Working Papers

The Rowlatt Agitation: Background and Events

R. Jeffrey Blair
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Aichi Gakuin University, Nagoya, Japan

http:// / ~jeffreyb / research / rowlatt1.html
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The Great War

        During the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson [1856-1924] of the United States inculcated his doctrine of the self-determination of nations. This was to be the war to make the world safe for democracy. To many Indians, longing for self-government, this came as an answer to their prayers. Mohandas Gandhi [1869-1948], among others, began recruiting stretcher bearers and soldiers to fight for the British Empire. Once the British experienced the loyal support and sacrifice of the Indian masses, he reasoned, they would certainly reward India with responsible government.
        Over these four years India responded generously with about 1.3 million men (Wales et al., 2007a) and a considerable amount of food and materials. Had Indians been allowed to accept commissioned ranks, even more Indians would probably have enlisted. Muslim soldiers faced an especially painful conflict of loyalty. Their British ruler was waging war against Caliph Mehmed V [1844-1918], Sultan of Ottoman Turkey and religious leader to all Muslims. Despite this fact, many Muslims joined the British Indian army.
        In the summer of 1917, when English troops suffered a serious set back in the war, the government of India established Central and Provincial Recruiting Boards with a quota system. Very soon quota pressures transformed voluntary recruitment into something worse than conscription.

"Recruits were compelled to enlist through punishments in the form of fines, dismissal or suspension from office, increased taxes upon individuals and villages, general ill-treatment of villagers and threats to withhold, and the actual withholding of, irrigation privileges (Datta, 1969, p. 19)."

Such actions contributed to ill-feelings between Indians and their British government, particularly in the Punjab, which provided 60% of the recruits.

Movements for Independence

        The war years witnessed a number of revolutionary Indian groups forming abroad (see Datta, 1969 and Ram, 1969). On August 18, 1913 Indian expatriates on the west coast of North America gathered together in San Francisco. They founded the Hindustani Workers of the Pacific Coast, later known as the Ghadar Party (English translation: Mutiny Party). Within three months they began publication of a weekly paper entitled Ghadar and maintained a headquarters, the Yugantan Ashram, at 436 Hill Street in San Francisco. For two months in the summer of 1914 this group agitated on behalf of the Komagata Maru (`) passengers, whom the Canadian government had prevented from landing at Vancouver. Their efforts failed and the ship returned to Calcutta, India, where police awaited the passengers. When they refused to board trains that would take them back to the Punjab, police opened fire and made arrests. Baba Gurdit Singh [1860-1954] and twenty-eight others escaped, while eighteen passengers received fatal wounds and 200 went to prison.
        By February 1915 as many as 8,000 Ghadarites had returned to India intent on revolution. Lacking arms and ammunition, which had been intercepted, they passed out instruments to destroy telegraph wires and derail trains, before the government crushed their uprising. The government hanged twenty, exiled fifty-eight for life, and imprisoned another fifty-eight. That finished the Ghadar Party.
        Until the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 the British government sympathized with the Pan-Islamic movement and the Caliph. Toward the end of October 1914 Ottoman Turkey entered into the Great War on the side of Germany. Two weeks later Caliph Mehmed V , in his role as the head of the Muslim religion, called for a Jihad (the last genuine jihad--called by a Caliph) against British and Russian forces. About a month later Mahendra Pratap [1886-1979] left India to visit world leaders--including Kaiser Wilhelm II [1859-1941], Abbas Hilmi Pasha [1874-1944] the deposed Khedive of Egypt, and Enver Bey Pasha [1881-1922] of Ottoman Turkey--in order to get support from Britain's enemies for his opposition to colonial rule (Wales, 2007b). He ended up a year later at a meeting of Indian Nationalists in Kabul, Afghanistan. There they formed the Provisional Government of India with himself as President and Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi [1872-1944] as Home Minister. Ubaidullah caused a stir in the Indian government over the Silk Letter Conspiracy. August 1916 the government intercepted three letters from him "written on lengths of yellow silk and sewn into the lining of messengers' coats (Datta, 1969, p. 6)." Among other things the letters disclosed the formation of the Army of God. The Punjab government promptly proceeded to round-up suspects.
        In close touch with the Ghadar Party and the Pan-Islamic movement, a group of experienced Indian revolutionaries in Berlin, known as the Indian Independence Committee, coordinated the activities of Indian rebels throughout the world. Har Dayal [1884-1939], President of the Ghadar Party, joined the committee after jumping bail in the United States, where he was arrested for anarchist activities, and fleeing to Germany. They arranged with the German government to ship arms to Asia in order to carry out attacks on British interests, but all attempts at this scheme failed.
        The year 1916 marked a shift from attempts at armed rebellion to more moderate political activity. Bal Gangadhar Tilak [1856-1920] and Annie Besant [1847-1933] each organized cooperating Home Rule Leagues, drawn from the Irish model. This new movement provided the Indian masses with a national spirit and a much needed political education.

