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The Natives Continue To Be Restless

Perhaps, if, instead of implementing a new generation of Rowlatt Acts, the government had tried providing education, public health, jobs, development and fair play to all the different poor minority communities over which it exercises power, there might have been little violence to tackle, and those communities participating democratically might have fully cooperated with the law and order machinery in identifying and handing over any miscreants.








The Natives Continue To Be Restless i nstigate at least a riot if not open revolt. Lord Sinha, then under secretary of state for India, was able to assure the earl that the sentence had been commuted by the
benign government to only two years
rigorous imprisonment.
Vithal Rajan Such fears of the people they ruled over

Perhaps, if, instead of implementing a new generation of Rowlatt Acts, the government had tried providing education, public health, jobs, development and fair play to all the different poor minority communities over which it exercises power, there might have been little violence to tackle, and those communities participating democratically might have fully cooperated with the law and order machinery in identifying and handing over any miscreants.

Vithal Rajan ( is with the Confederation of Voluntary Associations, Hyderabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

January 10, 2009

“The natives are restless tonight”,

was a stock phrase used in colo

nial adventure yarns to signify an impending revolt. The sahibs loaded their guns and awaited the night attack. The noise outside the compound could have been a mysterious religious ceremony or just fun, they did not care, they knew little about the people they ruled, and were scared, and so took p reemptive action.

From legend this fear of unknown and unknowable native peoples reached into life. In the aftermath of the Rowlatt Act, Earl Russell enquired mildly in the House of Lords on 6 August 1919 whether Harkissen Lal, a barrister-at-law of the Middle Temple, really deserved transportation for life, with forfeiture of property, just for asking shopkeepers in Lahore to draw down their shutters, and whether the sentence was not “a mere exhibition of autocratic power”. He was hastily assured by his noble colleagues that the accused had certainly intended to had always been there right from the start of the colonial period, and sepoys once considered loyal and competent were regularly hanged, shot, or blown from the mouths of cannon, from the times of Yusuf Khan, the first and only commandant of all the sepoys, who was treacherously hanged by the British in 1761. Any show of resentment by the sepoys against abuse or ill-treatment by callow or junior British officers, any hint or rumour of words spoken and not understood could lead to such grotesque punishment. In turn, such cruelty produced the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 and the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Rowlatt Act

After that massacre of sepoys, the British rulers started to fear all of the Indian population, and one unnecessary draconian law followed another culminating in the Rowlatt Act of 1919, which inevitably led to the tragic Jallianwala Bagh massacre of well over a 1,000 unarmed men, women and children gathered in Amritsar for Baisakhi


celebrations. General Dyer told the Hunter Committee of Enquiry that “It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.” He went on to add that though he knew the people had only lathis he would have used armoured cars to fire if the vehicles could have been brought into that confined space. This terrible act of his was followed by the bombing of people in Gujranwala, and firing on them at Kasur from an armoured train. Indians were humiliated under Martial Law, forcing all to crawl on the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted, forcing all to dismount and salute Europeans wherever seen. The Hunter Committee would not condemn Dyer, The House of Lords supported him, other colonialists applauded him. In the event, all belief Indian nationalist leaders might have had in democratic British rule was ended forever, and ultimately the barbarity un leashed by Dyer stripped the Empire of its right to rule and sounded its death knell.

Indian Leaders

The Indian nationalist leaders had the unique and remarkable quality of being completely at home both with the poor masses of India and with their friends in England, and this is what gave them the title to take over the governance of India by a legal act of transfer of power. That generation of freedom fighters led by Gandhi understood the Indian masses, how they thought, lived, and acted, while at the same time being cast in the mould of liberal democratic British traditions.

Unfortunately the elite generations that inherited power from the freedom fighters, while skilled in all the trappings of democratic governance, its rituals, and its form, began almost unconsciously from the first to rule in the old way. Since power had come to them, they found no need to go among the people, and differences of caste and class between those in power and those over whom they ruled soon found expression in unnecessary laws to


suppress popular and little understood sentiments. In 1954, in the heyday of Jawaharlal Nehru’s rule, India’s independent government promulgated the Preventive Detention Act, though valiantly opposed by Acharya Kripalani as a “black act”. This was legislative proof of the conceptual split that had always existed between the Mahatma and the Pandit, and also of the safe transfer of power from one privileged class of white sahibs to another privileged class of brown sahibs.

Indian leaders since then till today have known little and cared less about agriculture or how hundreds of millions of poor farmers manage to put food on elite tables. Violence erupted in the 1960s when India needed to import 10 million tonnes of grain every year to avert famine. Typical of the rulers, a solution was found in the Green Revolution that managed massive support for rich farmers in a few selected pockets, to prevent famine which would have been politically disastrous for the rulers, but which has never produced enough to prevent hunger among the masses. Being out of touch with the people, knowing that

january 10, 2009

Economic & Political Weekly


usual political manipulations did not work, and conscious that the system was giving themselves most of the benefits of development, the rulers took fright, and began another round of repressive measures.

