The author is a senior journalist, political commentator and socialist thinker
CHAMPARAN has been the focus of historical attention for a long time -from Janak to Chandragupta Maurya, from Ashoka to the Mughal rule. When the Dutch, the French and the English arrived here to trade in Indigo and export it, the initiative looked pretty profitable because it was providing opportunity for extra income besides agricultural production. The fertile soil producing commercial crops like cane, opium, chillies and turmeric, promised a new phase of development. But soon the only people who continued to live here were the British, all others were compelled to migrate through severe thrashing. The British took over Bettiah, Ramnagar, and Madhuban states and after taking their agriculture rights, imposed land-revenue tax and cess-taxes on the region. The new combination of trade, administration and the old feudal structure created such terror that the lives of peasants became hell. People left their fertile and rich region seeking respite and mercy. But the British and Indigo farmers rule created such a situation that they couldn’t salvage their money or reputation. Whenever any voice of protest was raised, the oppression became greater. No plea was of any consequence because the thief, the looter and the police were all one and the same.
CHAMPARAN INDIGO - THE BEST
Indigo production from Champaran and Tirhut was considered to be the best and the entire business of dying and clouring depended on it. The price of indigo became 50 times higher by the time it reached the markets of London and Europe from Champaran. If even a fraction of this benefit had reached Champaran, the district today would have scaled unimagined heights. On the contrary, the peasant here was caught with this one crop throughout the year and every year Nilhe (Indigo planters) forced them to grow indigo on the new fields because continuous harvest made the fields less fertile. Although this marked the beginning of contract farming, eventually it became a structure in which power, zamindari rights and bullying, a part of the fields was confiscated - 5 katta from the first bigha i.e. one-fourth of total land and from subsequent lands 3 katta per bigha because of which this crop came to be known as ‘teen-kattiya’. Also, peasants were compelled to work begari (without wages), their plough-bulls and carts taken away at the time when they were needed and heavy fines imposed for the slightest error. There was no mention in the contract as to how the crop would be produced and in what quantity or what would be the farmers’ share in the transaction. Therefore it ultimately became the peasants’ responsibility to sow the crop, irrigate it, check the growth, harvest it and send it to the factories; while the planters had absolute power simply to get all the jobs done.
At first the peasants liked the crops that earned them hard cash at the very start. Cane and opium farming was different experience and growing indigo was an entirely a different story. They did not know any use of this crop and in very little time growing indigo became unprofitable for them. Humiliation and suffering indignities was a new experience, but there was protest too. On several occasions there was violent opposition - first on personal scale and then collectively. But when the entire administration was behind indigo planters, every violent opposition proved to be the cause of further difficulties. Then came the phase of letter writing and efforts were made to send a word to the British monarchy. But there was no solution. Legal battles were fought but then how many people could go to the court. Moreover, courts too were a part of the administration. The matter was not confined to peasants. The indigo farming operation which had enchained the farmers also employed more than 35,000 workers employed in more than 100 kothis and factories. All of them were paid wages in cash. In the beginning, the workers too liked the work and the regular income. Because of this, they even clashed with the farmers. But later even the workers decided that they had had enough when the firangi raj along with all the old feudal ills created a trap for their meagre earnings through extortion, commission, taxes etc. Therefore people from all groups joined in the protest against indigo planters and in the violent clashes during 1908-9 people started looking for new options. Gandhi reached there as part of this process.
