The First World War brought enormous burden upon the people of India. They had been dragged into war without their consent. The strength of armed forces was increased considerably. Many young men were compelled to join the army against the wishes of their parents. The Indian soldiers were sent to distant lands to fight for the British imperialism. About 60,000 brave sons of India lost their lives during the War. The common people faced many shortages of consumer items and an abnormally high rate of inflation.
Since the Britishers, along with their allies, were fighting the war to defend democracy and the right of self-determination for all communities, it was not too big for the Indians to hope that their rulers would grant them self-governing institutions at the end of the hostilities in consonance with the declaration made by Edwin Montague, Secretary of State for India, in the House of Commons on August 20, 1917.
The appointment of a Sedition Committee by Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, on December 10, 1917 under the chairmanship of Justice Rowlatt to suggest measures to deal effectively with the revolutionary movement in India threw cold water on the hopes of the people and enraged them beyond measure. The Sedition Committee submitted its report in April 1918 on the basis of which the government introduced two Bills in the Central Assembly, known as the Rowlatt Bills (popularly dubbed as the Black Bills). This was bound to add fuel to the fire. There were protest meetings and demonstrations throughout the country—in Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, Lucknow, Patna, Madras (now Chennai) and Bombay (now Mumbai). Gandhiji, who had been a staunch loyalist so far, also felt humiliated. He wrote to the Viceroy to withdraw these Bills and if this was not acceded to, he would organise a satyagraha campaign. Accordingly, he set up a Satyagraha Sabha whose members would “refuse civilly to obey these laws.” But the government did not budge an inch.
Of the two Bills, one was passed on March 18, 1919 and placed on the statute book on March 21, 1919 despite the stiff opposition from all the non-official Indian members of the Central Legislative Council, three of whom, namely, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mazharul Huq, resigned their membership of the Council. It came to be known as the Rowlatt Act after the name of Justice Rowlatt, although its official caption was the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919. It gave wide powers to the government to arrest any person without warrant and detain him in jail. It also provided for trial of offences by the special courts against whose decisions there could be no appeal.
A grim situation faced the nation. What should be done? It was a dilemma. Gandhiji also felt sad. He could not sleep throughout the night of March 18, 1919, the day the Black Bill was passed. He pondered over the problem as to what to do. At dawn, he got an answer. It was to be a hartal —suspension of all business by the entire nation. A day of mourning. A day of protest. A day of fast and prayers. Let the entire India be silent and her oppressors listen to the unspoken voice of the people. It was to be held on March 30, 1919 but subsequently changed to April 6, 1919.
Call for Hartal
The country gave a wonderful response to the call of Gandhiji. Everything came to a standstill on the day of the hartal. Many observed the full-day fast also. Public meetings were held. Demonstrations took place. The government became panicky. It tried to terrorise the people. In Delhi, where the hartal took place on March 30, 1919, it was a day of great happenings. There was a spirit of complete harmony and comradeship between the Hindus and Muslims. Swami Shradhanand, the great Arya Samaj leader, spoke to the vast crowds at Jama Masjid. He was a tall man, dressed in orange clothes—a sanyasi. He led the procession at Chandni Chowk. The troops tried to disrupt the procession. Swamiji bared his chest and asked them to shoot at him. Instead, they shot nine others, five Hindus and four Muslims. Many were injured. The British nurses of the police hospital refused to attend to the injured because they were rebels. Gandhiji was informed of the situation in Delhi and was requested to visit the town. As he was coming by train, the police arrested him at Palwal railway station and escorted him back to Bombay on April 8, 1919.
At Amritsar, the hartal was observed on both the dates—March 30 and April 6, 1919—and there was no untoward incident. It was a complete success and there was a big demonstration held jointly by the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. At a public meeting of about 50,000 people, the speakers proclaimed the imminent downfall of the British Raj if the Rowlatt Act was not withdrawn. Three days later, the people also observed Ram Naumi as the National Solidarity Day. They brought out a big procession in which the slogans of Mahatma Gandhi ki jai and Hindu Mussalman ki jai were raised. This made the District Magistrate a bit nervous. In sheer desperation, he summoned to his residence the two prominent leaders of the town, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saif-ud-din Kitchlew, and got them arrested.