Restrictions on Freedoms

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was passed in 1967 after the Constitution itself was amended for the 16th time, to permit restrictions being placed on fundamental freedoms, and amended again in 1969 to make it stricter. Harsher laws were introduced from time to time, such as the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) by Indira Gandhi in 1973, and under Rajiv Gandhi the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act in 1985, which was amended further in 1987. The infamous Prevention of Terrorists Activities Act (POTA) was brought in by the National Democratic Alliance government in 2002. Many state governments have also busily followed the trend set by the Rowlatt Act, the “father” of all Indian black acts, and though the present government made a show of doing away with POTA, it brought in most of its provisions through the backdoor by another amendment to UAPA in 2004.

New Legislation

Now, after the terrorist attack on Mumbai, just before election year, the government feels it must be seen to be stern to prove itself capable of leadership, and so it has taken the fatal step of passing another amendment to UAPA on 17 December 2008, despite the chief justice of the Supreme Court wisely reminding it that human rights should not be ignored. The media is already gleefully stating that a suspect will be held to be guilty unless proved innocent and that too only after incarceration in police “custody” for a full 90 days! The Bharatiya Janata Party in opposition wants any confession extracted by the police to be admissible in court, a step that even the British hesitated to take in India.

The government has learned little from independent India’s own history of harsh misrule, which has set in flames all of the north-east, Kashmir, and the wide Naxalite tribal tract cutting across India from Nepal to Tamil Nadu. Perhaps, if the government had tried providing education, public health, jobs, development and fair play to all the

Economic & Political Weekly

January 10, 2009

different poor minority communities over which it exercises power, instead of implementing a generation of Rowlatt Acts, there might have been little violence to tackle, and those communities participating democratically might have fully cooperated with the law and order machinery in identifying and handing over any few miscreants there might have been. And what might have been the cost of adopting such a humane alternative policy? Perhaps, not even the redistribution of wealth so feared by the rulers, for by unshackling the masses an enormous productive force could have been unleashed which would have taken the leaders to heights of luxury unimagined so far by restricted and exploitative thinking.

When the parent Rowlatt Act was i ntroduced, an appalled Srinivas Sastri told the Imperial Legislative Council on 7 February 1919:

When Government undertakes a repressive policy, the innocent are not safe. Men like me would not be considered innocent. The innocent then is he who forswears politics, who takes no part in the public movements of the times, who retires into his house, mumbles his prayers, pays his taxes, and salaams all the government officials all round. The man who interferes in politics, the man who goes about collecting money for any public purpose, the man who addresses a public meeting, then becomes a suspect. I am always on the borderland and I, therefore, for personal reasons, if for nothing else, undertake to say that the possession, in the hands of the Executive, of powers of this drastic nature will not hurt only the wicked. It will hurt the good as well as the bad…

If this was the feeling of an eminent Indian of his time, cultivated, lauded and honoured by the British, imagine what must be the feelings of a poor person today, whether a Muslim, a tribal or a dalit, already under constant harassment by the local power elite and the police?

Especially frightening is the prospect of adding to the licentious sense of impunity already exercised by the police. In mid-December, three miscreants who had criminally thrown acid on two hapless girls were shot to death while in police custody in Andhra Pradesh. The only executive measure conceivably harsher would be to go back to those of Draco himself, who Plutarch says wrote the laws “not with ink, but blood; and he himself, being once asked why he made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes!’” Luckily for the ancient Athenians, Solon wisely repealed all such laws in the sixth century BC itself.

What Is to Come

Colonel Wedgewood, calling the Rowlatt Act the “most lawless law”, pointed out in the House of Commons on 22 May 1919, that “It is not a law; it is simply an administrative instruction”. That is the point of all harsh executive action, let alone draconian laws; they signal to the minions of a repressive state machinery that they can act with impunity, and they would be rewarded for doing so. And in every country and in every century the purveyors of statedirected violence have demonstrated their zeal by even more appalling behaviour than their bosses might have intended. We only have to remember the Sikh pogrom of 1984 in Delhi, and the Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Ahmedabad to imagine what further horrors await us in the near future.

It would be naïve to expect that the local constable or the foot soldier will use judicious restraint when instructions come down from above to the contrary. It would be too much even to expect that any thinking will take place on the spot except to deal as harshly as possible with any person identified as “dangerous”. A bathetic warning was available to our leaders at the very dawn of independence. A K Gopalan was the only nationalist leader still in jail on 15 August 1947, perhaps because he was a communist. He raised the tricolour in prison to celebrate our independence, and was promptly produced in court for sedition against the Crown!

When they passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919, the British forgot that the Indians of their time were no longer the Indians they had beaten to the ground in 1857, and hence they lost their empire. The Indian Parliament by passing another harsher amendment in December 2008 to the already “lawless” Unlawful Activities Prevention Act seems not to realise that their minions remain much the same as those who arraigned Gopalan in independent India for treason against the king emperor. Perhaps we should all remember that the best defence for a democracy, as Pericles said, lies in our laws and our liberties.

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