This article is written by Sujitha S, pursuing law at the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai. This article tries to explain the legal perspectives and significance of the Rowlatt Act, popularly known as the “Black Act” in the Indian freedom movement during the British period.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar
Table of Contents
The Imperial Legislative Council passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919, widely known as the ‘Rowlatt Act,’ in February 1919. This Act gave the British government the power to imprison any person accused of conspiring their overthrow, for up to two years without trial and to execute them summarily without a jury. It replaced the Defence of India Act (1915), enacted during the First World War, with a permanent statute that granted the British additional control over Indians, based on the recommendation of a commission led by Justice S.A.T. Rowlatt. People and Indian leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, were outraged by the Rowlatt Act, usually known as the “Black Act” or “Black Bill,” which sparked the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April 1919 and the ensuing the Non-Cooperation Movement. In March 1922 we, the British colonial administration abolished the Rowlatt Act, the Press Act, and twenty-two other laws after adopting the recommendations of the Repressive Laws Committee.
Need for the Rowlatt Act
The British government had been concerned about the rising tide of Indian nationalism. They might have instilled fear in the minds of the government even before the war, but in the midst of the German threat, they did not care to take any further steps. The situation had altered after the war. The British were then determined to put an end to the Indian uprising before it got powerful enough to drive them out of the country. At this point, all Indian hopes were shattered when the British proclaimed the dishonest Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms” and enforced the draconian Rowlatt Act in response to the Rowlatt Commission’s recommendations.
Role of the Rowlatt committee in the enactment of the Act
The Rowlatt Committee was a “sedition committee” formed by the British Indian Government in 1917, presided by Sidney Rowlatt, an Anglo-Egyptian judge. The Rowlatt Committee was formed to assess political terrorism in India, particularly in the Bengal and Punjab provinces, as well as its impact and connections to the German government and the Russian Bolsheviks. It was established at the end of World War I, at a time when the Indian revolutionary movement was particularly active and had gained significant recognition, potency, and pace. The Rowlatt Act, an expansion of the Defence of India Act (1915), was enacted in response to the threat in Punjab and Bengal, based on the committee’s recommendations. This Act was intended to restrict the press by imprisoning political activists without trial and arresting any person accused of sedition or treason without a warrant. The major grounds for the Act’s enactment, according to the committee, are:
- Difficulty in obtaining proof for the possession of weapons and arms, and evidence to satisfy the ordinary courts.
- Inadequacy of police investigation, and facilities enjoyed by the criminals.
- Uselessness of confessions
- Protracted nature of trials due to cross-examination on unimportant matters.
- A large number of acquittals as compared to convictions
- Vilification campaign in the press
Significance of the Rowlatt Act
Protests erupted all around the country in response to the Act. Freedom of press and freedom of expression were equally restricted. When the nationalists realised that they had almost no opportunity of obtaining self-rule from the British, they began waging a relentless campaign against the British government. The situation in Punjab deteriorated further since hundreds of people were imprisoned for minor offences as a result of this legislation. Gandhiji and others believed that constitutional opposition to the Act would be futile, therefore on April 6, a “hartal” was organised in which Indians would cease all businesses and fast, pray, and attend public gatherings in protest of the “Black Act,” as well as offer civil disobedience. It was known as the “Rowlatt Satyagraha”.
The success of the Delhi hartal on March 30 was overshadowed. However, by growing tensions, it culminated in riots in Punjab and other provinces. The protest movement in Punjab was particularly strong, and two congress leaders were detained on April 10th. People from neighboring villages assembled for Baisakhi Day celebrations and to protest the deportation of two prominent Indian leaders to Amritsar, which ended in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Gandhi brought an end to the resistance as he realized that Indians were not ready to take a stand in accordance with the ideal of nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi’s first all-India movement was the Rowlatt Satyagraha. The Rowlatt Act was essential in bringing Gandhiji into the forefront of India’s independence movement and ushering in the Gandhian Era of Indian politics.
