The decade of the 1850s witnessed several crucial changes in the mechanism for governing the Indian empire. These reflected shifts in policy, both before and after the revolt of 1857. Some of these shifts may be discerned in the late 1840s, especially during the era of Lord Dalhousie, who was governor general for eight years, from 1848 to 1856. The most significant change took place towards the end of 1858 when the British crown directly assumed charge of the Government of India. This was preceded by the Charter Act of 1853, the last occasion on which the East India Company received a charter.

When the Company’s charter came up for renewal in 1853, the parliament asserted, much more explicitly than it had done earlier, its right to determine the manner in which India was to be governed. The long-standing demand of free traders to put an end to the system of governing India through the mechanism of the Company could not be resisted for much longer. They had recently won an important victory with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The Corn Laws were intended to protect landed interests in Britain from international competition, by imposing very high import duties on food grains. Yet the Company could still muster sufficient political support to be able to continue with its hold over the Indian empire, even though this hold was considerably weakened by the 1853 Act.

The Charter Act of 1853 subjected the EIC’s empire in India to much tighter control by the British government than had been attempted by legislation of the earlier part of the 19th century. A decisive measure was the provision for reconstituting the court of directors such that one-third of its members were now to be nominees of the British government.

The strength of the court of directors was brought down from the existing twenty-four to eighteen: six members of the court were henceforth to be nominees of the government. The government could thus have a direct say, 1853-54 onwards, in this all-powerful organ of the colonial state. Unlike the previous charters, the Charter Act of 1853 did not specify the duration for which it would be valid. In other words, the British government reserved the right to directly take into its own hands the administration of the Indian empire whenever it chose to do so. The Act declared that the Company held its Indian territories “in trust’’ for the British crown.

Furthermore, members of the court of directors were, by the Charter Act of 1853, deprived of the privilege of nominating candidates for appointment to superior posts in the civil service. The selection of covenanted civil servants was now to be on the basis of an open competition. A committee was constituted by the board of control to work out the modalities of the competition. Public examinations commenced in 1855.

As noted earlier, the Charter Act of 1833 had added a law member to the governor general’s council whose presence was essential when the council took up legislative matters. The law member was now made a full member of the council (earlier he could only attend meetings of the council when legislative matters were on the agenda). More importantly, the Charter Act of 1853 substantially modified the composition of the governor general’s council when it met for legislative purposes.

The 1833 Act had, it was felt, led to excessive centralisation in matters of legislation as the presidencies and provinces no longer had any authority to enact laws or regulations. In order to have adequate inputs from the several presidencies and provinces, as well as from the judiciary, six more members were added to the council when it met to deliberate upon legislative matters.

These additional members were the chief justice and a judge of the Supreme Court of Calcutta; and one member each from the three presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay, and from the North-Western Provinces. The idea of a distinct “legislative council,” which was already conceptually present in the Charter Act of 1833, was now developed further. This was now a body of twelve members comprising the governor general, four “ordinary members” (including the law member), the commander-in-chief, and six “additional members.”

The additional members did not sit when the council met to discuss matters pertaining to the executive functioning of the government. The Act also provided for the appointment of a separate governor for the Bengal Presidency. This was intended to reduce the routine administrative tasks relating to the presidency which had to be attended to by the governor general (who, it may be mentioned, was simultaneously governor of Bengal Presidency). In 1854, a lieutenant governor was appointed for Bengal, instead of a full-fledged governor.

Whereas the board of control monitored, on behalf of parliament, the Company’s political and military functions, the Company’s own establishment remained vital for the entire decision-making process. John Dickinson, a prominent critic of the EIC whose writings were among the sources used by Karl Marx for his articles on the EIC, and who was strongly opposed to the renewal of the Company’s charter in 1853, underlined in his writings the extent to which the British government was dependent on the Company’s apparatus for determining policy relating to the Indian empire. The huge volume of paperwork made the Company’s vast clerical establishment, with its almost exclusive access to detailed information, indispensible to policymakers in London. The Company was, after all, the main
repository of knowledge about the colony in the metropole.

Marx, writing in 1853, perceptively remarked that, “When the East India Company was only a commercial association, they, of course, requested a most detailed report on every item from the managers of their Indian factories, as is done by every trading concern. When the factories grew into an Empire, [and] the commercial items into ship loads of correspondence and documents, the Leadenhall clerks went on in their system, which made the Directors and the Board their dependents; and they succeeded in transforming the Indian Government into one immense writing-machine.”

A few years later, when the parliament was debating the abolition of the Company’s rule over the Indian empire against the backdrop of the revolt of 1857, access by the Company to specialised knowledge about India was put forth as the key argument by ideologues who were opposed to crown rule. These included John Stuart Mill, one of the leading political thinkers of the time. This argument, as we shall see, did not prevent parliament from legislating in August 1858 for the crown to directly take over the governance of the Indian empire.

Excerpted with permission from The Colonial Subjugation of India, Amar Farooqui, Aleph Book Company.