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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF MY LIFE > PART XIII : THE ROWLATT ACT AND ENTRANCE INTO POLITICS > The Rowlatt Act

 

51. The Rowlatt Act1

I had hardly begun to feel my way towards recovery, when I happened casually to read in the papers the Rowlatt Committee's report which had just been published. Its recommendations startled me. I mentioned my apprehensions to Vallabhbhai, who used to come to see me almost daily. “Something must be done,” said I to him. “But what can we do in the circumstances?' he asked in reply. I answered, “If even a handful of men can be found to sign the pledge of resistance, and the proposed measure is passed into law in defiance of it, we ought to offer Satyagraha at once. If I was not laid up like this, I should give battle against it all alone, and expect others to follow suit. But in my present helpless condition I feel myself to be altogether unequal to the task.”

The Bill had not yet been gazetted as an Act. I was in a very weak condition, but when I received an invitation from Madras I decided to take the risk of the long journey. Rajagopalachari had then only recently left Salem to settle down for legal practice in Madras. We daily discussed together plans of the fight, but beyond the holding of public meetings I could not then think of any other programme.

While we were engaged thus, news was received that the Rowlatt Bill had been published as an Act. That night I fell asleep while thinking over the question. To wards the small hours of the morning I woke up somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in that twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea came to me – it was as if in a dream. Early in the morning I related the whole story to Rajagopalachari.

“The idea came to me last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal. Satyagraha is a process of self-purification, and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to me to be in the fitness of things that it should be begun with an act of self-purification. Let all the people of India, therefore, stop their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer.” Rajagopalachari was at once taken up with my suggestion. Other friends too welcomed it when it was communicated to them later. I drafted a brief appeal. The date of the hartal was first fixed on the 30th March 1919, but was later changed to 6th April. The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete hartal on that day. It was a most wonderful sight.

On the night of the 7th I started for Delhi and Amritsar. Before the train had reached Palwal railway station, I was served with a written order to the effect that I was prohibited from entering the boundary of the Punjab, as my presence there was likely to result in a disturbance of the peace. I was asked by the police to get down from the train. I refused to do so saying, “I want to go to the Punjab in response to a pressing invitation, not to foment unrest, but to end it. I am therefore sorry that it is not
possible for me to comply with this order.”

At Palwal railway station I was taken out of the train and put under police custody. A train from Delhi came in a short time. I was made to enter a third class carriage, the police party accompanying. On reaching Mathura, I was taken to the police barracks, but no police official could tell me as to what they proposed to do with me or where I was to be taken next. Early at 4 o'clock the next morning, I was waked up and put in a goods train that was going towards Bombay. I was released at Bombay.

There was a great disturbance in the city owing to my arrest. I got into the car. Near Pydhuni2 I saw that a huge crowd had gathered. On seeing me the people went mad with joy. A procession was immediately formed, and the sky was rent with the shouts of Vande Mataram and Allaho Akbar. At Pydhuni we sighted a body of mounted police. Brickbats were raining down from above. I appealed to the crowd to be calm but it seemed as if we should not be able to escape the shower of brickbats. As the procession came out of Abdur Rahman Street and was about to move towards the Crawford Market, it suddenly found itself faced with a body of the mounted police, who had arrived there to prevent it from proceeding further in the direction of the Fort. The crowd was densely packed. It had almost broken through the police cordon. There was hardly any chance of my voice being heard in that vast assembly. Just then the officer in charge of the mounted police gave the order to disperse the crowd, and at once the mounted party charged upon the crowd brandishing their lances as they went. For a moment I felt that I would be hurt. But my fear was groundless, the lances just grazed the car as the lancers swiftly passed by. The ranks of the people were soon broken, and they were thrown into utter confusion, and began to run. Some got trampled under foot, others were badly hurt and crushed. In that seething mass of humanity there was hardly any room for the horses to pass, nor was there any exit by which the people could disperse. So the lancers blindly cut their way through the crowd. I hardly imagine they could see what they were doing. The whole thing presented a most dreadful spectacle. The horsemen and the people were mixed together in mad confusion. Thus the crowd was dispersed and its progress checked. Our motor was allowed to proceed. I had it stopped before the Commissioner's office, and got down to complain to him about the conduct of the police. News came of disturbances in Ahmedabad also. I proceeded to Ahmedabad. I learnt that an attempt had been made to pull up the rails near the Nadiad railway station, that a Government officer had been murdered in Viramgam, and that Ahmedabad was under martial law. The people were terror-stricken. They had indulged in acts of violence and were being made to pay for them with interest.

A police officer was waiting at the station to escort me to Mr. Pratt, the Commissioner. I found him in a state of rage. I spoke to him gently, and expressed my regret for the disturbances. I suggested that martial law was unnecessary, and declared my readiness to co-operate in all efforts to restore peace. I asked for permission to hold a public meeting on the grounds of the Sabarmati Ashram. The proposal appealed to him, and the meeting was held, I think, on Sunday, the 13th of April, and martial law was withdrawn the same day or the day after. Addressing the meeting, I tried to bring home to the people the sense of their wrong, declared a penitential fast of three days for myself, appealed to the people to go on a similar fast for a day, and suggested to those who had been guilty of acts of violence to confess their guilt.

I saw my duty as clear as daylight. It was unbearable for me to find that the labourers, amongst whom I had spent a good deal of my time, whom I had served and from whom I had expected better things, had taken part in the riots; I felt I was a sharer in their guilt. I made up my mind to suspend Satyagraha so long as people had not learnt the lesson of peace.


1 This act was passed in 1919 to provide special powers to the Government to suppress movements aimed against the State. It authorised arrest and detention, without trial, of persons suspected of anti-government activities. – Ed.

2 a part of Bombay city