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
Movements for Independence
British Rule
War Ends, But Peace Proves Elusive

Events in Delhi

        In Delhi the Rowlett agitation began on Sunday, March 30, 1919 with a day of humiliation and prayer. Although many shops closed in sympathy with the passive resistance movement, this did not satisfy some ''passive'' resisters, who proceeded to coerce the rest of the shops to close. Then mobs began pulling people out of tramcars and carriages. They even stopped British officials in motor-cars, calling out to the occupants to get out and walk.
        About midday a gang of resisters proceeded to the railway station to compel sweetmeat vendors in the third class waiting hall to stop business. The vendors, being under contract to the railway company, objected to these demands. In response the crowd dragged the contractor, a deaf old man, out of the station (Swinson, 1964, p. 15). Later when the crowd sought to force its way onto the station platform, the police arrested one man, who was then forcibly rescued outside the station ("Rioting at Delhi", 1919, p. 16 quoting Lord Chelmsford's telegram to the Secretary of State Montagu. A later, more detailed article, "Delhi Riots", 1919, p.11, claimed two arrests.). A crowd of 5,000 gathered to demand his release and were informed that the man had already been released. But the crowd, refusing to disperse, tried to force the gates open and threw brickbats everywhere. Owing to the threatening attitude of the mob, the police obtained military assistance. When the crowd, in Queen's Garden, still refused to disperse, police fired upon them.
        The crowd rallied at Clock Tower in Chandni Chowk, the principle thoroughfare in Delhi, and tried to rush the Town Hall. Here again the military dispersed them with small arms fire. These two incidents took the lives of six people and left sixteen wounded. Large crowds attended the victims' funerals. On Monday morning most shops had reopened, while large crowds and military forces remained in Delhi's streets. The city had temporarily quieted down.
        The government of India blamed "the high state of excitement prevalent among the crowds" on misleading accounts of the effects of the Rowlatt Act "sedulously propagated by evilly disposed persons (quoted from a communique by the Government of India reported in London Times, 1919 April 11, p. 11)." The government went on to state that many people believed that the act empowered any police officer to arrest any three Indians seen engaging in conversation or search any house without the need of a warrant. Disclaiming any such provisions, the government pointed out that "no part of the Act is yet in force, nor can be brought into force unless and until the Governor-General of India in Council is satisfied that an anarchical or revolutionary movement is being promoted (London Times, 1919 April 11, p. 11)."
        The London Times correspondent in Bombay observed that "the passive resistance movement has passed out of the control of honest, if misguided men, like Mr. Gandhi to those anxious to use it to embarrass the authorities and create trouble ("Delhi Riots", 1919, p. 11)."

Events in the Presidency of Bombay

        In Bombay the Satyagraha Sabha proclaimed Sunday, April 6 to be a day of humiliation and prayer throughout India (London Times, 1919 April 11, p. 11). Owing to the Delhi tragedy, the Sabha enjoined all demonstrations and pleaded for absolute silence. It discouraged passive resisters from pressuring those who would not fast or suspend work and asked people to obey all police instructions.
        In the city of Bombay "Humiliation Day" commenced with bathing in the sea, for which a crowd of 20,000, mostly spectators, assembled ("'Humiliation Day' Reports", 1919, p.12). Sarojini Naidu [1879-1949], a poet turned political agitator, and Gandhi addressed a meeting of Muslims, reportedly using inflammatory language in regards to the insurrection in Egypt. This gathering went peacefully, but another crowd of Muslims suffered some injuries when police dispersed it. Later in the day a crowd of unprecedented magnitude met at French Bridge to hear Gandhi and other leaders exhort them to refrain from using any violence.
        In the course of the day a few mills stopped work and the workers attempted to compel other mills to shut down, but the police dispersed them. In contrast to the mills, 80% of Bombay's shops remained shut for the day, partly on account of the fear of rioting. Similarly, Victoria carriages and taxis ceased work. Two Victorias which attempted to pick up passengers were smashed, yet the trams were not interrupted. Throughout India, as in Bombay, "Humiliation Day" occurred with very little disturbance.
        Since the Rowlatt Act was nowhere in effect in India, the passive resistance committee in Bombay proceeded to select other measures for resistance in order that the passive resistance movement might be more than just "a blow in the air" (London Times, 1919 April 16, p.12). Early in the week it announced that the laws concerning prohibited literature and the registration of newspapers would be civilly disobeyed. People in Bombay and Ahmedabad subsequently reprinted and sold or distributed freely considerable amounts of prohibited literature.
        On Thursday April 10 the first issue of Gandhi's newspaper, the Satyagraha, "made its appearance in cyclostyle so bad as to be almost illegible ("Punjab Disorder", 1919, p.12)." Gandhi predicted that as editor he was likely to be arrested at any time, but assured his readers of a continuous supply of substitute editors. Curiously he pointed to "the millhands celebration of Sunday by remaining at work" as the greatest of recent events.