THE DECISION TO INVITE GANDHI
The decision to approach Gandhi was taken by people who had new ideas despite being defeated in the earlier protests. At that time Congress unit had not been properly constituted in Bihar let alone Champaran. The Congress workers in Bihar worked under some other names but attended the convention as Congress men. Then there was Lucknow convention of Indian National Congress, in which the number of representatives from Bihar was not known. Raj Kumar Shukla who attended the convention, invited Gandhi to Champaran. Probably just one or two people only from the intelligence had attended the convention posing as Congress representatives. Gandhi had deliberately kept away the name of Congress in Champaran because it would provide the administration additional reason to suppress the protests and instead of viewing it as the peasants’ problem, they will see it as a part of the national struggle and will handle it accordingly. Since Gandhi was particularly cautious about this matter he stopped Madan Mohan Malviya, Mazrul Haq and other important leaders for joining the movement directly. At times when confrontation was imminent, Gandhi used his influence to prevent it. Several times he held on certain issues to make the British and the protesters agree to his point. At other times he compromised himself but did not allow the movement to be derailed. Now it is publicly known that there were several reports - including the plot to poison him that Gandhi kept to himself in order to prevent an uproar leading to digressions in the movement.
GANDHI CAME FULLY PREPARED
Gandhi personally, had arrived fully prepared in Champaran. He was conscious that he was alone, without means but well prepared and was also aware of the good and bad things prevailing in the society. He had made arrangements for certain means when he reached Champaran and refused outrightly to accept any charity and donation. He had given instructions during the movement that no one should write or discuss the matter, should not organise lectures and meetings and should keep away the press. Not just this, Gandhi never linked the Champaran movement to the said national movement. Contributions were taken from outside Champaran but not spent there. Later, when during the 10-month movement it was discovered that expenses were well within 2200 rupees only, Gandhi was overjoyed and said that they were actually able to save 500 or a 1000. Although he was worried about finding volunteers and the financial aspect of Sabarmati Ashram and other commitments, but at this time his primary anxiety was Champaran. Instead of bringing people from outside to Champaran he exercised the reverse option, sending people out of Champaran. Swami Satyadev was one such worker who was sent to south India from Champaran to promote the Hindi language. In Champaran Gandhi did not speak of any revolution, no call to uproot powers, he did not argue about alternatives to violence, and did not lead any movement against the destruction of records by mahajans or the bashing up of zamindars by the peasants. While staying in Champaran he did not mention any caste or any community. He spoke a little Hindi, but only that. He did not go on fasts but left everything to pay attention specifically to matters when they threatened to turn violent. He extended affectionate behaviour not only to the English bosses but also to the Indigo planters. There is no evidence that he expressed any bitterness against Indigo planter Wilson, who attacked him at every point and probably even tried to poison him. However when he made a personal accusation against Kasturba then Gandhi who generally kept away from media debate gave a reply, albeit without any bitterness. It is due to this that in all writings by British officers one does not find a direct criticism of Gandhi. While Gandhi was burning down their palaces, planters too usually criticised his supporters instead of attacking him directly though Gandhi was working directly against them.
After looking at Gandhi’s orders, suggestions, observations and conduct, he seems to be focused on achieving only three goals - one, to end the suffering of peasants in Champaran, two, to dispel the fear of administration and the white men, third, the attempt to give a local alternative to the oppressive British system. The first job he accomplished with gusto and exercised great pressure on the British administration. He did not allow this matter to get diluted and he did not keep it a secret. One criticism made in this context is that indigo was any way about to die a natural death at this point because artificial colours had been introduced and vegetable dyes were on their way out. It is said that Gandhi made use of the opportunity because the demand for indigo saw a revival just once for a short time during the World War. If this was so obvious, the planters themselves were turning away from indigo farming then it is not possible that Gandhi did not understand the situation. But Gandhi also took little time to understand how the peasants were at the receiving end of the ‘teen-kattiya’ farming, the zamindari of nilhe (Indigo planters), the close links between them and the British bosses and the dozens of levies/contributions that were an integral part of the old zamindari system. Immediately upon reaching Champaran, Gandhi realised that nilhe themselves, backed by the registered support of the administration, foresaw the end of ‘teen-kattiya’ farming and were imposing higher lagaan on the farmers in order to set them free. Gandhi raised these questions at every forum and in just a few days he convinced them into supporting him.
