Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Defense of India Act enabled the British government to wield extraordinary powers, and it bypassed existing laws to suppress dissent in India during World War I. The act was particularly effective in repressing civil liberties and in facilitating police efforts to force confessions.

Summary of Event

The redeployment of Indian and British troops to locations in Europe and Africa during World War I sharply reduced the number of units available for maintaining control and suppressing dissent in India. This provided a timely opportunity for the revolutionary groups already active in India to accelerate the pace of their activities. At the same time, an opportunistic coalition between wartime enemies of Britain and the revolutionaries became feasible. Germany and Turkey, for example, were anxious to divert Britain’s attention from the war effort. They attempted to contribute to the undermining of colonial authority by providing a measure of support for the revolutionaries, who were willing to accept help from foreign sources. Finally, revolutionary groups based in San Francisco (Ghadr movement), Berlin (Indian Independence Committee), Kabul (Provisional Government of India), Geneva, and Paris (Madame Bhikhaji Cama’s circle) continued actively to support their fellow Indians. Defense of India Act (1915) India;Defense of India Act (1915) [kw]Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle (Mar., 1915) [kw]India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle, Defense of (Mar., 1915) [kw]Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle, Defense of India (Mar., 1915) [kw]Freedom Struggle, Defense of India Act Impedes the (Mar., 1915) Defense of India Act (1915) India;Defense of India Act (1915) [g]India;Mar., 1915: Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle[03730] [g]South Asia;Mar., 1915: Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle[03730] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar., 1915: Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle[03730] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Mar., 1915: Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle[03730] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar., 1915: Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle[03730] Besant, Annie Gandhi, Mahatma Tilak, Bal Gangadhar Morley, John Dyer, Reginald Edward Harry Nehru, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal





The British adopted a series of repressive measures to cope with the complex situation. Initially, there was some reluctance to take this path, as a large proportion of the revolutionaries were highly educated Indians trained to believe in the rule of law and civil liberties. This belief had sustained them in their manner of conducting the struggle for independence. Nevertheless, their activities continued to trouble the British authorities.

Annie Besant.

(Library of Congress)

The first signs of a British crackdown had appeared several years earlier, when the nationalist slogan Bande mataram (which can be translated as “Victory to the motherland”) was banned. Likewise, the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1913 Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act (1913) had identified conspiracy as an independent criminal offense. This had resulted in the trial and sentencing of several people whose actions were subject to the definitions of this new code. A demonstrably repressive attitude came to characterize Indo-British relations despite the conciliatory efforts of liberal British leaders such as John Morley, secretary of state for India.

The Defense of India Act was therefore the logical outgrowth of a period of increasingly stringent controls that preceded its adoption. Modeled along the lines of the Defense of the Realm Act, which prevailed in wartime Britain, the Defense of India Act was far more extensive in its provisions. It was presented as a wartime measure ostensibly designed to protect British military interests and thus to promote war objectives. In fact, however, its mandate went far beyond the protection of purely military interests, as its provisions endowed the government with extraordinary powers to supersede the existing legal system. These included the appointment of special tribunals to hold summary trials. Provincial authorities could convene these tribunals, giving them extensive powers and jurisdiction over a wide range of activities.

The new laws were loosely interpreted, and they were applied with varying levels of intensity in different regions of the country. As a result, publications banned in one province could be found in another. Individuals used the mandate of the Defense of India Act for suppression of civil liberties, but they did so to different degrees. The principal clauses of the act authorized the government to empower any civil or military authority to deny individuals the right to enter or reside in designated areas on the basis of mere suspicion that they might be acting in a manner prejudicial to the government’s or the public’s interests. Authorities could enter and search buildings and also seize property of individuals if they believed that the property was being used for purposes that were contrary to the rules of the Defense of India Act. The power of the press to comment on such events was curbed through censorship rules, thereby enabling the authorities to intern citizens without trial. Those who were brought to trial were often arrested and convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence. Individuals were sentenced to imprisonment of ten or more years, even to transportation for life, and in several cases the death penalty was imposed. Confessions of an accused person or parties known to him or her were often cited as the principal evidence.

The manner in which confessions were obtained was a matter of great concern even to judges. In his commentary on this issue, Justice Straight, a British judge, expressed his belief that the police spent an extraordinary amount of their time and energy in extracting confessions. What was even more curious, however, was the large number of apparently voluntary confessions that were retracted. This is further confirmed by statements of prisoners regarding the poor conditions prevailing in detention centers and the brutality of the police.

The effective suspension of civil rights and liberty in India resulted in the government’s carte-blanche approach. This was further encouraged by the seeming acquiescence of “moderate” Indian politicians to this measure. As a result, a series of highly publicized trials were held throughout the country, many in Bengal and Punjab. The most extensive were the Lahore Conspiracy Trials, Lahore Conspiracy Trials a series of three trials that heard evidence of a conspiracy for a general uprising against the British authorities. The elaborate plan involved revolutionaries from abroad and from several regions within the country, and it sought to overpower the war-weakened garrisons, disrupt communications, release political detainees, and meet in Lahore to plan strategies for implementing the rest of their goals. A police informer, however, infiltrated the ranks of the conspirators and alerted the authorities. A large proportion of the several hundred revolutionaries who were tried were convicted of serious crimes punishable by death. Thirty-eight death sentences were handed out, but eighteen of these were later commuted to life sentences. Fifty-eight people were given varying periods of imprisonment, and an equal number were given life sentences and transported. This elaborate attempt to achieve freedom from colonialism was effectively prevented by the British, who characterized the effort as a conspiracy to wage war against the emperor.

