To win popular support for their war effort, the Allied nations – Britain, the United States, France, Italy, and Japan, promised a new era of democracy and national self-determination to all the peoples of the world; but after their victory, they showed little willingness to end the colonial system.
Nationalism had gathered its forces and the nationalists were expecting major political gains after the war; and they were willing to fight back if their expectations were thwarted.
The economic situation in the post-war years had taken a turn for the worse.
There was first a rise in prices and then a depression in economic activity.
The Indian industries, which had prospered during the war because foreign imports of manufactured goods had ceased, now faced losses and closure.
The Indian industrialists wanted protection of their industries through imposition of high customs duties and grant of government aid; they realized that a strong nationalist movement and an independent Indian Government alone could secure their demands.
The workers, facing unemployment and high prices and living in great poverty, also turned actively towards the nationalist movement.
Indian Soldiers, returned with their triumphs from Africa, Asia, and Europe, imparted some of their confidence and their knowledge of the wide world to the rural areas.
The peasantry, groaning under deepening poverty and high taxation, was waiting for a lead.
On the other hand, the urban educated Indians were dissented because of increasing unemployment.
A major impetus to the national movements was given by the impact of the Russian Revolution.
On 7 November 1917, the Bolshevik (Communist) Party, led by V.I. Lenin, overthrew the Czarist regime in Russia and declared the formation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in the history of the world.
The Russian Revolution gave people self-confidence and indicated to the leaders of the national movement that they should rely on the strength of the common people.
The Government, aware of the rising tide of nationalist and anti-government sentiments, once again decided to follow the policy of the ‘carrot and the stick,’ in other words, of concessions and repression.
In 1918, Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State, and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, produced their scheme of constitutional reforms which led to the enactment of the Government of India Act of 1919.
Government of India Act
Major provisions of Government of India Act of 1919 were:
The Provincial Legislative Councils were enlarged and the majority of their members were to be elected.
The provincial governments were given more powers under the system of Diarchy.
Under the Diarchy system, auditory subjects, such as finance and law and order, were called ‘reserved‘ subjects and remained under the direct control of the Governor; others such as education, public health, and local self-government, were called ‘transferred‘ subjects and were to be controlled by ministers responsible to the legislatures.
The Governor retained complete control over the finances.
The Governor could, moreover, overrule the ministers on any grounds that he considered special.
At the center, there were to be two houses of legislature i.e.
The lower house, the Legislative Assembly, was to have 41 nominated members in a total strength of 144.
The upper house, the Council of State, was to have 26 nominated and 34 elected members.
The legislature had virtually no control over the Governor-General and his Executive Council.
On the other hand, the Central Government had unrestricted control over the provincial governments and the right to vote was severely restricted.
Indian nationalists had, however, advanced far beyond such halting concessions.
They were no longer willing to let an alien government decide their fitness for self-government, nor would they be satisfied with the shadow of political power.
The Indian National Congress met in a special session at Bombay in August 1918 under the president-ship of Hasan Imam to consider the reform proposals.
It condemned them as “disappointing and unsatisfactory” – and demanded effective self-government instead.
The Rowlatt Act
In March 1919, the British Government passed the Rowlett Act even though every single Indian member of the Central Legislative Council opposed it.
Three of them, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Madan Mohan Malaviya, and Mazhar-ul-Huq resigned their membership of the Council.
This Act authorized the Government to imprison any person without trial and conviction in a court of law.
The Act would thus also enable the Government to suspend the right of Habeas Corpus which had been the foundation of civil liberties in Britain.
The Rowlett Act came like a sudden blow.
To the people of India, promised extension of democracy during the war, the government step appeared to be a cruel joke.
People felt humiliated and were filled with anger.
Unrest spread in the country and a powerful agitation against the Act arose.
During this agitation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, took command of the nationalist movement.
Gandhiji planned for a “Satyagraha” against the Rowlatt Act.
In 1919, a Satyagraha Sabha was formed and 6 April was fixed as the date to launch Satyagraha.