Two epoch-making events took place in 1917. The first was the Bolshevik Revolution in November that ended the Czarist rule over Russia and heralded the dawn of socialism in the world. The second event that did not immediately appear very important to people outside its locale proved to be the beginning of the end of foreign rule over India and sounded the death knell of British imperialism. It took place in Champaran, a district of Bihar, about which not much was then known in other parts of the country. This was the first successful mass struggle, led by Gandhi after his return from South Africa. Even after more than nine decades, there are certain aspects that need to be taken note of because they throw light on Gandhi’s style of working.
Champran (now split into two parts, East and West) borders Nepal on the north and U.P. on the west. Historically, it has been very important because the Aryans entered Bihar through it, after crossing the Sadaneera (now known as the Gandak), and Lord Buddha travelled through it from his native place and back and Asoka celebrated this by erecting pillars with inscriptions.
In the second half of the 18th century, after acquiring the Diwani or revenue-collecting rights from the Mughal emperor, the East India Company, experimented with several schemes of land relations and, ultimately, brought in the Permanent Settlement during the administration of Lord Cornwallis. Zamindars or landlords were made almost absolute owners of land and the Company promised not to interfere in their affairs so long as they paid revenue, which was fixed for ever, on time. For various reasons, landlords proved to be inefficient and extravagant and became heavily indebted. To save themselves from dispossession, they leased out their estates, permanently or temporarily. In Champaran, these leaseholders were European indigo planters who could use the agrarian relations to force tenants to grow indigo out of which blue dye was manufactured and exported for colouring the uniforms of the navy. Terms and conditions for growing indigo were dictated by the planters and this created discontent among the tenants and there were acts of violence indulged in by planters to suppress the discontent. John Beames who came to the district as Collector in the 1860s described the situation in his memoirs.
During the last decade of the 19th century, Germany introduced a synthetic blue dye in the international market that displaced the natural dye. Please remember that some sort of globalization was on ascendancy and it could last till the beginning of the First World War. This made the planters to take a benevolent posture, telling the tenants that they were ready to free them of the obligation of growing indigo provided they agreed to compensate them for their losses. This was resented and there were agitations by peasants, leading to violence. Peasants, mostly illiterate and without resources, had no effective leader to guide them. In December 1916, the Indian National Congress was holding its annual session at Lucknow, not very far from Champaran. A group of peasants, advised by some well-wishers, went there. This session proved to be extraordinary because, for the first time, a semi-literate rustic was allowed to speak from the dais. Raj Kumar Shukla, spoke in broken Hindi but with lots of emotion and sincerity that moved the elite audience, but no one was prepared to go to Champaran to lead the agitating peasantry. Lokmanya Tilak was too unwell to accept their request. Almost dejected, they sought the advice of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya who advised them to persuade Mohandas Gandhi who had recently returned from South Africa after leading a prolonged, but successful, struggle. If he agreed to go there, he would surely make them achieve their goal. Shukla, then, met Gandhi and narrated his tale of woes, but Gandhi did not commit though he listened attentively and asked Shukla for some time to think over his request after he reached Kanpur.
When Gandhi arrived at Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s newspaper Pratap, he found that Shukla was already there, beseeching him to come to Champaran. Gandhi told him that he was going to Kolkata (then Calcutta) to visit Barrister Bhupendra Nath Basu and there he would give a thought to his request and decide. Lo and behold! Shukla was already there when Gandhi arrived. Shukla’s sincerity and genuineness of his case impressed Gandhi immensely and both of them set out on their journey to Champaran.
En route, they arrived in Patna and went to Rajendra Prasad’s place. Gandhi had head of Prasad. Unfortunately, Prasad was away and his servants took Gandhi, because of his costume, as some rustic client and did not allow him to stay. Then Gandhi remembered that one of his London class mates, Mazaharul Haque was a leading lawyer there and asked Shukla to take him to Haque’s residence. Haque accorded him a heart welcome. After staying there overnight, both of them crossed the Ganges and set out for Motihari, the headquarters of Champaran. At Muzaffarpur railway station, Shukla saw J. B. Kripalani, a professor of the local college, suspended for his nationalist views, searching for someone in the first class. Shukla was familiar with him. On being asked, Kripalani informed him that he had come to know that Gandhi was going to Motihari by this train but, it appeared that he was not there. Shukla then took him to the third class compartment and introduced him to Gandhi. It was the first meeting of the professor with Gandhi and he was taken aback that such a well known personality, dressed as a peasant, was travelling in third class compartment.