The struggle for freedom was not entirely centered on uprisings of this nature. While the Lahore Conspiracy Trials were under way, Annie Besant, head of the Theosophical movement in India, launched the “home rule” campaign. She publicized her ideas through two publications that she controlled, New India and Commonweal. Congress was initially reluctant to endorse the idea, but eventually Bal Gangadhar Tilak became active in the establishment of a Home Rule League, Home Rule League (India) which came into being on April 28, 1916. In August, the government moved against Besant’s publications and demanded exorbitant securities. When her appeal was rejected by the Madras High Court and the Privy Council, she sold her two presses. The censorship provisions of the 1915 act, in combination with the restrictions of the 1910 Press Act, had strengthened the government’s power to suppress free speech. The response to Besant’s continuing efforts to make speeches in support of the Home Rule League was to ban her entry into various cities. Eventually, she was interned in order to secure her silence. This action was condemned both in India and overseas. Indignation swept a number of moderates into supporting the home rule campaign, including Motilal Nehru, a prominent lawyer and father of independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.


World War I had a tremendous impact on the freedom struggle in India: It diverted Britain’s attention away from the need for political reforms in the country. Consequently, the leaders of the freedom struggle believed that they had to look elsewhere for support, as the British appeared preoccupied with their own wartime concerns. The German government even went as far as signing a written agreement with an Indian committee promising to insist on Indian freedom in the event of a German victory. Indian sympathies were often with Turkey and Germany, despite the fact that Indian soldiers were fighting their armies and contributing in other ways to the British war effort.

The war provided the opportunity for British authorities to adopt special regulations and laws that quickly were used to suppress a wide variety of activities that had little or no direct relation to military concerns. The new powers assumed during this time were wide-ranging and absolute. The efficacy of these powers in eradicating dissent showed the authorities how much they had come to depend on these special provisions. Consequently, when the wartime measures lapsed, there was a move to extend or enact similar laws. An inquiry committee, the Rowlatt Commission, Rowlatt Commission was appointed to study the matter. The committee recommended that trial by jury should continue to be used as a means of controlling seditious activities. The continued suspension of existing laws and the continuation of extraordinary powers at the level of provincial government were also endorsed. This was predictably unpopular and was not received well among the Indian intellectuals and professionals who had been hoping for some signs of understanding of their desire for self-government. The Rowlatt Acts, Rowlatt Acts (1919) as they were known, came into law on March 17, 1919, over the objections and boycott of the Indian members of the Legislative Council.

From the perspective of the nationalists, this measure was another example of the intransigence of imperial domination. Mahatma Gandhi called for the start of a civil disobedience movement on April 6, 1919. A series of violent public reactions, including lootings, murder, and mass meetings, followed. In the Punjab, the order banning public meetings of more than four persons was disregarded by a peaceful crowd of five thousand, leading to the notorious massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, in the city of Amritsar, Amritsar Massacre (1919) Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919) on April 13, 1919. The British General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was tried for his part in this atrocity and relieved of his command, and tensions between the government and the people were considerably heightened.

There is reason to conclude that some of the precipitating incidents leading to the full-fledged launching of the Indian independence movement were, in part, a result of the climate of tension and mistrust created by the application of the Defense of India Act. Not only did the provisions of this act bypass the existing code of law, it revealed to the Indian intelligentsia the fragility of reason and the growing reliance over time of the British on authoritarian measures to maintain control over the population. The bond of trust and sense of fair play were undermined, leading to the creation of a rift between the colonial government and the leadership of the freedom struggle. The leadership turned to the masses, mobilizing them to express their sense of injustice and thus accelerating the momentum of the independence movement. Defense of India Act (1915) India;Defense of India Act (1915)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Judith M. Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985. The author suggests the presence of a strand of continuity in the tradition of repression first introduced by the British and then coopted by the nationalists. One of the most competent analyses of a complex relationship between the governing and the governed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dodwell, H. H., ed. The Indian Empire, 1858-1918. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1932. A standard reference for this period, reflecting largely a British perspective on events. Not as detailed as some of the other sources for this period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kulke, Hermann, and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Comprehensive history of India since ancient times. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the period of British rule, including the Indian struggle for independence. Features illustrations, glossary of Indian terms, chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Majumdar, R. C., ed. The History and Culture of the Indian People. Vol. 11 in Struggle for Freedom. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978. The most detailed source for the history of the freedom struggle from the Indian perspective. It is particularly informative on the location and origin of the various groups that shared the common goal of political freedom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masani, Rustom Pestonji. Britain in India: An Account of British Rule in the Indian Sub-continent. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1960. An excellent analysis of British rule in India with special emphasis on identifying sources of change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metcalf, Barbara, and Thomas Metcalf. Concise History of India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Provides a brief yet comprehensive overview of the people and events that shaped India’s history. Includes a chapter on colonial India, a glossary, and a bibliographic essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nehru, Jawaharlal. Nehru: The First Sixty Years. Vol. 1. New York: John Day, 1965. A compilation of Nehru’s writings, speeches, press conferences, and other documents that provides an invaluable perspective on the independence movement from within.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India, 1885-1947. Delhi: Macmillan, 1983. This is a detailed account of the emergence of a modern nation from a left-of-center viewpoint. The specialist would be well advised to read this scholarly work that includes information not easily available in other sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spear, Percival. “The First World War and the Great Leap Forward.” In A History of India. Vol. 2. 1965. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Chapter within an excellent history of India during the modern period provides a good context for understanding the massacre.

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