Louis Fischer included Indigo in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s biography. The chapter narrates how Gandhiji became a beacon of hope for poor peasants of Champaran and took their fight to the English landlords in a civilized, non-violent but still revolutionary way.
Meeting the Mahatma
The account begins with Fischer traveling to a place called Sevagram, a hospice run by Mahatma Gandhi.
The great statesman reveals to Fischer reason of protesting against the Britishers in the year 1917, midst the World War I. He narrated that he attended 1916 Lucknow session of Indian National Congress and met a small farmer by the name of Rajkumar Shukla. Rajkumar hailed from a place called who Champaran (Bihar).
The Champaran district was a place known for cultivation of Indigo, a cash crop. There the sharecroppers were being oppressed by the British landlords. Rajkumar would not relent in his appeal to the great man and he finally agreed to visit Champaran.
Travel to Champaran
Before reaching Champaran, Gandhi visited Rajendra Prasad at his house in Patna. Rajendra Prasad was a well known lawyer but was not home at that time. Interestingly, Gandhi was refused to drink water from a tap on the belief that he belonged to the outcast group called the Untouchables.
From there Gandhi made a pit stop at Muzzafarpur to meet and talk to the sharecroppers. He arrived at the station on 15 April at Muzzafarpur station. A group of students from Arts College, led by their professor named J.B. Kripalani welcomed the visitors. They stayed with at the house of another professor named Malkani, a brave gesture in the extant hatred for Gandhi.
Mahatma addresses the peasants
Gandhi asked the various lawyers appearing in courts for the farmers to convene together and enquired about the state of proceedings and conditions of the battles in courts. Gandhi was shocked to learn about exorbitant fees demanded by the lawyers and decried their gluttony. He proclaimed that the real issue was of dear and they must conquer their fears before taking any step in the fight for justice.
The ground reality
The situation in Champaran was lot worse than what was predicted by the great man.
The fertile lands of Champaran were owned by the English lords and tilled by the Indian tenant farmers.
Under an old agreement, the peasants had to grow indigo on 15 percent of the arable area and pass on its entire produce to the Englishmen.
With the advent of synthetic indigo, the English contrived to loot the farmers by asking them to pay compensation in place of the fixed 15 percent share. The peasants who stood up to such robbery were traumatized and repressed.
Gandhi’s method of patient consideration
Gandhi wanted to fact check everything before deciding on a final course of action and met with secretary of the British landlord’s association.
After being rebuffed he met the British official commissioner of the Tirhut division who try to browbeat him to surrender.
Once convinced of the details, Gandhi made his move to Champaran’s capital city named Motihari with a team of few lawyers for further information.
During his stay, one day, he was harassed by the police and threatened. He was asked to leave and given an official notification for the same. He openly declared that he will disobey the order. He was ordered to present his case in the court.
The first battle of the War on Injustice
Gandhi sent a message to Rajendra Prasad to come to Champaran. He also messaged his ashram and the Viceroy of British India.
The next morning there were thousands of peasants stationed outside the courthouse. Gandhi declared this to be the first step towards curing the Indians from the fear of the English.
After the establishment failed to control the crowd they asked Gandhi who to do it. They even tried to defer the trial but Gandhi protested.
Gandhi confessed his guilt of non-compliance of the order but stated that he only did that in serving the greater law of conscience and justice. The magistrate released Gandhi without bail for a 2hr recess.
After the resumption, the judge announced that the judgment will take more days.
The United front
Answering Gandhi’s call for help many renowned lawyers like Rajendra Prasad etc came to Bihar.
The all agreed to take a united stand at Gandhi’s behest even in case he was imprisoned. The programme and strategy of civil disobedience proved fruitful as the case against Gandhi, following was scrapped by the provincial Lieutenant-Governor himself.
The lawyers began their work and recorded statements of several thousand farmers. Evidences were collected and investigations were being conducted. Gandhi charted his plan of action especially if he got arrest. Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Gait asked to meet with Gandhi and after few chats he agreed to appoint an enquiry commission consisting of Gandhi, officials and landlords.
Victory over adversity and fear
The commission awarded compensatory refunds to the sharecroppers. It was agreed at 25 per cent even though Gandhi’s initial demand was for 50%.
In the end, the prestige of victory was more pertinent than numerical value. Gradually the British landlords abdicated their lands and the sharecropping arrangement was abolished after few years.
A need for social transmutation
Gandhi was not content with mere political and legal victories and desired social transformation of Champaran.
To achieve this dream, schools were opened in six different villages, with 12 of his followers taking up work as teachers in the spirit of service. A doctor was brought in to take care of the heath treatment and hygiene awareness.
His beloved wife Kasturbai and youngest son Devadas also toiled for ensuring cleanliness and proper sanitation of Champaran.
Repercussions of the Champaran example
As Fisher puts it, even an ordinary victory like Champaran had extraordinary significance, both in the manner and the conditions in which it was achieved.
Gandhi’s insistence on conquering the fears and internalizing a sense of struggle gave Indians a credo to adopt and cling on to.
The ideals of self-sufficiency (like refusing to seek help of English sympathizer Charles Freer Andrews) and self-belief made the Champaran episode a shining example for the rest of the country and countrymen to adore and replicate.