How Empires Die


“When Government undertakes a repressive policy, the innocent are not safe. Men like me would not be considered innocent. The innocent then is he who forswears politics, who takes no part in the public movements of the times, who retires into his house, mumbles his prayers, pays his taxes, and salaams all the government officials all round. The man who interferes in politics, the man who goes about collecting money for any public purpose, the man who addresses a public meeting, then becomes a suspect. I am always on the borderland and I, therefore, for personal reasons, if for nothing else, undertake to say that the possession, in the hands of the Executive, of powers of this drastic nature will not hurt only the wicked. It will hurt the good as well as the bad, and there will be such a lowering of public spirit, there will be such a lowering of the political tone in the country, that all your talk of responsible government will be mere mockery …

“Much better that a few rascals should walk abroad than that the honest man should be obliged for fear of the law of the land to remain shut up in his house, to refrain from the activities which it is in his nature to indulge in, to abstain from all political and public work merely because there is a dreadful law in the land.”

–Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri, speaking in the Imperial Legislative Council, at the introduction of the Rowlatt Bill, Feb 7, 1919

It was bad enough, when the bill doing away with habeas corpus and adherence to the Geneva Conventions was being discussed this week, that its supporters actually said that only those who had done wrong need worry. It is further testament to our standard of political discourse that the rebuttal was often equally pathetic — we can’t trust this president to exercise good judgement! Few statesman in today’s debate can capture the issue as succinctly as did Rt. Hon. Sastri nearly a century ago.

All of this is moot, in another sense. This is just one more slide, albeit a huge one, in a long list of slippages our people and politicians have allowed over the last decade, always with the exhortation to ‘put it behind us’.

We set out to make Iraq in America’s image. We have succeeded splendidly in achieving a certain mutual resemblance. Today there is no difference between disappearing in Iraq and disappearing in America. In one place you might be held incognito by a militia, in the other by the government. Until yesterday, the difference was that in America, the governent was obliged to produce you before a magistrate, to let you have a lawyer, to allow your family to know.

The mobs in the middle east may raise a million cries of, “Death to America”, but it is George W. Bush and his pocket Congress that are carrying out their wishes.

‘Na Vakeel, Na Daleel, Na Appeal’, was the slogan raised by Indians against the imposition of the Rowlatt Act in 1919. Translation “No lawyer, No Trial, No Appeal”.

“The Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919, indefinitely extending wartime “emergency meaures” in order to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. This act effectively authorised the government to imprison without trial, any person suspected of terrorism living in the Raj.” (From Wikipedia)

There was anger in India — and shock. Whatever one’s dislike of British rule, it had the perceived merit of standing fast by notions such as open trials, prisoner’s rights, appeals, due process, impressive in a country which had mainly known princely whim for justice in earlier times. The Rowlatt Act tore the veil of moral superiority from the public face of British rule.
Indian opposition to the Act, voiced by many well-meaning and eloquent legislators such as Sastri, was ignored. Public outrage was widespread, but unfocused. Gandhi was then a relatively fresh face in India, having returned from South Africa less than four years before. His exploits in South Africa and more recently in Bihar had won him fair renown, but he was by no means yet pre-eminent.

Though on unfamilar political terrain and younger than many other leaders in a country where age equated to deference, Gandhi had two attributes that set him apart from most other leaders –daring and faith. Only he could have had the nerve to call for a general strike throughout India, as he did. Only he could have grasped that a draconian law was an insult to the country, and that to not counter it in the fullest measure was to betray an article of faith. He was in Madras, at the home of his host Rajagopalachari (later to be the first Indian Governor General), when, as he writes in his autobiography, “The idea came last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal (strike)”. On April 6, without any formal organization, in an era without phones, photocopiers, or computers, word spread, and the entire country came to a standstill!

If Gandhi found a law permitting detention without trail by a foreign government abhorrent enough to launch a nationwide general strike, what is America doing when similar laws are being passed by its own government?

Answer: Not even a filibuster. Are there political leaders holding town hall meetings (electronic and otherwise) telling the people what this draconian legislation means? They are far too busy trying to dodge the accusation of being ‘soft on terror’. As in 2002, this will not save them. Tony Snow warned today that their statements of doubt during the debate can and will be used against them in the campaign (proof that Miranda at least still lives, after a fashion). They are, in Sastri’s words, “Toadies, Timid Men”.

Following the hartal, in Punjab (where the Lt. Governor would shortly impose indignities such as a crawling lane where Indians could not walk, but only crawl), people assembled in a park in Amritsar on Baisakhi Day (the Punjabi New Year) on April 13, 1919, to protest the arrest of two activists. Known to history as Jallianwalla Bagh, the garden was enclosed all around by a wall. Gen. Reginald Dyer, head of the army in Punjab, said he wanted to provide Indians a “moral lesson”, and had his troops fire into the enclosed space, resulting in the death of 379 people (by official count).

The rest (no pun intended) is history. After the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh, the English lost any moral hold they had over the minds of Indians. The Great Hartal also signified the beginning of the Gandhi Era. Within thirty years, the Empire was finished. As a booklet on Jallianwalla Bagh says, “If at Plassey the foundations of the British Empire were laid, at Amritsar they were broken”.

In our times, having already disdained the law and being caught out by the Supreme Court, our Emperors are trying to rewrite the statute retroactively, assisted by a conscience-free Congress. That a reportedly sick man hiding in a cave in Waziristan has brought about the abolition of habeas corpus in America is the clearest verdict on who is winning the War on Terror.

In India, in 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi passed a similar law, abolishing habeas corpus and setting herself unpunishable for any crimes committed before or during her office (it was repealed, lock stock and barrel, when a new government came to power). But before she could do so, the entire opposition had been arrested, the press had censorship clamped on it, and the jails filled with a hundred thousand dissenters picked up in midnight sweeps. India’s parliament does not have a filibuster. The Democrats and Republicans who sold the country down the river have no similar defense, other than to say it has become a habit.
Where is the Martin Luther King today to call for civil disobedience? Where are the crowds outside the White House and Congress? The fight is no longer against the Bush administration or its minions in the other estates. Their Empire is headed for the abyss. The question, is, will it take the Republic along?

Gandhi wrote in his Satyagraha in South Africa (whose 100th Anniverary fell on 9-11-2006!), that people came to him saying, “We are ready to follow you to the gallows”. He replied, “Jail is enough for me.” If the Republic is to be saved, those who love it must ask themselves what they are ready to give up in return. As for the rest, Samuel Adams (yes, the beer guy) had this answer:

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, ” go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at His blog is at



/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at