Remembering the first Satyagraha: 100 years of Champaran

Indigo farmers in Bihar had suffered under white planters since the 19th century. By the time Gandhi arrived in Champaran in 1917, they were forced to cultivate indigo (which brought them extremely poor remuneration) and to raise money for a variety of bizarre, illegal cesses called abwabs. (Gandhi in Champaran by DG Tedulkar)

On a hot April morning in 1917, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Patna by train from Calcutta. It was his first visit to the city and he had come to champion the cause of indigo farmers in Champaran, spurred by persistent requests from an indigo agriculturist Rajkumar Shukla. “I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position of Champaran,” he wrote in his autobiography.

But that did not deter him from working tirelessly in the region for close to a year, leading his first successful civil disobedience movement in India. This is the 100th year of that landmark struggle and there have already been a slew of commemorative events. The latest — this one scholarly in nature — will take place on April 15 at the India International Centre, and has been organised by Dr Aparna Basu, chairperson of the National Gandhi Museum.

The programme includes a panel discussion and a film on Champaran. Says historian, Dr Mridula Mukherjee, “The Champaran movement is significant because it was the first political action that Gandhi led in India for a deeply oppressed peasantry in a remote part of the country.” Gandhi’s subsequent localised movements in Ahmedabad (for mill workers) and Kheda (where he supported distressed peasants) were, in a sense, the learning and training grounds for the massive nation-wide protests that he launched from 1919 onwards.

The oppression of Champaran’s indigo farmers by white planters dated back to the 19th century; in 1848 a British civil servant wrote that “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” By the time Gandhi arrived, the indigo farmers were in the grip of the pernicious tinkathia system whereby they were forced to dedicate three out of 20 parts of their land to the cultivation of indigo.

Not only did the peasants get poor remuneration, they were also subject to almost 40 different kinds of bizarre, illegal cesses called abwabs. If the planters wanted to buy elephants for shikaar, the tenants had to raise money and this was called hathiahi. Similar taxes were extorted for purchasing horses or cars (ghorahi, motorahi). And so on. Dr Basu points out that at various points in the history of the region, the peasantry had rebelled but all such movements were suppressed ruthlessly.

When Gandhi arrived in Champaran, he introduced a new, different kind of political activity. He demonstrated the hallmarks of his future political actions for the first time in India, particularly his ability to effectively mobilise people. Says Dr Mukherjee,

“People say that Gandhi was charismatic, that’s why he was able to mobilise millions of people. But the truth is that he understood people at the grassroots because of the extraordinary hard work he put in — look at the number of people he met every day of his life, the hundreds of people he corresponded with, the weekly journal he brought out… His unerring political instinct was born out of tremendous experience.”

In Champaran, he decided that the peasants were so crushed and fear-stricken, it would be useless to go to law courts for a reprieve. “The real relief for them is to be free from fear. We cannot sit still until we have driven tinkathia out of Bihar,” he wrote.

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Source By http://www.hindustantimes.com

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