The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919 , popularly known as the Rowlatt Act or Black Act, was a legislative act passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi on 10 March 1919, indefinitely extending the emergency measures of preventive indefinite detention, incarceration without trial and judicial review enacted in the Defence of India Act 1915 during the First World War.
It was enacted in light of a perceived threat from revolutionary nationalists to organisations of re-engaging in similar conspiracies as during the war which the Government felt the lapse of the DIRA regulations would enable.
Passed on the recommendations of the Rowlatt Committee and named after its president, British judge Sir Sidney Rowlatt, this act effectively authorized the government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism living in British India for up to two years without a trial, and gave the imperial authorities power to deal with all revolutionary activities.
The unpopular legislation provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless in camera trials for proscribed political acts.
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
In words of Winston Churchill the incident of Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar was “an episode without precedent or parallel within the trendy historical past of the British Empire. It was an exceptional occasion, an enormous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.
According to Teesta Setalvad, one of the bloodiest actions of the British rule was the calculated massacre of close to two thousand innocent Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims at the Jallianwala Bagh.
(Jallianwala Bagh tragedy):
The Ghadar movement had been started with the formation of Ghadar party in San Francisco on 1 November 1913 with the object of liquidating British rule in India by way of armed and revolutionary insurrection. During the period of World War the Ghadarites returned to India to be able to fulfil their objects.
However, their plans failed miserably and their programmes were foiled by the Punjab government vested with vast powers under the Defence of India Act and the Ingress Ordinance of 15 September 1914.
The Defence of India Act passed on 19 March 1915 had authorised the Governor-General to frame the rule ‘to prohibit the entry or residence in any area of an individual suspected to be performing in a manner prejudicial to the public safety or to direct the residence of such person in any specified area’.
The Home Rule Leagues established by Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak respectively in 1915 and 1916 aimed at freeing India from humiliation of dependency by holding an agitation in each village and each avenue.
Considering Punjab as the ‘Shield’, the ‘Spearhead’ and the ‘Sword-hand of India’, a new approach was adopted by British military authorities for military recruitments during the course of world war. On June 29, 1917 the Punjab was asked to furnish a monthly total of fourteen thousand two hundred ninety fighting men, one thousand seven hundred ninety muleteers and eight hundred sixty non-combatants throughout the year from 1 July 1917.A method of coercion on individuals for enlistment followed soon. These routine forcible policies of recruitment and inhuman conduct of enlistment of people caused utmost resentment and discontentment among men and women of Punjab towards the British government. Unable to bear humiliation, the anger of some villagers burst into riot and they murdered officials who came to their villages for enlisting recruits.
The instability of the political condition in India was coupled with acute economic strains which occurred from the contribution it was required to make towards the war efforts. The government of India had undertaken to raise a war loan of one hundred million pounds in India. The closing months of the World War saw in India an unusual hike in the prices. Principally as a result of monsoon failure, acute famine conditions prevailed in many parts of the nation which led to food riots in Calicut, Madras, Mysore, Lyallpur, Karnal and Pathankot. .
It was officially given out that one hundred twenty five million people were affected by the epidemic, and between twelve to thirteen million died of it. The government extended the applicability of the Defence of India Act even after the war whereas it was actually meant to be applied only during war time. During course of the war itself, the Government of India had received information that seditious societies in India were acting in league with German agents for the overthrow of the British power. For this reason, they arrested the suspects of being engaged in anti-British activities and interned them for an indefinite period of time. This was bound to lead to a new “outburst of anarchical activity”.
Rowlatt Committee and It’s Recommendations:
For suggesting steps in this course, a sedition committee was appointed on 10 December 1917 by the Government of India with Mr. Justice Sidney Arthur Taylor Rowlatt as its president. The committee was:-
1. to investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies concerned with the revolutionary movement in India;
2. to examine and consider the difficulties that had arisen in dealing with such conspiracies and advise the legislation, if any, necessary to enable government to deal with them.22
Other members of Committee were Basil Scoot, the Chief Justice of Bombay, Dewan Bahadur C.V. Kumarswami Sastri, the Judge of High Court, Madras, Venrey Lovett, the member of the Board of Revenue of the United Province and Pravesh Chandra Mittar, the Vakil of High Court, Calcutta.23 The committee became popular by the name of the ‘Rowlatt Committee’ after the name of its president, Mr. Justice Rowlatt. The committee made two kinds of recommendations– first, the permanent measures which were deemed necessary, and second, the measures which were to be enacted in case of emergency. The committee strongly recommended that witnesses in the cases of revolutionary crime should be provided.
with protection to prevent coercion. The government had the prerogative not to allow the offenders for the free movement for atleast two years after their release from custody and to prevent them from addressing public meetings.24
The Rowlatt Bills were calculated to place politicians and political movements at the mercy of the executive.
