Gandhiand Champaran Campaign

Gandhiand Champaran Campaign

Resentment in the tone of reconciliation, appeal to the reason supposed to be prevalent in the high corridors of power, and a steadfast determination to civil disobedience in dealing with the authority of the state, is, in essence, the Satyagraha. 

Resentment in the tone of reconciliation, appeal to the reason supposed to be prevalent in the high corridors of power, and a steadfast determination to civil disobedience in dealing with the authority of the state, is, in essence, the Satyagraha.

India, as a conglomerate of many zamindaris and principalities, and of feudatory kings and regents, in the first decades of the last century, witnessed the silent storm of Satyagraha. That was in Champaran, Bihar. Lead by a midget of a man, highly educated, and serenely focused on the tasks ahead, it was a Congress fresher Gandhi, who not only changed the rules of the game but very quietly set his own powers to negotiate and grapple with in the decades to come.

Satyagraha is the right of a citizen to be articulate, in an impervious society. Till last century, the mankind only just heard of it, when millennia before once Buddha, and again Jesus practiced in the face of severe odds. In his stay in South Africa, a young barrister practiced the same in the farthest shores, and started to define the contours of the power of the civil society, that is talking to itself and evolving educated strategies, to make the regimes more human and empathetic.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s early forays in the social protest were shaped in South Africa in a regime of Apartheid that had special draconian laws based on the colour of the citizen. In his 20 years long stay in South Africa, Gandhi not only formed the Natal Indian Congress but also fought against many laws of discrimination.

The Indians and coloured people (who were known as “Coolies”) rallied behind him for his civil rights activities. He was jailed in South Africa in 1908 for the first time. Undeterred, he carried on his mission and established Tolstoy Farm in 1910 and led a massive march of agitating Satyagrahis in 1913. During his stint in South Africa, Gandhi came twice to India in 1896 and 1901.

He also attended the Indian National Congress meeting held in Calcutta in 1901, under the presidency of Dinshaw Wacha. He disliked their western conduct and conversations in English and their conservative approach towards the British rulers. There he also met Sir Phiroze Shah Mehta, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Gopala Krishna Gokhale, etc.

Sarvodaya archives state that Gandhi could have settled in India in the year 1901 in Bombay as a lawyer with good practice. However, a cable reached him from South Africa requesting him to return as promised. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, was arriving from London on a visit to Natal and the Transvaal, and the Natal Indian Congress wanted Gandhi to present their case to him.

Thus Gandhi, who went back, founded the Phoenix Settlement in 1904, and led the Ambulance Corps during the Boer War (1899 - 1902) and during Zulu rebellion in 1906.

Immediately after his return to India in 1915, he established the Sabarmati Ashram, and received several requests from Bihar to visit the region during the year 1916, and finally when he visited the region, it was the first Indian engagement of non-violence or Satyagraha and Ahimsa. In 1918, Rajendra Prasad wrote a meticulous book on the Satyagraha in the Champaran, in Hindi, after the success of the protest.

Gandhi himself was so impressed by the accurate account of the young lawyer Rajendra Prasad, who was already by then, a “Doctor of Law” that he, in his autobiography wrote: “To give a full account of the Champaran enquiry would be to narrate history of the period, of the Champaran Ryot, which is out of question in these chapters. The Champaran enquiry was a bold experiment with truth and Ahimsa. For details, reader must turn to Rajendra Prasad’s history of the Champaran Satyagraha.”

Well, the Champaran or Champaranya region as it was called in the days of lore had oppression and harassment going on since 1793. The Europeans, later on, became lessees of the land and laid down very exploitative terms of forced cultivation of indigo and established the indigo processing centres, which they called factories.

This left the paddy growing farmers with no choice but to cultivate indigo in one-third of their land and often face difficulties. At one time the authoritarian regimes of the planters and their local henchmen touched the peak, as the various taxes to be paid were more than forty in number, and arbitrary in nature.

This situation had found reflection in Dinabandhu Mitra’s ‘Nil Darpan’ as well in 1858-59 and the problem reached the English society in a translation of the play sent to England in a clandestine manner by sea. This play depicted the plight of indigo farmers and the cruel exploitative ways of European planters. Thereafter the administration received many representations from the farmers and regulated the procedures to some extent but the main hurdle of forced farming remained the bone of contention.

The middle-aged Gandhi in his inimitable style communicated to the British rulers and to the entire nation that he was ready to go to jail for the cause of the Champaran farmers. His mind was set on visiting the area after December 1916 Lucknow Congress session, where many Bihari youth and Raj Kumar Shukla appealed to him to visit Champaran. Accordingly, Gandhi reached Patna on April 11, 1917, Motihari and Champaran region by April 15.

The rattled local administration slapped a ban on his entry, which he disobeyed, and went on to visit the region, and asked the local supporters to record the statements of as many farmers as they can from various villages. The European influenced the press, and the administration tried their best to portray Gandhi as an outsider inciting people of Champaran and to discredit his mission.

But the British rulers realised that this time they are facing a difficult customer, and after some initial resistance to the spirit of Gandhi, the administration more or less cooperated and in the process made him a member secretary of the Committee to look into the problem.

There the Commission recorded hundreds of statements against 60 factories, where indigo was produced. The Commission gave a report in October 1917, and by February 1918 the Champaran Agrarian Act came into force, raising the status and giving the Indian public a taste of Gandhi’s political acumen. After addressing the problems of farmers, Gandhi opened many schools in Champaran region.

Rajendra Prasad, who became the first President of the Indian Republic, authorised the second edition also, in the capacity of President of the Indian National Congress, which he was serving for the third time in the year 1949. The Champaran Satyagraha of 1916-17 is now on a centennial pinnacle in 2016-17.

For we Indians, to know the methods and mind of our chief warrior Gandhi, to learn about the chronicles of the freedom movement, and his distinguished colleagues and comrades in arms, the account by the distinguished Doctor of Law, is an essential document to go through, since this serves as a curtain raiser in understanding the phenomenal leadership of Gandhi, in our independence movement.

By: Rama Teertha
The writer is a poet, literary critic, translator, and an orator.

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