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Remembering the first Satyagraha: 100 years of Champaran

This is the latest event to commemorate the centenary of Gandhi’s landmark struggle for the rights of indigo farmers in rural Bihar.

long reads Updated: Apr 17, 2017 14:21 IST
Poonam Saxena
Gandhi
Indigo farmers in Bihar had suffered under white planters since the 19th century. By the time Gandhi arrived in Champaran in 1917, they were forced to cultivate indigo (which brought them extremely poor remuneration) and to raise money for a variety of bizarre, illegal cesses called abwabs. (Gandhi in Champaran by DG Tedulkar)

On a hot April morning in 1917, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Patna by train from Calcutta. It was his first visit to the city and he had come to champion the cause of indigo farmers in Champaran, spurred by persistent requests from an indigo agriculturist Rajkumar Shukla. “I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position of Champaran,” he wrote in his autobiography.

But that did not deter him from working tirelessly in the region for close to a year, leading his first successful civil disobedience movement in India. This is the 100th year of that landmark struggle and there have already been a slew of commemorative events. The latest — this one scholarly in nature — will take place on April 15 at the India International Centre, and has been organised by Dr Aparna Basu, chairperson of the National Gandhi Museum.

The programme includes a panel discussion and a film on Champaran. Says historian, Dr Mridula Mukherjee, “The Champaran movement is significant because it was the first political action that Gandhi led in India for a deeply oppressed peasantry in a remote part of the country.” Gandhi’s subsequent localised movements in Ahmedabad (for mill workers) and Kheda (where he supported distressed peasants) were, in a sense, the learning and training grounds for the massive nation-wide protests that he launched from 1919 onwards.

A 1915 photo of Gandhi whose first civil disobedience movement was in Champaran where he mobilised local vakils and farmers. (Dinodia Photo/ Alamy)

The oppression of Champaran’s indigo farmers by white planters dated back to the 19th century; in 1848 a British civil servant wrote that “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” By the time Gandhi arrived, the indigo farmers were in the grip of the pernicious tinkathia system whereby they were forced to dedicate three out of 20 parts of their land to the cultivation of indigo.

Not only did the peasants get poor remuneration, they were also subject to almost 40 different kinds of bizarre, illegal cesses called abwabs. If the planters wanted to buy elephants for shikaar, the tenants had to raise money and this was called hathiahi. Similar taxes were extorted for purchasing horses or cars (ghorahi, motorahi). And so on. Dr Basu points out that at various points in the history of the region, the peasantry had rebelled but all such movements were suppressed ruthlessly.

When Gandhi arrived in Champaran, he introduced a new, different kind of political activity. He demonstrated the hallmarks of his future political actions for the first time in India, particularly his ability to effectively mobilise people. Says Dr Mukherjee, “People say that Gandhi was charismatic, that’s why he was able to mobilise millions of people. But the truth is that he understood people at the grassroots because of the extraordinary hard work he put in — look at the number of people he met every day of his life, the hundreds of people he corresponded with, the weekly journal he brought out… His unerring political instinct was born out of tremendous experience.”

In Champaran, he decided that the peasants were so crushed and fear-stricken, it would be useless to go to law courts for a reprieve. “The real relief for them is to be free from fear. We cannot sit still until we have driven tinkathia out of Bihar,” he wrote.

Seated L-R: Rajendra Prasad who later became India’s first President and Anugrah Narayan Sinha who served as a finance minister and chief minister of Bihar. Standing L-R: Ramnavmi Pasad and Shambhusaran Varma. All of them were local vakils who wholeheartedly threw themselves into the Satyagraha at Champaran. (National Gandhi Museum)

With that goal in mind, he swung into action, displaying his formidable appetite for meticulous, unflagging hard work. Along with a band of trusted associates, mostly local vakils, he toured the region relentlessly, recording the statements of the cultivators. He travelled third class in trains, walked miles in the scorching sun, sometimes rode on elephant back (a common mode of transport in the area) buffeted by hot, dusty winds, as he went from one village to another.