Features of the Rowlatt Act
- In February 1919, two laws were submitted to the central legislature based on the committee’s recommendations, which was chaired by Justice Rowlatt. The bills were labelled “black bills”.
- They provided the police with extensive rights to search an area and arrest anybody they want without a warrant.
- One well-known description of the legislation at the time was: No Dalil, No Vakil, No Appeal, which meant no pleas, no lawyer, and no appeal.
- The legislation was enacted to suppress the country’s increasing nationalist movement.
- This legislation essentially provided the government with the right to detain anybody accused of terrorism in the British Raj for up to two years without a trial, and it also gave the imperial authorities the power to deal with all cases of revolutionary activities in the British Raj.
- It granted the freedom to imprison suspects indefinitely without trial and to conduct in-camera trials for prohibited political activities without a jury, as well as stricter press restrictions and the capacity to make arrests without a warrant.
- The undertrials were also denied access to information about their accusers’ identities and the nature of the evidence provided against them for their claimed offences.
- After their sentences were served, the offenders were required to deposit security to assure their good behaviour and were barred from participating in political, religious, or educational activities.
- The Act mandates that individuals apprehended be tried by special tribunals formed for that purpose.
- This legislation also upheld the declaration of possession of treasonable literature as a punishable offence.
Overview of the Rowlatt Act
This Act, comprising 43 Sections, extends to the whole of British India. It is divided into five parts. Offences under Sections 121, 121A, 122, 123, 124, and 131 of the Indian Penal Code (1860) and any other offence under IPC that in the government’s opinion is connected with any anarchical or revolutionary movement are punishable under this Act.
Part I of the Act
According to Part I, if any local government is of the opinion that the trial of any person accused of promoting a scheduled offence should be held in accordance with the provision of this part, it may order any officer to submit written information to the Chief Justice against this person. This Part covers 17 Sections. Following this, initiation of proceedings by the chief justice will be done according to Section 4. Section 5 allows the Chief Justice to nominate three judges of the high court for the constitution of the Court.
According to Section 9, if a charge is framed, the accused is entitled to an adjournment for the extent of 14 days. Section 12 deals with the examination of the accused. According to this section, after the prosecution, the accused is given a chance to defend himself on oath. Once he proceeds as a witness, no general questions related to the case can be asked.
Other provisions of Part I are
- Section 13: Right of the final reply lies with the prosecution in cases of examination of witnesses called by the accused.
- Section 14: In case of difference of opinion, the majority opinion prevails.
- Section 15: An accused may be convicted of any offence referred to in the schedule.
- Section 16: Any sentence authorised by law can be given. No death sentence can be passed if there is a difference of opinion regarding his guilt among the members of the Court.
- Section 17: The judgment of the Court is final and no further appeal is allowed. However, discretion lies with the Governor-General and Local government to make orders under Sections 401 and 402 of the IPC.
- Section 18: Special rules of evidence such as the admission of a statement by the witness in cases of death, disappearance, incapacity and depositions under Section 512 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1973) as evidence.
- Section 19: Witnesses can be recalled in cases of reconstitution of the Court.
- Section 20: Power of the Chief justice to make rules.
Part II of the Act
- According to Part II, if any local government is of the opinion that the trial of any person accused of actions likely to lead to the commission of a scheduled offence, should be held in accordance with the provision of this part, then, this part comes to force. Section 22 confers powers to be exercised when Part II is in force, and accordingly, an order can be passed against such person. Such order shall remain in force only for a period of one month.
- By virtue of Section 26, an investigating authority will be appointed to give a concise statement by conduction of inquires. Based on the report given by the investigating authority, the local government is empowered to pass the order by Section 27.
- In case of disobedience to the order, a penalty of imprisonment for six months or a fine of 500 or both can be imposed, according to Section 28.
- Section 31 allows for the formation of visiting committees to report upon the welfare and treatment of persons under restraint.
