The centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in India is being marked this April. It was undertaken in the erstwhile undivided Champaran district in northern Bihar. He went there in April, 1917 on learning about the abuses suffered by the cultivators of the district, forced into growing indigo by British planters / estate owners. ‘The Champaran tenant’, informs Gandhi, ‘was bound by law to plant three out of every twenty parts of his land with indigo for his landlord’. This system was called Tinkathia.
Agrarian issues rarely formed the part of the political discourse in those days. Even Gandhi was reluctant to commit himself to task in the beginning. But he was so thoroughly persuaded by Rajkumar Shukla, an indigo cultivator from Champaran that he decided to investigate into the matter. Gandhi’s plan was to carry out an extensive inquiry in the district and demand action based on its findings. It was barely two years that he had returned from his two decade long residence in South Africa. He went to Champaran in his personal capacity, revealing nothing of his association with Indian National Congress. By his own admission, Gandhi was on a humanitarian rather than a political mission to Champaran. Nobody recognized him in the district, located in northern end of Bihar, bordering Nepal. It was practically shielded from the political currents in the rest of India.
The local authorities like the Chairman of the Planters Association, Commissioner of Tirhut Division and Police Superintendent did not find his visit welcome. They unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Gandhi from undertaking his inquiry. But Gandhi determinedly began his work from the house of Babu Gorakh Prasad in Motihari, headquarters of the district. While he making a spot visit to a village on an elephant back, a common transport in rural Bihar then, he was served with a court summon. He had been charged with violating Section 144 of Cr. PC. Gandhi received the summons without demur, but refused to leave Champaran. The announcement of his inquiry had already captivated the imagination of the peasants. His popularity skyrocketed as the news of his prosecution broke.
On April 18, 1917 when Gandhi appeared in Motihari Court, he found 2000 local people accompanying him. The magistrate was thrown into a tizzy, and wanted to defer the trial. But to his surprise, Gandhi wanted to plead guilty. Gandhi read out a statement, and excerpt from which reads- “As a law abiding citizen my first instinct would be, as it was, to obey the order served on me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I have come. I feel that I could not just now serve them only by remaining in their midst. I could not, therefore, voluntarily retire. Amid this conflict of duties, I could only throw the responsibility of removing me from them on the Administration… 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 Motihari trial collapsed. The Lieutenant Governor of Bihar had ordered the withdrawal of case against Gandhi, and the Collector wrote to Gandhi saying he was free to conduct the inquiry. But this small step was giant leap forward in the history of freedom struggle. ‘The country thus had’ says Gandhi, ‘its first object lesson in Civil Disobedience’. It was widely reported in the newspapers, and heralded the advent of Gandhian era.
Gandhi’s method of inquiry at Champaran was based on surveys by the volunteers. The respondents who willingly gave statements should sign the papers or give thumb impressions. For those unwilling to participate, the reasons must be recorded by the volunteers. The principal volunteers in this survey were mostly lawyers like Babu Rajendra Prasad, Dharnidhar Prasad, Gorakh Prasad, Ramnawami Prasad, Sambhusaran and Anugraha Narain Sinha. Two centres were set up at Motihari and Bettiah. The rush had been so great that volunteers were barely able to cope with the work from day to day. During a recording of the statement an officer from CID was present. Apart from these several villages were visited and hundreds of ryats (tenants) were queried in their homes. Within a month nearly 4000 statements were taken. Planters refused to attend meetings where ryats were present. But some of them met Gandhi in a delegation. They tried to pose that they were benefactors of their ryats and had protected them from the tangle of moneylenders. But ryats had different opinion about them.
The Bihar administration grew anxious at Gandhi’s prolonged stay in Champaran. Thus on June 4, 1917 Sir Edward Gait, the Lieutenant Governor of Bihar, while receiving Gandhi at Ranchi declared the formation of a formal inquiry committee with Gandhi aboard. But Gait had to concede that Gandhi and volunteers could remain in Champaran and Gandhi would not cease to be an advocate of the ryats.
The Champaran Inquiry Committee began its preliminary meeting on July 11, 1917. After several sittings and spot visits, the Committee submitted its final report on October 4. The Government accepted almost all its recommendations to the benefit of the ryats. The principal recommendation accepted was complete abolition of Tinkathia system. It was a major blow to the British planters who became resentful. But they could not prevent the passage of Champaran Agrarian Act in Bihar & Orissa Legislative Council on March 4, 1918. The scourge of coercive indigo plantation passed into history.
Gandhi’s association with Champaran lasted for a year. Towards the end he had got busy with another agrarian Satyagraha at Kaira (or Kheda) in Gujarat. He did not limit his stay in Champaran to indigo issue. He promoted primary education in a poorly literate district by inviting volunteers, who came from as far as Maharashtra and Gujarat. The victory at Champaran established Gandhi’s repute in Indian politics.
(The writer is columnist based in New Delhi. The views expressed herein are his personal.)