Mention the Rowlatt Report in any discussion and you are likely to get a positive response. Awareness about the mass movement that Mahatma Gandhi led against the enactment of the Rowlatt Act, upon acceptance of the recommendations of the Rowlatt Report by the colonial state, is abundant.
The same goes for the protests against the draconian law, designed to ruthlessly suppress the demand for freedom, which led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in1919.
But if you press on and ask questions, such as who was SAT Rowlatt, what was the subject of the Report or its terms of reference, or what compelling evidence it produced to lead to the enactment of the draconian Act, you will draw a blank.
This ignorance is, however, understandable because right from 1947 there has been a concerted and apparently, successful effort to downplay the role of revolutionary armed action in India’s freedom struggle.
The clear object is to project the Mahatma Gandhi-led phase of the movement as the cause of freedom and this idea has, till recently, gone unchallenged. One will thus notice only a brief and unclear reference to the Rowlatt Report even in standard history text books as if the revolutionary movements were mere episodes.
They were not so because the British rulers were of the view that that the movement against Lord Curzon’s Partition of Bengal got transformed into a revolutionary freedom movement across the country as different groups in Maharashtra, Bengal, Punjab and elsewhere coordinated their violent activities with the object of overthrowing British Rule.
To this end, the revolutionaries of the Jugantar and Anushilan Samiti of Bengal, Abhinav Bharat Society in Maharashtra, Ghadar group in Punjab and some groups in Madras carried out not only armed action within the country but also forged links with Germany during the World War I. The Government termed these activities as “revolutionary and anarchical”, which according to its assessment posed “the gravest threat since 1857.”
Widespread sedition was the problem and hence the need to “investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies connected with the revolutionary movement in India” was the first task of the committee appointed on 10 December 1917 under the chairmanship of Justice SAT Rowlatt of the King’s Bench Division. The other term of reference was to examine the difficulties in dealing with such conspiracies and “to advise as to the legislation if any, necessary to enable the Government to effectively deal with them”.
JDV Hodge, a Bengal civilian, was member secretary and must have played a key role in preparation of the Report. The “Sedition Committee” submitted its report on 15 April 1918 in a remarkably short period and exactly a year before the Amritsar massacre.
The first part of the Report contained 15 chapters covering the growth of the revolutionary movement in different provinces and analysed how it began in Maharashtra the activities of the Chapekar brothers —Balkrishna and Damodar, Tilak and Savarkar. The next four chapters record how the movement spread to Bengal; struck deep roots during the anti-Partition agitation and intensified with German intervention.
It mentioned the influence of Swami Vivekananda, the work of Aurobindo and his brother, Barindra, Jatin Mukherjee and Pulin Behari Das, in spreading the message of freedom. The impact of the movement in the United Provinces, Orissa, Central Provinces and Bihar was detailed in chapters eight to ten and viewed mainly as a fall out of the Bengal upsurge where the activities of Sachindranath Sanyal and Rashbehari Bose in UP were noted.
The report identified the Chitavan Brahmins of Maharashtra and the “Bhadralok” class of Bengal as the social base of the revolutionary movements. Chapter 11 detailed “the dangerous situation”, the revolutionary movement created in Punjab due to the activities of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhai Paramanand and Sikh leaders of the Ghadar movement. What caused real panic was the possibility of a repeat of 1857 as Punjab was the main source of recruitment of the Army.
The next three chapters covered the movement in Madras and Burma and disaffection among a section of the Muslims following the decision of Turkey to side with Germany in the war. The second part addressed the issue of adequacy of the laws, including the Defence of India Act, to deal with the situation. Expectedly, the Committee viewed the extant laws and systems inadequate and recommended a new repressive law.
While the Report held that East Bengal was the hotbed of the movement, its spread to the three adjacent districts of Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara, which were “transferred” to Assam when the province was carved out of the Bengal Presidency in 1874, was fast and substantial.
It was so as Bengali-speaking people formed the largest group — 46 per cent — of the population of Assam as per the 1901 Census. Of those three districts, Sylhet was at the forefront as it was the home of Bipin Chandra Pal. The Report cited several incidents of “outrages” in Sylhet especially the Maulavi bazar bomb case.
To drive home the point of how high school students of Sylhet were influenced by the revolutionary ideals, the committee reproduced a poignant letter of a school boy, Debendra Chandra Bhattacharjee of Mirasi, Sylhet to the Editor of Jugantar seeking a copy of the journal and subscription.
The extracts of the letter written in excellent English sum up the spirit of the era, “From your articles and bold writings, I understand that he alone who has the subversion of the Feringhi government at heart should by all means read Jugantar. I am therefore in need of Jugantar, for it acquaints us to a great extent with the desire to drive away the Feringhis and also makes us alive to wrongs. I am… in straitened circumstances, hardly able to procure one meal a day; nevertheless my desire for newspaper reading is strong. Ah! Do not disappoint such an eager hope of mine. I shall pay the price when I have the means.”
It’s a tragic irony of history that the people of Sylhet and other parts of East Bengal who moved to Assam after 1947 are now required to prove their identity as Indians in independent India.
It is a sad commentary on our sense of history that the state, media and even academia have ignored the historical significance of the Rowlatt Report in the centenary year of its submission.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India.