Revisiting Champaran: Place that transformed Mohandas into Mahatma

  • Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 03, 2016 19:22 IST
Bhitiharwa Gandhi Ashram, founded by Gandhi in November 1917, near Narkatiaganj in West Champaran was renovated four years ago but by then not much remained. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

It was early morning when I reached the Bapudham Motihari railway station in Bihar’s East Champaran two weeks ago. A cool breeze blew as students, workers and families waited for their train on the platform. The loudspeaker crackled with a voice announcing a train arriving from Muzaffarpur. I stood there, on the foot-over-bridge between the two platforms, trying to imagine the day which started a fresh chapter in India’s independence struggle about a century ago.

On the afternoon of April 15, 1917, thousands had gathered at the same railway station, waiting for a man who was destined to lift their lives out of misery and slavery. It was 3 pm when Gandhi alighted at the station from a train from Muzaffarpur.

Little did people know that Gandhi’s visit would snowball into the first satyagraha that he would lead in the country. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Mahatma’s Champaran Satyagraha, the Bihar government has announced year-long celebrations starting this April.

The First Satyagraha

It was Champaran that turned Mohandas into the Mahatma. If Porbandar is his janmabhoomi, then Champaran is Gandhi’s karmabhoomi, Biharis claim proudly.

After his return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi, on his mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s suggestion, embarked on a journey to discover India. He travelled to Calcutta and Shantiniketan in Bengal, to Rangoon, Cawnpore and Hrishikesh. But it was in 1916, at the 31st session of the Congress in Lucknow, Gandhi met Raj Kumar Shukla, a representative of farmers from Champaran, who requested him to go and see for himself the miseries of the indigo raiyyats [tenant farmers] there.

“I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position, of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of indigo plantations,” Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography.

The colonial rulers in the region had imposed a system called tinkathia. Tenants were mandated by law to plant three out of twenty parts of their land with indigo; that is, they were under obligation to grow indigo in three kathas of every bigha. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that this [tinkathia] was at the root of all the troubles and miseries of the tenants of Champaran’, wrote Rajendra Prasad, who became the first president of India, in his book Satyagraha at Champaran.

Remains of an indigo factory near Hardiya Kothi in Nautan block, West Champaran. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

Farmers suffered as they got poor compensation or faced heavy taxation if they refused to plant indigo. The landlords (mostly British) would enforce this system with their agents, called Gumasta, who executed the terms brutally. The reduced production of food crops and exclusive indigo farming (they were not allowed to grow any other crop even during the indigo off-season) had led to a famine-like situation.

The news of Gandhi’s arrival spread like wildfire and he was greeted by large crowds of peasants at railway stations all along the way from Muzaffarpur to Motihari. The morning after Gandhi reached Motihari, he left for a village, Jasaulipatti, on elephant back for he had heard that a tenant there had been beaten and his property destroyed just a day ago. On his way, in Chandrahia village, he was served a notice from the then district magistrate WB Heycock with orders to leave Champaran by the next available train. Gandhi refused. He was arrested and produced before a court on April 18. With the kind of support he had already received, the British government, fearing unrest, released him. Two days later the case was withdrawn and the government promised to look into the farmers’ sufferings. Later, a formal committee was constituted, of which Gandhi was a part. After months of recording testimonies, the committee submitted its report. Almost a year after Gandhi’s arrival, the report was accepted and the tinkathia system was abolished.

Read | Gandhi was against forcing words down one’s throat

Lost in Time

Called the land of King Janak, Champaran or Champaranya, the Forest of Magnolia (champa in Hindi) has been associated with great historic events. It served as a refuge for saints: Valmiki, the author of Ramayana, is believed to have spent some time in an ashram here. The ruins of a stupa at Kesaria are a reminder of the Buddha’s travels in this region and is frequented by Buddhist pilgrims. King Asoka erected four stone pillars at different locations here. The Lichchavi and Gupta kingdoms were intimately associated with the land as well.

With over 90 per cent rural population, East and West Champaran have two major towns – Motihari and Bettiah. My search for Gandhi took me to the villages that he visited, the ashrams he stayed in and the schools that he helped set up. From Bhitiharwa ashram, situated in the northwest corner of Bihar to Pipra Kothi at the southern edge of Champaran, the area is peppered with places which bear the Mahatma’s imprints, though most of these places are in a sorry state today. Braj Kishor Singh, secretary of Motihari Gandhi Sanghralaya, blames it on the central and state governments’ indifference. The two Gandhi museums in Champaran display stories and photographs of his life. But strangely enough, Champaran’s history seems to be missing from most of these displays.