The report’s emergency powers included the provision of trial by a commission of the three High Court Judges, without benefit of juries, committal proceedings, or right of appeal. Of equal importance was the proposal to allow statements of dead or witnesses in absentia as admissible evidence in cases of sedition.The report further recommended that the government be given the power to demand security from suspects, to restrict their residence, to prevent their participation in certain acts as it saw fit, and to require persons to report periodically to the police.The second part of this recommendation gave the police the power to imprison suspects without trial and search premises without a warrant.
The committee’s final and most controversial recommendation was that the suspects already detained either under the Defence of India Act or under Regulation III should be subject to the new provisions without notice. The committee sat and submitted its report on 15 April
1918.30 The bill empowered the provincial government to search a place and arrest a suspected person without warrant and keep him in confinement at any place in the country up to one year.31 The bill led to a fierce indignation and resentment among people in the whole of the sub-continent and it was opposed with a popular cry, ‘no dalil, no vakil, and no appeal.’
Mahatma Gandhi’s Reaction:
Protesting against the Rowlatt bills at this crucial juncture Gandhiji came to the forefront, and he decided to launch an all-India agitation which India had never seen before. This protest took the form of Satyagraha movement. These bills came as ‘a rude shock’ to Gandhiji.Its recommendations startled me, said Gandhiji. He described these bills as unmistakable symptom of a deep seated disease in the governing body.
. Due to the obstinacy of the government at last he was compelled to say, ‘‘that the government’s action left no other course except to resort to Satyagraha.”
Gandhiji reached Matheran from Bombay as a member of deputation along with Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, Vallabhbhai Patel, Mr. Horniman, Shankar Lal Banker, Umar Sobhani and Shrimati Anasuya Behn and the proposal of Satyagraha was seriously discussed. At Bombay a Satyagraha Sabha was established with Gandhiji as its president. These ‘Black Bills’ were condemned here with a ‘wave of anger’ throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The Congress Inquiry sub-committee called these bills ‘an outrage upon society’. For the Indians these were flagrant evidence of distrust and an absolute insult to the whole nation.
Despite of all these criticism on the recommendation of Sedition Committee two bills were prepared. Passed on 21 March 1919,54 the first of the two bills was called, the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act.
Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated the Satyagraha agitation and he declared that the Satyagraha against Rowlatt Act was ordinarily the most momentous in the history of India. The agitation started with a speedy, a novel feature in a political struggle and this movement motivated a chain of strikes and conferences throughout the nation. The Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in large numbers responded favourably to the call of Gandhi.
At first, the date of the strike was fixed for the 30 March 1919; however it was changed to 6 April 1919. On 23 March, Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the masses to observe Sunday, 6 April as a day of ‘humiliation and prayer.’ He asked them to observe hartals and keep fasts.
The hartal was unique programme of mass movement. It meant that the people would suspend business on that day, observe it as day of fasting and the holding of public meetings. There were some places where the news of the change of date could not reach on time, and consequently the hartals were observed on both days i.e. 30 March and 6 April.
In Punjab the hartal was observed particularly in Amritsar and Lahore, the two centres of powerful political agitation. The protest meetings were held at Jalandhar and some other places where resolutions were passed against the Oppressive Act. Hoshiarpur like other towns of province responded with a fervourto the call of Gandhiji. Lala Goverdhan, a veteran national leader led the Satyagraha in Hoshiarpur.
In Amritsar the hartals were held by the enthusiastic masses on both days that is 30 March and 6 April. On the whole the Satyagraha was peaceful. Only at Delhi on 13 March did a Satyagraha demonstration become disorderly where a railway station was damaged, British cops were assaulted and several rioters were killed.