On arrival at Motihari, both Gandhi and Shukla, with their luggage on their heads, walked some kilometers to their host, a local lawyer. After taking rest, Shukla arranged for an elephant to take Gandhi to a nearby village to see the plight of peasants. Gandhi had no familiarity with Champaran and its dialect. Shukla was his guide. While proceeding to the village, a constable came running and handed over an order from the Collector, asking Gandhi to leave the district within 24 hours or come to his court to explain why he did not want to do so.
Gandhi came back to his residence and was found writing something in the night by the side of a lantern. Next morning, a number of leading lawyers of Bihar arrived, who, on being asked for their advice, told Gandhi that the order was illegal and he should refer to legal provisions for noncompliance. Gandhi appeared in the court at appointed time. The public prosecutor was jittery as he was sure that a barrister like Gandhi would rubbish, in no time, the illegal order. But Gandhi did no such thing. He did not quote any legal provisions, and read out a statement, saying that he had come in search of truth and he would not rest till he accomplished this task. Only after he arrived at the truth, he would decide on his next course of action. If he was forcibly thrown out, he would come back, irrespective of the consequences. The Collector told him to wait outside till he called him and not to do anything before the judgment was pronounced.
Gandhi quietly sat under a big tree like the Buddha, hundreds of peasants surrounding and hailing him. After some time, he was told to come the following day. When Gandhi went to court again, he was told that the case was withdrawn and the government was ready to offer him necessary facilities for his inquiry. Gandhi asked for a table and two chairs, one for himself and the other for his interpreter. When he was asked whether he had any objection if somebody from the CID also sat, Gandhi said, not at all. In that case, one more chair was needed. From then onwards three chairs with one table were carried in a bullock cart from village to village.
From this, two things emerge. First, no political battle should be fought by indulging in legal intricacies, but though mass mobilization. Second, every political battle should be open and without taking resort to secrecy and conspiracies.
During those days, caste system was having a stronghold. No higher caste fellow ate and drank food and drinks prepared by lower caste fellows. Gandhi made it plainly clear to all those who had come from Bihar or outside to work with him that all had to eat and drink together in one common mess without considerations of caste and religion. The cook was a Muslim, Battack Mian. He was offered all kinds of inducements to poison the food but he refused though he was extremely poor. In the early 1950s, when the then President of India Rajendra Prasad, while going somewhere to condole the death of a relation, was addressing a small public gathering, there was commotion because security people were not allowing a very old person to enter. Rajendra Prasad saw this and went down and escorted that man and made him sit by his side. For a few minutes he talked to him in local dialect and then narrated how a planter, Erwin, tried his best to induce Mian to mix poison in the food and asked the audience, if he had agreed to do the bidding of the planter, none of us including Gandhi would have been alive and nobody could say about the impact on India’s freedom struggle. This writer was present there as a school student.
Among Gandhi’s local associates there were a number of Muslims like Pir Mohammed Moonis and Sheikh Gulab, Planters and the government tried to win them over by inducements or coercion so that they could dissociate. They unsuccessfully tried to foment communal riots too.
Planters one day burnt the house of Shukla. When Gandhi came to know of this, he walked several miles on foot to reach his village. He expressed solidarity with the members of his family and villagers who were utterly frightened. Gandhi stayed over night and ate with them. He slept on the hay. This brought boldness in local population.
Gandhi set up a number of institutions to spread literacy and teach cleanliness and crafts. Obviously, his was a multi-dimensional movement. It brought people near him. One incident is enough to show how he came to realize the extent of rural poverty. When he saw a woman wearing dirty clothes, he asked his wife Kasturba to inquire why she was living a dirty life. The woman told her that she had only one saree, thus it was not possible to take her bath every day and keep her clothes clean.
Even though bureaucracy was openly hostile to him and friendly to the planters, the confidential records show that they, too, were highly impressed by Gandhi. Let us quote just two such reports. W. H. Lewis, sub-divisional officer of Bettiah wrote to the Collector of Champaran: "Gandhi seems a curious mixture of the east and west. He owes a large part of his belief to Ruskin and Tolstoi, particularly the latter’s and couples these to the asceticism of a jogi. Were his ideas only those of the east, he would have been content to have applied them to his personal existence in a life of his meditative seclusion. It is only the teachings of the west that have made him an active social reformer." Another officer J. T. Whitty, manager, Bettiah raj, wrote to the Commissioner of Tirhut: "He is a man who is prepared to go to any length to carry through an idea. He can easily be made into a martyr and cannot be easily suppressed." (Both of these are recorded in Proceedings of Government of Bihar and Orissa, Political (Special) Department, 1917, file number 1571).
As is well known, the government yielded and a commission, with Gandhi as one of its members, was appointed to look into the entire matter and suggest remedies. The commission recommended the acceptance of peasants’ demands and taking legal steps to implement them.