Gandhi kept coming back to work in the villages, much after the satyagraha ended. Following his footprints, I visited the Hazarimal Dharamshala in Bettiah and advocate Gorakh Prasad’s house, two places that Gandhi stayed in. Hazarimal Jhunjhunwala, a Marwari resident, had offered his place for Gandhi to stay in. But today, the imposing, two-storeyed dharamshala building has been reduced to a garbage dump obscured by a multilevel shopping complex while Prasad’s house stands half-demolished. A court case will decide the fate of the building that the present owner wants to demolish, something the Gandhians are protesting against.

After years of neglect, Hazarimal Dharamshala, once Gandhi’s refuge in Bettiah, has been turned into dumping ground today. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

“When very few dared to host Gandhiji, my great grandfather asked him to stay here,” says Avinash Jhunjhunwala, Hazarimal’s great-grandson. “We’re paying the penalty for that. We can’t construct anything there, nor can we install a Gandhi statue to commemorate his stay. The government doesn’t allow us to even touch the structure.” Locals, however, allege that the dharamshala is not a private property and Hazarimal’s descendants do not have a right over it. They are just waiting for the structure to fall so that they can take over the land.

In 2012, Bhitiharwa ashram, founded by Gandhi in November 1917, was renovated but by then not much remained. The only old structure, the Gandhi Kutir, was renovated which now displays a school bell from those days and Kasturba Gandhi’s chakki (hand mill). Gujarat Vidyapeeth and Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat reportedly donated charkhas, books and photos.

Another ashram, Vrindavan, near Bettiah, set up in 1939, is in an appalling condition. The only functioning part, a khadi store, has remained locked for the past 15 years. Charkha ghars in the vicinity are abandoned, with collapsing roofs and walls slowly giving way to wild plants. A part of the ashram’s front wall has been broken down to accommodate a marble plaque mentioning a donation by a local politician. A gaushala nearby, Pinjrapol, also set up by Gandhi, is mired in controversies. Locals say shops were built inside its compound to fund the gaushala, but the management simply pockets the rent money.

The gaushala houses 62 cows. The gaupalak, Naresh Chandra, a volunteer at the gaushala for the past 20 years, believes the place that should have been a model gaushala is poorly managed. “There are a lot of Gandhiwadis these days. But Gandhiwadis themselves have left Gandhian principles, forget about the others,” he says. “Today, Gandhi’s killers frequent his samadhi and offer flowers there.”

Gandhi also worked to promote education in Champaran. Foundations for three schools were laid in 1917 – the first near Motihari, the second in Bhitiharwa and the third in Madhuban. To bridge the gap between education and work, several such self-sustaining Buniyadi schools were established by him later as well. Training in spinning, carpentry, farming and weaving was also part of the education in these schools.

In 2012, the Bihar government had vowed to revive Buniyadi or Mahatma’s schools. Last week, Bihar’s education minister Ashok Choudhary said that the government would turn Buniyadi schools into model schools to revive them. The teachers there, however, allege delayed payments, indifference to falling levels of education and failure to recover encroached land. The school principal at Vrindavan claimed that the school is left with only 20 bighas of land of the over 100 bighas it owned earlier.

“After repeated requests, a fund of about `5.5 lakhs was promised by a local politician but the contract was given to his relative who siphoned off most of the amount,” said a teacher at a Buniyadi school. The politician, however, didn’t forget to get his name engraved on the ashram building.

Charkha ghars in the vicinity of Vrindavan Ashram are abandoned, with collapsing roofs and walls slowly giving way to wild plants. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

In places which show even slight signs of restoration, politicians have installed commemorative plaques promoting themselves. Placed at statues, ashrams and parks, the plaques exhibit their ‘good work’.

With the start of the centenary year, politicians, from local to national level, are making a beeline to Champaran. Rahul Gandhi is expected to reach Patna in June to kick-start celebrations of the 100th year. Last month, union minister Radha Mohan Singh inaugurated a Satyagraha Park in Motihari. The park, which was meant to honour English author George Orwell’s house, was turned into a park after protests by self-proclaimed Gandhians.

