Author: D John Chelladurai
Image Credits: www.oldindianphotos.in
On 10th of April 2017 Champaran Satyagraha turns 100 years old.
Champaran was a revelation in the annals of Indian freedom struggle. It brought about a hitherto unheard of methodology of taking on the imperial oppression with a force more powerful than all the physical might put together. Gandhi called it Satyagraha. The outcome of Champaran redefined the concept of and approach to political freedom, and gave a vibrant twist to the whole British -Indian equation.
British Planters in Champaran assumed the role of Zamindars, collected not only land tax amounting to 70% of the annual yielding, but forced farmers to set aside 3 Kathas out of every bigha (20 Kathas) of land to cultivate indigo plant for a paltry compensation. They also imposed abwabs, illegal cess under every imaginable pretext. Tax was imposed on marriage (It was called Marwach), widow’s remarriage (Sagaura); on the sale of milk, oil and grain (Bechai) and every festival. A planter who had a sore leg imposed tax – Ghawahi – on his people for his treatment. Babu Rajendra Prasad listed out 41 illegal taxes.
Those failed to pay tax, or cultivate Indigo were dealt with corporal punishment. E W L Tower, once a Magistrate of Faridpur stated, “Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human Blood. I have seen ryots who have been speared through the body. Indigo cultivation here is a system of bloodshed.” Fear reigned supreme. British planter and his agents were terror.
Innumerable efforts to improve the situation through petitioning and government appointed committees rendered no relief. The situation remained hopeless.
Gandhi agreed to visit Champaran at the persuasion of Rajkumar Shukla an Indigo farmer, to get himself acquainted with the situation.
The nexus between the planters, administration and police quickly served an order saying Gandhi’s presence in the district augurs public unrest, hence he has to leave the district immediately or face penal action.
Gandhi surprised the government and the public equally by openly declaring not only his disobedience to the order but also his intent to make Champaran his home as long as people wanted him there.
The government was perplexed and the public ecstatic when Gandhi made the following statement before the Magistrate at Motihari district court: “As a law-abiding citizen my first instinct would be, as it were, to obey the order served. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I have come. I venture to make this statement not to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.” He further stated ‘if it so pleases the authorities, I shall submit to the order by suffering the penalty of disobedience.’
The news spread like wild fire. An unprecedented crowd gathered before the court. Gandhi later wrote, “In this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth.”
Not knowing how to handle, the Magistrate and the public prosecutor wanted to adjourn the case, which Gandhi said was not necessary as he had pleaded guilty of disobedience.
The novelty of his approach, very courteous, humble, transparent, yet very firm and determined, made people see a ‘savior’ in Gandhi, and the government an irresistible opponent. The magistrate dismissed the case and declared Gandhi was free to go into Champaran villages.
Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy and the Lt. governor. Pandit Madan Mohan Malavia who was busy at the Hindu University work, wrote to Gandhi of his availability for Champaran. C F Andrews, a British fondly known as ‘Deenabandhu’, rushed to Gandhi’s aid. The intelligentsia of Patna led by Babu Brajakishore Prashad, Barrister Mazarul Haque and Babu Rajendra Prasad, Prof. J P Kripalani along with unexpected number of youth gathered around Gandhi to assist him.
Seeing the pathetic rural condition, Gandhi started with the help of volunteers six rural schools, health centres, campaign for rural sanitation, social education for ethical living. Volunteers from across the country including Dr. Dev of Servants of India Society enrolled for the work. Patna volunteers gave up their self assumed superiority and stayed together, ate simple common food and spoke to the rural farmer like brothers. They even began to cook and wash utensils. For the first time, peasants came out fearlessly to register their suffering at the hands of unjust planters.
The orderly inquiry, rational study of the case and a patient listening to the case of all sides, including the planters (Britishers) made his call for justice strong that the government ordered an enquiry committee with Gandhi as one of the members, which eventually led to the total abolition of the tinkhatia system of cultivation from Champaran.
Lessons from Champaran
Champaran brought about a new awakening. It demonstrated that:
Not the opponent, but his unjust arrangement is our enemy;
In nonviolence, anger and hatred give way for reason and tenderly firmness;
Civilized non-cooperation with unjust law and willing submission to the entailing penalty, adhering to righteousness creates a force enough to wilt any authoritarian power;
Fearlessness; self reliance and dignity of labour are the essence of freedom;
Even a physically weak person can wield moral force and turn mighty opponents defenseless;
Freedom does not stem merely from escaping political oppression, liberation from all clutches; from
poverty, illiteracy, poor health and lack of sanitation is real swaraj;
Realizing brotherhood cutting across class and caste strata alone gives sense to freedom struggle.
Reflecting up on Champaran Satyagraha Babu Rajendra Prashd wrote, “the nation got her first lesson and her first modern example of Satyagraha”.
* An alumni of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Dr D John Chelladurai is currently the Dean, of Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon, (Maharashtra). Views expressed are personal.