During the First World War the British India Government had enacted a Defence of India Act, 1915 in order to suppress any nationalist activity in India. It invested extrajudicial powers in the police and army to crush any dissent. As the act was expiring with the culmination of the First World War, the government instituted a committee under Justice S.A.T Rowlatt to suggest measures which can check nationalist sentiments among Indians. The committee suggested a number of legislations to replace Defence of India Act, 1915. Rowlatt himself called these measures ‘extrajudicial’ and justified their use to maintain ‘peace’.
In February, 1919 these bills, known as Rowlatt Bills, were tabled in the Imperial Legislative Council. These bills were passed and made into ‘Acts’ on 18 March, 1919. These repressive acts which provided police with extrajudicial powers to crush any dissent from Indians were opposed by the Indians unitedly. In the council all 22 Indians, who were free to vote, voted against the bills while 34 Europeans and one Indian, who couldn’t vote with free will, voted in favour of the bills. The passage of these acts led to the resignation of Pt. M.M Malviya, Mazharul Haque and M.A Jinnah.
Mahatma Gandhi termed it as a Black Act and gave a call for a nationwide satyagraha. 30th March was decided as the day when all the shops would be closed observing Hartal against the Act. Though the date was later shifted to 6th April but people in Delhi observed Hartal on 30th March. It was a great success as Hindus and Muslims came together and kept their shops closed.
Protestors gathered at Railway Station in Delhi and asked people to join the movement. Everything was peaceful by then. British police themselves reported that whatever damage to railway property happened, it was unintentional on the part of protestors.
At around 1 pm, armed police under Jeffreys and troops under General Drake Brockman reached the station. Hundreds of soldiers, many of those were returning from Mesopotamia after the war, armed with rifles took positions against the protestors. They forced the crowd towards Queen’s road. At 2 pm a few bricks were thrown at the police, as claimed by the police, and hit the hand of General. Troops and police were ordered to fire and kill the Indians. Dozens were martyred on the spot for protesting against the Black Law.
The crowd ran towards the Town Hall, Chandni Chowk but little did they know that Jeffreys and his police were waiting for them. They fired indiscriminately upon the protestors. Police claimed that the protestors were violent. But, Indians knew the brutality of police. Nationalist leaders pointed out that how on earth any force faced alleged stone pelting with bullets.
Nonetheless, it resulted in a total of sixty deaths near Chandni Chowk. These were the first of thousands who later laid their lives while protesting against the Black Law. The protests ensured that the Rowlatt Acts were never actually implemented.
(Author is a well known historian)