as short steps of representative institutions, is both a colonial and post-colonial phenomenon. With representative institutions like the old central and provincial legislatures, the British imperialist experiences were not monolithic. However the intellectual and popular attention has been more focused on South Asia’s post-independent political modernization: India’s Colonial era’s representative institution-building experiences, with a few exceptions, were over and over sidestepped.

The extent of influence that the Indian legislators could exercise against an enigmatic, not-easily-responsive executive, was only as good as the Central Legislature’s demarcated terrain. They tried several devices to pressurize the executive to respond to them. Broadly, they staged their struggle in a peaceful manner—they were not the populist boycotts or violent street stir up: they used legitimate parliamentary questions and adjournment motions to drive their demands. And the walkout from the floor as a group was the ultimate form of nonviolently demonstrated rage against the imperial government. But it was not a daily event. Moving amendments, sometimes too many of them, to rein in the executive-steered legislative proposals were the Indian legislators’ preferred contrivance. On an annual average, the Central Legislature passed 27 bills during its tenure from 1921 to 1947. It was a substantial output in Colonial India even compared to the provincial legislatures that apparently had more powers over the so-called “transferred subjects” since 1937. Except ← xviii | xix → the non-controversial and consolidating bills, each legislative measure, affecting the life, liberty and the daily grind of average citizens, was hotly debated in the committees and the legislative floors.

By and large, the institutional influence of the colonial period is still entrenched between the available storylines of British India; the avenues of those ventures are yet to be fully unveiled. Several years ago, a Ph.D. student at a Canadian University whom I met at the Asian Studies Annual Conference told me that, with some difficulty, he got hold of an earlier version of this book from one source. He was impressed that it was one of the rare studies of British India’s highest law-making establishment, the forerunner of the modern Indian Parliament. Contrary to the paucity of legislative studies, there are numerous studies of the previous Indian Civil Service, for example: the predecessor of the Indian Administrative Services that still essentially maintained the old British model of a generalist and non-political bureaucracy. One exception was Profess W. H. Morris-Jones’ The Indian Parliament. In the introductory chapter, he acknowledged the legislative experiences that the post-independence Indian national parliament diligently inherited from its earlier predecessors. This book, in its former and in the current new edition, partially fills the knowledge gap about the old Central Legislature and its impact on the gamut of British Indian politics. Also it modestly contributes to the larger, popular and even the controversial variety of writings on the Indian Colonial experiences.

In my post-doctoral academic journey, I veered away from continuing the legislative research. One exception was a study of Pakistan’s parliament under the executive-controlled Ayub regime that was published as “The National Assembly of Pakistan under the 1962 Constitution” in the Pacific Affairs, University of British Columbia, (Winter), 1969–70. The parliaments under the military-supported governments in Pakistan and later in Bangladesh were constrained in the exercise of their power since the executive was not in their direct control except in a few defined areas. In the second half of 1960s, when I was in the middle of studying the Pakistan’s National Assembly, I could not help feeling that the parliament in a way resembled the previous Central Legislature’s tapered path under the Colonial supremacy. However, my enduring research interest in South Asian politics and the continued teaching in comparative political systems kept me up to date about the institutional growth in both developed and developing countries. Whenever I compared my historical study of the old Indian legislature with the modern Indian and other parliaments in South Asia, I could easily reckon the critical differences between ← xix | xx → a sovereign legislature and the quasi-parliaments in the colonial regimes that gradually faded away since the end of the World War II.


XXXII, 280
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXXII, 280 pp., 25 tables

Biographical notes

Mohammad Rashiduzzaman (Author)

Mohammad Rashiduzzaman is a retired academic and Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, USA. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Durham, England in 1964 as a British Commonwealth Scholar. His Ph.D. thesis on the British Indian central legislature (1921–47) was the co-winner of the British Hansard Society’s Lord Campion Prize in 1965 for the best dissertation on the understanding of representative institutions. He taught at the University of Dhaka, now Bangladesh, before going to Columbia University in New York for his postdoctoral research. Later, he taught at Rowan University. He has written several publications on British India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.


Title: The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–47
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