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Memories of Champaran

Tufail Ahmad writes on political Islam
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Despite its vital historical role in the freedom movement, Champaran has been reduced to history textbooks
In London, many a time when I walked up to a post office counter to mail something back home, the clerk would read the address and turn to me, "O Champaran!". I would smile, "You must be a Gujarati!". Champaran was one address that instantly connected me with Gujaratis abroad. Gandhi was born in Gujarat, studied in London and experimented with his politics in South Africa, but it was in Champaran in Bihar where he launched his first Satyagraha movement against the British in 1917.

Champaran, now cut in half by administrative divisions of East and West, is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in the plain fields north of the Ganga. Its historical role in the Independence movement is hugely consequential. However, it will be incorrect to say that Champaran pops up in local popular imagination – or of Indians elsewhere, except of course when reminded as more of a question for school students: where did Gandhi start his Satyagraha? As a child I grew up in West Champaran and went to high school in the 1980s.

My grandmother's name was Sona. One person who bonded me with her was Abdul Yaqeen, her brother. He was a saintly character, had worked for the British officers in the Indian Railways and would turn up at our home unannounced. Brought up in a Muslim family, I would be intrigued by his saffron clothes, associated with Hindu sadhus. Abdul Yaqeen would tell me stories. "When Gandhiji arrived at Narkatiaganj railway station, there was a huge crowd of devotees. People offered coins of do annas, char annas at his feet," he told me. Later, I would read in history books that local peasants anxiously waited for Gandhi, as if an avatar of Lord Rama was coming to free them from the exploitative indigo planters.

From April 1917, Gandhi travelled villages across Champaran, recording complaints of peasants who were forced to grow indigo by British planters at an exploitative tax rate. However, Gandhi's Satyagraha didn't strive to overthrow the British colonial rule. The final resolution addressed the peasants' grievances only partially, but the idea of freedom that the mighty rulers could be forced to bend caught on Indian imagination. These agricultural plain fields later proved fertile politically. Because of such legacies, Bihar is one of the most politically aware states today.

During his year-long tour of Champaran, Gandhi established schools in several villages, but they do not exist anymore. However, the Bihar government is developing a museum to preserve Gandhi's legacy at Bhitiharwa, north of Narkatiaganj. Over the years, several personalities from Champaran have emerged. George Orwell was born at Motihari, the district headquarters of East Champaran, which is now being developed as a museum. Bollywood's acclaimed actor and local hero Manoj Bajpayee was recently in news for gifting uniforms to a girls' football team.

As a laboratory of politics and human struggle, Champaran seems to have deeper imprint on the mind of Prakash Jha, the acclaimed film director who was born here and has directed memorable political movies, notably Rajneeti, Aarakshan, Satyagraha and more than a dozen others. When Gandhi arrived here, his politics wasn't local; entire India was watching the outcome of his political demands against the British colonial planters. For me, the saddest part is that Champaran's significance, despite its vital historical role in the freedom movement, has been reduced to history textbooks.