By Rubina SaigolDAWN - Editorial; May 26, 2008THE Defence of India Act of 1915 was an emergency criminal law enacted by the British Raj to curtail revolutionary and nationalist activities in India during the First World War.
The apparent intent was to prevent ‘terrorists’ from calling public meetings, publishing material inciting the people to revolt, disseminating revolutionary literature, and so forth. The act was designed to curtail actions by armed revolutionaries characterised as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’ with links abroad.
However, the legislation was so wide in scope that it rendered “suspect all political activity that was even mildly critical of the British Government of India, and it put an effective end to whatever freedom of expression the Indian press had been allowed”. This act gave the government of British India special emergency powers to deal with German-inspired threats especially in Punjab. A special legal tribunal was established to deal with suspects who could be interned without warrant and had no recourse to appeal.
In March 1919, at the end of the war, the British extended the special ‘emergency powers’ by passing the recommendations of the Rowlatt Commission headed by a British judge, Sir Sydney Rowlatt. Under the guise of dealing with ‘public unrest’, ‘revolutionary activities’ and ‘terrorism’, especially in Bengal and Punjab, this act authorised the government to: 1) imprison suspects without trial; 2) arrest suspects without a warrant; 3) hold secret, in camera trials of suspects; 4) tell suspects where they should live; 5) quell sedition by silencing the press.
The reasons given for instituting such a draconian law were the following: 1) alleged assistance given to the revolutionary movement in India by the German government to destabilise the British government in India; 2) destabilisation of the political situation in neighbouring Afghanistan by inciting the emir to turn against British India and the possible links of this to Bolshevik Russia; and 3) civil and labour unrest in India due to the post-war recession which led to the Bombay Mill Workers’ strikes, unrest in Punjab due to several reasons including the havoc wrought by the Spanish flu epidemic causing the deaths of 13 million Indians.
The Rowlatt Act was met with immediate denunciation by Indian leaders. Gandhi organised strikes and demonstrations against the act and Jinnah resigned from the Legislative Council writing to the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, that “the fundamental principles of justice have been uprooted”.
The unjust law sparked furious waves of protest particularly in Punjab where there were rapid disruptions in rail, telegraph and communication systems, government buildings were burnt and five Europeans including government employees and civilians were killed.
The protests reached a peak in April 1919 and according to one account “practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets, the immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000”. Several banks, government buildings and the railway station were attacked. By April 13, the British government had decided to place most of Punjab under martial law. A number of restrictions were placed on civil liberties including freedom of assembly and a ban on gatherings of more than four people.
On April 13, 1919, around 10,000 people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar to register their protest. The British feared an uprising along the lines of the 1857 revolt which began in the month of May. Under the command of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, British Indian soldiers opened fire on the unarmed crowd. The firing lasted for 10 minutes and 1,650 rounds, or 33 per soldier, were fired. Official British Raj placed the casualty figures at 379, however private sources revealed that over 1,000 people were killed and 2,000 injured. The civil surgeon Dr Smith claimed that there were over 1,800 casualties.
The Bagh was bounded on all sides by buildings and houses and the few narrow openings were locked. There was no escape. Some people tried desperately to clamber over the walls while others jumped into a well to escape the bullets. Around 120 bodies were dug out of the well.
A curfew was declared in Amritsar and Dyer reported to his superiors that he ‘had been confronted by a revolutionary army’ and was therefore obliged to ‘teach a moral lesson to the Punjab’. The lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer wrote back: “Your action is correct. Lieutenant Governor approves.” Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography, reported hearing British soldiers saying that they “wanted to teach the bloody browns a lesson”.
In his testimony before the Hunter Commission formed to inquire into the massacre, Brigadier Dyer acknowledged that he could have dispersed the crowd without firing but he would have become a laughing stock if they re-converged on the Bagh and made a fool of him. He said that if he would have used machine guns if he could get them through the narrow gates, and that taking the wounded to hospital was not his responsibility. British officers applauded the suppression of ‘another Indian mutiny’ and the House of Lords commended Dyer.
However, the House of Commons censured him and Winston Churchill remarked: “The incident in Jallianwala Bagh was an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” Dyer was officially sanctioned by the British government and resigned in 1920. The British press nonetheless defended Dyer labelling him ‘Saviour of the Punjab’ and started a sympathy fund collecting £26,000 for him.
An American woman donated £100 saying, “I fear for the British women there now that Dyer has been dismissed.”
The events of 1919-20 bear an uncanny resemblance to contemporary times. We are all too familiar with laws similar to the Rowlatt Act, martial laws, indiscriminate killing of dissenters, curbs on the press, detention without warrant, in camera trials and sympathies for killers. The massacre of May 12, 2007, is still fresh in our memories.
The constant armed attacks on innocent populations in Balochistan and the tribal areas in the name of fleshing out militants and rooting out terrorists are all too familiar. Our post-independence history is replete with martial laws, press and publications ordinances, arrests without warrant and detentions of terror suspects. All this has been exacerbated after 9/11 in the name of the so-called war on terror.
The techniques of colonial governmentality persist as the nature of the state is essentially colonial. As some historians say, we never really achieved independence and only experienced a transfer of power from foreign to local masters. The continuities of history reveal to us the amazing consistency of the forms and application of power.
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