CHAMPARAN is King Janak’s land. Just as you see mango orchards everywhere in Champaran nowadays, it had indigo farms in the same way in 1917. Legally, farmers there were bound to cultivate indigo on 3/20 of the land. This system was called ‘tinkathiya’. Twenty ‘kathhas’ made one acre, and to sow indigo on three kathhas there, was the system of ‘tinkathiya’. I must admit that before going there, I had never even heard of Champaran. However, I was totally unaware of this. I had seen indigo tablets, but I had no idea that these are manufactured in Champaran, and because of which thousands of farmers were suffering.
Raj Kumar Shukla was a farmer from Champaran. He too had been suffering. But this sadness from the suffering made him want to wash away the indigo insult for everyone. I went to the Lucknow Mahasabha, which is where I met these farmers. “Vakil (lawyer) babu will tell you everything,” they would keep saying, and kept inviting me over to Champaran. By vakil babu, they meant Braj Kishore Babu, now a very dear associate from Champaran. Raj Kumar Shukla brought him to my tent. He was wearing a black achkan (long A-line coat) and trousers. I did not find him appealing at the moment and thought he must be one of those lawyers who fleece poor farmers.
I heard about Champaran from him briefly. I remarked: “I can’t give an opinion without seeing the place for myself. You speak in the Mahasabha. For now, let me be.” Raj Kumar Shukla needed the help of the Mahasabha in any case. Braj Kishore Babu spoke about Champaran at the Mahasabha and a sympathy vote was passed.
Raj Kumar Shukla was happy, but not satisfied. He wanted to tell me about the plight of farmers of Champaran himself. I told him, “I will include Champaran in my tours and be there for a day or two.” He said one day would be enough. I only needed to see the place for myself.
I had gone to Kanpur from Lucknow. Raj Kumar Shukla was present there too. “Champaran is close from here. Please give it a day.” But I said: Excuse me for now,” and promised to go to Champaran.
When I went to the ashram, Raj Kumar Shukla followed me there as well. “Please decide on a date now,” he said. I said, “Fine, I am going to be in Calcutta on such and such a date. Come there and take me to Champaran.”
Where I should go, what I should do and what I should see, I had no idea. Before I reached Bhupen babu’s house in Calcutta, he was already there. This determined and illiterate farmer was after my heart.
In the beginning of 1917, we started from Calcutta. Our team was worth seeing; both of us looked like farmers. We took the same train Raj Kumar Shukla did, and reached Patna in the morning.
This was my first visit to Patna. I didn’t know anyone in whose house I could stay. I had assumed that Raj Kumar Shukla may be illiterate but he was sure to have a place to stay there. I learnt more about him on the train and found out more in Patna. Raj Kumar was a simple man. The lawyer he had thought as his friend, was not really his friend, and Raj Kumar Shukla was kind of dependent on him. The difference between a farmer client and his lawyer is as wide as a river’s expanse during monsoons.
He took me to Rajendra Babu’s house, who had gone to Puri or somewhere else. There were one or two servants in the bungalow. I had something to eat but needed dates, and poor Raj Kumar Shukla had to get it from the bazaar.
But untouchability was a big issue in Bihar. Water from my mug could upset the servant. He didn’t know my caste. Raj Kumar told me to use the washroom inside the house. But the servant pointed to the one outside. This didn’t upset me or bother me in the least. I had become accustomed to such incidents. The servant was merely doing his master’s duty. Such entertaining incidents made me respect Raj Kumar Shukla even more.
I took over the reins from Patna onwards. Maulana Mazharul Haq and I had studied in London together. We had met again in 1915 in the Congress meeting in Mumbai. He was the president of the Muslim League that year. He had mentioned our old association and told me we should catch up when I am in Patna. Taking him up on that offer, I wrote to him and told him why I was there. He immediately came in his car and told me to come with him. I thanked him and requested him to send me where I wanted to go, by train. He spoke to Raj Kumar Shukla and told him I should go to Muzaffarpur. The same day, I was given a seat on the evening train to Muzaffarpur.
Acharya Kripalani used to live there in those days. I knew him well. When I had gone to Hyderabad, I had learned of his sacrifices, his life and about the ashram that ran on his money, from Dr Choithram. He was a professor in a Muzaffarpur college, but had disassociated with it for a while. I sent him a telegram.
The train reached Muzaffarpur at midnight. Dr Choitram was present at the railway station with his group of students. But he didn’t have a house of his own there. He used to live at Mr Malkani’s house. Malkani was a professor in a college, and my staying in the home of a government employee was not an ordinary incident for those times.
