A separate institution named Satyagraha Sabha was formed with headquarters in Bombay. There were agitations everywhere against the Rowlatt Committee’s report. But the government was determined to implement the Rowlatt recommendations and in 1919, the Rowlatt Bill was introduced. When the bill was debated in India’s Legislative Chamber, Gandhi attended as a visitor. Now read on.
In spite of the well entrenched opposition from nationalists, the Rowlatt bill became law.
At this time, Gandhi got an invitation from activists in Madras to visit the city. He went there, though still weak, along with Mahadev Desai.
That was Gandhi’s first meeting with another stalwart of India’s freedom struggle, C. Rajagopalachari. A small conference of leaders was held and Gandhi explained to them the implications of the Rowalatt act. While these talks were being held news was received that the Rowlatt Bill had been published as an act.
It was also in Madras that Gandhi first conceived the idea of an all-India hartaal (strike) as the beginning of the satyagraha movement. The leaders at once took up the suggestion and gave much publicity to the forthcoming action. The date was first fixed for March 30, 1919, but was later changed to April 6. The masses had received only short notice for the hartaal, but it turned out to be most successful.
That was the first great awakening of India in her struggle towards independence.
Gandhi left Madras and went to Bombay to join in the hartaal there on April 6.
Meanwhile in Delhi, Lahore, and Amritsar, the hartaal had been observed on March 30. In Delhi the police did not allow free movement to the demonstrators and firing by police caused a number of casualties. Gandhi was requested to go to Delhi and he replied that he would do so after the hartaal in Bombay on April 6.
In Bombay the hartaal was a great success. Not a wheel turned in any factory. Not one shop was open.
All over India the hartaal was observed. Gandhi had asked the people again and again to be peaceful and not to be provoked to violence by the Government’s actions. In spite of this, violence broke out in many places. There were disturbances in Ahmedabad and also in the Punjab and he decided to go to these places to propagate nonviolence.
On the way to the Punjab he was arrested at a wayside station called Palwal and sent back to Bombay. The news of his arrest inflamed the entire population of Bombay. There was an enormous crowd awaiting his arrival there. When he reached Bombay he was set free.
The crowd was getting impatient. “Only you can control the crowds,” said a friend to Gandhi.
“Come, I shall take you to the spot.”
The crowd greeted Gandhi with frenzied joy. A huge procession started but the police barred its progress. A company of mounted police was ordered to charge the crowds. Piercing screams and cries from women and children filled the air as the horsemen plunged forward with lowered lances. People ran to escape the fury of the police.
Gandhi was shocked by the police brutality. He went and met the Commissioner. The official was boiling with rage. “We, the police, know better than you the effect of your preaching on the people. If we had not taken drastic measures the situation would have gone out of our hands. I have no doubt about your intentions, but the people do not understand them. They only follow their natural instincts.”
“The people are not violent by nature; they are peaceful,” said Gandhi.
“You wanted to go to the Punjab,” said the Commissioner. “Do you know what is happening in Ahmedabad, the Punjab, and Delhi? You are responsible for all these disturbances.”
Gandhi was pained to hear of the disturbances and said that he would certainly take the responsibility upon himself if he was convinced that it was his. Gandhi went to Ahmedabad. On the way he learned in detail about the happenings there.
Ahmedabad was under martial law. A police officer was waiting for him at the railway station to escort him to the Commissioner. This commissioner too was in a rage. Gandhi expressed his regret for the disturbances and promised complete cooperation in restoring peace.
Gandhi then asked for permission to hold a public meeting on the grounds of the Sabarmati Ashram. The officer liked the idea.
At the meeting Gandhi announced with great sorrow the suspension of civil disobedience. He said he would fast for three days as a penance and he appealed to all the people to fast for one day. He asked those who were guilty of violence to confess their guilt. He expressed his regret at having started civil disobedience too early without giving sufficient training to the people.
“I have made a Himalayan miscalculation,” he said. Many people jeered at Gandhi for saying that. Many of his friends and followers were furious at his stopping satyagraha. Gandhi then started teaching people the true meaning of satyagraha and how it should be conducted. Through writing and speeches he wanted to drive home to the people the essence of his new creed.
In the Punjab the situation was very critical. It was true that there were disturbances on the part of the people, but the measures adopted by the Government to check the disturbances were too severe.
The leaders were trying to keep the people peaceful, but the stem measures of repression taken by the authorities had few parallels in history.
In Amritsar the people were not allowed to move about freely. A proclamation was issued forbidding all gatherings and meetings. Only a few had the chance to know about the proclamation, however, because it was not announced widely, and it was made only in English.
It was announced that a meeting was to be held in a garden called Jallianwala Bagh, to protest against the Government’s actions. General Dyer took no measures to prevent the meeting. He reached the place soon after the meeting began and he took with him armored cars and troops. Without giving any warning he ordered, “Fire till the bullets are finished.”
The garden was surrounded by walls and buildings and had only one exit. At the first shot the exit was jammed and there was no hope of escape for the crowd. There were between eight and ten thousand people attending the meeting. The soldiers fired 1600 rounds into that unarmed mass of people.
Once a park, Jallianwala Bagh was now a scene of the most brutal massacre of hundreds.
— To be continued