British Government Passes the Rowlatt Act in Colonial India, Indefinitely Extending the Use of 'Emergency Measures'

The Rowlatt Act was a law passed by the British in colonial India in March 1919, indefinitely extending "emergency measures" (of the Defence of India Regulations Act) enacted during the First World War in order to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. Passed on the recommendations of the Rowlatt commission, named for its chairman, British judge Sir Sidney Rowlatt, this act effectively authorized the government to imprison, without trial, any person suspected of terrorism living in the Raj. The Rowlatt Acts gave British imperial authorities power to deal with revolutionary activities.

Mahatma Gandhi, among other Indian leaders, was extremely critical of the Act and argued that not everyone should be punished in response to isolated political crimes. The Act led to indignation from Indian leaders and the public, which caused the government to implement repressive measures. Gandhi and others found that constitutional opposition to the measure was fruitless, so on April 6, a "hartal" was organized where Indians would suspend all business and fast as a sign of their hatred for the legislation. This event is known as the Rowlatt satyagraha.

However, the success of the hartal in Delhi, on 30 March, was overshadowed by tensions running high, which resulted in rioting in the Punjab and other provinces. Deciding that Indians were not ready to make a stand in consistence with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence), an integral part of satyagraha, Gandhi suspended the resistance.

The Rowlatt Act came into effect in March 1919. In the Punjab the protest movement was very strong, and on April 10, two outstanding leaders of the congress Dr. Satya Pal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, were arrested and taken to an unknown place.

A protest was held in Amritsar, which led to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919.

The Government of India rushed the Rowlatt Bills, through the Imperial Legislative Council in March 1919 in the teeth of the opposition of all the elected Indian members. Gandhi heard the debate in the Imperial Legislative Council and saw how the eloquent logic of Indian councilors had been wasted on the official benches. "You can wake a man," he wrote later, "only if he is really asleep; no effort that you may make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep". The conviction grew upon him that the Government of India was impervious to popular feeling. A Government which really cared for public opinion would not have enacted a measure –whatever its merits –which had been opposed by every shade of public opinion.