Kripalani detailed the condition of Bihar, and the Tiruhat department in particular, and gave me an idea of the tough task ahead of me. Kripalani ji had developed a strong bond with Bihar, and he had spoken to the people there about my work. In the morning, a small group of lawyers came to visit me. I remember Ramnavami Prasad was one of them. He caught my attention with his request.
“The job you have come to do can’t be done from here. You should stay with the likes of us. Gaya babu is a well-known lawyer here. On his behalf, I request you to come. There is no doubt we are scared of the government, but we will do all that we can to assist you as well. A lot of what Raj Kumar Shukla has to say is true. The sad part is our leader is not here today. I had sent a telegram to Babu Braj Kishore Prasad and Rajendra Prasad. Both of them will come here as soon as possible and assist us. Please do come to Gaya babu’s house.”
What he said had an impact on me. I was a little reluctant that my staying with Gaya babu might put him in trouble but Gaya babu assured me that was not the case. I went to stay with him. He and his family members showered their love and affection on me.
Braj Kishore Babu came from Darbhanga. Rajendra Babu, from Puri. Here Braj Kishore Prasad seemed a different personality from the man I had met in Lucknow. Here he had the humility of a Bihari. His good intentions and extreme faith moved me. The respect the Bihari lawyers’ group had for Braj Kishore Babu was a pleasant surprise for me. An unbreakable bond of love developed between me and this group.
Braj Kishore Babu appraised me of everything. He used to fight cases for poor farmers; two such cases were on at the moment. He would get personal satisfaction by working on such cases. Sometimes he would lose some cases as well. But he would still charge a fee from these simpleton farmers. Despite being known for their magnanimity, Braj Kishore Babu and Rajendra babu didn’t hesitate from charging a fee. Their argument was if they didn’t charge a fee in their profession, how would they run their households, and how would they help these people. When I heard the kind of money the lawyers in Bihar and Bengal got, I was shocked.
“We charged Rs 10,000 for giving our opinion to sir.” I didn’t hear of anyone charging anything less than a thousand rupees. This group of friends took my gentle reprimand about this in a sporting way. I said, “After reading up on these cases, I am of the opinion that we should stop fighting these cases. These cases give very little profit. Where the citizens are so downtrodden, where everyone lives in fear, courts are not really the solution. The real solution would be to take fear out of people’s hearts. We can’t sit in peace until the “Teenkathiya” tradition is not abolished. I have come to see as much as I can in two days. But now I feel this work can take even upto two years. But I’m ready to put in that much time. I can also gauge what needs to be done. But I need your help.”
I realized Braj Kishore Babu was someone with a calm temperament. He replied softly, “We will do all that we can to help. But you will have to tell us what needs to be done.”
We spent the entire night discussing it. I told them, “Your legal prowess won’t be of too much help here. I would need your help as an assistant and a translator. I can also see chances of going to jail. I would like you to take this risk. But if you want to, it’s all right. But to leave your legal practice as a lawyer for an uncertain period, and to work with me as an assistant is not a small demand I make of you. I am having extreme difficulty understanding the Hindi here. All documentation here is either in Kaithi or Urdu, which I can’t read. I expect you to translate it for me. This work is not possible with monetary compensation. This needs a feeling of service and without money.”
Braj Kishore Babu understood me. But he started to have discussions and arguments with me and my associates. He tried to understand the deeper meaning of what I said: how long will lawyers have to stop their work, how many will be needed, will it work if a few people came for short durations in circulation, and so on. He asked the lawyers how much they were willing to sacrifice.
In the end, he made a decision and said, “All of us are ready to do the work you assign for us. Out of these whoever you ask for, will be there with you. Going to prison is something new, and we will try to come to terms with this reality as well.”
I wanted to see how the farmers were in reality. I wanted to see for myself how true were the allegations against the goras of the kothis, who owned indigo farms. I needed to see and meet thousands of farmers for this. But before that, I found it necessary to meet the indigo owners and the commissioner, and see what they had to say about this unfair practice. I wrote letters to both.
The owners’ minister told me clearly before the meeting that I am an outsider and that I should not interfere between them and the farmers. But if there was something I had to say, I should do it in writing. I humbly told the minister, “I don’t consider myself an outsider, and if the farmers agree, I have the full right to see how they are.”
I also met commissioner sahib. He started to threaten me and advised me to leave Tiruhat without moving any further. I told my associates all this and said that the government will stop me from making further inquiries, and there was a possibility that the jail term could happen sooner than expected. If I had to let them arrest me, I should have it done in Motihari or, preferably, in Betia. So, I should reach there as soon as I can. Champaran is a district in Tiruhat commissionary, and Motihari its centre. Raj Kumar Shukla’s house was near Betia, and the farmers living near the kothis there were living in abject poverty. Rajkumar Shukla was keen to show me their plight and I too wanted to see it.
