Champaran Satyagraha: A Centenary and Recollections

Posted by Ujjawal Krishnam
June 8, 2017

NOTE: This post has been self-published by the author. Anyone can write on Youth Ki Awaaz.

In foothills of Himalayas, on the contours of Nepal and India, Bihar’s largest district in terms of area encompasses  the soil where Valmiki compiled Ramayana and Royal Bengal Tigers have their own regal pace in Valmikinagar Tiger Reserve, an agricultural belt hosting a handful number of sugar mills, one of Maurya dynasty landmarks and symbol of Asoka’sBuddhist inclination where it hosts the Asoka pillar and Buddhist sites but these are not those bounties which people reckon when ‘Champaran’(Forest of Champa(or Plumeria) ~ a word derived from Sanskrit as a combination of ‘Champa’ and ‘Aranya’), rather it is aravishingly astonishing story accrued by dazzling efforts of humankind in the history of democratic struggle which human minds tag ‘Champaran’ with.

Champaran’s colossal movement can be visualized in four trenchant episodes based on the places Gandhi visited in Champaran District of British Raj, viz, Motihari Episode, Bettiah Episode, Lawkaria Episode and Bhitiharwa Episode.

Before Gandhi could enter Champaran, European Commissioner Mr. Morshead asked Gandhi to leave Tirhut division where Gandhi was in Muzaffarpur and was expected to visit Champaran with Raj Kumar Shukla and other congressis. European Planters’ Association’s secretary Mr. Wilson did not disclose documents asked by Gandhi, terming Gandhi an outsider. Gandhi followed his own specific suit and boarded to Bettiah.

Gandhi arrived in Motihari(Champaran District) on April 17th; 1917, Archarya J.B. Kripalani, Advocate Brajkishore Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Singh and Dr Rajendra Prasad were some others with him. Raj Kumar Shukla was the driving force behind Champaran chapter of Indian independence  movement, the immense movement and its success can be credited to this simple soul, without whom, it could not have been possible, not even the unity post this movement which whole India learnt from Champaran Satyagraha’s success. Raj Kumar Shukla, a peasant from Murali Bharhawa village of Champaran who was following Gandhi since Lucknow session of Indian National Congress and finally on Shukla’s request to listen to peasants’ grievances and British planters’cruelty on Indigo croppers, Gandhi and Shukla boarded the train to Bihar on April 9,  with other Congressis as Calcutta session concluded.

On April 18, Gandhi was ordered to appear before sub-divisional officer for violating the section 144 Cr.p.c. Peasants gathered around Gandhi, their number was so large that they could not fit into Motihari Court. It was civil disobedience, Gandhi read aloud his statement to magistrate. Court not knowing how to respond to civil disobedience, was reluctant to imprison him. As Gandhi had no bailer, his 100 rupees bail was called off and he was released on magistrate’s personal recognizance. Now Gandhi was free to continue with his investigation, legally.

Gandhi arrived in Bettiah Raj on April 22nd. The Gandhi wave was undulating so strongly in Champaran belt that Gandhi had to deliver his first address to peasants in the nearby harvested mustard field of Munab Khan as thousands of peasants had gathered around Bettiah railway station. The mustard field of a Muslim pleasantly welcomed a Hindu with arms wide open and religious harmony evident, Champaran-and-India was ready to build a wave like never before.


After the failure of 1857 revolt against colonial rule, agitated Indians were back to the drawing board. The missing link was unity and leadership. MK Gandhi was that festoon who joined masses and supplied courage and strength to suppressed Indians to bring the reform.

Bettiah Raj used to be the biggest estate of Indigo garden owners. European garden owners did not only have their shares in Indigo production but also local industries used to avail an effective share to them. Not only oil and fuel, even there was no need to buy vegetables. East India Company did not only use to grant their officials and affiliated Europeans a standard pay but also a right to oppress innocents beyond a limit. Indigo was in demand before Germany started manufacturing artificial dyes. Demand fell and so the plantation and production of dyes. But that was just a transient relaxation for the peasants, it had to end, suffering needed be reinforced. Year was 1914 when relations between Britain and Germany collapsed because of war and once again Indigo was in demand. Garden owners were back to their business, they started imposing their tactics on peasants for Indigo production with no legitimate share provided to cultivators. Another problem before farmers was the fertility of the field where Indigo had to be grown. The piece of land where Indigo used to be grown, could not take another crop because of less fertility. Stolid act of Bihar Planters Association made Gandhi to join Shukla’s struggle and struggle of other thousands of farmers forcefully engaged in Indigo production. European Defense Association was totally against Gandhi intruding into their business, and local branch of the association passed their note to the company and magistrate that Gandhi’s presence in Champaran is no less than ‘Crime and Turbulence’ which would distort lives of Champaran people and barricade Champaran’s development.

