As it’s most recent occupant, Jagdeep Dhankhar, gets ready to be sworn in as the Vice-President of the country, there is another link between the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata and our national Parliament.
A building connected with the legislative history of our country, the Bhavan has on its first floor a room distinct from others with its plain white walls and functional furniture, unlike other rooms in the sprawling structure with their priceless art and carpets. This is the Council Chamber, where pre-independent India’s first “central though rudimentary” legislature started its journey.
We can trace the evolution of modern law-making institutions to the East India company. Its officers were empowered to make laws under the charter given by the British government in 1601. A council of the company’s senior officers carried out the corporation’s administration in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. These settlements were independent, each with its own committee, and their meeting venue was the Council Chamber in the respective cities.
Over the next 170 years, the trading company would spread its tentacles and become a political and territorial power. The changing nature of the company would eventually lead to the British parliament taking more interest in its affairs. Centralisation of power accompanied this shift, and Calcutta (as it was known then) became the seat of administration. The British Parliament’s Regulating Act of 1773 made the Presidency of Bengal supreme, and its Governor became the Governor General, assisted by a council of four members. Until the beginning of the 19th century, the Governor General and his Council met in different Calcutta buildings. A permanent venue for these meetings resulted from constructing a home for the Governor General. Till then, Governors did not have an official residence and lived in houses rented from the local nawabs, which some found unsatisfactory.
A Frenchman travelling to Calcutta in 1798 wrote, “the Governor General of the English Settlements East of the Cape of Good Hope resides at Calcutta… As there is no palace yet built for him, he lives in a house on the Esplanade, opposite the Citadel. The house is handsome, but by no means equal to what it ought to be for a personage of such importance. Many private individuals in the town have houses as good; and if the Governor were disposed to any extraordinary luxury, he must curb his inclination for want of the necessary accommodation of room. The house of the Governor of Pondicherry is much more magnificent.”
A house in Calcutta worthy of the representative of the East India company was the brainchild of Governor-General Richard Colley Wellesley. He was an Irish aristocrat who was appointed Governor-General in 1797 and took charge of his office a month before his 38th birthday. He would splurge money on constructing the Government House (the present Raj Bhavan) and throw a party to mark its opening in 1803. After that, his tenure in India was short-lived, as the excesses associated with the construction would cost him his governorship.
In the coming years, the British Parliament began exerting more control over the company in India. In 1833 it enacted a law to strip the company of its trading rights and separate the executive and law-making functions of the Council. The law would set up one Legislative Council for all British territories in India and appoint a law member. The venue for the meetings of this body would be the Council Chamber on the first floor of the Government House.
Changes in the 1850s would lay the foundation of modern parliamentary functioning in the country. Legislative deliberations in the Council were conducted orally, instead of in writing as was done earlier, Bills started getting examined by select committees and Legislative Council proceedings became open to the public and reportable by the press.
The Indian Penal Code of 1860, which defines crime and punishment in the country, was discussed and passed in this Council Chamber. Some proceedings of the Council also invited considerable public interest, like the 1883 Ilbert Bill, which allowed Indian judges to preside over cases involving British subjects. The discussion on the law had to be held in a hall outside the Council Chamber to accommodate everyone interested in the debate. The British constructed another Council Chamber in the Government House in Shimla when the government shifted to the hills in the summers. And when the capital of British India moved to Delhi, so did the Legislative Council and its Chamber.