By the end of April, wrote Rajendra Prasad (who worked closely with Gandhi in Champaran and later wrote a book Satyagraha in Champaran), they had “recorded testimonies of thousands of tenants and become acquainted with almost all the grievances of Champaran. There was hardly any locality in the whole District from which some tenants had not come to us and given their statements.”

But from the moment he set foot in Patna on April 10, Gandhi was on the radar of the British. On April 15, he had arrived in Motihari, only to set off at nine the next morning for the village of Jasaulipatti where he had heard of the oppression of a farmer. He was intercepted three hours later at a village called Chandrahia by a police sub-inspector and delivered an ultimatum by the Commissioner to leave the district because he was considered a “danger” to “public tranquility.” Gandhi replied that he “was unable to leave the District but if it so pleases the authorities, I shall submit to the order by suffering the penalty of civil disobedience.”

This was unusual. As historians have noted, to offer passive resistance or civil disobedience to an unjust order was novel. Even leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, when externed from a particular province, had obeyed orders though they organized public protests against them.

By April 18, Gandhi was preparing to go to jail. The news of his possible arrest had spread like wildfire in Motihari and thousands of tenants started assembling in the court from the morning itself. “According to the law I was to be on trial, but truly speaking Government was to be on trial,” wrote Gandhi. He was told that if he promised to leave and not return, the case against him would be withdrawn. Gandhi refused: “Not to speak of this time alone, I shall make Champaran my home even after my return from jail.” At 7 pm on April 20, a confused, jittery administration, which had thought that Gandhi would offer defence, withdrew the case. Gandhi wrote: “The country thus had its first direct object-lesson in Civil Disobedience.”

Rajkumar Shukla, an indigo farmer, met Gandhi at the Lucknow Congress in 1916 and urged him to visit Champaran. It was his persistent efforts that brought Gandhi to rural Bihar. (National Gandhi Museum)

When his arrest had seemed imminent, Gandhi had displayed yet another hallmark of his political action —the practical, organisational aspect. He put together a plan: if he went to jail, his associates Mazharul Haque and Babu Brajkishore Prasad would take over the work. If they were arrested, Babu Dharnidhar and Babu Ramnavmi would take over. If they were picked up, Rajendra Prasad, Shambhusharan and Anugrahnarayan Sinha would step in. And so on.

The close cooperation with his associates over months of intense toil bound Gandhi to them in lifelong friendship. He had brought them on board to act as his translators and interpreters (he did not understand the local dialects), and to help him with the task of recording evidence, but over time, the Mahatma also brought about dramatic changes in their lifestyle. In the early days, all the vakils had a servant and a cook and their own separate kitchens. Eventually, the servants were dispensed with and all the kitchens were amalgamated. Gandhi pointed out that this freed up a lot of time and energy which was then diverted to the task at hand.

Brajkishore Prasad or "vakil babu" went on to become one of Gandhi’s most "esteemed" co-workers in Champaran. (National Gandhi Museum)

Eventually, the government was compelled to appoint a Commission of Inquiry and nominated Gandhi as one of its members. He had already collected the testimonies of 8,000 peasants and the evidence was hard to refute. The tinkathia system was abolished and the planters partially refunded the money that they had extorted from the peasants.

The success of the first civil disobedience movement is all the more significant because, as Gandhi said, when he arrived, no one knew him (despite his fame from his South African days) and the Congress party was practically unknown in those parts. But the real significance of Champaran was, in the words of his biographer DG Tendulkar, the fact that Gandhi “forged a weapon by which India could be made free.”

Reference books

My Experiments with Truth — An Autobiography by M K Gandhi

Satyagraha in Champaran by Rajendra Prasad

Gandhi in Champaran by D G Tendulkar

India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, K N Panikkar