• Why is Mahatma’s Champaran Satyagraha still relevant?

    Ujjawala Krishnam

    October 21, 2019

    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, one of Maurya dynasty landmarks and symbol of Asoka’s Buddhist inclination where it hosts the Asoka pillar and Buddhist sites but these are not those bounties which people reckon when ‘Champaran’(Forest of Champa(or Plumeria) ~ a word derived from Sanskrit as a combination of ‘Champa’ and ‘Aranya’), rather it is a ravishingly astonishing story accrued by dazzling efforts of humankind in the history of democratic struggle which human minds attach ‘Champaran’ with.

    Champaran’s colossal movement can be visualized in four trenchant episodes based on the places Gandhi visited in Champaran District of British Raj, viz, Motihari Episode, Bettiah Episode, Lawkaria Episode and Bhitiharwa Episode.

    Before Gandhi could enter Champaran, European Commissioner Mr. Morshead asked Gandhi to leave Tirhut division when Gandhi was in Muzaffarpur and was expected to visit Champaran with Raj Kumar Shukla and other Congress leaders. European Planters’ Association’s secretary Mr. Wilson did not disclose documents asked by Gandhi while calling Gandhi an outsider. Gandhi followed his own specific suit and boarded to Bettiah.

    Gandhi arrived in Motihari (Champaran District, now headquarters of East Champaran) on April 17th; 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. The immense movement and its success can be credited to this simple soul, without whom struggles of peasants were going to be down in history unheard and buried. Raj Kumar Shukla, a peasant from Murali Bharhawa village of Champaran,  was following Gandhi since Lucknow session of Indian National Congress and finally on Shukla’s request to listen to peasants’ grievances and how and British planters’ cruelty was aggravating the woes of Indigo croppers, Gandhi boarded the train with Shukla to Bihar on April 9 as Calcutta session of Congress concluded.

    On April 18, Gandhi was ordered to appear before sub-divisional officer for violating the section 144 CrPC. Peasants gathered around Gandhi, their number was so large that they could not fit into Motihari Court. It was civil disobedience, Gandhi read aloud his statement to magistrate. Court not knowing how to respond to civil disobedience, was reluctant to imprison him. As Gandhi had no bailer, his 100 rupees bail was called off and 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. The Gandhi wave was undulating so strongly in Champaran belt that Gandhi had to deliver 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 evident.” Champaran-and-India was ready to build a historical wave.

    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 was that festoon which joined masses and supplied courage and strength to suppressed Indians to push the reform built on the weapon of non-violence.

    Bettiah Raj used to be the biggest estate of Indigo garden owners. European garden owners did not only have their shares in Indigo production, but also local industries used to avail an effective share to them. Not only oil and fuel, even there was no need to buy vegetables. East India Company did not only use to grant their officials and affiliated Europeans a standard pay but also a right to oppress innocents beyond limit. Indigo was in demand before Germany started manufacturing artificial dyes. Demand fell, hence the plantation and production of dyes. But that was just a transient relaxation for the peasants, it had to end, suffering needed to be reinforced. Year was 1914 when relations between Britain and Germany collapsed due to impending war, and once again, Indigo was in demand. Garden owners were back to their business, they started imposing their tactics on peasants for Indigo production with no legitimate share provided to cultivators. Another problem before farmers was the fertility of the field where Indigo had to be grown. The piece of land where Indigo used to be grown could not take another crop as fertility had already deteriorated because of introduction of Indigo. The stolid act of Bihar Planters Association made Gandhi to join Shukla’s struggle and the struggle of other thousands of farmers forcibly engaged in Indigo production. European Defense Association was totally against Gandhi intruding into their business, and local branch of the association passed their note to the company and magistrate that Gandhi’s presence in Champaran was no less than ‘Crime and Turbulence’ which would distort lives of Champaran people and barricade Champaran’s development.

    It was April 22nd, when Gandhi arrived in Bettiah and Champaran’s Indigo peasants’ struggle received a gigantic push. It was finally on the verge of transformation- a predecessor of a wide movement. Gandhi, who already had disturbed British presence in South Africa was expected to study the grievances of Indigo peasants and to help them in their timorous condition of livelihood under British Raj. It was Bettiah Raj then, and after death of Maharaja Sir Harendra Kishore Bahadur in 1893, Champaran was under British rule as Maharaja did not have a child and was then survived by two wives, one died early and Bettiah Raj was meted out to second wife, Maharani Janaki Kuwar. British rule divided West Champaran (then Bettiah Raj) into various blocks and each block used to host a kothi or mansion. European manager associated with each kothi was liable to collect taxes, to steward Indigo plantation and had to report to magistrate of Champaran.

    Gandhi decided to visit all kothis to collect documents and to listen the grievances of peasants in order to comprehensively understand the scenario, so he could send report to Viceroy of all sufferings imposed on peasants. “Gandhi’s first day stay was in Bapu Hajarimal’s ashram. Madvadi gentleman had various dishes ready for Gandhi but Gandhi only had two rotis and 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. On the request of Kishun Ramdhari, a nearby villager, Gandhi decided to visit his village Singachhapar to observe the degree colonial torture. Before this could happen, a news from Lawkaria, a village in Bairia block (roughly 20 kms from Gandhi’s location) boiled all satyagrahis. Farmer Rajman Kurmi’s land was forcefully acquired by Bairia kothi and kothi’s manager Mr. Hargayle got Rajman thrashed by his men. Gandhi planned to visit Rajman on the morning of 24th April.

