When Gandhi became Mahatma
Champaran of Bihar and Raj Kumar Shukla were integral parts of turning Mahatma Gandhi from man to legend. The place was where all the major movements began and where rumours still run wild of Gandhi’s sainthood and his miracles, carrying the lathi
The most potent anti imperialist weapon of Satyagraha was experimented and field-tested in Champaran district of Bihar, by Mahatma Gandhi exactly 100 years ago in April, 1917. It was this Satyagraha which immensely contributed to Gandhi, becoming the Mahatma in later years.
Champaran in north Bihar, bordering Nepal on one side and eastern Uttar Pradesh on the other, is one geographical area which Gandhi himself admitted in his autobiography — The Story of My Experiments with Truth — that he had never heard of, before visiting the place.
Satyagraha or non-violent resistance to an unjust regime, one of the most powerful tools against imperialism in the last century, was experimented for the first time on a large mass scale in Champaran and that is the significance of the district; known for its Buddhist relics, forests, mango orchards and productive agricultural land. It was here, that Gandhi field tested this powerful weapon, which many Gandhians now describe as more powerful than even the atom bomb. Gandhians insist that Satyagraha destroyed the moral fabric of the imperialists to rule in the medium and long term and what began in Champaran was within months replicated in Kheda in Gujarat in 1918 and elsewhere in the country and thereafter throughout the freedom struggle till 1947.
As we commemorate 100 years of Satyagraha of the father of the nation in Champaran against the British Indigo planters in the hot month of April in 1917, it would be befitting to recall the struggle he country is commemorating. It was Raj Kumar Shukla, whose persistent efforts over a period of time brought Gandhi to this district. Shukla; a farmer cum money lender from the district, was so relentless in his attempts that Gandhi promised that he would visit the place when he went to Calcutta. “This illiterate but determined farmer won my heart,” he later wrote in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, referring to his meetings with Shukla in the Lucknow Convention of the Congress in 1916, Kanpur and then Calcutta from where he left for Patna by train and then for Motihari in Champaran. In all these meetings, Shukla had only one request — Gandhiji should come to Champaran; feel the pulse of the exploited peasants and take remedial measures.
He did come with his prominent lieutenants Rajendra Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Sinha, JB Kripalani and others to oppose the exploitation of the farmers under the Tinkathia system and other cess and taxes imposed by the then Government. In the exploitative Tinkathia system, farmers had been forced to plant Indigo in a part of their land (in 3/20 part of a land) compulsorily for almost 60 years. They had to clean the plant which consumed a lot of time, dry it and then finally pack it for use in industrialised Europe. All this, was done practically for free, as forced labour. Though the farmers had protested twice earlier against this exploitative system, they were suppressed by the police.
Two things happened at the same time. Gandhi’s Satyagraha forced the British rulers to relent and end the Tinkathia system. At the same time, industrial coloring agent, which was cheaper and did not involve exploitation of the peasants, started being used on a much wider scale by the industrialised west. Indigo plantation finally ended in Champaran in 1922-23 when the demand died down completely and nine sugar mills were opened by the British to keep happy the ‘White’ farmers who had settled in the area through what were called kothis (bungalows) as a headquarter, specifically to control Indigo cultivation. Each kothi had a British owner with retinues, supported by the local police and hundreds of acres of land in their possession. When commercial sugarcane farming started, Indigo cultivation ended.
During his April 1917 visit to Champaran, Gandhi built the Bhitiharwa ashram, ran a campaign against the prevailing practice of untouchability, emphasised on education, cleanliness and health. Helped by wife Kasturba Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi opened several basic teaching schools. In fact, it was here, that the basic schools, imparting skills for livelihood, were opened for the first time on land donated by the prosperous farmers.
When Gandhiji was charged with “creating unrest”, following his on the spot assessments of peasant exploitation, talks with the farmers and their mobilisation, there was a massive show of strength in his support which forced the judicial officer to withdraw the case against him in Motihari. By word of mouth, the message had spread that the British were about to jail Gandhiji, triggering an outflow of farmers from the district to the district court. In a nutshell, the Champaran Satyagraha, even though the word Satyagraha came to be used more frequently during the protest against the Rowlatt Act agitation, triggering the first non-violent struggle, anywhere in the world, on such a large scale.
Raj Kumar Shukla, the man who brought Gandhi to Champaran, continued with his efforts of mobilisation of people against the British regime even after he left. Shukla participated in the agitation against the Rowlatt Act in 1919 and in the non-cooperation movement of 1922. He died at the relatively young age of 54 in 1929, leaving behind a rich legacy for Champaran which the people of the district still remember fondly. However, much after Gandhi left Champaran after a successful Satyagraha against the British Indigo planters of the district, the oral tradition glorifying what he did continued for years. He was seen as a messiah whose presence brought a paradigm shift in the politics of the district.
The role of rumour and oral history were extremely important in the making of the Mahatma Gandhi, over a period of time. It is important in any social movement and it was this which helped people of Champaran galvanise themselves in the anti-British struggle whole heartedly. All the subsequent protests by Congress and Gandhiji — be it the non-cooperation movement in 1922, or the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1932 and the Quit India Movement in 1942 found great traction in Champaran and saw maximum arrests.
Postscript: As I hail from Champaran, some of the oral tradition which I have narrated, belongs to my great grandfather Pandit Bhola Shukla and grandfather Satya Narayan Shukla who narrated this to me in my childhood. My great grandfather bought a 60 bigha plot (90 acres of land) from a British named Benson around the year 1940 in village Sabeya of Champaran district. Benson was engaged in the cultivation of Indigo before the Satyagraha of Gandhi and later sugarcane when the first mill was set up. When farming was no longer profitable according to British standards, he gave up and shifted to England after selling his land to different people. I still own five acres of that land after several family partitions and the original papers of those period still have Bensons’s name; the indigo cultivator.
(The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer, Chandigarh)
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