Read | On Gandhi’s death anniversary, need to do more than lament the tragedy

Distressed Farmers

“There have been peasant movements before and after the Champaran satyagraha,” says historian Mridula Mukherjee. “But the significance of this movement was that Gandhiji built bridges between the peasants and the other sections, especially the middle class intelligentsia. Its symbolic significance was much greater than what actually happened in Champaran.”

There were several instances of revolt by the raiyyats years before Gandhi reached Bihar. “The first indigo disturbance in Champaran, of which any record is available, was in 1867,” notes Rajendra Prasad in his book. It began in Lalsaraiya, once the most renowned indigo factory in Champaran.

In 1907-08 the tenants of Sathi factory near Bettiah were persuaded by kisan leaders Sheikh Gulab and Sital Rai to stop growing indigo. Few years later, one Babu Lomraj Singh in Jasaulipatti village near Motihari stood up against the planters. All the revolts were ruthlessly suppressed.

Unfortunately, their role in history has been largely forgotten. Recently, though, a revival of this historical narrative has emerged. Afroz Alam Sahil, a journalist and Bettiah resident, is researching the role of both Sheikh Gulab and Sital Rai. Last year, he released a book on journalist and activist Peer Mohammad Munis, who played an instrumental role in propagating the issues of Champaran with his writing, and who worked with Gandhi in Bettiah. More recently, the great-grandsons of Lomraj Singh released a short documentary on the incidents at Jasaulipatti. Over a year ago, Raj Kumar Shukla’s descendants got his diary – that documents Shukla’s time with Gandhi – published.

Raghunath Sahni, a farmer in Jagdishpur village in Bettiah, was forced to send his two children out of Bihar to find work as the land he owned wasn’t enough to feed the family. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

It was the exploitation of poor farmers that drew Gandhi to Champaran. A hundred years later farmers continue to fight poverty and exploitation. “We are still landless labourers. A few might have some land but not more than two to three kathas,” said Nandlal Shah, a sugarcane farmer in Piparia, Narkatiaganj. “Most of the farms are owned by mill owners or kothi walas. We get Rs.100 to 120 for a day’s work in the farms.”

Landless and uneducated, farmers are forced to migrate out of Bihar. Shah says that people from his village have gone to Punjab, Delhi, Kerala, among other places, looking for work. Mishri Manjhi, Shah’s neighbour, claims that they earn more in a few months outside the state than they do in a year working on farms.

Indigo vanished from Champaran after the satyagraha and was replaced by sugarcane and paddy. Raiyats got their due, and were lifted out of misery, but land ownership passed on to those close to the regime. Today, the estates once owned by Englishmen are run by Indian landlords, remnants of a feudal or durbari set up.

“Pehle neelha the, ab millha aa gaye hain (Indigo planters ruled before, now mill owners rule),” said Munawar Alam, a lawyer and social activist who kicked off a Ganna (cane) Satyagraha last year. Following the path shown by Gandhi, Alam and his team went from village to village in West Champaran documenting testimonies and complaints filed against sugarcane mills. The movement helped the farmers to get their due in sugarcane payments. But Alam says the fight is far from over. The real fight is to get farmers the land that is rightfully theirs.

Interestingly, every movement that takes root in the region is called a satyagraha. A week ago, in an event to mark the start of the centenary year in Motihari, water conservationist Rajendra Singh called upon the people of Champaran to start a Jal Satyagraha, focusing on receding ground water levels and the drying up of canals. “A jal satyagraha will be a real tribute to Gandhiji,” he said at the event.

According to Pervez Alam, Sheikh Gulab’s great grandson, their village is facing a drought-like situation. “The canal built by the British has been dry for the past five years. We manage only one harvest instead of two and the crop yield has reduced too,” he said.

Banhu Bhagat, caretaker of the Gandhi Smarak in Vrindavan Ashram near Bettiah, alleges that many politicians visit the place but no one has ever bothered to preserve the ashram. (Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times)

In Motihari, Gandhi had told his companions that ‘as long as the condition of the villages was not improved, India could not be happy’.

A hundred years later, Gandhi survives, but in statues and museums, in the roads, parks, hotels, shops, songs named after him and, of course, on currency notes. From Bapudham Motihari railway station to Hotel Gandhi Inn in Motihari, to Gandhi khadi shops all over Champaran.

Gandhi seems to have become a commodity, used only for personal gains here, I tell a Motihari journalist. Isn’t the entire country doing just that, he responds.

A timeline of the events which led to the Champaran Satyagraha:

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