Indian Councils Act 1861 – UPSC

On 1 August 1861, the British Parliament passed the Indian Councils Act 1861 to make substantial changes to the composition of the Governor-General’s Council for Executive and Legislative purposes. The most significant feature of this Act was the Indian participation in the legislative process.

Overview of the Indian Councils Act 1861

Long TitleAn Act to make better provision for the Constitution of the Council of the Governor-General of India, and for the Local Government of the several Presidencies and Provinces of India, and for the temporary Government of India in the event of a Vacancy in the Office of Governor-General
Enacted byParliament of the United Kingdom
Royal Assent1 August 1861
StatusRepealed by the Government of India Act 1915


Following the 1857 revolt, there was a perception in England that it would be difficult to establish the government in India without the participation of Indians in the administration. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, the British Government felt the necessity of seeking the Indian’s cooperation in the administration of India.

Further, the Government of Indian Act 1858 changed the manner of governance from England but did not make significant changes to the government system in India.

In pursuance of the policy of association of Indians, the British Parliament passed the Indian Councils Act of 1861, which could overhaul the Indian administration. The Indian Councils Act 1861 is an essential landmark in the political and constitutional history of India.

Provisions of the Indian Councils Act 1861

Expansion of the Governor-General’s Council

  • The Indian Councils Act 1861 added a fifth member as a finance member in the Governor-General Executive Council.
    • There were now five members in the Governor-General Executive Council for home, military, revenue, law, and finance works. (The sixth member was included in 1874 for the Public work)
    • The first finance member in the Governor-General’s council was James Wilson.
  • For legislative purposes, the Council of the Governor-General was expanded. A provision was made for the addition of 6 to 12 members, nominated by the Governor-General for two years. Out of these, at least half of the additional members were to be non-official.

Associate Indians with the law-making process

  • The 1861 Indian Councils Act made a beginning of representative institutions by associating Indians with the legislative work.
  • The Act provided that the Viceroy of India should nominate some Indians as non-official members in his expanded council.
  • In 1862, Governor-General Lord Canning, the then Viceroy of India, nominated three Indians to his Legislative Council:
    • Raja of Benaras,
    • Maharaja of Patiala,
    • Sir Dinkar Rao.

Initiate the process of decentralization

The Indian Council Act of 1861 initiated the process of decentralization by restoring the legislative powers to the Madras and Bombay Presidencies, which was taken away by the Charter Act of 1833.

The Act reversed the centralizing tendency, which started from the Regulating Act of 1773 and reached its maximum under the Charter Act 1833.

Established new legislative councils

  • There was a provision made for the establishment of the legislative councils in other provinces. The new Legislative Councils were formed in Bengal in 1862, North-Western Provinces in 1886, and Punjab in 1897.
  • The new provinces could also be created for legislative purposes, and Lieutenant Governor appointed for them.

Introduction of the Portfolio System

The Indian Councils Act 1861 gave recognition to the ‘Portfolio’ system, introduced by Lord Canning in 1859.

Under the portfolio system, a Member of the Governor-General’s Council was made in charge of one or more government departments and was authorized to issue final orders on matters of his department on behalf of the council.

Powers of the Viceroy of India

  • The 1861 Act empowered the Viceroy of India to make rules and orders for the better conduct of business of the council.
  • If necessary, the Viceroy had the power to overrule the council.
  • During an emergency, the Viceroy had the power to issue ordinances without the concurrence of the Legislative Council. Such an ordinance will be valid for six months.

Significance of the Indian Councils Act 1861

  • The 1861 Indian Councils Act was a watershed moment in the constitutional history of India because it enabled the Governor-General to associate Indians with the legislative work.
  • The Act changed the structure of the Council of Governor-General for executive and legislative purposes.
  • The Act initiated the process of decentralization by the policy of legislative devolution (restoring the legislative powers of Bombay and Madras Presidencies), which resulted in the grant of almost complete internal autonomy to the provinces in 1937.

Indian Councils Act 1861 – Defects

  • The Legislative Councils established by the 1861 Act had a limited role and were mainly advisory. These councils had many weaknesses and could not discuss important matters. No discussion on finance was allowed. They had no control over the budget.
  • The final passing of the bill needed the approval of the Viceroy of India. Even if approved by the Viceroy, the Secretary of State could disallow the legislation.
  • Indians associated as non-official members were members of the elite section only.
  • The power of ordinance given to the Viceroy of India allowed him to make laws at his own whim.

FAQs on the Indian Councils Act 1861

  1. What was the main objective of the Indian Councils Act 1861?

    The objective of the Indian Councils Act 1861 was to make better provisions for the Constitution of Governor-General’s Council and the local government of several Presidencies & Provinces of India.
    Another objective of this Act was to include Indians in the administration of the country.

  2. What are the main features of the Indian Councils Act 1861?

    The most significant feature of the 1861 Act was the association of Indians in the legislative work.
    The other features of this Act were:
    – Expansion of Governor-General Councils,
    – Establishment of new Legislative Councils in other provinces,
    – Introduction of the portfolio system,
    – Initiating the process of decentralization by restoring legislative powers to the presidencies of Bombay and Madras.

Leave a Comment