Dr. Satyapal (a medical practitioner) and Dr. Saif-ud-din Kitchlew (Bar-at-law) were the prominent educated leaders of Amritsar city who together led the Satyagraha movement in Punjab. Besides them Babu Kanheya Lal, the Advocate, Mr. Badrul Islam Khan, the Bar-at- law, Pandit Kotumal, a mill owner, Lala Duni Chand and Pandit Rambhaj Datta prepared the people for the movement. Many rumours were spreading among the masses such as, “under the Act the police could arrest any group of two or three who talked together; there was a tax of five rupees on marriages and other tax of five rupees on funeral; the crops were to be the property of the government, which could seize all or any part of them.”
While Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saif-ud-din attended the Delhi session of the Congress in December 1918, they requested the members to hold its next session at Amritsar. Their invitation was gladly accepted by the All India Congress Committee.61 This enhanced thestatus of the local Congress committee which had been founded only two years back. Satyapal and Saif-ud-Din soon earned great respect in the city.
. On 29 March the government took its first coercive step at 11 a.m. and Dr. Satyapal was debarred of making speech in public under the Defence of India Act.66
On Sunday morning, the 30 March 1919, Amritsar presented a distinctive scene of the spirit of unanimity. All shops were closed voluntarily and the whole business came to a standstill. The hartal at Amritsar was complete and people took to fasting at the call of Mahatma Gandhi as a method of self purification.67 In the afternoon a giant assembly of the inhabitants of Amritsar was held at Jallianwala Bagh, where according to official accounts; more than forty thousand people were present including a good number of women also.68 The meetings of similar nature were held at Sialkot, Ludhiana, Rawalpindi and other towns of Punjab in the middle of February.69 In Lahore, Fazl-i-Hussain presided over a huge public meeting of the citizens at Bradlaugh Hall.
The 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Amritsar massacre, known alternatively as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre after the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, was ordered by General R.E.H. Dyer.
On Sunday April 13, 1919, which happened to be ‘Baisakhi’, one of Punjab’s largest religious festivals, fifty British Indian Army soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, began shooting at an unarmed gathering of men, women, and children without warning at Jallianwala Bagh.
Dyer marched his fifty riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to kneel and fire. Dyer ordered soldiers to reload their rifles several times and they were ordered to shoot to kill. Official British Raj sources estimated the fatalities at 379, and with 1,100 wounded. Civil Surgeon Dr Williams DeeMeddy indicated that there were 1,526 casualties. However, the casualty number quoted by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with roughly 1,000 killed.
Comments of Indian Press on Rowlatt Bill:
The Indian press condemned the bill in the severest terms. The press and political leadership in Punjab described it as coercive and undemocratic measure which would not only deprive the people of their civil liberties but was inconsistent with the spirit of Montague’s declaration of August 1917. Several Indian newspapers levelled extreme criticism against the bills.
The Hindu wrote that the India public would learn the proposed provisions with shame, indignation and disgust.
Amrita Bazar Patrika called it a ‘significant blunder which might arouse the worst passions of a peaceful law abiding people.
The Panjabee regarded it as “a barefaced strife on the part of bureaucracy which has been demoralised through the recreation of unrestrained power to interfere with liberty.”
The Times of India described the bill as the draconian bill. Mr. C. F. Andrews had written a letter to the press drawing attention to a circular containing the resolution passed at a meeting of the Principals of Colleges and Headmasters of High Schools in Lahore.
Also the papers such as Amrita Bazar Patrika, Bombay Chronicle, The Tribune, Siyasat, New Herald, Vijay, Inquilab, Independent and Waqt, published provocative articles against the bills.
In the Waqt of Amritsar on 22 March a cartoon was published wherein these bills appeared as ‘Black Cobras’ depicting the Secretary of State, Montagu as handing over the order of liberty in India and a black cobra released from a basket by Rowlatt, bit her.
The Tribune described the bill as a ‘blunder of colossal magnitude.41 In a paper, there appeared a statement: ‘‘the new law would make honourable existence as uncertain as life in plague-infected area’’.
In its issue the Amrita Bazar Patrika commented:
The only parallel (to the Rowlatt Bill) in the civilised jurisprudence for such a provision was to be found in the declaration of Martial law in any area. And the parallel furnished by history was that of a Nadir Shah on the pretext of some of his soldiers being killed in a bazaar affray making over city of Delhi to the rapine, lust and blood-thirstiness of the brutal soldierty.
Concluded Jallianwala Bagh