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Rowlatt Act: The ‘Black Act’ And How It Backfired

Rowlatt Act: The ‘Black Act’ And How It Backfired

The year 1919 was, in many ways, a turning point for India. For one, the First World War had just ended, allowing the British to turn their focus once again to the uncomfortable developments taking place in India. 

The rising tide of nationalism was beginning to cause the colonial British serious alarm. The demand for independence was getting more and more strident and frequent acts of political violence were proving worrisome. Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi had launched his first Satyagraha in India, in Champaran in Bihar in 1917, signalling that a new – and very effective – form of protest had arrived in the Indian subcontinent.

Then, in March 1919, the British introduced one of the most hated pieces of legislations in India. It was called the ‘Rowlatt Act’ and it had far-reaching consequences on the freedom movement.

The formal name of the legislation was the ‘Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919’, a dead giveaway to the intentions of the colonial administration. 

Sidney Rowlatt, the President of the Rowlatt Commitee | Wikimedia Commons

Highlights of the Rowlatt Act

* Anyone suspected of ‘terrorist’ activities could be arrested for a maximum 2 years without a trial
* Trials could be conducted without a jury for ‘forbidden political acts’
* Police could detain people without citing a reason
* Police could conduct a search without a warrant
* The press was muzzled

The Rowlatt Act was passed on 18th March 1919 and was called the ‘Black Act’ and it triggered outrage across the nation. It was based on a committee headed by Sidney Rowlatt and modelled on the Defence of India Act of 1915. The latter, enacted during World War I (1914-18), gave the police ‘extraordinary powers’ and allowed for ‘emergency measures’ to deal with people who were a threat to national security while Britain was fighting a world war. 

The British had taken a temporary, emergency, wartime legislation and imposed it on Indians in peacetime.

The Rowlatt Act evoked the wrath of the nation. The immediate fallout was the Rowlatt Satyagraha called for by Mahatma Gandhi, less than three weeks later, on 6th April 1919. Accordingly, Indians would refrain from going to work and hold meetings against the repressive Act. 

Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal | Aashish Kochhar

Violent clashes broke out in some places, especially in Delhi and Punjab, where the army had to be called out. Also, two Congress leaders, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, were arrested. When the violence would not stop, Gandhi suspended the satyagraha.

But the groundswell of anger was growing and, a few days later, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar. On 13th April 1919, the people of Amritsar had gathered in an enclosed garden to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi and also to condemn the arrest of the two Congress leaders during the Rowlatt protests.

Colonel Reginald Dyer arrived at the garden with his troops and, without warning, fired upon the unarmed crowd. Hundreds of Indians were slaughtered.

The violence and bloodshed sparked by the Rowlatt Act had drawn Mahatma Gandhi into the vortex of the freedom movement and he launched his Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, opening a new chapter in India’s fight for freedom.

News headlines about the Rowlatt Bills (1919) | Wikimedia Commons

The Rowlatt Act was never enforced. It was repealed in 1921.

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