Champaran gave us the Mahatma, whose values are mostly forgotten

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi metamorphosed into the ‘Mahatma’ in Champaran, a century back. However, lost in the scramble of the Satyagraha centenary celebrations are the values that Gandhi sowed there

Photo by A Mohan
Photo by A Mohan

A Mohan

From an unknown Indian outback reeling under the tyrannical yoke of imperial exploitation, Champaran, overnight, became the metaphor of the freedom movement one hundred years ago in 1917. The then undivided, agrarian-rich, district in North-West Bihar became the world’s focus due to one man — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the barrister, who metamorphosed into ‘Mahatma’ by refusing to leave Champaran until the farmers were emancipated from the oppression of European indigo planters.

Blowing gently in the Champaran farmscape lie golden swathes of wheat that await the rented harvester in the face of labour shortage. Agrarian labour has migrated, largely, now.

Then, labour was yoked to the soil, forced to cultivate indigo and pay taxes for the upkeep of the whimsical lifestyles of the planters — a Motorahi tax if the sahib wanted to buy a motor-car for instance. The farmers were voiceless. Yet, a beacon of journalism shone from Champaran. Pir Mohammad Munis, a Bettiah-based school teacher, wrote on excesses of the indigo planters in the Hindi weekly Pratap, which was published from Kanpur.

However, civil disobedience in Champaran preceded Gandhi by a decade, brutally suppressed, though. Sheikh Gulab of Chand-Barwa village, along with Sheetal Rai of Mathia, and Raj Kumar Shukla defied the oppression of the planters by refusing to sow indigo in 1907. But the indigo planters unleashed a reign of terror and imposed more cesses.

The Champaran peasantry had been gloriously simple and naïve, but it was one such simpleton, Raj Kumar Shukla, who doggedly beseeched and pursued Gandhi to visit Champaran. “I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of indigo plantations,” Gandhi recollected in his memoirs.

“I came face to face with God, ahimsa and truth,” Gandhi wrote of the impact that the plight and upsurge of peasants of Champaran had on him.

Gandhi’s immediate accomplishment was the banishment of fear from Champaran’s psyche. “Where the ryots are so crushed and fear-stricken, law courts are useless. The real relief for them is to be free from fear,” Gandhi wrote after going through case studies of excesses by indigo planters with his vakil (lawyer) associates, Gaya Babu, Braj Kishore Babu and Rajendra Prasad at Muzaffarpur en route to Champaran.

Annoyed by the poise and firm disobedience of this unarmed barrister, Irwin – a planter from Motihari – plotted to kill Gandhi. Batakh Mian, a cook, was coerced by Irwin to poison Gandhi; however, Mian blurted out the assassination attempt after offering Gandhi the poisoned cup of milk. Mian’s show of courage proliferated as thousands arrived to greet Gandhi at the station on April 22, accompanying him to Hazarimal Dharamshala, his camp where peasants came in large numbers to testify and record their woes over the next several weeks.

In Patna, Muzaffarpur and Motihari, Gandhi look-alikes are all set to re-enact the walk from the Bettiah Railway Station to the Dharamshala. But, the original structure is full of garbage, wild foliage, snakes and scorpions. Gandhi’s Bettiah ‘home’ stands hidden and dwarfed by a multi-storied market complex.

Uma Shankar Jhunjhunwala, great-grandson Hazarimal and trustee of the Dharamshala Trust, went to jail when protests broke out at the proposal to rebuild the historic monument. “This is a private trust, registered after family partition,” he maintains.

Jhunjhunwala says the suit that invoked status-quo with respect the original Dharamshala structure in 1997 is pending in the Patna High Court. He hopes that the case would be disposed of so that they can rebuild the Dharamshala with a wing dedicated as Gandhiji’s memorial.

“I had petitioned the Governor when the trustees began to demolish the Dharamshala,” recalls 77-year-old Naresh Chandra Verma. Now spending his days at the Pinjara Pole Gaushala that Gandhi founded at Bettiah in 1917, Verma is disillusioned by the pomp and show unfolding in celebration of Gandhi’s Champaran sojourn.

Lost in the scramble of celebrations marking the Satyagraha centenary are values that Gandhi sowed in Champaran. Much of these are trending today — Swachch Bharat and skill development, to mention just two. Seeing the muck in Motihari and Bettiah streets and villages, Gandhi’s concerns come to mind.

Gandhi’s entourage included men of means and his comrades took to Champaran with retinues of servants and cooks. By doing away of separate kitchens, Gandhi won a victory over caste, communal prejudices with community dining.

Gandhi returned to Champaran in 1939 to attend a national convention at Brindaban village to prepare a blueprint for a basic education system. It resulted in a cluster of schools focused on skills such as weaving, spinning, carpentry and farming. The crumbling tiled-roof structures of these schools were made pucca after the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti organised a series of events in 2002. But these schools remain woefully short of teachers. And skill development has remained elusive.

Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha remains an education in political action. “It should be remembered that no one knew me in Champaran… Those who had heard the name of the Congress shrank from joining it or even mentioning it. And now the Congress and its members had entered this land, though. not in the name of the Congress, yet in far more real sense,” Gandhi wrote, explaining: “In consultation with my co-workers I had decided that nothing should be done in the name of the Congress. What we wanted was work and not name, substance and not shadow… It was enough, we thought, if they (peasants) understood and followed the spirit of the Congress instead of its letter,” wrote Gandhi.

Looking back, Gandhi summed up: “There had been several violent revolts… They were suppressed. The non-violent remedy succeeded in full in six months. The kisans of Champaran became politically conscious without any direct effort. The tangible proof they had of the working of non-violence to remove their grievance drew them to the Congress.”

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Published: 22 Apr 2017, 5:18 PM