India’s Earliest Farmers’ Protest: Revisiting Champaran Satyagraha
The Champaran Satyagraha in Bihar in April 1917 yoked the peasant unrest to the freedom struggle.
(This article has been updated and republished from The Quint’s archives. It was first published in 2018.)
Champaran Satyagraha, India’s first civil disobedience movement, is now 104 years old.
Touted as the first crucial move towards the birth of Mahatma Gandhi’s political experiment of passive and non-violent resistance, the movement was undertaken in the erstwhile undivided Champaran district in northern Bihar in April 1917.
It was the first peasant movement to have garnered nationwide attention, and in many ways propelled India’s masses to join the liberation struggle against the British colonisers.
What Were the Issues in Champaran?
Farm land in Champaran was largely held by European landholders but cultivated by Indian tenants. The relationship between the landlord and the farmer was a skewed one, with law favouring the former’s interests.
The Champaran tenant was bound by law to ‘plant three out of every twenty parts of his land with indigo’ for his landlord under a system called Tinkathia. If the farmers wished to shift to other crops, they could do so only if they paid a large amount, known as tawan or ‘compensation’, said The Wire.
The planters enforced the traditional zamindari practice of ill-paid or unforced labour through begar, The Wire added.
Not only were the peasants paid poor remuneration, money was extorted from them through through almost 40 different kinds of illegal cesses called abwabs, Hindustan Times notes. All this contributed to curtailing the farmers’ freedom of cultivation.
Troubled by all this, Champaran farmers decided to take a delegation to the 1916 Congress session in Lucknow, where they met Gandhi.
How Did Gandhi Get Involved?
Initially reluctant to commit himself to the task, Gandhi was persuaded by requests spurred from indigo-farmer-cum-money-lender Rajkumar Shukla at the Congress session held in 1916.
After learning about the abuses suffered by the farmers, Gandhi’s plan was to carry out an extensive inquiry in the district and subsequently demand action based on findings.
"I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position of Champaran,” he wrote in his autobiography. By his own admission, he went to Champaran in his personal capacity, citing it to be a humanitarian rather than a political mission.
In Champaran, Gandhi based himself alternately in the district’s two main towns, Motihari and Bettiah, meeting visitors from morning to evening, according to Scroll. Once news of his inquiry spread, farmers from allover the district began to descend at his doorstep. However, once the government got a whiff of Gandhi’s mission, it decided to try and stop him.
On 16 April 1917, the British district magistrate ordered Gandhi to leave the district, serving a court summon under Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code without demur, The Wire notes. Being firm in his resolve, Gandhi refused to bow down. Pleading “guilty” before the district magistrate at Motihari, he was ready to face imprisonment for following “the voice of conscience”.
On 18 April 1917, when Gandhi appeared in Motihari Court, he found 2,000 locals accompanying him. The Motihari trial collapsed. The Lieutenant Governor of Bihar had to order the withdrawal of the case against Gandhi, and the Collector gave him permissions to conduct his inquiry.
Did Farmers Get Their Due?
In a span of six weeks, Gandhi and his close associates collected nearly seven thousand first-hand testimonies to get acquainted with how the peasants of Champaran lived and laboured, says Scroll. In the second week of June 1917, confronted by the peasant testimonies Gandhi placed before them, the Bihar government appointed a Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee.
He tapped into the popular imagination of a wide cross-section of Indian society: peasants, lawyers, traders, and more.
On 3 October 1917, the Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee submitted its report in favour of the peasants.
According to Scroll, the satyagraha culminated in the passing of the Champaran Agrarian Act, 1918. Under this, farmers were given more autonomy over land, charged lesser rents and rewarded greater concessions.
Before heading to Ahmedabad, Gandhi was to spend two days in Bettiah. Close to 4,000 people waited at the Bettiah railway station to receive Gandhi to celebrate their victory.
The Champaran Satyagraha yoked the peasant unrest to the freedom struggle. Subsequently, Gandhi’s localised movements in Ahmedabad (for mill workers) and Kheda (where he supported distressed peasants) were, in a sense, the training grounds for the massive nationwide protests after the landmark year of 1919 all of which eventually contributed to the liberation of India from the inglorious British rule.
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