Why is Mahatma’s Champaran Satyagraha still relevant?

Champaran Satyagraha

The actual probity on any part cannot be achieved by revisiting historical accounts on pages of history books, what Champaran episode of Indian independence movement teaches us is the need of pragmatic approach and implementation of historical standards on current day sets.

In foothills of Himalayas, on the contours of Nepal and India, Bihar’s largest district in terms of area encompasses  the soil where Valmiki once compiled Ramayana and Royal Bengal Tigers have their own regal pace in Valmikinagar Tiger Reserve, an agricultural belt hosting a handful number of sugar mills, the symbol of Asoka’s Buddhist inclination where it hosts the Asoka pillar and Buddhist sites but these are not things that immediately hit neurons when thinking about Champaran, or the forest of plumeria. Rather, it is a ravishingly astonishing story of efforts of humankind in the history of democratic struggles.

Before Gandhi could enter Champaran, Commissioner L.F. Morshead, asked Gandhi to leave Tirhut Division. Gandhi was expected to visit Champaran with Raj Kumar Shukla and other Congress leaders. European Planters’ Association’s secretary Mr. Wilson did not disclose documents requested by Gandhi: Gandhi was declared an ‘outsider’.

Gandhi arrived in Motihari (Champaran District, now headquarters of East Champaran) on April 17, 1917, Archarya J.B. Kripalani, Advocate Brajkishore Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Singh and Dr Rajendra Prasad were also with Mahatma. Raj Kumar Shukla was the driving force behind Champaran chapter of Indian independence movement. A farmer from Murali Bharhawa village of Champaran, Raj Kumar Shukla, supported by voices like Pir Muhammad Munis, went to Lucknow session of Indian National Congress to draw Gandhi’s attention towards planters’ cruelties. Following Calcutta Session, Gandhi boarded the train to Bihar on April 9.

On April 18, Gandhi was ordered to appear before sub-divisional officer for violating the section 144 CrPC. A large crowd of peasants gathered around the court. It was civil disobedience, Gandhi read the statement aloud to the magistrate. Court, not knowing how to respond to civil disobedience, was reluctant to imprison him. As Gandhi had no bailer, for 100 rupees bail, he was released on magistrate’s personal recognizance. Now Gandhi was free to continue with his investigation into farm distress.

Gandhi arrived in Bettiah Raj on April 22nd. Gandhi delivered his first address to peasants in the nearby harvested mustard field of Munab Khan as thousands of peasants had gathered around Bettiah railway station. People still recount how “the mustard field of a Muslim pleasantly welcomed a Hindu with arms wide open and religious harmony intact.” The situation was ripe for movement.

After the failure of 1857 revolt against colonial rule, agitated Indians were back to the drawing board. The missing link was unity and leadership. MK Gandhi became the link that connected masses and supplied courage and strength to subjugated Indians to push the reform built on the weapon of non-violence.

Bettiah Raj was the biggest estate of indigo garden owners. European garden owners did not only have their shares in indigo production; local industries also used to contribute an effective share to them. The British Raj did not only use to grant their officials and affiliated Europeans a standard pay but also a right to oppress innocents beyond tolerable limits.

Indigo was in demand before Germany started manufacturing artificial dyes. Demand fell, the plantation and production of dyes came to a halt. But that was just a transient relaxation for the peasants. It had to eventually end; suffering needed to be reinforced.

The critical year was 1914. Relations between Britain and Germany collapsed due to impending war, and once again, indigo was back in demand. Garden owners reinvested back into their business, they started imposing their tactics on peasants for indigo production without providing a legitimate share to cultivators. Another problem before farmers was the reduced fertility of the field which is commonly associated with indigo cropping.

These stale acts of Bihar Planters Association pushed Gandhi to join Shukla’s struggle and the struggle of other thousands of farmers forcibly employed in indigo production. European Defense Association was totally against this ‘intrusion’; local branch of the association wrote to the company and magistrate that Gandhi’s presence in Champaran was no less than an act of crime and turbulence which would distort lives of Champaran people and block Champaran’s development.

Gandhi who already had a record of disturbing British hegemony in South Africa was expected to study the grievances of indigo peasants and to help them fight the timorous condition of livelihood under British Raj.

After death of Maharaja Sir Harendra Kishore Bahadur in 1893, Champaran came under British rule. Maharaja died childless and was succeeded by the British Raj which divided West Champaran (then Bettiah Raj) into various blocks, and each block housed a kothi — the mansion and attached office building — for European manager. Manager collected taxes, protected European interests — here, planters’ interests — and reported to the magistrate of Champaran.

Gandhi decided to visit all kothis to collect documents and to listen the grievances of peasants, so he could send reports to Viceroy of all documented atrocities. “Gandhi’s stayed at Bapu Hajarimal’s ashram. Marwari gentleman had various dishes ready for Gandhi, but Gandhi only ate two rotis with a glass of milk and went to sleep,” CPI(M) district office-bearer Prabhuraj Narayan Rao recollects his grandfather and freedom fighter Ramashrey Rao’s memories of Champaran movement.