Part III of the Act
According to Part III, if any local government is of the opinion that the trial of any person accused of actions likely to endanger public safety in pursuance of a scheduled offence, should be held in accordance with the provisions of this part, this comes into force. This part comprises 6 Sections. Further, Section 34 confers powers exercisable when part III is in force. In the light of this Section, the opinion of a judicial officer is considered before passing the order under Section 22 against the person.
For the persons prosecuted under this Part, the Court has the power to arrest the person without a trial and also to search their premises under Sections 35 and 36 respectively. Moreover, the procedure under Part II, enshrined in Section 23-27 are also applicable for the order passed under this Act. In case of disobedience to any order, the Court can impose a penalty of imprisonment extending to one year or a fine of a thousand rupees or both.
Part IV of the Act
Part IV of the Act deals with persons already under executive control. According to Section 39:
- Person under Rule 3 of the Defence of India(Consolidation) Rules, 1915 will be deemed to be a resident in an area in which notification under Section 21 is in force and the provisions of Part II shall apply.
- Person in confinement by provisions of Bengal Prisoners Regulation,1818, will be deemed to be a resident in an area in which notification under Section 33 is in force and provisions of Part III shall apply subsequently.
- Person under Section 2 of Ingress into India Ordinance, 1914, will be deemed to be a resident in an area in which notification under Section 21 is in force and the provisions of Part II shall apply.
Part V of the Act
Part V of the Act deals with the enforceability of the orders under other Parts. The provisions are:
- Section 40: When a notification under Sections 3,21,33 is cancelled, any trial or investigation or order proceeded will be continued and enforced as if such notification has not been cancelled.
- Section 41: Orders made under Part II and III outside notified areas are valid and enforceable.
- Section 42: Orders under this Act cannot be called in question by the courts.
- Section 43: Powers conferred are not derogative of other powers conferred by any other enactment.
Shortcomings in the Rowlatt Act
- Many Indian leaders and the general people were outraged by the Act, pushing the government to adopt oppressive actions.
- The Act gave the government the authority to detain anybody suspected of any revolutionary activities for up to two years without charge or trial.
- It also made it possible to detain and arrest someone without a warrant for an indeterminate period of time. Other provisions were no-jury trials for political conduct that were outlawed.
- Following their release, convicted persons were expected to deposit securities and abstain from participating in any political, religious, or educational activity.
- The Rowlatt Act also severely restricted freedom of press.
- This Act is in violation of basic human rights and legal rights.
- This legislation sought to encourage arbitrariness, rendering huge discretionary powers in the hands of the government.
- On account of its legal perspective, it is short of the procedural aspects in a number of provisions.
Impact of the Rowlatt Act
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
The demonstrations became increasingly strident and militant when the Rowlatt Act was passed in March 1919, especially in Punjab, where trains, telegraphs, and communication networks were damaged. The demonstrations had erupted by the end of the first week of April, and Lahore, in particular, was on fire. Dr. Satya Pal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, two of the most prominent faces of the protests and proponents of the ‘Satyagraha’ movement, were hauled into jail by the police and illegally transported away. On April 12, 1919, the leaders of the ‘hartal’ in Amritsar convened to issue resolutions against the Rowlatt Act and protest against the arrests of Satya Pal and Kitchlew.
They also resolved to hold a public protest gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, the next day. On the morning of April 13, 1919, the day of the traditional holiday of ‘Baisakhi,’ the acting military commander, Colonel Reginald Dyer, placed many restrictions on people’s mobility and assembly, anticipating greater agitation and bloodshed. The regular people on the other hand, paid little attention to it or comprehended the ramifications, and continued to assemble at Jallianwala Bagh. While there were some demonstrators, many were simply returning home after praying at the Golden Temple, and others were celebrating the harvest festival ‘Baisakhi’ after the local horse and cattle show had finished early. Colonel Dyer came with his forces in Jallianwala Bagh at 5.30 p.m., an hour after the planned protest meeting had begun, and ordered indiscriminate fire on the peaceful and unarmed crowd without warning.