It was April 22nd, when Gandhi arrived in Bettiah and Champaran’s Indigo peasants’ struggle received a gigantic push and was on the verge of transformation into a wide movement. It transformed and it happened. Gandhi, who already had disturbed British presence in South Africa was expected to study the grievances of Indigo peasants and to help them in their timorous condition of livelihood under British Raj. It was Bettiah Rajya then, and after death of  Maharaja Sir Harendra Kishore Bahadur in 1893, Champaran was under British rule as Maharaja did not have a child and was survived by two wives, one died early and Bettiah Raj was meted out to second wife, Maharani Janaki Kuwar. British rule divided Champaran(then Bettiah Raj) into various blocks and each block used to host a mansion(vernacular: Kothi) and European manager associated with each kothi was liable to collect taxes, to look after Indigo plantation and had to report to magistrate of the Champaran.

Gandhi decided to visit all kothis to collect documents and to listen to grievances of peasants in order to understand the scenario better and to send report to viceroy of all sufferings imposed on peasants. Gandhi’s first day stay was in Bapu Hajarimal’s ashram. Madvadi gentleman had various dishes ready for Gandhi but Gandhi only had two rotis and a glass of milk and went to sleep, CPIM district minister Prabhuraj Narayan Rao recollects his grandfather and freedom fighter RamashreyRao’smemories of Champaran movement.

On April 23rd, Gandhi listened to the grievances of peasants at Hajarimal’s ashram. On the request of Kishun Ramdhari, a nearby villager, Gandhi decided to visit Ramdhari’s village Singachhapar to observe British torture. Before this could happen, a news from Lawkaria, a village in Bairia block(roughly 20 kms from Gandhi’s location) boiled all satyagrahis. Farmer Rajman Kurmi’s land was forcefully acquired by Bairia kothi and kothi’smanagerMr. Hargayle got Rajman thrashed by his men. Gandhi planned to visit Rajman on the morning of 24th April.

On horse carriage, Gandhi reached Lawkaria. Thousands of satyagrahis were agitated against what happened to Rajman but as the movement was being driven by the force of peace and mind, there was no room for violent eruption. Gandhi’s peaceful actions were proving more fierce and effective. Gandhi inspected conditions of peasants of Lawkaria. Mr. Hargayle and Sub Divisional Magistrate WH Lewis reached lawkaria and were irritated of Gandhi sympathizing with peasants. After exchanging few arguments, they returned. They knew well the way agitation was risingcould not be undone. It’s quite interesting to note that civil servants employed in Champaran were highly influenced by Gandhi. Collector understood him well. He was also aware of Gandhi’s African chapter. He wrote, “Gandhi seems a magnificent blend of east and west. He is influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy. This combination makes him a yogi. Despite the fact of his eastern ideology, it is western influence also there which makes him a social reformer of such kind.” On magistrate’s words, RamchandraGuha once wrote, “It was probably the perfect understanding of Gandhi and Gandhi mission and Gandhian philosophy by any westerner. “ Gandhi’s temerity not only supplied infinite courage to broken bones of peasants to stand for their rights and to voice them but also left all inspired who were observing Champaran movement from across the globe.

Solicitous British Empire of its rule, Erwin started writing in Bettiah’s local newspapers focusing on planters’contributions in Champaran’s development. It was all on the roll, Britishians were in utmost shock and also in umpteen truculent space of their ignorance-both at the same time. Scalding summer had its own story and Champaran had its own. Both were narrating their tales as torpid wind blows away the cold sordid human errors. Serendipity is not always garnered, sometimes vivacious efforts against all odds too. Champaran was echoing it with its own velocity.

