Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919)

  • The Rowlatt Act was passed in March 1919 by the Central Legislative Council to control the militant nationalist struggles and curtailed the liberty of the people.
  • The Bill provided for speedy trial of offences by a special court and had no appeal.
  • The provincial government had powers to search a place and arrest a suspected person without warrant. These gave unbridled powers to the government to arrest and imprison suspects without trial for two years maximum.
  • It caused a wave of anger in all sections spreading a country-wide agitation by Gandhiji and marked the foundation of the Non-Cooperation Movement. Gandhiji organised the Satyagraha on 14th February, 1919. On 8th April, 1919 Gandhiji was arrested.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, also called Massacre of Amritsar was an incident in which British troops fired on a large crowd of unarmed Indians in an open space known as the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in Punjab.


Jallianwala Bagh massacre:

    • April 13, 1919, marked a turning point in the Indian freedom struggle.
    • It was Baisakhi that day, a harvest festival popular in Punjab and parts of north India.
    • Local residents in Amritsar decided to hold a meeting that day to discuss and protest against the confinement of Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, two leaders fighting for Independence, and implementation of the Rowlatt Act, which armed the British government with powers to detain any person without trial.
    • The crowd had a mix of men, women and children.
    • They all gathered in a park called the Jallianwala Bagh, walled on all sides but for a few small gates, against the orders of the British.
    • The protest was a peaceful one, and the gathering included pilgrims visiting the Golden Temple who were merely passing through the park, and some who had not come to protest.
    • While the meeting was on, Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, who had crept up to the scene wanting to teach the public assembled a lesson, ordered 90 soldiers he had brought with him to the venue to open fire on the crowd.
    • Many tried in vain to scale the walls to escape. Many jumped into the well located inside the park.

Response of the Indians:

    • This tragedy came as a rude shock to Indians and totally destroyed their faith in the British system of justice.
    • National leaders condemned the act and Dyer unequivocally.
    • Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in his letter of protest renounced the knighthood conferred on him, condemning the brutal act of Britishers.
    • In protest against the massacre and the British failure to give due justice to the victims, Gandhiji relinquished his title ‘Kaiser-e-hind’ bestowed on him by the British for his services during the Boer War in South Africa.
    • In December 1919, the congress session was held at Amritsar. It was attended by a large number of people, including peasants.

British and Government of India Response:

    • Gen Dyer was appreciated by many in Britain and the British in India although some people in the British government were quick to criticize it.
    • The massacre had been a calculated act and Dyer declared with pride that he had done it to produce ‘moral effect’ on the people and that he had made up his mind that he would shoot down all men if they were going to continue the meeting.
    • The government set up the Hunter Commission to inquire into the massacre. Although the commission condemned the act by Dyer, it did not impose any disciplinary action against him.
    • He was relieved of his duties in the army in 1920.
    • A British newspaper called it as one of the bloody massacres of modern history.

One of the worst acts of violence:

    • Large gathering of 15,000-20,000 people with a majority of Sikhs came together to celebrate the Punjabi harvest festival of Baisakhi in this garden.
    • They had also gathered to revolt against the repressive Rowlatt Act that provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial.
    • The people were unarmed and British surrounded them and opened fire brutally.
    • Even after that British was not empathetic but responded with brutal repression in the following ways.
    • Seeking to humiliate and terrorize people, Satyagrahis were forced to rub their noses on the ground.
    • They were forced to crawl on the streets, and do salaam (salute) to all sahibs.
    • People were flogged and villages (around Gujranwala in Punjab) were bombed.
    • For Indians this added the fuel to fire and national movement was taken forward more intensively
    • Leaders heavily criticized the government with Tagore renouncing his knighthood as protest.
    • The whole nation came together protesting against British so this incident brought unity to India which was essential for the freedom movement.

Turning point in Indian national movement:

    • By the end of the 19th century, British rule, in India as well as across the globe, had gained a certain legitimacy even in the eyes of the enslaved public.
    • Till then, most Indians had reconciled with the progressive nature of the colonial rule.
    • Jallianwala Bagh shattered the faith that the people had in the British sense of justice and fairness.
    • To most Indians, the massacre of the unarmed was a betrayal of the trust that they had placed on the British to rule them wisely, justly and with fairness.
    • In the eyes of the Indian, the just, fair and liberal British suddenly turned into a ruthless, bloodthirsty tyrant who couldn’t be trusted. Jallianwala Bagh revealed the evil that resided in the ‘enlightened’ empire.
    • Since then, it was a slow but sure downward slide for British rule in India. It was on this sense of betrayal that Gandhi built his mass movement, which put a premium on breaking the laws made by the rulers.
    • As the people began to willfully break the laws made by the state, the state itself became illegitimate. Now people actively started demanding for purna swaraj