'A Himalayan Miscalculation'
The end of the First World War left India seething with discontent from many different causes. There was disillusion with the meagre rewards being offered by Britain for India's support during the war. There were swingeing new taxes on excess profits. The upheaval of changing from a wartime to a peacetime economy had brought rampant inflation, widespread shortages, a disastrous slump in the textile trade, and a wave of industrial disputes with mill-owners. There was the terrible death toll from the influenza epidemic, which Gandhi and his followers saw as a cosmic indictment of western civilization and British rule. There were Hindu fears over a new marriage bill, which threatened traditional practices, and Muslim fears over the dismemberment of the Turkish empire, which threatened the holy places of Islam. The list went on and on.
In such an atmosphere, the Rowlatt Bills provided a convenient focus for all the various grievances. The textile industry might have been in the doldrums, but the rumour mills were working overtime spreading the most horrendous stories. The anti-terrorist legislation proposed by the Bills would hardly affect ordinary Indians, and few really understood what was involved, but the Bills were seen as an insult to Indian honour, and defeating them became a matter of national pride.
The young men of the Home Rule Leagues held protest meetings in various towns and cities. But these were local affairs, run by local leaders. They needed someone with enough clout and charisma to weld them together into a national campaign. But who? Tilak had left for London in the autumn of 1918 to pursue a personal libel action, and would be away for most of 1919. Annie Besant had turned respectable since her term as Congress president, and was dithering over whether to accept the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. Other leading radicals were too rooted in their own communities to command a genuinely popular following. In desperation, the young men turned to Gandhi.