After visiting Singachhapar on 26th; On April 27, Gandhi marched to Narkatiyaganj and from there to Rampur Bhitiharwa, further Satyagrahais moved to Rajkumar Shukla’s village. Highly influenced by Gandhian philosophy, a wealthy priest, Mahant Baba Ramnrayan Das donated a piece of land in Bhitiharwa to the Gandhi Mission, Gandhi’s Bhitiharwa ashram still reckons the Gandhian philosophy and Satyagraha memories in its infrastructure. Gandhi spent his night at the home of Sant Raut. Sant Raut is one of the unsung heroes of Champaran Satyagraha.  It was Sant Raut who advised Shukla to meet Gandhi and to pass on the message of peasants’ sufferings to Gandhi. Sant Raut was one driving force behind Champaran movement and the role of Raut was unforgettable and Champaran will always cherish her heroes who made nation with their bravery and sacrifices, Raj Kumar Shukla’s grandson and a retired bank employee, Mr.ShashiBhushanemphasized upon.

After stay of 12 days in Bettiah Raj, Gandhi returned on May 1; 1917 from Champaran as his first visit concluded. Gandhi returned with documents and peasants’ statements so detailed study can strengthen  the report.

Again on May 13th, 1917, Gandhi was in Champaran. It was his second visit. This visit can be cherished with his ‘one-liner’ which left all imperialism locked in its chains. After receiving the news of farmers’ oppression in Dhokraha and Sirisiya, Gandhi decided to revisit Champaran to inspect whether Europeans had got their nose poke ability leveled off or not. European planter Mr. Holden had lodged the case against farmers that they had burnt his stable. Farmers were thrown in jail. Gandhi visited Sirisiya to inspect. A single cross question which locals still recount left all inspired by Gandhi’s intelligence. Gandhi asked Holden,”Mr. Holden, if peasants have burnt your stable, why am I finding your horses safe, secured and untouched of fire?” Everyone was amazed in court room, influenced by Gandhi, Holden withdrew the case and it was again a win for Champaran peasants.

By June, Gandhi Mission had recorded peasants’ statements and on October 3rd, Mission submitted a unanimous report in the favor of peasants to the Government.

Solipstic attitude of British had to be adjusted for the first time since its direct and indirect rule with the coming of East India Company in 1600.Champaran Agrarian Bill was introduced by Mr. Maude on November 2nd consisting of almost all recommendations Gandhi Mission had made and it became the Champaran Agrarian Law(1918: Bihar and Orissa Act I).

Indigo movement ended, but not Champaran movement. Gandhi wanted over-all development of Champaran.  For Gandhi, Education and Hygiene were also important factors to win over oppression and he had his words~In real terms,  oppression can only end if people are educated enough of their needs and deeds. On offered land in Bhitiharwa, Gandhi Mission needed an ashram made. This time, ‘Ba’ Kasturba Gandhi was in Champaran. On November 16th, 1917, local villagers’ efforts culminated into a school and a small guest house where people of Gandhi Mission could reside. On receiving this news, manager of Belwa Kothi conspired and the culmination of villagers’ efforts was set on fire and ashram transformed into ashes on the first night of its existence. Struggle is continuous so is rival’s desire, inhumanity remains in staid suite but the effort of humanity winning all odds does have the last laugh. Same happened. Gandhi arrived on November 20th, Dr Dev, Harikrishna Sahay and some others of Gandhi Mission joined him. A temporary hut was made in ashram campus and Ba started educating girls. All Gandhians spread across Champaran joined the hands of Gandhi Mission to make it successful; and still places where Gandhi visited never fail to refresh historical accounts and the fragrance of Gandhian philosophy can be felt.

Revolutionary philosophy remained rooted in the soil of Champaran even after Satyagraha concluded. This can easily be observed from one account on 1942 chapter of Quit India movement. On 24th August, 1942, Magistrate was addressing the mass gathering on the boundaries of local landmark Chotta Ramana and young men started revolting against the magistrate and colonial rule, magistrate order to fire. Several were injured and 8 martyred.

Gandhi and the soil of Champaran had a barter. Gandhi left Champaran inspired for left of her existence. Champaran left Gandhi inspired for left of his existence. And an inspiration to all among whom you and I stay.

After 100 years of its happening, historical Champaran episode still stands as a paragon of reformation and bravery. Among myriad lessons which Champaran movement inspires us with, in present day context one nod seems very relevant. It is what human civilization all needs. An ideal leader and an ideal follower. If two planks standing strong, there is no fall. It is time to learn from recollections and cultivate new standards of recollections for coming generations to cherish. India is celebrating a centenary of Satyagraha but actual probity on any part cannot be achieved by revisiting historical accounts on pages of history books, what we need is pragmatic approach and implementation of historical standards on current day sets.

Yes, ‘Indians of India of 2017’ have a lot left to learn from ‘Indians of India of 1917’!

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