        On that same Thursday afternoon at Ahmedabad (see "How Indian Riots Began", 1919, pp. 10, 12), where there had been a good deal of labor unrest in the mills, shops closed upon hearing of Gandhi's detention at Palwal station on the Punjab frontier (Ghose, 1921, p. 15). The unemployed mill hands paraded through the town compelling open shops to close and all people driving in vehicles to walk. The demonstration almost immediately became anti-British. In fact, the demonstrators handled two English mill experts so roughly that the pair had to take refuge in some Indian flour mills (cotton mills according to "'Humiliation Day' Reports", 1919, p. 13). The mob, then, poured gasoline over the woodwork and set fire to the mills. When the crowd refused to disperse, armed force was used and an Indian constable killed.
        In the evening, local passive resisters held a meeting urging orderliness and continuance of work. But the next day the mill hands resumed their practices. They compelled shops to close, smashed street lamps, and cut electric and telephone wires. Furthermore, they destroyed two Government buildings, damaged the electric company's installation, burned the University examination pavilion, and destroyed the fire engines that came to extinguish flames. Shortly before noon they set fire to the telegraph office. The Government responded, sending troops and an armored train to Ahmedabad. When the crowds overpowered the police, small military parties firing to disperse the rioters, restored order. By nightfall the disturbances had degenerated to the looting of some liquor shops.

        Saturday in the City of Bombay brought with it some minor disorders, as a rowdy crowd of merchants and their assistants pulled people from tramcars and placed large stones on the line to stop the cars (London Times, 1919, April 17, p. 12). An immense, unmanageable crowd held an open-air meeting on Chowpatli Sands at the foot of Malabar Hill with all attempts to carry out the program collapsing. Gandhi, whom just the day before police had returned to Bombay, read a message from one of the four platforms, but it was inaudible beyond a few yards. The London Times (1919, April 17, p. 12) noted that "Mr. Gandhi has evidently awakened to the realization ... that while it is easy to start an emotional campaign in India it is quite another matter to control its course. ... Mr. Gandhi now finds that his idealism is exploited by the agitator, the [hooligan] and the hot-headed student."

        Sunday, April 13 Gandhi left for Ahmedabad. And by Wednesday that city had almost returned to normal with the mill hands returning to work after a one-day fast Gandhi had ordered as a penance (London Times, 1919 April 19, p. 10; April 21, p. 10; and April 24, p. 13). Two days later the Satyagraha Committee acting on the advice of its president and vice-president, Gandhi and Mr. Horniman resolved to suspend civil disobedience to the laws. Gandhi explained that he had underrated the forces of evil and now advised followers to cooperate with the government. For his part, Horniman felt that unscrupulous elements with objectives entirely opposed to Satyagraha had corrupted the passive resistance movement.

Events in the Punjab

        A Gurkha general once remarked that "every revolutionary eruption in India endeavors to establish itself in the Punjab (Woodyatt, 1922, p. 287)." And so it was with the Rowlatt agitation in April 1919 that the worst of the rioting occurred there.
        Early Thursday morning, April 10, the government served two aggressive agitators at Amritsar, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya-Pal, with orders from the Lt. Governor restricting their residence under the provisions of the Defense of India Act ("Punjab Disorder", 1919, p. 12 and "Amritsar Outrages", 1919, p. 10). Accordingly, they were removed to Dharamsala for internment (Swinson, 1964, p. 18) by automobile and train shortly before 11 am. News of the arrests rapidly spread through the city.
        A large crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 people collected and endeavored to break past the civil lines. They wanted to go to the Deputy Commissioner's residence and offer faryad prayers (Ghose, 1921, p. 20). Anticipating trouble, the government had already posted pickets at the railway over-bridge and the level crossing connecting the city with the lines. When the demonstrators arrived at the over-bridge they refused to disperse and threw stones at the pickets until the District Magistrate gave orders for the pickets to open fire. The mob turned back towards the city and divided into two.
        One of these mobs, armed with wooden rails and similar weapons, attacked the railway station. They beat Mr. Robinson, a white guard at the station, to death. Only the timely arrival of a troop train filled with a Gurkha regiment prevented them from destroying the passenger station. Yet, the rioters set fire to the railway goods station, burned the sleepers, and attempted to cut the telegraph wires.
        The second mob attacked and burned the Town Hall, several banks, and various other buildings inside the city. Rioters wrecked the telegraph office and attacked the Alliance Bank, where they killed the bank agent. Mr. Thomson had fired a revolver in self-defense, whereupon the crowd killed him and burned his corpse along with the bank furniture (Ghose, 1921, p. 22). They also burned and looted the Chartered Bank of India, China, and Australia and the National Bank of India. Two National Bank employees, Mr. Stewart, the agent, and Mr. Scott, the accountant, burned to death in the incident. With the exception of these three bank employees, one of which appeared to have been clubbed to death prior to burning, nearly all other white residents of the city evaded the rioters.
        Troops from Gobind Garth Fort eventually drove this mob out of the white residential area into the downtown area. One hundred British troops and two hundred Indian troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer [1864-1927] arrived from Lahore and Jullunder during the course of the evening. By nightfall they were camped at the city limits with Dyer's headquarters at Ram Bagh (Ghose, 1921, p. 23). The next day these troops entered the city with no resistance and began making arrests. Estimates of the rioters' death toll for the two-day period range from twenty to thirty.

