The author is a writer on Gandhian thought and is currently a professor at Rajdhani College, Delhi University, teaching Hindi literature
The land: Champaran. A new experiment in truth and satyagraha was being conducted by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Before this, he had conducted a similar experiment in South Africa and attained success. This “experiment” had given him a new identity in India. Possibly this was the reason Rajkumar Shukla didn’t request the other leaders to come to Champaran and see their plight, but spoke to Gandhi about it and invited him.
THE month: April 1917
Looking at the political backdrop of those times, it can be seen that in 1907, Gandhi was not one of the top leaders of the Indian National Congress. But the trust and faith that a farmer living at one end of the country had for Gandhi is remarkable. In his autobiography, Gandhi has written about Champaran in great detail. He says he witnessed the form of the goddess of non-violence (Ahinsa devi ka sakshatkar) here. In Mahatma Gandhi’s experiment of Satyagraha in India, it was the land of Champaran that was put to use. A sea change came about in the Indian Independence Movement after the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917. After this, Gandhi took centre stage in India’s Independence Movement and in the Congress.
While going to Champaran on Rajkumar Shukla’s insistence, Gandhi had no inkling that he was going there to do Satyagraha. He had no idea he would stay there for so long, that he would give a tangible form to his ideology on education; that he will call for people such as Kasturba Bai Gandhi and Rajendra Prasad; that the investigation to find out about the real plight of the farmers in Champaran will prove to be so significant; or that this Satyagraha in Champaran will change the course of history.
Speaking about how the word “Satyagraha” came about, Gandhi has made it clear that before the word was born, it was an action that was to take place. Later, this was known as Satyagraha in the world of words and knowledge. When the word was born, even Gandhi hadn’t been able to understand its true ramifications. Everyone knew about its English meaning– namely, passive resistance. In a meeting with the whites in South Africa, Gandhi observed that passive resistance has a big meaning. It is the weapon of the meek. It is also believed that it might give rise to differences, and its last resort can be visible in the form of violence. Gandhi spoke in its favour during such times. To define a new fundamental phenomenon, a new word is needed to describe it. A word that can describe it in its entirety. Many a time, new phenomena add new meaning to old words. At such a time, the old word loses its meaning and the new word attaches itself to it with vigour.
The form in which the struggle against power was led by Gandhi in South Africa, the phrase passive resistance was not enough to describe its true meaning. That is why it became important to come up with a new word to introduce the real meaning of their struggle. Gandhi was unable to come up with a relevant and independent word for this. Thus, for a small token prize money, he organised a competition for the readers of “Indian Opinion” for the same. The award went to Maganlal Gandhi. He joined “sat” and “agraha” to make “satyagraha”. To make the word clearer, Gandhi added a “ya” to it and made it “Satyagraha”. As a result, this struggle was called Satyagraha in Gujarati. With time, the word became a synonym for non-violent struggle.
It had become clear from the Satyagraha days of South Africa that the foundation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s work and philosophy was truth and non-violence. For him, non-violence was the one touchstone for Satyagraha. Thus, it also involved a lot of discussions and arguments. Many people were not agreeable to making non-violence as the biggest value in life, as they aren’t even today. People who are at the two ends of the thinking spectrum also oppose non-violence as the touchstone. Polar right-wingers and fanatic Communists, who don’t agree on anything, speak in the same tune on this.
Not just that, the great freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai was also not on the same page with Gandhi on this and opposed it vehemently. The discussion that took place between the two on non-violence is notable. In the July 1916 edition of “Modern Review”, which was published from Calcutta, Lala Lajpat Rai published an essay “Ahinsa parmo dharma: The truth or eccentricity?” while questioning non-violence. In the write-up, Rai said “I have the highest regard for Shri Gandhi in my heart. He is one of the people I worship. I have no doubt about his truthfulness either. I don’t suspect his intentions either. But I think it is my duty to vehemently oppose this view of his. In this aspect, even a man like Gandhi should not be allowed to tamper with the minds of the Indian youth and poison it. No one should be given the independence to dirty the community strength.”
Due to his inability to understand non-violence, Lala Lajpat Rai called it a delusion, which makes a human being a coward, helpless and dumb. The wrong usage of non-violence is like a rot that takes over the entire body and poisons it. This rot weakens human faculties and deforms men and women, makes them delirious and transforms the fearful. According to him, one of the reasons India has become downtrodden in the past 1,500 years and had lost his humanity was because it was non-violent. Qualities such as courage, bravery and fearlessness became eroded since non-violence became the top touchstone for purity. Purity and self-respect became less important. The pride in one’s community, patriotism, love for one’s land and family, all was finished. Using non-violence in its poor form and in a wrong way and to give it importance over every other thing has meant Hindus have seen their downfall socially, politically and morally.
Gandhi gave a reply to these allegations in Modern Review’s October 1916 edition. He wrote that while respecting Rai as much, he needed to counter the charge that India’s downfall has happened due to giving too much importance to non-violence. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is no historic evidence that our humane behaviour has vanished due to too much non-violence. Have we given enough examples of our physical prowess in the past 1,500 years? Internal fighting and differences have kept us away from each other and our personal greed took preference over love for the nation.”
Gandhi said truth and courage were important elements of non-violence. He said you needed utmost courage to practice non-violence. Thus, it was wrong to consider non-violence as the weapon of the meek and weak.
In 1936, the great poet Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” had his poem published under the title “Ram ki shakti pooja”. In this poem, Nirala writes how power is on the side of injustice. That is why “Shakti ki karo maulik kalpana”; that is, make power an important part of your fundamental thinking. It is not wrong to say that injustice is indeed backed by strength. In reality, strength has been often looked upon as the synonym for violence. What Nirala is asking for as a fundamental imagination is the strength of non-violence. It seems as if Nirala is talking about the same strength that Gandhi found in South Africa when he called upon the strength of non-violence in his Satyagraha. By proving non-violence to be a synonym for strength, power, courage and bravery, Mahatma Gandhi talked about it as a fundamental need for strength and presented it as an alternative to the present violent times.