Thus, I left for Motihari that very day. There, Gorakh babu gave me shelter and his house became a dharamshala. Somehow we all would manage to fit in. The day we arrived, we heard that a farmer who lived about five miles from Motihari had been wronged. It was decided that I would go to meet him in the morning along with lawyer Dharnidhar Prasad.
We left for the village on an elephant. In Champaran, elephants were used in the same way as bullock carts are used in Gujarat. We must have been half-way there when the police superintendent’s man arrived and told us, “Superintendent sahib sends his greetings.” I understood the rest. I told Dharnidhar babu to go ahead. I sat with the messenger in his rented vehicle. He gave me a notice asking me to leave Champaran, took me to his place and asked for my consent. I told him I couldn’t leave Champaran, and that I have to do my investigations and move forward. Not agreeing to leave Champaran meant a summons was passed against me and I was asked to present myself before the court the very next day.
I sat up the entire night writing the letters that I had to, and gave instructions to Braj Kishore Babu on what had to be done. The news of the summons spread like wildfire and people say the scene they witnessed in Motihari was one they had never seen before. People thronged the kacheheri (court) and Gorakh babu’s house. Luckily I had finished all my work at night and could manage the crowds.
I realised the importance of having associates. They worked on trying to keep the people under control. Hordes of people followed me wherever I went in the court. I bonded with the collector, magistrate, superintendent, and others as well. If I wanted, I could have brought legal action against the government notices, but instead, I accepted all of them and behaved in a personal and nice manner with the government officials. They understood that I didn’t want to go against them, but wanted to politely oppose their orders. Thus, they weren’t scared of me. Instead of creating trouble for me, they happily helped me and my associates in controlling the crowds. But they also understood that their authority had been undermined. For a moment, people had left behind their fear of punishment and were now in control of the love they had for their new found friend.
It is worth noting that no one knew me in Champaran. The farmers were illiterate. Champaran is a land in the Himalayan lowlands, on the other side of River Ganga, adjacent to Nepal and is a different world in itself. Here no one knew about Congress, neither was there a Congressman there. Those who had heard of it were scared to even utter the name, leave alone become a part of it.
NO CONGRESS, PLEASE!
Today, without the name of the Mahasabha (Congress), it, and its people had made a foray into the area and had carved a niche for itself.
I consulted my associates and decided that no work will be done in the name of the Mahasabha. This was about what we did, rather than who did it. Here, the Mahasabha was unpopular, as people thought of it as a conglomeration of lawyers who fought cases against each other and were simply too engrossed in finding legal loopholes. That the real Mahasabha was not this had to be explained to the people through what we achieved, not by arguing about it. Thus, no role was assigned for messengers from the Mahasabha, either in an evident or hidden manner. Rajkumar Shukla didn’t have it in him to enter a meeting of a thousand people. He had never done anything vaguely political. He didn’t know the world outside Champaran, and yet, his and my meeting felt like that of long-lost friends. This gave me a feeling of having witnessed God, non-violence and truth; this is no exaggeration, but the truth. When I think about my role in this, I see nothing but people’s love for me. I have nothing but unshakeable faith in love and non-violence.
This day in Champaran was one I can never forget. This day for me and the farmers was like a festival. According to the law of the land, a case was to be registered against me. The trap that the commissioner had laid for me had ensnared the government.
The case was called to court. The lawyers and magistrate were a frightened lot. They didn’t know what to do. The public prosecutor was requesting to postpone the hearing. I stepped in and said there was no reason to postpone the date, because I confess to having broken the law and the notice that had ordered me to leave Champaran. After saying this, I read out something I had written. I went somewhat like this:
“I want to give a small explanation on what I had to do to take the serious step of not obeying the order under Section 144. In my humble opinion, this is not about obeying the order, but about a difference of opinion between me and the local government. I have come to this region with the intention to serve the people and the country. The indigo owners do not do justice to the farmers. I have been requested to come here and aid them, which is why I am here. How can I help them without knowing everything that is going on? Thus, I am here to study the matter further and, if possible, with the help of indigo owners and the government. I have no other motive, and I don’t believe my coming here will lead to unrest and bloodshed. I claim that I have adequate experience in this. But the government’s opinion is on the contrary. I understand its dilemma and also agree that it has to believe all that is fed to it. As a law-abiding citizen, I feel like automatically obeying the order given to me by the government, but I feel if I do so, I will not be carrying out the task given to me. I feel my duty to them can be served only by living amongst them. Thus, I can’t leave Champaran on my own free will. I am now forced to ask the government to carry out this duty. “I understand well that in India, a person of my stature should be careful before setting an example by doing something. But I whole-heartedly believe that the quagmire that we are in, a self-respecting person like me has no other alternative, except to disobey the order that has been given to me. In return, I accept whatever punishment is to be given for the same.