The British administration tried all they could to keep the news of the massacre from getting out, but the story quickly circulated throughout India, causing tremendous resentment. The specifics of the tragedy, however, did not reach Britain until December 1919. Colonel Reginald Dyer was hailed as a hero by some, but his evil conduct was criticized by others. Later, the Hunter Commission found an unrepentant Dyer, guilty of severe negligence, but took no action against him. He was afterwards punished, passed over for advancement, and freed of all Indian responsibilities. Mahatma Gandhi was outraged by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and lost all trust in the British to be reasonable. This ushered in a period of non-cooperation and nationalism.
Following the tragic massacre at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, the Indian government’s Legislative Council established the Hunter Commission to investigate the incident. The investigative committee was directed by Lord William Hunter. The commission was established on October 29, 1919. The members include
- Chairman : Lord William Hunter (ex- Solicitor-General).
- W.F. Rice (Additional Secretary to the Government of India, Home Department).
- Justice G.C. Rankin (Judge of the Calcutta High Court).
- Major General Sir George Barrow (Commandant of the Peshawar Division).
- Sir Chimanlal Setalvad.
- Pandit Jagat Narayan.
- Sardar Sultan Ahmed Khan.
It began hearing testimony in November and lasted 46 days. On November 19th, General Dyer appeared before the commission. He claimed that he intended to fire at the gathering not just to disperse them, but also to have a moral impact to avert a mutiny. He also stated that he had intended to employ machine guns and armoured vehicles and that he would have utilised them if given the opportunity.
On May 26, 1920, the commission submitted its report.The majority of the members criticized Dyer for having a misinterpreted sense of duty. It was found that the gathering was not the result of an Indian conspiracy. Punjab’s declaration of martial law was legitimate. It also found that Dyer’s firing at the mob was justified, with the exception that he should have issued a warning first and that the fire time should have been reduced. (He had authorised 10 minutes of fire.) The Indian members of the panel issued a minority report, questioning the need for martial law at the time and disputing the intensity of the riots.The then-government provided Rs. 15000 to the families of those murdered in the Bagh and Rs. 12000 to the families of those died in Punjab villages after the panel presented its findings and completed its work.
Role of Rowlatt Satyagraha
The Rowlatt Satyagraha was the first complete all-India anti-colonial uprising (the Rebellion of 1857 failed to involve the whole of the country). While the demonstrations varied greatly in size, intensity, and character, one thing remained consistent: the exhibition of Hindu-Muslim unity. Historians of Indian nationalism and biographers of Mahatma Gandhi are both fascinated with the Rowlatt Satyagraha. However, the one-and-a-half-decade phase beginning with the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919 and concluding with the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1934 is the most crucial part of India’s freedom movement.
In the aftermath of the Rowlatt Satyagraha, Gandhi emerged as the most powerful leader of the independence movement. Gandhi was little recognised and had little political support in India prior to the Satyagraha. He was not even regarded as an Indian National Congress politician. The country’s political awakening in general, as well as Gandhi’s rise as a revolutionary leader, were two major elements that shaped the path of the succeeding years of the independence struggle, finally bringing the country to freedom. Rowlatt Satyagraha was directly responsible for the early twentieth-century Non-Cooperation Movement. During the Satyagraha, Gandhi led the movement on the ground that had been prepared by the political awakening. The merger of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements gave the latter tremendous momentum.
The fifteen-year struggle for independence, which began with the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919 and ended with the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1934, did not bring in independence, but it did lay the groundwork for it. During this time, all key events associated with the independence movement, including the Rowlatt Satyagraha, Khilafat Movement, Non-cooperation Movement, Simon Commission, and Civil Disobedience Movement, took place, culminating in the country’s independence.
