Rowlatt Bill, 1919 : When V.S Sastri dared to challenge the British against the repressive law

Following is the speech delivered by V.S Srinivasa Sastri on 7 February, 1919 before the Imperial Legislative Council as the Rowlatt Bill was introduced. He protested against the bill which was later passed and whole of India protested. Jallianwala Bagh massacre was carried out by the British when the Indians were protesting against the Black Act

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(Following is the speech delivered by V.S Srinivasa Sastri on 7 February 1919 before the Imperial Legislative Council as the Rowlatt Bill was introduced. He protested against the bill which was later passed and the whole of India protested. Jallianwala Bagh massacre was carried out by the British when the Indians were protesting against the Black Act.)

A bad law once passed is not always used against the bad. . . In times of panic caused, it may be, by very slight incidents, I have known governments lose their heads. I have known a reign of terror being brought about; I have known the best, the noblest Indians, the highest characters amongst us, brought under suspicion, standing in hourly dread of the visitations of the Criminal Investigation Department. . . When the 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, and there will be such a lowering of public spirit, there will be such a lowering of the political tone in the country, that all your talk of responsible government will be mere mockery.

Rowlatt Bill, 1919: When Police killed 60 protestors but couldn’t stop the protest

You may enlarge your Councils, you may devise wide electorates, but the men that will then fill your Councils will be toadies, timid men, and the bureaucracy, armed with these repressive powers, will reign unchecked under the outward forms of a democratic government. Well, we are all anxious to punish the wicked. None of us desire that wickedness should go unpunished, but . . . even the wicked must be punished in certain ways. When Skeffington was shot,1 I remember the whole world was shocked . . . . Now even in war, when all humanity throbs with excitement and peril, and when nobody thinks of anything except how to conquer the enemy, even then, my Lord, there are the laws of war. You have to play the game. . . when there are criminals abroad in a country there are certain ways in which they ought to be brought to book.

You ought not to lay them by the heels and punish them in ways that will shock the sense of justice; in ways that will make the innocent feel that there is no law in the land; in ways that will make honest, virtuous and public-spirited work impossible. The price even for the extinction of wickedness that is demanded then is far too high. . . Much better that a few rascals should walk abroad than that the honest man should be obliged for fear of the law of the land to remain shut up in his house, to refrain from the activities which it is in his nature to indulge in, to abstain from all political and public work merely because there is a dreadful law in the land.

Ah ! if in this world good intentions always bore fruit it would be very well. . . The history of legislation, both social and political, is strewn with instances of miscarriage of excellent intentions. Laws intended to cure poverty have aggravated it . . . and I take leave to say to the Hon’ble Sir William Vincent that the laws now placed before us, which are aimed at purifying politics, may come dangerously near suppressing them. You cannot place on the statute book such drastic legislation without putting into the hands of overenthusiastic executive officers what I consider short cuts to administrative peace.

Rowlatt Bill, 1919: Mahatma Gandhi asked the Indians to die while opposing the repressive law

Whom have you behind now amongst Indians? The tragic story of India may be summed up in these words, that you have governed all these centuries in India in isolation, without having any responsible section of public opinion behind you . . . No section of public opinion supports you. The nominated members have not given their blessing to this Bill. The zamindar members have not given their blessing. The lawyer members will have none of it.

The members of commerce will have none of it. And yet the Hon’ble Sir George Lowndes1 told us, ‘We must carry this legislation through, because we are satisfied that it is very right; we should have been glad of your help, but with our sense of responsibility we must go on even without your help, however much we would have liked it.’ I admire the courage of the Hon’ble the Law Member.

I admire the candour with which he said, ‘We have the responsibility today; you have none of the responsibility.’ We realize that position. We have none, my Lord, of the responsibility for this legislation, and I therefore refuse to believe when the case is put correctly before the public opinion that they will say, as the Hon’ble Sir William Vincent seemed to think sections of the English public might, that we had responsibility and shirked it. We have none.

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Now there is only one more remark, my Lord, I must make and that in justice to the feeling in the country of which for the moment I am the spokesman. I do not think the Hon’ble the Law Member could have meant all that he said when he said that some of us were indulging in threats of agitation. I venture to think that no one here who has spoken against the Bill indulged in anything which might truthfully be described as a threat of agitation.

None of us, certainly none of the Moderates, I take leave to say, has power to go and stir up a violent agitation in the country. It is impossible. Agitation must be there already. The heart must be throbbing, if any words that we use here can have a possible affect of the general political atmosphere. The agitation is there. I wish to assure my official colleagues that none of us has had a share yet in this business, but, if our appeals fall flat, if the Bill goes through, I do not believe there is anyone here who would be doing his duty if he did not join the agitation.

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at