Towards the Non- Co-operation Movement

In an atmosphere of not being treated with grace and glory, the Indians found themselves, during 1919, cheated and insulted at the hands of the British rulers of India. In a situation charged with suspicious and doubts, there appeared the following:

Rowlatt Bills

Following a policy of repression, the British government in India proposed two bills and presented them to the Governor General-in-Council. Under the provisions of these bills (which were popularly known as Rowlatt Bills after the name of the President of the Sedition Committee) people could be arrested and imprisoned for being in possession of either published or unpublished documents or pictures of a seditious nature. The executive had sweeping powers of preventive detention or enforced detention on all suspected political agitators. According to Dr. Ishwari Prasad, the historian, “The provisions of these bills were a shabby device to place on the Statute Book some of the most repressive measures like the Defecne of India Act. Their wordings were so comprehensive and the powers bestowed on the executive so unrestricted that the civil liberties of the subjects lost all their meanings.” The Bills were received with dismay and indignation by every section of Indian public opinion. They had fought the Great War for freedom, for self-determination and for liberty. But in these bills, they saw the denial of those very principles. Consequently, an intense agitation spread throughout the country. Mahatma Gandhi responded with a direct challenge. He first requested the Viceroy to withhold his assent from the ‘Black Bills’ as they were called. When his appeal failed to yield any result, he formed a Satyagraha Sabha, whose members were pledged to disobey the law as a symbol of passive resistance. To galvanize the mass support for this act of defiance, he proclaimed 6 April as Satyagraha Day, a day of hartal, a day of fasting, a day of mass meetings to protest against the hated legislations. Gandhi’s appeal for hartal met with a remarkable response all over India. He utilized the Rowlatt Satyagrah alongwith the Home Rule League and Khilafat movement.

Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy

Only a few days after the Satyagraha Day, the situation in Punjab took a turn for the worse. On April 10, Drs. Satyapal and Kitehlew, the two popular Congress leaders of the province, were summoned by the District Magistrate of Amritsar and were then arrested. As word drifted through the bazaars of the city, crowds gathered quickly and proceeded to the house of the Deputy Commissioner to plead for their release. On the way, they were stopped by a military force at a point known as Hall Gate Bridge. This led to a skirmish and indiscriminate firing which resulted in the deaths of a few demonstrators. Infuriated by the sight of their dead and wounded comrades, the crowd indulged in acts of violence, murder and arson. Five Europeans were killed and several buildings, including the telephone exchange, two banks, the Town Hall, and the Indian Christian Church, were attacked and fired. To worsen the situation, the command of the city was given over to General Dyer, Officer Commanding of the troops, with instructions to “take whatever steps he considered necessary to re-establish civil control.” Hence, on April 13, 1919, he appeared with 150 men at the entrance of Jallianwala Bagh where 20,000 people had gathered to protest peacefully against the recent firing.

The crowd was ordered to disperse but there was no way out; the military had blocked the only exit. Within three minutes an order was given to fire at point-blank range on the unarmed masses. As firing started, there spread a great panic and confusion. Some tried to scale the eight-foot walls, but in vain. A hail of bullets cut them down. Blood flowed freely on that tragic day. According to official report, 379 persons were killed and about 1200, wounded in a few minutes. The news of the Amritsar tragedy sent a wave of horror and indignation in the whole country from one end to the other. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) the Gitanjali poet, and a nobel laureate, gave up his knighthood. The British government appointed a committee under Hunter to enquire into the massacre: The Congress, too, formed, its own committee which consisted of men like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, C.R. Dass, M. R. Jayakar etc. etc. to conduct an inquiry into the recent occurrences in Punjab. In spite of the most horrid findings, the official report declared General Dyer’s action as merely “a grave error of judgment”. Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, appreciated Dyer’s honesty of purpose and unflinching adherence to duty.

The Government of Britain pronounced only a mild censure on Dyer and removed him from active service. But the House of Lords passed a resolution by 120 votes to 89 deploring the removal of Dyer from the army as unjust. Worse still, Dyer was acclaimed as s hero and was presented with a sword and a purse of £20,000 by his admirers. The Congress Enquiry Committee stated that “the admissions made by General Dyer before the Hunter Commission established beyond dispute that his action of the 13th  April was nothing but a cold-blooded and calculated massacre of innocent, unoffending, unarmed men and children, unparalleled for its heartless and cowardly brutality in modern times.”

The Khilafat Agitation

Amidst these events of national resentment, there came across the Indian scene relating to the Indian Muslims. This issue was concerned with the Khalifat-the highest religious office in the Islamic world. After the First Great War was over, the Allied decided to dismember the Ottoman Turkish Empire and to disband the office of the Khalifat. The Allied decision could not but arouse anger and hostility of the Muslims in India; it was taken as an insult to their religious beliefs. Deputations were sent to the Viceroy and even to London to stop the disruption of the Turkish Empire, but all in vain. The final decision on Turkey was announced by a communiqué of Government of India published on 15th  May, 1920.

Although Turkey retained its capital Constantinople, there was almost a complete dismemberment of the Turkish Empire. Disgusted with the attitude of the British Government, the Muslims of India started a politico-religious movement known as Khilafat agitation. Its leaders, Ali brothers (Muhammed Ali and Shaukat Ali), plunged themselves into the movement and the Khalifat Committee became a powerful, and a decidedly aggressive body. The Muslim theologians also lent their support to the Khilaft movement and there was a great excitement in the country. The success of this agitation was further assured by the sympathy and support which the Muslims received from Mahatma Gandhi, helping in the process of agitation and leading also to establish cordial relations between the Hindus and the Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi was soon recognized as the leader of the Muslims as well as of the Hindus and the all-India Khilafat Committee in May 1920 adopted his non-co-operation programme to fight against the British. When the Khilafat Committee accepted the noncooperation programme and also proclaimed August 1, 1920 as the date for its inauguration, the Congress also met at a special session in Calcutta to frame its policy on the oft-debated issue of non-cooperation. The deliberations soon evinced that it was not clear sailing for the Mahatma. Almost all the prominent leaders were still opposed or were skeptical of Satyagraha. Following Moti Lal Nehru’s support to Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress held its annual session at Nagpur at the end of the year (December, 1920). The critics were now won over. The non-cooperation movement was to be launched soon.

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