Repeal of the Rowlatt Act: Repressive Laws Committee
The Resolution was passed on 14th February, 1920 by the Governor-General in Council to examine the repressive laws on the statute book and to report whether all or any of them should be repealed or amended. The Repressive Laws Committee was constituted for the above-mentioned purpose. The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919 was one of the Acts for examination before the committee. Other Act are
- The Bengal State offences Regulation, 1804.
- Madras Regulation VII of 1808.
- Bengal State Prisoners Regulation, 1818.
- Madras Regulation II of 1819.
- Bombay Regulation XXV of 1827.
- The State Prisoners Act, 1850.
- The State Offences Act, 1857.
- The Forfeiture Act, 1857.
- The State Prisoners Act, 1858.
- The Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908.
- The Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911.
- The Defence of India (Criminal Law Amendment) Act, 1915.
- The Anarchical and revolutionary crimes Act, 1919.
The Repressive law Committee analyzed a large amount of documentary evidence in the shape of reports of disturbances, confidential reports on the political situation, speeches delivered at public meetings, debates in the legislative council, the exercise of power under these Acts and the proceedings of the previous committee including the sedition committee. According to its report, the retention of the Rowlatt Act is not necessary or advisable. The power to restrain personal liberty without trial conferred by this Act is not consistent with the policy inaugurated with the constitutional changes. The report demanded the immediate repeal of the Act. It further added that though there has been a slight improvement in the situations concerning the anarchical movement, strong measures may be needed for the suppression of any organized attempt at widespread disorder. In this regard, the committee left this contingency to be dealt with when something of this nature arises, rather than retaining a statute that is regarded as a stigma on the good name of India. Moreover, it stated that the required provisions for the movements of anarchical or revolutionary nature are embedded in the Indian Penal Code. Finally, in 1922, following the recommendations made by the Repressive Laws Committee, the Rowlatt Act was repealed in India.
Rowlatt Act : basis of preventive detention laws
The British enacted the “Black Act” to suppress patriotism and prevent freedom fighters from enlisting others in the battle for independence. They also passed other Preventive Detention laws to put a stop to seditious acts. Preventive Detention is the practice of detaining criminals before trial for the purpose of preventing them from committing another crime or damaging society in any manner. To keep the freedom fighters under control, the British introduced a few similar regulations to fulfil their aims. Here are a few statutes:
- The Defence of India Act, 1915
- The Rowlatt Act. 1919
- Armed Force (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942
After independence, however, the stated rules were included into the new Constitution to deal with sedition in India. While it is true that the objective of drafting such a legislation was to prevent anti-social forces from interfering with the society’s functioning and smooth government, these laws directly influence people’s basic rights and liberties, which are protected by the Indian Constitution. The problems that arise as a result of the law’s negligent execution can take up a lot of the judiciary’s time, as well as the life of the person who is held. In developed democracies, preventive detention laws are unnecessary, especially as a peacetime policy.
The court held in the A.K Gopalan case (1950) that the legislature has the authority to adopt laws regarding preventive detention, and that any legislation enacted by the legislature for preventive detention is unquestionable since it is protected by Article 22. The detention, in this case, was found to be legal since it was carried out according to the procedure established by law. Personal liberty, on the other hand, was ignored by the court. On considering the pros and cons, preventive detention should only be used in the case of a serious national emergency, not in times of peace or normalcy.
Before independence, the British passed a number of restrictive laws. Among these was the Rowlatt Act, which was enacted to combat the rise of nationalism in the country. Unfortunately, it culminated in the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, which has left an indelible mark on Indian history. On the other hand, this piece of law provided the necessary momentum for the beginning of the independence movement. The Rowlatt Satyagraha has its own significance in the Indian freedom struggle. Due to its enlarged darker side, this has been later repealed by the Repressive laws Committee. Its current relevance can also be linked to the present preventive detention laws. The safeguards for holding a person should be scrupulously implemented, and preventative detention should be interpreted with extreme caution. It should be assured that a person’s liberty is not jeopardised unless his case fits fully within the limits of the applicable legislation.
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