The Freedom: Footprints of Struggle - Champaran

Where Gandhi Became the Mahatma

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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This village, where Gandhi put satyagraha to test for the first time in India, was until recently a crime haven. Signs of recovery are visible now

This village, where Gandhi put satyagraha to test for the first time in India, was until recently a crime haven. Signs of recovery are visible now

When Khan Bahadur Azizul Huq, one of Motihari’s best- known police officers, left his fingerprint on the history of Bihar’s East Champaran district and the world through his work with Edward Henry on the nascent science of finger print classification, he was in the company of illustrious men. Among them, the workmen who built the world’s tallest Buddhist stupa, the Kesaria stupa (dated between 200 CE and 750 CE), and one of the world’s tallest leaders, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The region, which later became synonymous kidnappings as much as its sugarcane fields in which kidnappers could hide, has shown considerable lethargy in both the discovery and celebration of its heritage, though. It was much later that the world dusted off layers of local apathy to reveal whorls of greatness left behind by famous fingerprints. The district’s Buddhist legacy was only discovered as late as 1998 during excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India. And it was only in 1972, 55 years after Gandhi’s launch of his Champaran Satyagraha, that Bihar’s Governor DK Barooch laid the foundation stone for the Gandhi Memorial Pillar here. The 48-foot long chunar stone pillar, situated in the exact spot in Motihari where Gandhi, on 18 April 1917, was produced in the court of the then Sub Divisional Magistrate and charged with violating Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). India’s Independence Movement had begun.

Interestingly, Gandhi had made his acquaintance with Champaran and its people’s woes only a few months earlier. This was at a gathering of nearly 2,000 delegates in Lucknow for the 31st session of the Indian National Congress held in December 1916. This historic city of the United Provinces would prove to be the launchpad for his Swaraj—‘self-rule’—movement in the neighbouring state of Bihar. The 1916 meeting was the party’s first since it had split five years earlier, with extremists and moderates parting ways. Gandhi was there with his son Devdas, alongside Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and it had been almost two years since his return from South Africa; at the behest of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, he had spent the past 22 months with his ear to the ground, listening to the problems of people he met across the length and breadth of the country.

Asked to speak on relations between tenants and farmers in Champaran while the Subjects’ Committee discussed two resolutions to be passed, the flabbergasted lawyer- turned-political-activist from South Africa begged politely to study the situation in depth before talking about it.

Champaran’s farmlands by then were already dyed in indigo unrest, which would soon become a symbol of rebellion against an inequitable order under the Raj. It was Raj Kumar Shukla, the son of a rich Brahmin, who initiated Gandhi into the complex politics of indigo cultivation in an area dominated by two big landowners, the Maharaja of Bettiah and Rajkumar Babu of Madhuban. The district of Champaran then, as now, was a Hindu-majority area with a sizeable Muslim population and small number of Christians. The region was also home to a small but influential number of Bhumihars, the group to which the two landowners belonged.

Hundreds of Champaran’s villages, however, were not managed by landlords, but leased to tothikadars, or contractors, of whom the most influential were European planters of indigo shrubs, the extract of which was used as a natural dye for cloth and other products. The first indigo factory in the region had come up in 1813, with this dye industry witnessing a boom after the 1850s. Synthetic indigo dyes developed by Germany had begun to pose a threat to natural indigo, only to be rescued by the First World War when the former’s supply was affected. By 1917, greed for profits had led to the establishment of a ‘planter raj’ in half of Champaran. A highly exploitative system was devised by European planters through their local henchmen who would force productive land to be sown with indigo plants, even destroying the standing food crops of farmers to intimidate them. Farmers were forced to sow indigo, at the cost of other crops, in lieu of small advances of money before the start of the cultivation season. This was the infamous ‘Tinkathia’ system.

The indigo farmers of Champaran had until then been considered slightly better off than their counterparts in neighbouring Bengal. Deenbandhu Mitra’s 1860 play Neel Darpan had brilliantly captured the oppression of indigo farmers in Bengal, which saw revolts by farmers and a law brought in to bring some semblance of humanity in how they were dealt with.

Gandhi, introduced for the first time into this complex play of oppressed farmers and their oppressors, sought to meet all stakeholders, including the planters, to acquaint himself with the crisis. The local administration was wary of letting Gandhi in, but the provincial government did not share its fear that such a visit would whip up anti-European sentiment among the local farmers.

Europe was set for its own convulsions; on 16 April 1917, Lenin had reached Russia to steer the Communist Revolution. Two days later, in Champaran, Gandhi was served a notice by District Magistrate WB Heycock to ‘leave on the next available train as he was danger to public peace’. A defiant Gandhi announced he would violate the order in response to his ‘higher conscience’.

In his 1928 book, Satyagraha in Champaran, Rajendra Prasad, then a young lawyer who would later become India’s first President, recorded Gandhi’s statement before the magistrate: ‘As a law-abiding citizen my first instinct would be, as it was, to obey the order served upon me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I came. I feel that I could just now serve them only by remaining in their midst. I could not therefore voluntarily retire. Amidst this conflict of duty I could only throw the responsibility of removing me from them on the administration. I am fully conscious of the fact that a person, holding in the public life of India a position such as I do, has to be most careful in setting examples. It is my firm belief that in the complex constitution under which we are living the only safe and honourable course for a self-respecting man is, in the circumstances such as face me, to do what I have decided to do, that is, to ‘submit without protest to the penalty of dis obedience. I venture to make this statement not in any way in extenuation of the penalty to be awarded against me, but to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.”

