Champaran: India’s first Satyagraha
Gandhi’s swaraj meant self-sufficiency at the village level, dependent largely on agriculture. Today’s information age, however, offers new avenues and aspirations. Champaran and its surroundings remains a labour sink for the country and beyond.Updated: Sep 25, 2019 21:58 IST
The year is 1917. Gandhi is awaited.
The exploitation of Champaran’s cultivators is getting worse by the day. They are angry, but there is little comfort in sight. The British rulers have imposed a system called Tinkathia, which forces them to grow indigo plant on 15% of their land, and, additionally, pay tax; failing to comply invites serious consequences like getting tied to a tree and thrashed, or having cattle confiscated and farms and houses auctioned.
The indigo produce will go to the British-run indigo processing factories across Champaran. The sahebs live close by, in sprawling havelis surrounded by vast paddy and sugarcane farms, mango orchards, and rivers.
But there is a problem.
Jute export from India is not as profitable as it once was, neither is opium; indigo dyes are lucrative, but the synthetic ones made by the Germans since the turn of the 20th century have challenged the British monopoly. From being grown over 91,000 acres across north and east India in 1892-97, indigo plantation has, by 1914, come down to about 8100 acres, mostly around Champaran. But, since the First World War began, the British empire needs more resources. In the north Indian plains, the British are forcing tenants to grow other crops and extracting water cess, marriage and death duty. Most cultivators are resigned to their fate. Resistance — traces of which go as far back as 1867 — has been met with brutality. All options are exhausted.
Tenant leader, Raj Kumar Shukla, and journalist, Peer Mohammad Munis, are keen to bring over MK Gandhi, known for his political activism in South Africa. They have heard of him through Bihari indentured labourers. They succeed after a few attempts.
On his way to Champaran, Gandhi halts in Muzaffarpur on April 11, and hears stories of cruelty meted out to tenant-cultivators. The stories surprise him, or perhaps he wants to be sure about the allegations, and asks repeatedly: “Is it possible? Can this be true?”
The first foray in India
The British authorities did not want Gandhi to visit Champaran. The evening he reached Motihari, in Champaran — April 15, 1917 — he heard about a tenant’s mistreatment in Jasaulpatti village. The following morning, he made his way to the village on elephant back, but was summoned by the district magistrate midway. “I order you to abstain from remaining in the district, which you are required to leave by the next available train,” the order, delivered by a policeman on a bicycle, stated.
Gandhi declined. “Out of a sense of public responsibility, I feel it to be my duty to say that I am unable to leave the district but if it so pleases the authorities, I shall submit to the order by suffering the penalty of disobedience.”
Gandhi charted out his plan to visit villages, camping in the two big towns of Bettiah and Motihari. On April 18, Gandhi was summoned to court, where a large crowd had gathered. Taking the stand, he accepted all charges levelled against him.
“As a law-abiding citizen, my first instinct would be, as it was, to obey the order served upon me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I came. I feel that I could just now serve them only by remaining in their midst. I could not therefore voluntarily retire,” he read his statement.
“If you leave the district now and promise not to return, the case against you would be withdrawn,” the magistrate responded. “That cannot be,” Gandhi replied. “I shall make Champaran my home even after my return from jail.”
A few days later, the case was withdrawn. The force of satyagraha made its presence felt in India for the first time.
Starting April 22, and over the following months, Gandhi set out to collect testimonies of tenants from nearby villages. Many descended at the Motihari ashram (now in east Champaran) where Gandhi stayed, to narrate their stories.
“Due to the excesses of the factory, my relatives left the village and property and migrated to Malganj village. They took my land and sold my belongings. But I still live in my house and sustain myself by begging,” Fareedan from Kamalpura told Gandhi.
“Due to their excesses, many ryots [cultivators] died… many ran away… to Nepal’s terai region. Mr Ammon sent his men who looted my paddy cultivation and other belongings, and destroyed my house, and took away doors and windows,” Shukla, the tenants’ rights activist from Satwariya village, narrated.
By June 4, over 7,000 cultivators from 850 villages recorded their statements. Gandhi ensured that the cultivators were cross-questioned to prove the veracity of their claims; he even invited British officials to witness the proceedings, and often met the planters to hear their versions as well. These were compiled and handed over to Lieutenant Governor Sir Edward Gait.
Based on these testimonies, the Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee was set up; Gandhi was a member along with four Indian Civil Services officers, and the commissioner of Central Provinces. Over July and August, the committee held several meetings, and finally submitted its report in October. The report eventually led to the Champaran Agrarian Act, 1918, which abolished coercive indigo farming.
