Defence of India Act 1915
The Defence of India Act is also known as the Defence of India Regulation Act. This was an emergency criminal law and was elected by the Governor-General of India in 1915. The main purpose was to curtail the nationalist and revolutionary activities of the Indian Independence movement during and after the First World War.
- During the first decade of the 20th century, Punjab, Bengal and Maharashtra became a hotbed of the revolutionary movement in India. The partition of Bengal and colonisation bill in Punjab only cater for the growing dissatisfaction in these provinces.
- Various attacks on well-known personalities in the administration as well as on police were linked to revolutionary groups like Samiti, Anushilan and Jugantar.
- The First World War started with an unpredicted exposition of support towards Britain from the mainstream political leadership of the Indian Independence struggle on the contrary to British fears of a revolt.
- India provided men and resources to contribute enormously to the British war effort. Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers and labourers served in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
- After the outbreak of the First World War, the prices of grains rose. Therefore, the discontent with British immigration policies and rumours of British defeats on several friends had led to a new round of agitation against the British government.
- In spite of the fact that India was far away from the fighting in Europe, British fears were revived by a possible alliance of the Central powers with Afghanistan.
- The amalgamation of Afghanistan invading the North-West Frontier and internal disturbance instigated by revolutionary networks were at the top of the minds of the British. Thus, they realise that a new act is needed to stabilize the domestic front and maintain their grip over India.
The implementation of the Act
- British intelligence in North America point out that Ghadar Party coordinating with the Berlin committee in Germany and the Indian revolutionary underground was trying to transport men and arms from the United States and East Asia into India early in the war, envisaged a revolution and mutiny in the British Indian Army.
- A large number of Sikh expatriates started leaving Canada and USA from August 1914 under the plans of Ghadr leadership for fermenting a mutiny in India and Bengal nationalist crime also increased
- Therefore, pressure ascended on the British authorities in India to pass an act that would stem such revolutionary activities. So, the Defence of India Act was enacted.
- This act was to be valid for the duration of the war and for six months thereafter “for public safety” and “the defence of British India”. The primary object of this bill made it illegal to communicate with the enemy, obtain information, spread false reports, as well as any activities that the government deemed prejudicial to the war effort.
- The Defence of India Act permitted local governments to make rules detain indefinitely, without representation, and to try by special tribunals persons “reasonably suspected” of being of hostile origin or acting in a manner prejudicial to the safety of the empire. committing or conspiring to commit crimes either described in the act or crimes which may be punishable by death, transportation or at least seven-year imprisonment.
- This bill gave authority to the local government to allocate three commissioners for trials who may be below the status of high-court judges. At least two would be Sessions judges or additional sessions judges for at least three years, were qualified for appointment as Judges of a High Court, or advocates of a Chief Court or pleaders of ten years’ standing. A majority verdict was endurable.
- Moreover, This act permitted the commissioners to accept as evidence statements recorded by a magistrate without scrutiny to cross-examination and superseded the standards of evidence proscribed in the Indian evidence act 1872.
- Additionally, this law gave permission to commissioners to accept such recorded evidence where the witness was unavailable or dead.
- This measure was intended to secure and safeguard in opposition to intimidation and assassinations by revolutionaries of approvers. There was no right to trial by jury. This act excluded from appeal or judicial review the decisions of the commissioners designated under the act.
- However, the bill was enacted to maintain order and curtail revolutionary movement, it was in practice used on a widespread scale from limiting revolutionaries, through arresting perpetrators of religious violence, to curtailing the voice of moderate political leaders.
The impact of this act
- The Defence of India Act got universal support from Indian non-officiating members in the Governor General’s council, from moderate leaders within the Indian Political Movement at the time of its enactment
- The British war effort had got popular support within India and the defence of India act received support on the understanding that the measures enacted were necessary for the war situation. The application of this bill saw a significant curtailment in revolutionary violence in India.
- Nevertheless, the wide scope and widespread use amongst the general population and against even moderate leaders led to increasing revulsion within the Indian population.
- This act saw 46 executions and 64 life sentences handed out to revolutionaries in Bengal and Punjab in the Lahore Conspiracy Trial and Benares Conspiracy Trial, and in tribunals in Bengal, effectively crushing the revolutionary movement. However, the power of preventive detention was applied more especially to Bengal.
- The widespread arrests helped Bengal Police crush the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti in Calcutta by March 1916.
- From August 1916, Regulation III and the Defence of India act were applied to Bengal on a broad scale. In 1917, Bengal revolutionary violence plummeted to 10 cases. There were more than eight hundred interned in Bengal under the defence of India act by the end of the war.