The Rowlatt Act was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council on March18, 1919. This act sought to make the oppressive Defence of India Act, 1915 as permanent. The Defence of India Act was passed during the First World War in order to keep the nationalists and revolutionaries at bay during and after the World war. Some of the oppressive measures of Defence of India Act, 1915 were –
- Indefinite preventive detention
- Incarceration without trial
The Rowlatt Act was passed on the recommendations of Sir Sidney Rowlatt who was a British judge. This act indefinitely increased the powers of Government and the police to suppress any nationalist and revolutionary activities. The act enabled the police to imprison any person on the suspicion of terrorism and to put them behind bars for 2 years. The freedom of press was compromised even further and nationalist and Anti-Raj opinions were not allowed to circulate. The accused had zero rights, they were not even told the names of the accusers and the evidence used for the trial if at all evidence was needed. People who were convicted in these farcical trials were barred from participating in any political gatherings and activities.
Two bills which were popularly known as black bills were introduced based on the report of a sedition committee which was again headed by Justice Sidney Rowlatt.
- Police could search any place without orders
- They could arrest any person which they thought of to be suspect
The Act annoyed many Indian leaders and the public, which caused the government to implement repressive measures. This did not go down with Indian nationalist.
Opposition – Mahatma Gandhi led the protests and the country went on Hartal. This meant that all Indians will suspend all business and fast unambiguously registering their opposition against these laws. This was known as Rowlatt Satyagraha.
The Rowlatt Act came into effect in March 1919. Punjab was the place where the protests took form of violence. The army had to be called in and this led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre – The date was 13 April, 1919. People from many neighboring villages had gathered to celebrate Baisakhi. Along with these baisakhi pilgrims protesters were also present in the Jallianwala Bagh. The British Indian Army opened fire at the non-violent protesters. The British government claimed the death toll to be 379. However, other sources believe the figure was well north of 1000. This outraged a nation already suffering from poverty, draughts and oppression. This led to the famous Non-Cooperation movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. However, rioting in many parts of the country forced Gandhi to suspend the movement as non-violence –according to Mahatma Gandhi was the mainstay of Satyagraha.
Why did the Defence of India Act and subsequently Rowlatt Act come into existence?
- India contributed to the British war effort in the First World War by providing soldiers, food, money, ammunition et cetera.
- Punjab and Bengal were still involved in nationalist and anti-colonial activities
- Regional administration of these states was made defunct by the violence and disturbances in these states
- Ghadar Conspiracy plot during this time shook the British Raj. The Ghadar conspiracy was a plan to cause mutiny in the Indian British Army Pan India. The Ghadar Party in the United States, the Berlin Committee in Germany, the Indian revolutionary underground in British India and the German Foreign Office through the consulate in San Francisco were involved in planning out the Ghadar movement. Unfortunately, the mutiny was thwarted by British intelligence and the British police.
- This and other Hindu-German conspiracies forced the British Government to enforce the Defense of India Act, 1915 to curb the nationalist activities during and after the World war
- The loss of both Indian soldiers and money during the First World War outraged the Indian nationalists and as a result the extreme and moderate sections of the Congress ended their differences to unify.
- The civil disobedience movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, Mahendra Pratap’s Kabul mission in Afghanistan (with possible links to then Bolshevik Russia), and revolutionary movement especially in Punjab and Bengal as well as the widespread unrest in the country led to the appointment of a Sedition committee in 1918.
- The Sedition committee was setup under Judge Sidney Rowlatt to look into the German and Bolshevik links to the nationalist militants in India. On recommendation of this committee the Rowlatt Act was passed which was a mere extension of the Defence of India Act, 1915.
The Defence of India Act, 1915 and the Rowlatt Act, 1919 and the atrocities on Indian citizens that followed are considered by many as the start of the fall of British Raj in India.
Succumbing to the protests and countrywide opposition, the British Government repelled the Rowlatt Act and many other repressive laws in March of 1922.