        On the same Thursday that Kitchlew and Satya-Pal were taken into custody, a sizable mob at Lahore formed a large procession and attempted to reach the white residential area ("'Humiliation Day' Reports", 1919, pp. 12, 14). They refused to turn back when confronted by police. The police responded twice with gunfire, killing one and wounding four.
        Saturday morning British and Indian troops marched through Lahore (London Times, 1919 April 19, p. 10). In a fracas with a mob outside the city gate, troops fired killing two and wounding two. The excitement centered on the Badshar Mosque, where, it was reported, a Brahmin pleader addressed a praying crowd of Hidus and Muslims. The government ordered the closing of the Badshadi Mosque, which it subsequently guarded with British infantry and Indian cavalry.

        The next day, back in Amritsar, Dyer issued the following proclamation:

"No procession of any kind is permitted to parade the city or any part of the city or outside of it any time. Any such procession or gathering of four men will be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assembly and dispersed by force of arms, if necessary (Ghose, 1921, pp. 23-24)."

It was read out at the main thoroughfares by an interpreter in Punjabee and Urdu. At 4 pm, soon after issuing his final proclamation of the day, Dyer discovered that a large gathering had assembled at Jalianwala Bagh gardens (Woodyatt, 1922, pp. 289-291). Perceiving the meeting as an open defiance of his order, he prepared for battle. He proceeded that afternoon to Jalianwala Bagh with two armored car and all the Indian troops he could spare--25 Gurkhas and 25 Sikhs armed with rifles and 40 Gurkhas armed with khukri knives (Ghose, 1921, p.25).
        The man who had led Thursday's attack on the National Bank had convened the meeting (Woodyatt, 1922, pp. 289-291). Mr. Kanhya Lal was scheduled to preside (Ghose, 1921, p. 25). Prior to Dyer's arrival, Hans Raj (Ghose, 1921, pp. 26-27) and seven other speakers (Woodyatt, 1922, pp. 289-291), all leaders in the recent disturbances, had addressed the meeting. Five of the eight were eventually sentenced to exile for life. Dyer's troops approached Jalianwala Bagh by a small alley, too narrow for the armored car, and so they left it on the main city street. At the end of the alley, overlooking the garden, Dyer saw political agitators haranguing an excited mob numbering about 20,000. He immediately gave the order to fire. A massacre ensued as people in the crowd tried to climb walls and jump into a well to escape the hail of bullets. The official death toll climbed to 397. General Nigel Woodyatt later defended this dire action saying, "I have heard it said that women and children were shot. This is incorrect, for there were none there. Moreover, of the 397 killed, 300 were lawless and desperate characters (Woodyatt, 1922, p. 291)."

        The next day a disturbance occurred at Gujranwala (London Times, 1919 April 21, p. 10). Rioters burned the railway station and the church. The American missionaries were sent to Sialkot, while the other white residents took refuge at the Treasury. With police assistance the whites successfully defended themselves against the mob. An airplane arrived from Lahore and attacked the crowd at the railway station with bombs and machinegun fire. The plane came back again the next morning. The government also sent troops and arrested about twenty men, who were taken to Lahore.

        Monday, April 14, two barristers--Mr. Dunichand and Mr. Harkishan--and pleader Pandit Rambhuj Datt Chaudhuri were expelled from Lahore. On Wednesday the General Officer Commanding gave notice that unless shops reopened with 48 hours, the government would auction off their goods. The rebellion had been crushed, but months passed before life returned to normal. Even then British brutality continued to "evoke feelings of deep anguish and anger ... and paved the way for [non-cooperation and Indian independence] (Wales, et al., 2007a)."

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