The magistrate’s efforts to get him to apply for bail also failed when he said he did not have the requisite Rs 100 to pay for it. An exasperated court eventually let him go free. Gandhi had successfully launched his first satyagraha, a non-violent movement of civil disobedience against the British Raj.

The district administration, from that point onwards, helped him meet planters, farmers and representatives of the local community to assess and record the plight of indigo cultivators. This movement saw the emergence of future leaders like Rajendra Prasad and Anugrah Narayan Sinha, who joined HS Polak, CF Andrews, Madan Mohan Malaviya and many others in holding public meetings and hartals to generate awareness of the problem.

As a member of the Champaran Enquiry Committee, Gandhi played an active role in its proceedings, and in the three months that followed, he galvanised public opinion in India and Britain against the exploitative system. The Enquiry Committee’s recommendations led to the passage of the Champaran Agrarian Act of 1917 that abolished the Tinkathia system. This first victory was to form Gandhi’s model for a sustained satyagraha against foreign rule.

If George Orwell, archly linked to Champaran’s freedom movement and farming narrative, had been able to foresee the region’s future in the early years of the 20th century when he was born, he may not have imagined the things that would come to define it over the next hundred years. Champaran’s farming sector defined its identity well into the modern era. Close on 110 years after 1866, the district was divided into East and West, and Motihari became the district headquarters of East Champaran. Along the way, the distinct purple-blue of indigo and the opium haze of its fields gave way to rows of tall sugarcane that have lined its rural landscape for decades now. Sugar mills, once Champaran’s most visible landmarks, gradually began to crumble even as the region became infamous for kidnappings.

As with the rest of its heritage, Champaran, and in particular the town of Motihari, was oblivious to its connection to England’s most influential author of the 20th Century, Eric Arthur Blair, until as late as 2003. On the 100th birth anniversary of George Orwell (his pen name), the author of Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and the dystopian Nineteen Eighty Four (written in the late 1940s), dozens of journalists descended on the bustling town. Motihari, which had just begun to boom, woke up to yet another illustrious son, a champion of social justice who had written visceral books against totalitarianism.

As a political ideology, social justice was still resonant in the land of Orwell’s birth and had changed its socio-political profile dramatically. Unbeknownst to the satyagrahis led by Gandhi, young Blair was born in 1903 in a remote corner of Motihari, the town that marked the launch of the Champaran Satyagraha. Blair’s father, who had been posted there as a deputy in Bihar’s opium department, may have packed his son off as a one-year-old along with his wife and daughter to England, but the link remains—and explains plans by local authorities to build and dedicate a museum to Orwell in Motihari.

Meanwhile, as with the socio-politics, Champaran’s rural landscape too had begun to change its hues. Sugarcane farming collapsed with the mills and the region’s farmers discovered yet another distinct colour of identity: turmeric. The crop lent itself to intercropping with rabi crops, and could be sown even in the summer. In wetlands, turmeric grew roots in rotation with paddy, sugarcane and banana. In gardens, turmeric, so far grown primarily in the south and the west, began to be grown in rotation with sugarcane, chilli, onion, garlic, vegetables, pulses, wheat, ragi and maize. With a good support price, the new farm gold turned Champaran’s rural fields yellow.

Connectivity by road and rail to places as far flung as Kolkata and Kathmandu, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Muzzafarpur meant that Champaran’s current generation of farmers could procure optimum prices for their produce even while changing the agricultural profile by growing a crop that was earlier only produced in the south and the west of the country. By 2011, when the then Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced a plan to revive the region’s sugar industry, Champaran had already charted its own economic revival. Smaller towns such as Mehsi, entry points for travellers from Patna to Raxaul, on the Nepal border, carved out a niche for themselves with pearl buttons made of oyster shells. Raxaul, just 52 km from East Champaran’s district headquarters and closer still from Nepal’s second biggest town Birganj, gained both name for the free-flow of labour either way and notoriety for the smuggling of everything from PDS foodgrain to subsidised urea and kerosene across the border. Consequently, it also gained disrepute for housing some of the most corrupt officials in various departments.

Today’s boomtown Motihari is a far cry from the muddy bylanes and pathways of its past in the early 20th century. The town has long lost its memory of indigo inequity and unabashedly rushed to embrace the glitter-and-bling of new bungalows and swanky apartments on either side of wide, well-lit streets.

In the centre of town, the chunar stone pillar commemorating Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha, designed by Nand Lal Bose and dedicated to the nation in 1978, still stands. Every evening, townspeople still throng around this landmark, but for a reason that neither Gandhi nor Orwell nor Huq would have dreamt of: mutton.

As the sun starts to dip, young men on motorbikes drive in with their wares, stop close to the pillar, hook hangers up on the walls of nearby buildings, and begin hawking what they have. Large chunks of skinned and marinated mutton, sliced with shiny cleavers on blocks of wood, their price haggled over, are purchased and then make their way to homes and hearths across town. The interstices of these makeshift meat havens are sharply defined by shiny artificial jewellery, shoes and skirts and make-up kits, mobile phones, cameras, T-shirts and cheap jeans and perfumes, bike accessories and wall hangings with the faces of deities peering out— all the shining shibboleths of an urban shanty town, most of it of Chinese make, brought in via Birganj and Raxaul.

Boomtown Motihari, like others before it, has grown like a Whirlpool ad into a town without a fingerprint. In an age when the once-chilling connotations of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘thought crimes’ have been long bypassed.