    Gandhi reached Lawkaria. Thousands of satyagrahis were agitated against the brutality Rajman suffered. However, the movement was being driven by the force of peace and mind, thus, it had 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 Gandhi’s sympathy with peasants. After exchanging few arguments, they returned. They felt helpless, the helplessness of British officials boosted the morale of local peasants and made them believe that “the way agitation was rising, it could not be undone.”

    It’s quite interesting to note that civil servants employed in Champaran were highly influenced by Gandhi. Collector understood him well. He was also aware of Gandhi’s African chapter. He wrote, “Gandhi appears to be a magnificent blend of east and west. He is influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy. This combination makes him a yogi. Despite the fact of his eastern ideology, it is also the western influence which makes him a social reformer of such kind.” Irfan Habib rightly says that “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.”  Gandhi’s temerity not only supplied infinite courage to broken bones of peasants to stand for their rights and to voice them but also left all inspired, even outsiders, who were observing Champaran movement.

    Erwin started writing in Bettiah’s local newspapers focusing on planters’ contributions in Champaran’s development. It was all on the roll, Britishers were in utmost shock and in umpteen truculent space of their ignorance– both at the same time. Scalding summer had its own story and Champaran had its own. Both were narrating their tales as torpid wind blows away the cold sordid human errors. “Serendipity is not always garnered, sometimes vivacious efforts against all odds too are cherished.” Champaran was echoing it with its own velocity.

    After visiting Singachhapar on April 26, Gandhi marched to Narkatiyaganj next day and from there to Rampur Bhitiharwa with satyagrahis. Highly influenced by Gandhian philosophy, a wealthy priest, Mahant Baba Ramnrayan Das donated a piece of land in Bhitiharwa to the Gandhi Mission, Gandhi’s Bhitiharwa ashram still reckons the Gandhian philosophy and Satyagraha memories in its infrastructure. 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 advised Shukla to meet Gandhi and to pass on the message of peasants’ sufferings to Gandhi. In fact, Sant Raut was a driving force behind Champaran movement., “Champaran-wallahs continue to adore their heroes who sowed the first seeds of independence with their bravery and sacrifices,” Shashi Bhushan, Raj Kumar Shukla’s grandson and a retired bank employee, emphasized upon.

    After a brief stay of 12 days in Bettiah Raj, Gandhi returned on May 1, 1917 from Champaran as his first visit concluded. Gandhi returned with documents and peasants’ statements which could strengthen the report.

    Again, on May 13th, 1917, Gandhi was in Champaran. It was his second visit. This memory of this visit is still cherished with his ‘one-liner’ which left all imperialism locked in its chains. After receiving the news of farmers’ oppression in Dhokraha and Sirisiya, Gandhi decided to revisit Champaran to inspect whether Europeans had got their hectoring acts leveled off or not. European planter Holden had lodged the case against farmers that they had burnt his stable. Farmers were thrown in jail. Gandhi visited Sirisiya to inspect. A single question, which locals still recount, left all inspired by Gandhi’s intelligence. Gandhi asked Holden,” Mr. Holden, if peasants have burnt your stable, why am I finding your horses safe, secured and untouched of fire?” Everyone was amazed in court room, 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 unanimous report in the favor of peasants to the Government.

    Solipsistic attitude of British had to be adjusted for the first time since its direct and indirect rule with the advent of East India Company in 1600. 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 factors to win over oppression and he had his words: “In real terms, oppression can only end if people are educated enough of their needs and deeds.” On offered land in Bhitiharwa, Gandhi Mission wanted an ashram to be made. This time, ‘Ba’ Kasturba Gandhi was in Champaran. On November 16th, 1917, local villagers’ efforts culminated into a school and a small guest house where people of Gandhi Mission could reside. On receiving this news, manager of Belwa Kothi conspired and the villagers’ efforts was set on fire and ashram transformed into ashes on the first night of its existence.

    Well, struggle is continuous so is rival’s desire, inhumanity remains in staid suite but the effort of humanity winning all odds does always have the last laugh. Same happened. Gandhi arrived on November 20th, Dr Dev, Harikrishna Sahay and some others of Gandhi Mission joined him. A temporary hut was made in ashram campus and Ba began coaching the local girls. All Gandhians spread across Champaran joined the hands to make Gandhi Mission successful; and places Gandhi visited never fail to refresh historical accounts. The fragrance of Gandhian philosophy can still be felt, albeit with less intensity.

    Revolutionary philosophy remained rooted in the soil of Champaran even after Satyagraha concluded. This can easily be observed from one account on 1942 chapter of Quit India movement. On August 24, 1942, Magistrate was addressing the mass gathering on the boundaries of local landmark Chotta Ramana of Bettiah and young men started revolting against the magistrate and colonial rule, magistrate order to fire. Several were injured and 8 martyred.

    Gandhi and the soil of Champaran had a barter. Gandhi and Champaran left each other inspired for the rest of their existence. And yet, a consistent fuel of inspiration to all among whom you and I stand.

    After 100 years of its happening, Champaran episode still stands as a paragon of reformation and bravery. Among myriad lessons which Champaran movement motivates us with, in present day context one node seems very relevant. It is what human civilization all needs– “an ideal leader”. If this plank is standing strong, there is no fall. It is time to learn from recollections and cultivate new standards of recollections for coming generations to cherish. 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.


    First published in Counter Currents.

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