Indian Councils Act, 1861 – Salient Features

Indian Councils Act, 1861 – Salient Features

The Indian Council Act, 1861 was an Act aimed at the transformation of The Indian Executive Council to a Cabinet run on Portfolio System. The Cabinet had Five Ordinary members each assigned a different task of Home, Revenue, Military, Law, Finance, and Public Works (1874). Lord Canning, Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1864 had introduced the Portfolio System. These all were under the control of The British Government headquartered at Calcutta. The Commander in Chief was present with the Council as an extraordinary member.

The Viceroy had the power and authority to over-rule The Council if he felt necessary. The Indian Councils Act 1861 restored the Legislative powers of The Bombay and Madras Presidency’s which had lapsed after passing of The Charter Act of 1833. This Act gave power to The Calcutta Presidency to make laws for the whole of British India. The law-making powers of The Bombay and Madras Presidency’s were limited to their jurisdiction. The Governor-General had the power to create new provinces for legislative purposes and could also appoint Lieutenant Governors for the provinces.

The need for introducing The Indian Councils Act (1861)

  • There were many disputes between The Madras Government and Supreme Court, regarding The Jurisdiction Limits.
  • The Dissatisfaction of Presidencies regarding their legal power and they were demanding more participation from presidencies.
  • The demand of the Indian public for some substantial changes in the Governmental of India in terms of representation, powers etc.

Provisions of the Indian Councils Act 1861

  • Lord Canning, The Viceroy and Governor-General had introduced the portfolio assignment government system.
  • To take over the Executive Functions of The Council a fifth member was introduced. The Portfolios were divided into Home, Military, Law, Revenue and Finance.
  • Public Works portfolio was added in 1874 with the addition of a Sixth Member.
  • The Governor-General’s Council was enlarged for legislative purpose and there was the addition of six to twelve members all nominated by The Governor-General.
  • The nominated members were appointed for two years.
  • At least half of the members were to be non-official members.
  • Only legislative functions could be undertaken by them.
  • Any Revenue, Military, Religion, Foreign Affairs Bill could not be passed without the assent of The Governor-General.
  • The Viceroy could overrule The Council if he felt necessary.
  • The Governor-General had the power to promulgate Ordinances without the approval of The Council during emergencies.
  • Any Act passed by The Governor-General’s Council could be dissolved by The Secretary of State for India.
  • The Council’s Act (1861) re-instated the Legislative powers of the Governor-in-Councils of the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay, which was taken away by The Charter Act (1833).
  • The legislative council of Calcutta had the power to make laws for the whole of British India.
  • There was also a provision made for the formation of legislative councils in other provinces. New provinces could be created for purposes of legislation and Lieutenant Governors would be appointed for them.
  • The non-official members of the Executive Council were not too keen on attending the meetings of the Council, and under the Act, they were not bound to attend them also.
  • Legislative Councils were formed in Bengal in 1862. Legislative Councils were formed in North-West Frontier Province in 1886.
  • Legislative Councils were formed in Punjab and Burma in 1897.
  • The first three Indian nominated members nominated by Lord Curzon were The Raja of Benaras, The Maharaja of Patiala and Sir Dinkar Rao, in 1862.
  • Due to this act, the non-official appointed Indian Members increased and there were 45 Indian’s appointed (1862-1892).
  • The Council’s after the enactment of this act could fulfil the three-fold purpose information, publicity and discussion.
  • The Governor-General had the power to appoint/nominate a President to supervise/preside over the meetings The Executive Council in the absence of The Governor-General.
  • The Governor-General had the power/authority to make rules and regulations for the Conduct of Business of The Executive Council.
  • The passing of this act gave the people got a chance to put forth their problems.
  • The Government also got a chance to explain the people the merits of their policy and how could it benefit them.

Drawbacks: Following are The Drawbacks of The Indian Councils Act (1861)

  • The legislative council’s role was limited, as its function was chiefly advisory.
  • The Discussion on Revenue and Finance matters was not allowed.
  • Decentralization of Powers occurred with legislative powers given to The Bombay and Madras.
  • The power of ordinance vested in The Governor-General gave him absolutely and, in a way, unlimited powers, making him an arbitrary leader.
  • The Indian members could not oppose any bill and mostly bills were passed in a sitting without any discussion.
  • The appointed non-official members were usually the people who could wield considerable power and influence and not the people who could explain to the government the problems faced by the common man and what they wanted from the government. eg-Kings, Retired Company Officials etc.

The Indian Councils Act (1861) was followed by The Indian Councils Act (1892) which had several features such as:

  • The number of non-official elected members increased to a maximum to Ten to Sixteen members from six to twelve under The Indian Councils Act (1861).
  • The Governor-General was authorized and powered to invite different bodies in India to elect, select/delegate their representatives and to make rules and regulations for their nomination.
  • This act was passed to stem the rising trend of nationalist movements across the whole of British India.
  • In short, we can say that although no direct elections were introduced, the principle of direct representation/indirect election was adopted.
  • The Act also introduced the power to allow council members to vote on annual financial statements.
  • They also had the right to raise questions on public interest matters in a defined limit after giving a six days’ notice.
  • They nevertheless could not ask supplementary questions.


Thus, we can conclude by saying that although there were many limitations of The Indian Council Act (1861), it nevertheless laid the ground for the introduction of the portfolio system, Power of Ordinance, Presence of non-official members in legislative Councils are some of the features still present in our administration. In a way, we can say that our modern system of administration is based on The Indian Council Act (1861).

Author: Samar Jain,

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