The work continued
Though the British exploitation of indigo farmers had brought Gandhi to Champaran, he soon realised that his task didn’t end there. “As I gained more experience of Bihar, I became convinced that work of a permanent nature was impossible without proper village education. The ryots’ (tenants) ignorance was pathetic. They either allowed their children to roam about, or made them toil on indigo plantations from morning to night for a couple of coppers a day,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Within a few months, volunteers from across the country joined him, and eventually, they started six schools for foundational learning. More followed later.
He was not immune to the plight of women. Rajendra Prasad writes in Satyagraha in Champaran that on his second day in Champaran itself, Gandhi told one of his companions, “It is not my desire that our women should adopt the western mode of living; but we must realise what harm this pernicious system [purdhah] does to their health and in how many ways they are deprived of the privilege of helping their husbands.”
He asked his wife, Kasturba, to come to Champaran; she, together with Gandhi and his companions, started schools for girls, and acted as his messenger among the women. Soon after, he started working on sanitation in the villages, and ran health camps.
“But I did not want to stop at providing for primary education. The villages were insanitary, the lanes full of filth, the wells surrounded by mud and stink, and the courtyards unbearably untidy. The elder people badly needed education in cleanliness. They were all suffering from various skin diseases. So it was decided to do as much sanitary work as possible, and to penetrate every department of their lives,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Gandhi was pitching for a long battle.
Among other things, Gandhi’s world view relied strongly on the moral choices of individuals as well as of society. Alcohol and smoking were strict no-nos. “He hanged a hukka on the tree facing the school as a sign to discourage its consumption,” Suresh Singh, the caretaker of Barharwa Lakhansen, the first school opened by Gandhi, recalled his father telling him.
A century later, the state has banned liquor but unemployment — and smack consumption, at least in Champaran — is rife among young people. “Things are changing fast. In the next five years, I see a disturbing future for the young if it’s not addressed,” said Manaur Alam, a local lawyer and social activist, who, following Gandhi’s footsteps, led a “ganna satyagraha” starting May 2015, to negotiate better wages of sugarcane growers and mill workers.
“On the very first day, local toughs and police threw out our banners and beat us with lathis. But we made sure that we are peaceful and do not retaliate to their provocations at any cost,” Alam said. The protest lasted three weeks, and a Public Interest Litigation was filed in 2015 in the Bihar high court, which paved the way for the payment of many farmers.
The region continues to be as it was during Gandhi’s time, farmer-centric, though there are some sugar mills in Champaran. Conversations with locals throw up such issues as long delays or non-payments of dues and the air and water pollution caused by mills.
Gandhi’s swaraj meant self-sufficiency at the village level, dependent largely on agriculture. Today’s information age, however, offers new avenues and aspirations. Champaran and its surroundings remains a labour sink for the country and beyond: once as indentured labours to South Africa and Indies; now as voluntary migrants to Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab, and the Gulf. According to a 2010 Indian Institute of Public Administration report, between 4.4 to 5 million labour migrants from Bihar work in other parts of India. A 2016 Institute of Human Development study, based on repeated surveys conducted in seven districts of Bihar, found that 58% households in these districts reported at least one migrant worker.
However,these villages once influenced Gandhi’s idea of swaraj. He wrote in his autobiography: “My ideal village will contain intelligent human beings. They will not live in dirt and darkness as animals. Men and women will be free and able to hold their own against anyone in the world”.
Poor infrastructure seems endemic. For instance, the first foundational school Gandhi started in 1917 is now a high school, but has only four teachers for 1200 students. Dozens of primary schools — loosely emulating the schools Gandhi started and teaching his ideas such as village swaraj, farming or morality — dot Champaran, but the teachers and principals we spoke to decry the quality of infrastructure.
The descendants of Raj Kumar Shukla, the activist responsible for bringing Gandhi to Champaran, complain that their village has no proper roads. “Write it in a matter that at least the government is forced to do something about improving communication [with the outside world],” said Mani Bhushan Rai, Shukla’s grandson. He feels that nothing much has changed since Gandhi. “During the British time, the white people looted us; now our own exploit us, using bureaucracy and democracy.”
Gandhi is awaited yet again.
(Gandhi’s reaction to the stories of cruelty meted to tenants on reaching Muzaffarpur on April 11, 1917, has been taken from Satyagraha in Champaran by Rajendra Prasad, 1949; District magistrate’s order forcing Gandhi to turn back from Jasaulpatti, and Gandhi’s response taken from Gandhi in Champaran by DG Tendulkar, 1957; Gandhi’s statement to the magistrate on April 18 taken from Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, MK Gandhi; Magistrate’s response to Gandhi’s statement taken from Satyagraha in Champaran; Testimonies of tenants taken from Gandhi ka Champaran, Champaran ka Gandhi – Sarvekshan Ke Aaine Mein, Samvad, 2017.)