On April 23rd, Gandhi met peasants at Hajarimal’s ashram. At the request of Kishun Ramdhari, a nearby villager, Gandhi decided to visit his village Singachhapar to observe the degree of colonial torture. Before this could happen, some news from Lawkaria, a village in Bairia block (roughly 20 kms from Gandhi’s location) angered all satyagrahis. Farmer Rajman Kurmi’s land was illegally and forcefully occupied by Bairia kothi. Manager Hargayle’s men also thrashed Rajman. Gandhi planned to visit Rajman on 24th April.

Gandhi reached Lawkaria. Thousands of satyagrahis were agitated against the ugly face of brutality Rajman experienced. However, the movement was being driven by the force of peace, there was no room for violent eruption. Gandhi’s peaceful actions were proving effective. Gandhi inspected conditions of peasants of Lawkaria. Mr. Hargayle and sub-divisional magistrate WH Lewis reached Lawkaria; they were irritated by Gandhian sympathy. After exchanging heated arguments, they returned. They felt helpless, this helplessness of British officials boosted the morale of local peasants and made them believe that “the momentum of movement could not be undone”.

It’s quite interesting to note that civil servants employed in Champaran were highly influenced by Gandhi. Magistrate understood him well. He was also aware of Gandhi’s S. African chapter. He saw in Gandhi a fusion of East and West. To further quote Irfan Habib: “Gandhi was greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin: from the former he derived mainly his hatred of violence and consumerism, and from the latter, respect for labour and concern for the poor.”

Gandhian forbearance not only supplied infinite courage to the broken bones of peasants to stand for their rights but also left all inspired, even outsiders, who were closely following news reports on Champaran movement. As slow-moving wind erases the sordid scars of existence.

After a visit to Singachhapar on April 26, Gandhi gained intimate knowledge of suffering of peasantry. He marched to Narkatiyaganj next day. And then to Rampur Bhitiharwa. Highly influenced by Gandhian philosophy, a wealthy priest, Mahant Baba Ramnrayan Das donated a piece of land in Bhitiharwa to the Gandhi Mission. Gandhi spent a night at the home of Sant Raut. Sant Raut is one of the unsung heroes of Champaran Satyagraha.  It was Sant Raut who had advised Shukla to meet Gandhi. “Champaran-wallahs continue to adore their heroes who sowed the first seeds of independence with their bravery and sacrifices,” said Shashi Bhushan, Raj Kumar Shukla’s grandson and a retired bank employee.

Planters started writing in local newspapers focusing on their contributions in Champaran’s development. In fact, Erwin, a prominent planter, tried to poison Gandhi. Luckily, he was saved by the bravery of cook Batakh Mian Ansari who refused to submit.

After receiving the news of farmers’ oppression in Dhokraha and Sirisiya, Gandhi decided to visit them. European planter Holden had lodged the case against farmers that they had burnt his stable. Farmers were arrested. Gandhi visited Sirisiya to find the truth. A single question, which locals still recount, left all inspired by Gandhi’s intelligence. Gandhi asked Holden how he was so sure. If peasants had burnt the stable, then why were horses safe. Influenced by Gandhi, Holden withdrew the case, and it was again a win for peasants.

By June, Gandhi Mission had recorded peasants’ statements and on October 3rd, Mission submitted a report to the Government.

Champaran Agrarian Bill was introduced by Maude on November 2nd consisting of almost all recommendations Gandhi Mission had made and it became the Champaran Agrarian Law (1918: Bihar and Orissa Act I).

Indigo movement ended, but not Champaran movement. Gandhi wanted over-all development of Champaran.  For Gandhi, education and hygiene were also important elements in fight against oppression. This time, ‘Ba’ Kasturba Gandhi was in Champaran. On November 16th, 1917, local villagers’ efforts culminated into a school and a small guest house at Bhitiharwa where people of Gandhi Mission could reside. On receiving this news, manager of Belwa Kothi conspired and the villagers’ efforts were engulfed in fire.

This was not going to deter Gandhi. He arrived on November 20th, Dr. Dev, Harikrishna Sahay and his followers from Gandhi Mission joined him. A temporary hut was made. Ba began coaching the local girls.

Champaran Satyagraha technically ended in May 1918 after basic objectives were met successfully, but revolutionary philosophy remained rooted in the soil of Champaran. Perhaps, 1942 chapter of Quit India movement proved it. On August 24, 1942, the magistrate was addressing the mass gathering at Chotta Ramana parade ground of Bettiah. Young men started revolting against the magistrate and colonial rule, magistrate ordered to fire indiscriminately on the unarmed crowd, leaving 8 dead and several injured.

Gandhi and Champaran developed a special bond. They inspired each other. And this shared inspiration will continue to inspire generations to come. Places Gandhi visited never fail to refresh history. The fragrance of Gandhian philosophy can still be felt, albeit with less intensity. All Gandhians joined the hands to transform Gandhi Mission in Bihar into a national spirit.

After a journey of 100 glorious years, Champaran episode still stands as a paragon of reformation and bravery. It also taught us the importance of leadership: if this plank is standing strong, there is no fall. It is time to learn from these recollections. India is celebrating the Mahatma Gandhi sesquicentennial and the centenary of Satyagraha but actual probity on any part cannot be achieved by revisiting historical accounts on pages of history books, what Gandhi and his experiment with Champaran teach us is the need of pragmatic approach and implementation of historical standards on current day sets.

Author is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached at [email protected]




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