Champaran satyagraha turned into social reform
Bhitiharwa ashram lies in Bihar’s West Champaran district, around 55 km from Bettiah and a few kilometres from the Nepal border. When MK Gandhi first came here in 1917, the adjoining Nepal terai and Valmiki forest reserve used to attract the British and affluent Indians for hunting. For the rest, forced Indigo farming and illegal taxes levied by the British, was the big concern. Gandhi’s visit was intended to hear the cultivators’ grievances and negotiate a better deal for them. But other issues such as a lack of cleanliness, unsatisfactory schooling, and the plight of women troubled Gandhi.
“The position is so bad that I dare not leave here even for a day. I have cancelled all appointments,” Gandhi wrote in an April 29, 1917 letter posted from Bettiah.
Gandhi established an ashram-school on land donated by a local priest, Baba Ram Narayan Das, which opened on November 20, 1917, a week after establishing a similar foundation school in Barharwa Lakhansen village 135 km away. Although Gandhi stayed in Bhitiharwa only for a brief period, Kasturba did so for months — working, primarily, among women of the village.
The ashram, constructed out of materials locally available in abundance — bamboo and grass — was burnt down, reportedly at the behest of indigo planters. Gandhi decided to rebuild it this time as a pucca building. Kasturba is said to have carried the bricks to help Gandhi and others construct the building. The hut still stands. It displays black-and-white photographs of indigo factories, machines and tenants struggling in farms. Now a museum, it also displays a bronze bell, used in the school Gandhi started, and a millstone, used by Kasturba. A display in the verandah informs visitors that this was once the prayer meeting hall. In its present form, the ashram serves as a reminder of the freedom movement, but it receives no more than a few hundred visitors in a year.
At present, there are several such Foundation schools being run by the state government, along the lines of what Gandhi started.