The Rowlatt Acts were legislation that imposed authoritarian restrictions upon Indian people. The notion of habeas corpus was discarded, and the police and army were empowered to search and seize property, detain and arrest any Indian without the slightest need for evidence. Promulgated by the British Parliament, the Viceroy and the Imperial Legislative Council, they were to be enforced on April 6, 1919.
Furthermore, many Indians were already infuriated by the British authorities' decision to send Indian soldiers to World War I without the slightest desire to consult the Indian people in any manner or form. The calls of liberal and moderate political leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak for Home Rule were accompanied only by petitions and major public meetings, and not disorder or obstruction of government services.
Mahatma Gandhi had shown in South Africa and in 1918 in Champaran, Bihar and Kheda, Gujarat that the only way to earn the respect and attention of British officials was to actively resist government activities through civil disobedience.
Now in Champaran and Kheda in 1918 he led impoverished farmers, mired in social evils like unhygienic conditions, domestic violence, discrimination, oppression of women and untouchability. On top of their miseries, these people were forced to grow cash crops like indigo, tobacco and cotton, instead of food, and virtually not compensated. In addition, they would have to pay taxes despite a famine.
The Governments of the affected regions signed agreements suspending taxation in face of the famine, allowing the farmers to grow their own crops, releasing all political prisoners and returning all property and lands seized. It was the biggest victory against the British Empire since the American Revolution.
Mahatma Gandhi was assisted by a new generation of Indian revolutionaries like Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru. In Kheda, the entire revolt had been led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was to become Gandhi's lieutenant.
Millions of India's Muslims were also antagonized by the Government's support of Mustafa Kemal of Turkey, who had overthrown the Sultan of Turkey, considered the Caliph of Islam. Muslim leaders formed the Khilafat committee to protest the actions and find a way to effectively stop the British authorities from neglecting their concerns.
A public meeting of unarmed civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar was fired upon by troops under the command of Reginald Dyer. Hundreds of people died and perhaps thousands were injured. Women, children and the elderly were not spared. The outcry in Punjab led to thousands of arrests, beatings and more deaths at the hands of police and some violent protesters. The Amritsar Massacre became the most infamous event of British rule in India. To Gandhi and many others, it became clear that a reckoning with the British was not far off.
Gandhi's idea was a nationwide protest against the Rowlatt Acts. All offices and factories would be closed. Indians would be encouraged to withdraw from Raj-sponsored schools, police services, the military and the civil services, and lawyers to leave the Raj's courts. Public transportation, English-manufactured goods, especially clothes would be boycotted.
Veterans like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant opposed the idea outright. The All India Muslim League also criticized the ideas. But the younger generation of Indian nationalists were thrilled and backed Gandhi. The Congress Party adopted his plans, and he received extensive support from Muslim leaders like Maulana Azad, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Abbas Tyabji, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali. Gandhi was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1919 and 1920, as well as the All India Home Rule League - the latter erstwhile dominated by Gandhi's critics like Jinnah, Besant and Tilak.
The success of the revolt launched was a total shock to British authorities and a massive encouragement to millions of Indians. Then on February 4, 1922, in the Chauri Chaura, after violent clashed between the local police and the protestors in which three protestors were killed due the insuing police firing , Gandhi felt that the revolt was veering off-course. He did not want the movement to degenerate into an orgy of violence where police and angry mobs attacked each other back and forth, victimizing civilians in between.
Gandhi went on a fast lasting 3 days, appealing to the Indian public for all resistance to end, and called off the mass civil disobedience movement.
Although most Congress leaders remained firmly behind Gandhi, the disillusioned broke away. The Ali brothers would soon become fierce critics, and Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das formed the Swaraj Party, rejecting Gandhi's leadership. Many nationalists had felt that the Non-Cooperation Movement should not have been stopped due to isolated incidents of violence, and most nationalists, while retaining confidence in Gandhi, were depressed.
Contemporary historians and critics suggest that the movement was successful enough to break the back of British rule, and possibly even result in the independence most Indians strove for till 1947.
But many historians and Indian leaders of the time also defend Gandhi's judgment. If he had not stopped the revolts, India would probably have descended into an anarchy-style rebellion which would alienate common Indians and impress only violent revolutionaries.
Gandhi's commitment to non-violence was redeemed when between 1930 and 1934, India committed itself to full independence and tens of millions again revolted in the Salt Satyagraha which made India's cause famous worldwide for its unerring adherence to non-violence. The Satyagraha ended in glorious success - the demands of Indians were met, and the Congress Party was recognized as the real representative of Indian people. The Government of India Act 1935 also gave India its first taste in democratic, self-governance.