“My intention of this speech is not to make you decrease my punishment and be lenient towards me. I only want to prove that my motive behind disobeying the order is not to insult the government, but to obey the law coming from the highest order there is – listening to your inner voice.” Now there was no need to postpone the hearing date. But the magistrate and the lawyer did not expect a verdict either. Thus, the court adjourned to give the verdict at a later date. I sent a telegram to the viceroy apprising him of the entire thing. A telegram was sent to Patna as well. The same was sent to Bharat Bhushan, Pandit(Madan Mohan) Malviyaji and others as well.
Just before the court was to announce the verdict, I got an order from the magistrate that the viceroy has said the case should be withdrawn, and then I got the collector’s letter saying I could carry on with whatever investigation I wanted, and that I could ask any help from the officials in the same. None of us had expected this quick and happy result.
I met the collector Mr Heckock. He looked like a fair man who wanted to be just. He said I could ask him for any documents I wanted and meet him whenever I wanted to. On the other hand, India got a living example of Satyagraha, that is, passive political resistance. The newspapers wrote about it a lot and Champaran and my investigation got a lot of exposure. Although my investigation asked of me to be objective towards the government, I didn’t need the newspapers and reporters talking about it. Not just that, their extra-analysis and long reports on the matter could do more harm than good. So, I requested some major newspapers not to send their reporters here. I told them I would send whatever I thought should be published, and would apprise them of latest news.
I understood the indigo owners were miffed at me. The officials weren’t too happy either, I knew that, too. Seeing newspapers publishing news that was half-true or lies would mean their irritation would not come down on me, but on the poor, scared, helpless people. And I knew that would come in the way of the true reality that I wanted to find out. The indigo owners stared a vitriolic campaign. On their behalf, a lot of lies were printed about me and my associates. But they missed their aim because I was extra careful and would find a strain of truth in the smallest of things. They didn’t hold back while trying to pull down Braj Kishore Babu in every way. But with their trying to bring him a bad name, respect for Braj Kishore Babu only increased. In such a fragile situation, I didn’t encourage the coming of reporters to the place. I didn’t invite leaders either. Malviyaji said, “I will come when you ask me to. I am ready.” I didn’t trouble him either. I didn’t let this struggle take on a political hue. Whatever happened, I would send reports of the same to newspapers. Even when it comes to politics, when there is no room for exercising it, any attempt to do so results in “Maya mili na ram” (Everything was lost). I had experienced this a dozen times. Even when it comes to just social work, there is politics in it, if not in an evident way, then in a hidden way. The Champaran battle was proving it all over again. Now about a critical point. If this investigation was to happen in Gorakh babu’s house, he would have had to vacate the premises. And in those days, people in Motihari had not become so courageous as to rent us a house. But Gorakhbabu found an intelligent solution and we all moved into a new place.
However, the condition was not just that we could work without money entirely. I was of the firm opinion that not a paisa will be taken from the farmers of Champaran. That would be misconstrued. I had also decided that I will not ask money for the cause from Indians. Doing so would give the movement a national and political hue. Some friends from Mumbai promised to help with Rs 15,000/-. I turned down their assistance politely. I decided to accept whatever help Braj Kishore Babu’s team could get from the wealthy and rich people from Bihar, but those who were not from Champaran. Whatever was the difference, I would ask for from Dr Pran Jivandas Mehta. He had written to me saying I could ask for whatever amount of money I wanted. Money was not a problem anymore. But we had decided to fight the battle with as little money as we could. We didn’t need any more money than this, we felt, and it was true. I believe that the total spending was not more than Rs 2,000-3,000. I also feel we had Rs 500-1,000 left from what we had collected.
We needed a lot of strength, though, because several groups of farmers started coming to us to document their stories. Crowds would gather in front of people writing down these stories. The entire house would be full of people. My associates would try with all their might to protect me from people who had come to see me, but to no avail. The only solution was to send me out at a specified time to meet with people. There would be no less than six-seven people documenting the stories, and yet, it wouldn’t end until late evening. We didn’t really need stories from so many people, but they felt at peace after having recounted their hardships, and I would get to understand their feelings.
