Recovering the Spirit of the Rowlatt Satyagraha, 100 Years Later

The leaders of our major (and minor) political parties are currently crisscrossing the country in search of votes. Exactly a 100 years ago, in the spring of 1919, another leader was also touring different parts of India. It was four years since Mohandas K. Gandhi had returned to his homeland. He had organised protests by peasants in Champaran in 1917 and Kaira in 1918; and also led a satyagraha of mill workers in Ahmedabad. Now he was launching his first pan-Indian movement aimed at an oppressive piece of legislation known as the Rowlatt Act, that sought to criminalise dissent and to try alleged dissenters without juries and in camera, with the press and the public excluded.


On February 8, 1919, Gandhi wrote to an Indian colleague that the Rowlatt Bills were not “a stray example of lapse of righteousness” but “evidence of a determined policy of repression”; therefore, “civil disobedience seems to be a duty imposed upon every lover of personal and public liberty”. The same day he wrote to a South African friend: “The Rowlatt Bills have agitated me very much. It seems I shall have to fight the greatest battle of my life.”


In the last week of February 1919, Gandhi hosted a meeting of patriots at his ashram in Ahmedabad. Here a “Satyagraha Pledge” was drafted. Its signatories resolved to court arrest unless the Rowlatt Bills were withdrawn. Meanwhile, Gandhi also wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, asking him to withdraw the bills, since even the “most autocratic [Government] finally owes its power to the will of the governed”.


The Viceroy refused to withdraw the Bills. Gandhi now travelled with his Satyagraha Pledge across the country, seeking support and signatures. He visited Lucknow, Allahabad, Bombay, and Madras, as well as many smaller towns. He was preparing his growing band of followers for a major, countrywide, show of defiance, scheduled for Sunday, April 6, 1919.


At the time, Bombay was the epicentre of Indian nationalism. So Gandhi chose to lead the protests in that city himself. He arrived at the Chowpatty beach by 6.30 am. His admirers bathed in the sea and then came and sat around him. By 8 o’clock, there was a “huge mass of people” assembled on the sea face. One reporter estimated that 150,000 were present—“Mahomedans, Hindus, Parsis, etc., and one Englishman”. In his speech, Gandhi condemned the recent police firing on satyagrahis in Delhi, and then asked the crowd to endorse the resolutions asking the Viceroy to withdraw the Rowlatt Act, these sent “weighted with the blood of the innocents of Delhi and the promise that we shall continue to suffer by civil disobedience till the hearts of the rulers are softened”.


The Rowlatt Satyagraha was the first genuinely all-India upsurge against British colonialism (the Rebellion of 1857 had left large parts of the country untouched). Notably, while the scale, intensity and character of the protests varied enormously, one feature was constant: the display of Hindu–Muslim harmony. Thus, while terming the satyagraha a “splendid success”, an Urdu weekly published in Bombay noted that the government’s passing of the bills had “united the Hindus and the Musalmans like sugar and water, although these two communities once stood apart from one another owing to the long-standing differences between them”.


Meanwhile, a newspaper in Karachi observed that the port town had “closed its shops and centres of business: when did such a stupendous thing happen before in the history of the city?” The paper further commented: “One was impressed at yesterday’s function with one soul-stirring fact—the disappearance of communal, parochial and sectarian impulses. They were “Hindus”, “Muhammadans”, “Parsis”, “Khojas”, “Jains”, yesterday; but they all felt they belonged to one community—the Indian; they all felt there was the One Religion in various religions, the Religion of Self-respect, the Religion of guarding India’s rights for the service of Humanity”.


The Rowlatt Satyagraha is the subject of great interest to historians of Indian nationalism and to biographers of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the Rowlatt Satyagraha is also of some contemporary relevance, for the fraternity that it manifested is worth recalling—and rehabilitating—in our own divided times.


I have quoted newspaper reports that testified to how, during the course of the Rowlatt Satyagraha, Indians set aside their differences of creed and community. Let me now quote the leader of the movement itself. During the course of the movement, Gandhi asked Indian nationalists to take this vow:


With God as witness we Hindus and Mahomedans declare that we shall behave towards one another as children of the same parents, that we shall have no differences, that the sorrows of each will be the sorrows of the other and that each shall help the other in removing them. We shall respect each other’s religion and religious feelings and shall not stand in the way of our respective religious practices. We shall always refrain from violence to each other in the name of religion.


The spirit of inter-community solidarity that so strikingly suffused the Rowlatt Satyagraha was less visible in later movements led by Gandhi. This was a fact he recognised, and mourned, and his own last years were devoted to recovering that spirit. Now, a 100 years after Rowlatt, we must press our leaders to do likewise. India would surely be a much safer and happier place if the politicians now on the campaign trail were to abide by the spirit of Gandhi’s noble vow of April 1919.


(Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.)



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