The Becoming of Bapu: 100 Years of India’s First Satyagraha

 

Shatabdi BanerjeeGandhi_Champaran_mibihar[1]

Date: April 15, 1917, hundred years from now, an old man cladded only in white loin cloth landed on the cursed land of Champaran district of Bihar. Approximately, thousands of people flocked together to see this man, for they had heard that this man did something big in some foreign land called, Africa. These poor faces believed that this man could be their saviour, their messiah. This lean, old man was, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, our Bapu. It was Champaran which made Mohandas, Mahatama.

Dinbandhu Mitra, one of the most powerful playwrights and dramtists of Bengali Literature of 19th century, wrote Neel Darpan in 1856. This play narrates the plight of Indigo farmers of Lower Bengal who used to work under the white indigo planters. The play revolves around an old landholder and his family. Neel Darpan was an immediate success. It became more famous when it was translated into English as The Mirror of Indigo Planters (1861), which was edited by Rev. James Long.

Before India, the British Government had already gained profit from the indigo plantations of West Indies and America, which produced better quality of Indigo, but by the end of 19th century these countries moved on to more profitable cash crops. With no options left, the British Government turned towards India to compensate the losses and to meet the requirements of the British Textile Industry. Indigo cultivation in Bengal, of which Bihar was still a part till 1912, experienced the “unimaginable amount of human suffering”.

Unable to withstand the plight of his fellow farmers, Rajkumar Shukla, on December 1916, went to meet Mahatama Gandhi, during the 31st session of Indian National Congress at Lucknow. Initially, Gandhi declined to move any resolution saying that he could not give any opinion without having seen the condition with his own eyes. Gandhi wrote in his autobiography:

I must confess that I did not know the name, much less the geographical

position, of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of Indigo plantation.”

The British Government implemented the Tinkathia system, under The Bengal Tenancy Act- a mandatory and an obligatory indigo planting on tenant’s holding, required the peasants to plant 3/20, and sometimes up to 5/20. Not only this, but the planters also imposed numerous illegal taxes on marriage, homes, oil-mills or even collected special taxes whenever the planters wanted for their personal use. On the blood and sweat of these ryots, these planters led a princely life.

Mahatama Gandhi after leaving Calcutta on April 9th 1917, reached Champaran and took out a detailed study and surveyed about 2,841 villages in Champaran District of Bihar to investigate the condition of the peasants and to know the truth and the facts. Being an ex-lawyer himself, he knew that the action by the law courts would be slow and impractical in this case. When he witnessed them, he realised that the condition is worse than he imagined. He wrote to the then District Magistrate,

“What I have seen the condition of Raiyats, is sufficient to convince me,

that if we withdrew, we would stand condemned before  man and God.”

On April 16th, Gandhiji and some of his co-workers were arrested. During his trial, Gandhiji read aloud his statement as to why he disobeyed the law willingly and submitted to the penalty of disobedience without any protest. On November 2, The Champaran Agrarian Bill was passed and became The Champaran Agrarian Law (Bihar and Orissa Act I of 1918).

Hundreds of years have passed, people of our nation are breathing in this new air of independence and freedom. Now there’s no oppression, no tyrannical powers  to suppress. But the question remains, why these farmers are still looking for a saviour, a messiah, a Bapu?

 

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