The story of Batak Mian, the man who saved Mahatma Gandhi’s life
Everyone remembers Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, but very few people remember, let alone celebrate, the man who once saved Gandhi’s life
Everyone remembers (and some now celebrates) Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, but very few people remember, let alone celebrate, the man who once saved Gandhi’s life.
The year was 1917, the place was Champaran, Bihar. Upon the insistence of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, a journalist, scholar and freedom fighter and Raj Kumar Shukla, an indigo farmer from Champaran, Gandhiji decided to visit the place and fight for the farmers of the region who were forced to cultivate Indigo under hugely exploitative conditions by local landlords under the protective umbrella of the British Raj.
Champaran became the first place where Mahatma Gandhi applied his method of struggle, the Satyagraha (holding firmly to truth) which he had pioneered in South Africa. The movement of Indigo farmers, which came to be known as the Champaran Satyagraha, became a historic movement in the Indian freedom struggle as the British were forced to accept the demands of agitating farmers. The success of the movement established Gandhi as the mass leader of Indians and also showed that the non-violent method of struggle can become a potent tool to fight injustice.
But all this could not have happened had a man not decided to stand up against threats and inducements of the British Raj. As the Champaran Satyagraha started to grow, the agitations and upsurges rattled the landlords and British officials alike. Something had to be done in order to stop Gandhi.
A British manager of an Indigo plantation known as Erwin in popular memory, decided to do something. He invited Gandhiji for dinner at his house which Gandhiji gladly accepted. Gandhi had absolutely no clue that behind Erwin’s invitation was a sinister plot to assassinate him. The British manager had coerced his cook named Batak Mian to serve Gandhi a glass of milk laced with poison (in some versions of the story Batak Mian was supposed to poison Gandhi’s food). Erwin also promised Batak Mian with handsome rewards. When the moment came, the poor cook did serve Gandhi the poisoned glass of milk, but while doing so he also told Gandhi about the poison, exposed the conspiracy and broke into tears. Mahatma Gandhi escaped unhurt.
After his plot failed, and British manager came down heavily upon Batak Mian. Batak Mian was dismissed from work, arrested and tortured. His land was auctioned, house was turned into a crematorium and family was forced to leave the village. The British Raj treated Batak Mian like a criminal because he refused to kill a man!
Rajendra Prasad, who went on to become the first president of India, witnessed the entire episode. His memory of the incident and a chance encounter saved Batak Mian from absolute obscurity from public memory. In the early 1950, Dr Rajendra Prasad visited Motihari. He was supposed to address a small gathering. Dr Girish Mishra, an economist and columnist who taught at Kirorimal College, Delhi University, was present at the gathering as a school student. In an article published in The Mainstream titled Gandhi’s Champaran Struggle, he mentions the incident because of which the story of Batak Mian came to light.
Recounting the incident, Dr Mishra wrote, “In the early 1950s, when the then President of India Rajendra Prasad, while going somewhere…was addressing a small public gathering [at Motihari] there was commotion because security people were not allowing a very old person to enter. Rajendra Prasad saw this and went down and escorted that man and made him sit by his side. For a few minutes he talked to him…and then narrated how a planter, Erwin, tried his best to induce Batak Mian to mix poison in the food and asked the audience, if he had agreed to do the bidding of the planter, none of us including Gandhi would have been alive and nobody could say about the impact on India’s freedom struggle!”
This speech established the story of Batak Mian’s selfless and courageous act, in the popular memory of the region making him a part of the folklore.
When Dr Rajendra Prasad came to know about the plight of Batak Mian and his family, he promised to help him and ordered the district administration to grant him 50 acres of land as token of appreciation for saving the life of Gandhi. However, due to the lackadaisical attitude of the district administration as well as of the political class, Batak Mian and his family only got a fraction of the promised land. Batak Mian passed away in 1957. As time passed by his story also receded from public memory.
But stories as good and of such importance as that of Batak Mian somehow or the other always find a way to make themselves known. In the year 1996, the veteran actor late Farooq Sheikh wrote a letter to Batak Mian’s family acknowledging the debt of Indian nation towards him. In his letter the actor wrote; “If it weren’t for Batak Mian, India’s history would have been different…”.
When former president of India Smt. Pratibha Patil came to know about the story of Batak Mian in 2010, she ordered the district administration to report on the action taken to fulfil the promise made by first president of India. However, nothing concrete came about and Batak Mian’s grandchildren are still living in penury on a small patch of land working as daily labourers. In recent times, the story of Batak Mian has been reported by non- mainstream media houses, both in English and Hindi. Last year a book on him titled, Batak Mian Ansari Ki Aanokhi Kahani was launched in Bhopal.
Despite all this, Batak Mian and his family continues to face the cold-heartedness of both State and central Government. In 2017, Bihar as well as the central government celebrated 100 years of the Champaran Satyagraha with all pomp and show, but failed to honour or even mention Batak Mian!
Today, when the Indian Government is celebrating 75 years of India’s independence, again we find no mention of him in any document or scheduled programmes. Its high time that Indian nation pays its tribute to the man who saved the life of the Mahatma. If it were not for his small act of revolt, not only the Indian nation but also the world would have been deprived of the potency of non-violence and Satyagraha as a method of struggle for justice.
Published: 01 Feb 2022, 8:00 PM