A Governors’ Raj

BOOK - A Governors' Raj

A Governors’ Raj – British Administration during Lord Irwin’s Viceroyalty, 1926-1931

Author : Michael Fenwick Macnamara

Sage Publications (I) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; Year:2015; Pages:250; Price:Rs.895

Reviewed by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (retd.), freelance writer and advisor to the telecom industry.  E-mail: sureshsharma236@yahoo.com 

The British were foreign conquerors and ruled India for their own benefit. The rule also brought benefits of railways, canals and improved agriculture to the people. Along with military subjugation, they talked of Independence too. The author examines the papers of Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, during 1926 to 1931 to explore the truth of these perceptions and the role played by the governors in the administration.  

During this period, the British faced challenges of the Salt March, the non-cooperation movement and Bardoli satyagrah. The basic approach of Lord Irwin was teamwork. The British believed that good administration would neutralize rising nationalism.

The constitutional reforms of 1919 and 1935 decentralized administrative and political power from the centre to the provinces. In the constitutional system, this relationship was described as “diarchy”.  Lord Irwin realized the importance of local expertise in good provincial administration, and particularly, of the civil service governors who understood the needs of the people. They became tutors to the Indian political leaders to enable India to move towards self-government.

The liberal and socialist political leadership in UK framed policies which led to Indian Independence. India’s contribution of manpower, money and materials in World War I increased political pressure to reward India with a democratic system. It was difficult to set a time-table for constitutional reforms as the attitude of the governors differed widely.

Indians were not included as members in the Simon Commission set up in 1929.  It revitalized the opponents of the British rule. The Congress had declared complete Independence as its goal and intensified the Non-Cooperation Movement.  Lord Irwin called for a conference to consider India’s move towards Dominion Status. This was an attempt to obtain political initiative. Surprisingly, the governors were unanimously against inviting women as they considered them to be politically immature and also because the Muslims would not like it. The conference failed due to non-participation by the Congress.

Communal disturbances precipitated by the reforms of 1909 and 1919 were a significant challenge to the Viceroy and the governors. There were forty communal riots in the first year of Lord Irwin’s rule. The most serious riot occurred in Calcutta in 1926. The governor of Bengal was in favour of strong action against those inciting violence while Lord Irwin desired a moderate approach. The Congress blamed the British for encouraging communal disharmony.

More dangerous challenges came from communism, terrorism and labour disputes. These movements were mainly centred in the Presidencies.  50,000 workers of 22 textile mills went on strike in Bombay. The Governor of Bengal regarded the influence of British communists and foreign money to be responsible for these strikes. Strikes spread to railways too. The Viceroy and the governors tried to evolve a policy to meet these uprisings. The Governor of Bombay felt that the workers had some genuine grievances. The Governor of Madras ordered the arrest of communist leaders. The Congress led an agitation in Bombay against increase in land revenue. The Governor of Bombay justified the increase and was supported by the Secretary of State who advised them not to negotiate with Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. The British were forced to concede favours to the farmers and to rule by more democratic means.

Mahatma Gandhi launched his Salt March on 12 March 1930.  It was a sensitive confrontation. Lord Irwin advised that nothing should be done to prevent the march and the aim should be to deal with the breach of the Salt Law. As per intelligence reports, the Congress had plans to initiate a civil disobedience movement. Lord Irwin had accepted Governor Hailey’s recommendation not to interfere with Gandhi’s Salt March but to arrest Nehru for inciting breach of the Salt Law.  An ordinance to deal with unlawful assemblies was passed after discussions with the governors and the Secretary of State.  Nehru was arrested on 14 April 1930.  Gandhi was also arrested and later released on 25 January 1931.

The author has explained the role of governors in administration during Lord Irwin’s rule. The governors have been given too little credit for their contributions. Their advice varied according to their background. Those from the ICS had good knowledge and experience of local conditions. Decisions also depended on British public opinion. The role of governors during the other viceroyalties would be a useful comparison.

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