It was in 1917 that the Government of India appointed a committee headed by Justice Sydney Rowlatt to investigate ‘revolutionary crime’ in the country and suggest ways for its suppression. On the recommendation of this committee, the government presented two bills in the Imperial Legislative Council for suppression of ‘seditious’ and ‘revolutionary activities.’ The Imperial Council, despite strong opposition by its Indian members passed the first bill which was named as Anarchical and Revolutionary Crime Act. The new legislation was enacted by the state with a view to curtailing civil liberties of the common people. The Act indeed appeared draconian since it authorised the police to search or arrest any Indian without warrant, or confine suspects without trial for a renewable period of two years. Further, it laid down the trial of offenders by three high court judges in camera with no jury or right to appeal. It was natural for the common people to decry the government’s attempt to strengthen the hands of the police ‘considering its notoriety everywhere as petty oppressor.’ Mahatma Gandhi described the Act as a ‘national wrong’ since it was going to empower the government to take away from the Indian people their ‘God-given rights’. In order to protest against arbitrary checks on the civil liberties of Indian people, he formed a Satyagraha Sabha and its members were asked to sign the pledge that they would refuse ‘civilly’ to obey the Rowlatt Act. Gandhi could not visit Punjab before or during the course of agitation, but his appeal evoked massive response from urban people in Amritsar and in other cities of Punjab. By this time, he already carried an image of a ‘saviour’. This deified image of Gandhi had captured popular imagination in Punjab well before the commencement of the Rowlatt agitation.
At meetings organised to protest against the Rowlatt bills, the slogan ‘Gandhi Ki Jai’ was invariably raised and often processions in the cities of Punjab had Gandhi’s portrait to lead them. People invariably described Gandhi in religious metaphors like ‘Rishi’ and ‘Wali’ and he was often compared to the ‘coming of Christ, to the ‘coming of Muhammad’ or to the ‘coming of Krishna.’ People were convinced that Gandhi being their leader, there was no need to fear the colonial government. Gandhi’s defiant image and popular perception of his divine abilities swayed the masses. The Rowlatt Satyagraha started with peaceful public meetings in major cities of Punjab. However, in Amritsar people got agitated when they learnt that their leaders Dr Saif-Ud-din Kitchlew and Dr Satya Pal were arrested and deported to Dharmasala by the government. They were also upset by the news of the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi at the Palwal railway station when he was on his way to Punjab. In protest, shops were closed in old Amritsar city and people started moving in large numbers towards the Civil lines where the British officials and their families lived. They were peaceful but when they were forcefully prevented by the police at two of the bridges separating the Civil Lines from the city, they started stoning the policemen. The police responded with firing and, as a result, ten people were killed and many more wounded. People in protest attacked a few Europeans and government offices and buildings, perceiving them as symbols of the ‘oppressive’ colonial state. These actions were motivated by growing hatred for British rule. An important aspect of the Rowlatt Satyagraha in Punjab was Hindu-Muslim unity. In almost all protest meetings, the masses raised slogans such as Hindu- Muslim ki Jai.
During Ram Navami in Amritsar on April 9, a large number of Muslims participated and fraternised with Hindus. Both Hindus and Muslims in a show of unity between the two communities shared the same water vessels. When on April 11, protestors took over control of old Amritsar city (except the Kotwali), they were heard declaring that there was Hindu- Musalaman ki hukumat (government of the Hindus and Muslims) in the city. All this made the British government believe that it had lost its control and authority over the masses. Alarmed over the ‘dangerous development’, they began to describe the Rowlatt agitation as ‘rebellion’ against the state. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, along with a large contingent of soldiers, was accordingly sent to Amritsar on April 11 to restore order and ensure the safety of Europeans. He took control of the city from civil authorities and all meetings and gatherings were prohibited under military law. But people were no longer in awe of the repressive machinery of the colonial state. Therefore, some local people decided to organise a public meeting on April 13 at Jallianwala Bagh defying the prohibitory orders. A majority of them who were deeply imbued with anti-colonial consciousness did not even bother when Dyer entered the Bagh and they continued with their meeting without showing any sign of fear.
Even when soldiers started firing, people attending the meeting initially did not bother and some of them said that the bullets were simply blank. But within minutes, hundreds of people collapsed to the ground, killed or wounded. According to an official account, 379 people were killed and 1,200 wounded. However, the official figure was on the lower side; the number of casualties was actually much higher. The massacre evoked sharp criticism both in England and India. As a wave of outrage swept the country, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “We do not want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.” The massacre deeply influenced the subsequent course of anti-imperialist struggle in the country and strengthened forces which posed a challenge to British rule in India. The brutality of Dyer revealed to Indians the force that lay behind the ‘benevolent’ face the British showed in the form of elected councils, assemblies and municipalities. Rabindranath Tagore gave up his Knighthood in protest. And the ‘Punjab wrong’, as Gandhi called it, became one of the major reasons, along with the Khilafat issue, for launching the Non-Cooperation Movement the next year.