The news of their arrest caused utmost anger among the people. All shops were closed down immediately. The crowds moved towards the Civil Lines where the British bureaucrats had their bungalows. They wanted to know where their leaders were and why they had been detained. A military picket prevented them from entering the Civil Lines. When the mob went out of control, they opened fire in which not less than twenty persons were killed. This was not a good way to control the mob. The mob became violent and embarked upon vengeance. It turned back and entered the city. It set fire to government buildings, cut telegraph and telephone lines and killed five Europeans. A missionary woman, Miss Sherwood, who was on her way to school on her bicycle, was beaten with sticks and fists and left unconscious on the roadside. She was soon removed by some other Indians to their house, given first aid and later restored to her kith and kin. The situation had gone out of control. The government, therefore, decided to control it with the help of martial law regulations.
Massacre of the Innocent
Brigadier General Dyer arrived from Jullundur Cantt. on the evening of April 11, 1919 to establish the martial law rule which was officially proclaimed later on April 15, 1919. Next day, he ordered indiscriminate arrests of persons to strike terror in the minds of the agitators. He ordered a march past of the troops and armoured cars to frighten them. He forbade all meetings and processions and declared by the beat of drums at nineteen places that those defying his orders would be shot dead. But the people were not afraid of the guns and bullets of their British oppressors. They assembled in large numbers at Jallianwala Bagh for another meeting on April 13, 1919, i.e., the day of Baisakhi, to make their pleadings with the authorities to withdraw the Rowlatt Act. This was what Dyer could never tolerate. He reached the spot with a force of 90 soldiers and two armoured cars equipped with machine guns. He stationed them at the entrance so that nobody could escape. He also knew there were walls and buildings on all sides and none would be able to run away safe when he would give orders for firing. He, therefore, gave no signal of his arrival nor any warning to the crowd to disperse. He ordered his troops to fire and they went on till all their ammunition was exhausted. In all 1,650 rounds were fired. More than a thousand people were killed and several thousands lay wounded. There was none to give them medical aid when they were struggling between life and death. The authorities took no care about them because their objective was to teach them a lesson. Their sympathisers were also unable to do anything because they were compelled to remain indoors through imposition of curfew. The wounded had, therefore, to lie in pain without bandage, medicine or food. That was the price they had to pay for their patriotism. Little did General Dyer grasp that when a mighty imperial government fires upon unarmed people, it does not frighten them. It only accepts its own helplessness.
Not content with what he had already done, Dyer issued a series of humiliating orders to chastise the people. Curfew was imposed for weeks. More than two persons were forbidden to walk on the pavements at one time. People were ordered to salute every British officer they saw on their way. They had to crawl on their bellies when they passed through the street in which Miss Sherwood had been assaulted. The non-performance of this humiliating act made them liable to whipping in the open for which a contingent of soldiers was stationed on the spot. Thousands of persons were arrested and kept in jail without trial. The properties of those sympathetic to the agitators were confiscated. Students were directed to report daily at the police station for which they had to traverse long distances on foot. Such a reign of terror was not confined to Amritsar alone but prevailed all over Punjab. The entire province had become a big prison house under the superintendence of the army and the police.
The brutalities inflicted by the government upon the people of Punjab shocked the conscience of the entire nation. Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood. For Gandhiji, it was an important factor to convert him from a loyalist to an agitator and enter the Congress as its supreme leader at Amritsar. Both the Congress and the government appointed their separate committees to make an enquiry into the matter. The Congress Committee of Inquiry consisted of Gandhiji, C. R. Das, Fazl-ul-Huq and Abbas Tyabji. Its report blamed both Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab, and Brigadier General Dyer and urged the government to relieve them of their responsibilities. The report of the Hunter Committee appointed by the government took the view that General Dyer’s conduct rested upon an “honest but mistaken conception of duty” and his actions were far beyond the reasonable requirements of the situation on whose basis the Government of India removed him from service.
It was unfortunate that when General Dyer returned to England in disgrace, his countrymen did not denounce him for his brutal acts. The House of Lords passed a resolution by 129 votes to 89 deploring his removal. The Morning Post of London asked its readers to subscribe to a fund to be donated to him and was able to collect an enormous sum of £ 30,000. A ladies association calling itself ‘The Women of England’ presented him with a sword of honour. A large number of Europeans in India also regarded him as the saviour of the British empire. This was bound to cause a breach of faith between the rulers and the ruled and to enrage the enlightened pro-British Indians who were now compelled to throw themselves in line with the mainstream of national struggle.