Those documenting the stories would have to adhere to a script. They had to have discussions with every farmer. Anyone who didn’t have proper answers would not have his story documented. Anyone whose story would seem baseless from the beginning would be told to go. Although this meant the process became more time-consuming, the stories were very much truthful and legitimate.
THE PLAINCLOTHES MEN
The police’s intelligence agents were bound to be around somewhere. We could have stopped them from coming, but we had decided we would do nothing of the sort. Not just that, we would be polite with them and give them whatever report we thought we should. All the documentation was done in front of them. This meant the farmers became more fearless. Initially, they were terrified of such police, but now that fear was gone and chances of any exaggeration in front of them were lesser. Farmers would be careful in telling the tale since they knew that not telling the truth would mean they would have legal cases against them. I didn’t want to pester the indigo owners, but to win them over with good behaviour and righteousness. So I would write letters and even try to meet those against whom there were a lot of complaints.
The team of Braj Kishore Babu and Rajendra babu was matchless. Their love had made me practically handicapped, and I couldn’t take a step without them. Call them their disciples or associates, but Shambhu babu, Anugraha babu, Dharni babu, and Ramnavami babu, all of them would be together at all times. Vindhya babu and Janakdhari babu would also come whenever they could. This was the Bihari sangh. Their main work was to document farmers’ stories. How could Acharya Kripalani be left behind? Despite being a Sindhi, he was more Bihari than most. I had seen very few examples of people who immerse themselves in the culture and soul of the place they go to, and don’t let anyone realise they are from some other area. Kripalani ji is one of them. His main assignment was that of a guard. He had taken it to be his life’s work to save me from those who had come to see me. His strategies included joking around with someone, or threatening someone else in a non-violent way. At night, he would take on the garb of a teacher, joke around with people and encourage anyone who was weak of purpose and intention.
Maulana Mazharul Haq registered himself as my assistant, and would come and meet me at least twice a month. There was a world of difference between the times when he lived a life of luxury, and now, when he lived a simple life. He would come and spread his love, but due to his regal ways, those who saw him from the outside looked upon him as an outsider.
As I started gaining experience, I realised that any real work in Champaran needed the advent of education. The level of ignorance in people was abysmal. Children would run around all day, or their parents would put them to work in the indigo fields for daily wages of two-three paisa. Men would not be paid more than 10 paisa. Women would get six paisa and boys, three paisa. Anyone who got wages of 25 paisa was considered lucky. After consultation, it was decided that schools would be opened in six villages. The condition was that the village head would give the teacher money for food and a house to live in. We would provide for the other expenditure. These villages didn’t have too much money, but they did have grains. Thus, people were ready to give dry ration. Now the big question was where to get the teachers from. In Bihar, it was tough to find good teachers who would charge less or nothing at all. We wanted teachers who may have less knowledge but should have strength of character. Then again, I could not remain content with just education alone. The villages were dirty beyond description. The lanes would be full of trash, the areas around the wells were full of smelly filth and you couldn’t even look at people’s houses. The elders needed a lesson in cleanliness. People in Champaran seemed to be ailing with one disease or another. Our thought process was: try to bring about as much improvement as possible, and by doing that try to make a difference in all facets of life there.
Here, we needed the help of a doctor. For this, I asked for assistance from Dr Dev from Gokhale’s society. I already had nice relations with him. I had profited from his service six months ago. Teachers had to work under his supervision.
Everyone had been told not to get into the matter of complaints against the indigo owners. They shouldn’t come anywhere near politics, and no one should step out of their work space. The discipline with which the people adhered to it was amazing. I don’t remember even one instance when someone didn’t obey what was told.
On one hand, social service was taking place and on the other, documentation of people’s stories was taking place, and it was increasing with every passing day. Stories of thousands of farmers were noted down. How could that not have had an impact? As the number of people coming to me increased, the irritation of indigo farmers increased as well. Their attempts of bringing a stop to my investigation increased.
One day, I received a letter from the government of Bihar. The gist was: Your investigation has gone on for a while now. Now you should conclude it and leave Bihar. The letter was a polite one, but the meaning was clear. In reply, I said the investigation would go on for more time, and that I didn’t intend to leave Bihar until the investigation was over and the people in the region weren’t out of their many troubles.
The government had only two ways to bring an end to my investigations. One, they believe the complaints and take action. Two, appoint their own investigative committee to address these complaints. They invited me to become a member of the committee. Seeing other names and after consultation with my associates, I agreed to become a member on the condition that I will be free to consult with my associates, and that the government will be wrong if it thinks I will not think or speak in favour of the farmers. If I am not satisfied with the committee’s ruling, I will not abandon my quest for working for the farmers’ welfare.