British Rule

        The war-time crisis gave birth to broad executive powers in the form of the Defense of India Act of 1915. This act conferred upon the Governor-General the authority to create new offenses, to control the press, and to confine and deport people. Under these provisions the government of India ordered the arrests of many revolutionary and political suspects. Besant, in addition to those mentioned above, was interned in June 1917. A great public outcry followed and some talk of passive resistance.
        Suddenly, confronted with growing political agitation in India and a grave military situation in Mesopotamia, the British government changed its attitude. August 20 Great Britain announced that Edwin Montagu [1879-1924], the Secretary of State, would be visiting India to gather material for a Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms and that

"the policy of His Majesty's Government, with which the Government of India [is] in complete accord, is that of increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible Government in India as an integral part of the British Empire (Ghose, 1921, p. 4)."

When the report finally emerged, the white community regarded the concessions as too wide, while the Indian community thought them too narrow. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, as they came to be called, featured a system of diarchy (This led some punsters to refer to martial law in the Punjab in 1919 as Dyer-archy) whereby Indians would begin self-government at the local level and work towards total self-government at all levels.
        Concurrently with this report, Sir Sydney Rowlatt [1862-1945], a Judge on the English High Court, and his committee prepared a report concerning anarchical and revolutionary crimes in India. The Rowlatt Committee conducted its meetings behind closed doors, listening almost exclusively to government witnesses. In its report, submitted April 15, 1918,

"facts and figures were distorted in such a manner as to make the image of India's freedom movement look as a sum-total of dacoities, robberies, arsons and murders. ... The Report appeared to be a thesis written to prove that Indian nationalists were anarchists of the worst order and as much a danger to society as to law and order in India (Ram, 1969, p. 35)."

It concluded with a recommendation that the government enact strong legislation to replace the Defense of India Act, which would expire six months after the war's end. This inspired the Amritsar Wagt to print a cartoon showing "Montagu handing India a charter of freedom, while Mr. Justice Rowlatt opened a basket to release a cobra which bites her (Swinson, 1964, p. 13)."

War Ends, But Peace Proves Elusive

        Even when war ended on November 11, 1918, economic conditions did not improve. From July 1914 to January 1919 the cost of living had risen 83%, as opposed to a 21.5% increase in wages (Ram, 1969, p. 34). Aware that big landlords, trading firms, and merchants had earned high profits from the war, the labor class became restless. The world-wide flu epidemic had taken a high toll of lives, and the failure of the monsoons heralded in a disastrous crop harvest. When victors at the Paris Peace Conference threatened Ottoman Turkey with dismemberment, Muslims commenced a Khilafat agitation.
        February 6, 1919 the Emergency Powers Bill went to the Imperial Council for debate. Also know as the Rowlatt Bill, this measure provided for the power to arrest and confine suspects, the expeditious trial of revolutionaries with no right of appeal, and the authority to limit people's residences. Despite wide-spread, popular opposition among the masses, the press, and the (unofficial) Indian members of the Imperial Council, the colonial government enacted the bill for a period of three years starting March 18.
        In late February Gandhi and a group of followers met at Ahmedabad and took a solemn vow of Satyagraha, which he later released to the press with an accompanying letter (full text reprinted in Ram, 1969, pp. 51-53). Among those who took the oath, Saifuddin Kitchlew [1888-1963] and Satya-Pal would play important roles in the subsequent agitation. Gandhi established the Satyagraha Sabha in Bombay (now called Mumbai) as his headquarters and laid plans for a hartal strike set originally for March 30, then changed to April 6.

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Events in Delhi
Events in the Presidency of Bombay
Events in the Punjab

Working Papers