Champaran Satyagraha

The Bihar government launched a year-long celebration on 10th April, 2017 to mark the centenary of the famous Champaran Satyagraha which was led by Mahatma Gandhi in the year 1917. Mahatma Gandhi had spent five days here in 1917 to espouse the cause of indigo farmers, who were being exploited by British colonial planters.

Review of Champaran Movement

Indigo was a celebrated product of India, down the centuries, raised and processed locally by peasants. After the English conquered Bengal, European indigo planters appeared there and after obtaining zamindaris, they coerced peasants into raising indigo for the dye to be processed out of the plants in their factories. The coercion extended to Bihar as well and Champaran was a place where the plight of the peasants was more than other parts of Bihar.  Champaran was a hub of the plantations where most of the European planters obtained leases for whole villages from the large Bettiah zamindari and as the demand for indigo grew with expanding textile imports, the planters imposed what came to be known as the tinkathia system, the peasants being forced to raise indigo on the best parts of their rented lands and hence, a large part of their livelihood and food was being wasted on product which was of no use for them.

The causes of the Champaran Satyagraha are rooted in two facts. Firstly, the introduction of synthetic dye, the demand of indigo decreased which led the zamindars or planters to shred off their burden by increasing the rent burden on the peasants, which added to the existing plight of the peasants. Secondly, as the demand of indigo declined, peasants demanded to shift to other crops on the same land. The planters agreed for the same after they paid compensation for shifting to other crops. Even after the First World War, when Germany was held belligerent state and the demand and supply of synthetic fell, the planters did not decreased the rent-burden and compensation.

In 1915, when Gandhiji returned from South Africa, and attended Lucknow Session of the Congress, his attention was taken by the peasants’ delegation that went all the way to Lucknow from Champaran to drag the attention of the top leaders towards their plight. Gandhi believed that it was the best time to start Satyagraha and that too from Champaran. He made the experiment of non-cooperation in a smaller way by giving leadership to the peasant struggles in Champaran (Bihar) and later on in Kheda (Gujarat). These struggles were taken up as a reformist movement but the idea was to mobilise the peasants for their de­mands.

The Champaran peasant movement was launched in 1917-18. Its objective was to create awakening among the peasants against the European planters. These planters resorted to illegal and inhuman methods of indigo cultivation at a cost which by no canons of justice could be called an adequate remuneration for the labour done by the peasants. Gandhiji studied the grievances of the Champaran peasantry. The peasants opposed not only the European planters but also the jamin­dars. Flabbergasted by this move, the British officials in April 1917, ordered Gandhiji to leave the district, the order being issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code. Defying the ban, Gandhiji pleaded “guilty” before the district magistrate at Motihari on April 18, ready to face imprisonment for following “the voice of conscience”. But due to mobilization of the peasants in the district court along with Bihar Congress leader Mazhar-ul -Haq, the government stepped down by withdrawing the proceedings against Gandhi.

This was a considerable success for the peasants as it was the first time their plight was being voiced and hence, the movement caught its full force. Gandhi visited nearby poverty stricken villages, studied their problems and even met with British officials at Ranchi in May to discuss the same. He got a negotiation settlement from the officials which he out rightly rejected.

Finally, the government gave in as E. A. Gait, the lieutenant governor of Bihar and Orissa, along with the chief secretary, H. McPherson, held a long meeting with Gandhiji on June 5 at Ranchi, where a settlement was worked out. A committee of enquiry, with such broad terms of reference as to cover all the matters that were relevant to peasants’ grievances was to be instituted, the committee to include Gandhiji, as member along with a representative of planters and another of zamindars and three British officials, including the president of the committee. All the evidence that Gandhiji had collected could be placed before it. It was assumed that its recommendations would be honoured by government and in return, Gandhiji agreed to terminate his campaign of collecting peasant grievances.

Gandhiji took the new responsibility given to him in the committee with due care and determination. It was due to his leadership that the planters expressed their readiness to reduce the rent but by only 25%, while Gandhiji demanded a reduction of at least 40%. Finally, he without annoying anyone accepted a 26% reduction.

When the committee made its report on 3rd October, 1917 it ultimately proved the success of the movement and the leadership of Gandhi. It recommended the abolition of the tinkathia system and gave freedom to the peasants to grow whatever crop they chose. It denounced the payment by planters for indigo by the area sown and not actual outturn. The reduction of rent by 26% was approved; and it was recommended that the compensation be abolished, no further payment of principal or interest on this account to be levied on the peasants. All additional levies and perquisites as well as fines were held illegal. It recommended that a proclamation to this effect, with penalties to be prescribed, be issued. Above all, the thekadari or village-contracting system by which the planters gained zamindari rights over peasants in villages outside their plantations was to be phased out. Rights in hides were to belong to the peasant owners of the animals, not the planters. The minutes of the committee meetings show how Gandhiji took up every issue of interest to the peasants and argued their case mostly successfully.

End Notes

The participation of the general peasantry and the ideology of non-violence gave strength to the peasants. It is interesting to look at the outcomes of this movement. The Champaran movement is described to be a success story in the history of peasant movements in India. The Champaran Satyagraha will always remain as the crucial starting point, the yoking, for the first time, of peasant unrest to the national movement, an assured guarantee for the ultimate success of the latter. As we observe the centenary of the event, one wonders how any tribute could be adequate for the firmness and determination shown by Gandhi and the unflinching resistance offered by the long-oppressed Champaran peasants at his call.

At a moment when the ideals and events of our national movement seem to be fading from public memory, it is gratifying indeed that there should be a celebrations in this country of the centenary of one of the most remarkable episodes of modern Indian history.

Questions & Answers

To what extent, it is justified to call “Champaran Movement” a revolutionary or peasant movement. Examine critically.

The Champaran movement and events therein should be seen neither as a revolutionary movement nor as a peasant’s movement. In fact, Gandhi had arrived in Champaran after failure of peasants’ earlier struggles of this kind. The people were so desperate that they readily accepted his (Gandhiji’s) grueling legal examination and cross-examination which he and his supportive lawyers from Patna, Motihari and Muzaffarpur set in motion. Further, the British showed no hesitation in setting up a Committee of Enquiry which included Gandhiji as a member and thereafter proceeded to pass the Champaran Agrarian Act of 1918. Thus, overall, the movement limited itself to the planter-ryot relationship for indigo farmers and by no means extended itself to the oppressive acts of either the Europeans or native landowners which brought suffering to bulk of the rural poor, the marginal tenants, the sharecroppers and landless labour. These people had already suffered great hardship during the famines of 1866 and 1873-74 {Champaran was worst affected in these famines}.

Champaran Constitutes a Landmark in the rise of mass politicization of India. Do you agree with this statement? Explain.

I fully agree with this view. The Champaran Movement truly was a landmark in the mass politicization of India. Firstly, via this movement, Gandhiji was able to transform the elitist, quite and urbanized national movement beyond recognition by placing it on the crest of surging popular participation, specially by peasants. Thus, this movement gave a new face to the National Movement. Secondly, This movement also uncovered the real face of Indian people – poor and downtrodden. Gandhiji had natural compassion for such people but at the same time, wise enough to understand that any political programme would be futile in the country unless it rested on the shoulders of such people only. Thirdly, the Champaran movement opened the door for peasants involvement in the national struggle. This was evident from the presence of large number of delegates from outside the professional class in the 1920 Bhagalpur session of the Indian National Congress. Similarly, the decision of non-cooperation movement in Calcutta session was made amid huge support of the peasantry.