Charter Act of 1853

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• As the time of the renewal of the Charter was approaching, a demand was voiced that the parallel arrangements in England for the administration of the Company through a Board of Control and a Court of Directors should be abolished as it was both cumbersome and wasteful, and often led to unnecessary delay.

• The Presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in a petition demanded appointment of a Secretary of State for India with a Council to deal with all mat­ters relating to India. The legislative machinery provided by the Charter Act of 1833 having been found inadequate better arrange­ments were demanded.

• It was also pointed out that the Governor of Bengal must not be the Governor-General of India simultaneous­ly, for in that case the Governor-General was likely to be a little partial to Bengal. Between the Charters of 1833 and 1853 Sind and the Punjab had been annexed to the Company’s territories (in 1843 and 1849) and a number of Indian States had been annexed to the Com­pany’s territories by Lord Dalhousie, Burma and Pegu likewise had been annexed.

• Constitutional changes were naturally called for in order to meet the changed situation due to vast annexations.

• There was also a demand for decentralisation of powers and giving the Indians share in the management of their own affairs.

• The demand had moral support in a section of the people of England itself. Lord Derby in his speech in the Parliament in 1852 remarked “it is your bounden duty in the interest of humanity, of benevolence and of morality and religion’ that as fast as you can do it safely, wisely and prudently, the inhabitants of India should be gradually entrusted with more and more of superintendence of their own internal affairs”.

• In the same year (1851) the Parliament had appointed two Com­mittees to go into affairs of the Company. The two committees sub­mitted their reports on the basis of which the Charter Act of 1853 was enacted.

• The Charter Act of 1853 renewed the authority of the Company and allowed it to retain possession of its Indian territories to be “held in trust for Her Majesty (Queen Victoria) and her heirs and successors”, until the Parliament should otherwise decide. Thus, no specific time was allotted to the Company to retain its powers and authority as was done in earlier Charters.

• The Act provided that the salary of the members of Board of Control, its Secretary and other officers would be fixed by the Bri­tish Government but the payments would be made out of the Com­pany’s funds.

• The number of the Directors of the Court of Directors was re­duced from 24 to 18 of whom 6 were to be nominated by the Crown.

• The Court of Directors was divested of its right to patronage and Company’s services were thrown open to competition and no dis­crimination of any kind was to be made. A committee with Macau­lay was formed in the’ following year (1854) to give effect to the scheme of appointment through competition.

• The Court of Directors was, however, permitted to constitute new Presidencies or to alter the boundaries of the existing Presidencies in order to incorporate the newly acquired territories of the Com­pany. Pursuant to this provision a Lieutenant Governor’s Province was created for the Punjab after a few years.

• The Act empowered the British Crown to appoint Law Com­mission in England to examine the drafts and reports of the Indian Law Commission which had ceased to exist by then.

• Law member was now made a full member of the Governor-General’s Executive Council and this Council’s membership was en­larged by inclusion of six members who would sit in the Council when it would function in its legislative capacity and a puisne judge of the Supreme Court at Calcutta and one each from Bengal, Mad­ras, Bombay and North Western Provinces.

• The representatives from the Provinces were to be civil servants of not less than ten years’ standing.

• The Governor-General was empowered to appoint two civil servants to the Council. This provision was, however, not acted upon. The procedure of the Governor-General’s Council in matters of legislation was to be same as followed by the British Parlia­ment. Questions could be asked and the policy of the Executive Council could be discussed.

• The Executive Council was, however, given right to veto a bill passed by the Council in its legislative capa­city. Legislative business was conducted in public and the discus­sion was oral. Bills were referred to Select Committee rather to any individual member.


• The Act of 1853 struck a balance between the two opinions strongly voiced before the renewal of the Act, namely, one which wanted the Company to retain its authority over its territories and the other which wanted the Crown to step in.

• The Act allowed the Company to retain its authority over its territories not for another twenty years or specified time but until the Parliament would decide otherwise.

• The number of the members of the Court of Directors was reduced to 18 from 24 and out of the 18 six were to be Crown nominees. Thus both the views were more or less met by the Act of 1853. The Directors also lost their privilege of patronage.

• The Legislative Council contrary to the intentions and expecta­tions of the Indian and British opinions relegated itself into an “Anglo-Indian House of Commons” questioning the Executive and criticism its actions and compelling it to lay all confidential papers before the Council.

• It also did not get its legislative plans passed by the Secretary of State before considering it and at times even refused to pass legislative measures required either by the Court of Directors or the Secretary of State.

• It asserted independence in matters of legis­lation. Charles Wood, President, Board of Control felt very much disturbed at the turn of events and in order to emphasize the inten­tion behind the Act, declared that he did not intend the Legislative Council, as some of the young Indian had thought to be “the nucleus and beginning of constitutional Parliament in India”. Lord Dalhousie, however, contended that the Legislative Council did not exceed the rights conferred on it by the Act of 1853. The fact remains that Charles Wood could not limit the consequences of the Act of 1853.

• This Act created a functioning Legislative Council and was decidedly a very important constitutional measure of the nineteenth century.

• The defect of the Act of 1853 was its exclusion of the Indians from the Legislative Council and Sir Bartle Frere’s’ apt remark is worth quoting: “The perilous experiment of continuing to legislate for millions of people with few means of knowing except by rebellion, whether the laws suit them or not”.

• All the same Act of 1853 was an important measure in the history of British India.

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