As soon as it occurred to Gandhi that the administration along with the Indigo planters were not prepared to place their reputation at risk and Indigo planters will not be able to continue with their activities, he began working for his third goal. For this he sought support from both the government and the Indigo planters. Although he did not get the support he had asked for, the opposition to him too was not as forceful as it was in the matter of ending the ‘teen-kattiya’ farming of indigo. In this work there was something like the earlier situation in which everything was achieved through one command. When Gandhi left Champaran on the request of peasants from Kheda and the mill workers of Ahmadabad, he regretted that he could not see the result of his first experiment and many of his dreams were still incomplete. His latest mission was not accomplished with the loudness with which he had sought to end the fear of the administration and the white man. But it was such a big secret too. This was probably the most effective initiative in his fight against the western culture or for alternatives. He achieved the basic aim of the movement through this strategy. He not only assured the support of all sections of society but of thousands of other people. Gandhi presented the successful achievement of his experiment in order to end the trauma of indigo farming, the terror of the white race, in order to establish the pattern of his simplicity and indigenous methods, and in order to present an alternative to creative activities.
When we look at Gandhi’s experiments a hundred years later now, it becomes important to see and understand that in Champaran there was no lathi-charge and no shooting. Nobody got a long term in jail, no life-risking strikes, no charity donation and no expenses on pomp and show. Gandhi did not allow a single penny to be collected from Champaran as donation. In the 10 months of the movement just 2200 rupees were spent. The contribution that Gandhi had collected from outside too remain unspent. The money collected by Brij Kishore Babu was used later in different matters. Gandhi’s experiment in Champaran is special in several ways and its unique quality is important not merely in the context of national struggle and the end of British colonialism. Actually it was through this movement that Gandhi made a systematic beginning of his creative and cultural alternative plan. In this, it was his desire to seek support not just from the British administration but also from indigo planters, but this was not fulfilled. Not just this, he was not successful in taking this experiment to the level he had planned. The time shortage was a factor, also the number of trained workers for the purpose was limited. In some matters the support from local people too was not of the level expected. He wanted to start five-six schools, but could start only three, and one of these too had to close down later. Gandhi wanted to experiment with rural universities and modern cow sheds but could not do any better than starting one cow shed in Betia. Gandhi did not have the time to even make a proper estimation of his experiments. The only evaluation criteria visible was the number of students who came to the schools. It would have been good if more research had been done in this matter, regarding its beginning, expansion and the debates that took place at that time. Later research could have been done on the changes and the expansion. Gandhi himself gave much weight-age to this sort of work and tried to expand it. Champaran too was a witness to the success of such experiments. But the process to continue Gandhi’s efforts and to find an alternative to the western model of development remained incomplete.
A HISTORICAL EVENT
Gandhi’s coming to Champaran proved to be a historical event. It was a unique experiment in multiple ways. In addition to illustrating Gandhi’s strength it is also an interesting story about the rise of the spirit of protest in a living society against injustice, about Gandhi’s own attempts to establish a relationship with the local people and their difficulties with complete honesty, trust, strength and understanding. It is also a story about the thousands and lakhs who placed their ready faith in Gandhi and made him their own. This is also the first non-violent experiment that underlines the people’s strength to oppose injustice through co-operative and collective efforts based on truth. In Indian social history, individual examples of power struggle have been witnessed on earlier occasions as well. But experiment that Gandhi initiated in Champaran has a lot more of far-reaching impact; it included boycott of foreign goods, khilafat and non-co-operation movement, salt satyagraha and then on to the public revolt of 1942. The new generations today who are looking for a lasting and alternative development look at Gandhi’s creative alternative options as their model. The people who are now opposing the weaknesses and limitations of the present model of development and life style, have perceived elements central to Gandhian action and philosophy in matters of decentralisation, diversity and the rights of local inhabitants on natural resources. Gandhi has been the source of inspiration throughout the world for groups who have a post injustice participated in non-violent movements and searched for alternative to the western model of democracy. Gandhi remains at the centre of hope for people looking for an alternative world structure. In the situation, it is important that Gandhi, his movements and his experiments should be studied in detail and a path found to lead people to solutions for their needs.