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Global Significance of Champaran Satyagraha 1917

By Satya Narayan Sahu | PUBLISHED: 12, Apr 2017, 13:31 pm IST | UPDATED: 14, Apr 2017, 14:57 pm IST

Global Significance of Champaran Satyagraha 1917 For a century before 1917 farmers in many parts of India including Champaran in Bihar were forced by British planters to grow Indigo plants  in the best of their lands. Indigo was a plant from which natural dye indigo used to be extracted from its leaves by fermenting them in water and later oxidising them. The indigo cakes created in factory from Indigo extracted from those leaves were used for dyeing textiles in Britain. 

The British planters with the legal support of the British Government in India forced the Indian farmers in Champaran to grow Indigo in one third of their best and fertile lands. Any attempts by farmers to resist forced Indigo plantation met with harsh punitive measures including denial of rights to use  walk ways, coercively  snatching their cattle and even molestation of women. There was reign of terror in Chamaparan and many attempts by farmers to violently oppose such exploitation was brutally suppressed by British administration.

The condition of farmers of Chamaparan worsened when for the first time Germany manufactured synthetic Indigo by using organic chemistry in laboratory. That manufacturing of synthetic Indigo by Germany based on benzene and naphthalene and its use for dyeing textiles perplexed the British planters who so far relied on natural Indigo produced in vast tracts of agricultural land in Bihar and Bengal. As German had monopoly in synthetic Indigo and none knew how to develop it Britain suffered huge economic loss because it could not produce so much Indigo naturally to compete with artificial Indigo. The loss was transferred to farmers of Champaran who were reduced to paupers.  The First World War which started in 1914 further aggravated their condition.  

It was during that period that one Rajendra Shukla of Champaran heard  of Mahatma Gandhi's success in South Africa for restoring the rights and dignity  of Indians through his first Satyagraha started on 9/11, 1906. He repeatedly met Gandhi after 1915 when he returned to India from South Africa and asked him to come to Champaran and save the farmers who were forced to cultivate Indigo in their best land and were victims of exploitation.  Some how or other Gandhi used to refuse to visit Champaran. Finally in 1917 when Gandhi was attending the Congress Session in Calcutta Shri Shukla came and met him and persuaded him to come to Champaran. Eventually Gandhiji agreed and reached Chamaparan.  


He first wanted to study the situation  and understand First hand the condition of farmers. As he reached Champaran, the district administration served an order and asked him to go back as his presence was disturbing peace of the area. But Gandhi refused. He was arrested and taken before the magistrate who asked him if he pleaded guilty of violating law.  Every body was surprised when he pleaded guilty of violating the law because he was tuned to the higher law of conscience. Such a statement stunned the magistrate and the British administration.

The Government lawyers requested the magistrate to postpone the trial keeping in mind the point that it would get dragged through many hearings and adjournments. But Gandhi's pleading of guilt took wind out of the sail of administration and its cunning lawyers. Eventually the British Government dropped the case.  It was a big victory  for the cause of truth. Gandhi famously said that he addressed the problem of farmers by employing the armaments of truth and non-violence. The Government permitted him to investigate the case of farmers and ordered the British administration to render all help to him.  Gandhiji met the farmers and spent time with them to know the horrible exploitation caused by British planters.

For the first time somebody heard their tales of woe and agony. They felt so relieved to see Gandhi freely mingling with them and going deep into their problems and sharing every moment with them.  It never happened before. Gandhi's act of hearing the woes of farmers constituted an attempt for dialogue for redressing the grievances of people. It actually meant an act of reconciliation which later Nelson Mandela started after he became President of South Africa and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  It just heard the victims of exploitation and those who exploited.  There was no persecution of those who exploited.  

After Gandhi heard the terrible exploitation in Chamaparan he famously said that the British planters developed the exploitation as an exact science  to perpetuate their domination. Eventually he submitted  the enquiry report after hearing the exploitative planters as well. The report shook the conscience of the British administration which framed the Champaran Agrarian Act of 1918. That legislation was shown to Gandhi who fine tuned it.  Finally because of that Act the forcible cultivation of indigo was stopped and farmers got back their right to cultivate their own land and plant crops of their choice.


But success of Champaran Satyagraha is not confined to stoppage of exploitation of farmers by British planters.  The Chapamaran Satyagraha should be seen in other profound contexts.  

When Gandhi visited Chamaparan he was shocked to see the pitiable or rather near absence of educational facilities for people. So he sent volunteers to  teach children and adults.  He framed a guide line which mandated that no corporal punishments should be imposed on students and teaching should be based on interaction and joy. Those guidelines of Gandhi issued in 1917 to remove corporal punishment in schools and make learning interactive and joyful constitute a great lesson for Twenty First Century world where the corporal punishment has been abolished by Government order. Besides, Gandhi instructed that schools would teach culture to students and there should be an atmosphere of cuLTURE around the school . All those guidelines were followed by the volunteers and there was great success achieved by the voluntary teachers in attracting children of poor and exploited farmers.   Such an attempt by Gandhiji to spread education among poor and marginalised offers vital lessons for our time when education has been badly commercialised and there is hardly any cultural content in education which is being imparted in a market driven and privately controlled educational institutions.  


The second larger dimension of Champaran Satyagraha is gender equality.  Both Muslim and Hindu women came to Gandhi and helped him to bring women to participate in Champaran Satyagraha. Muslim women confided to Gandhi that they would like to be liberated from veil which put a check their vision and progress. Gandhi took up that cause then in 1917.  What shocked Gandhi was that many women hardly took bath as they had only one saree to wear.  When Kasturba went to a lady to tell her to take bath she told as to how she would take bath when she had just one saree to put on. Therefore,  Gandhi narrated that incident in many meetings across the country to highlight the plight of women in Indian society and steps needed  to provide opportunities to them to empower them.  While addressing the Bhagini Samaja in Gujarat in 1918 he invoked the Chamaparan spirit and stressed on empowerment and education of women.  


Third lesson of Chamaparan Satyagraha relates to sanitation and hygiene. He was shocked to see the unclean life and dirty atmosphere in Champaran and taught the lessons of sanitation to people.  After hundred years of Champaran we are in the midst of a campaign to make India clean.  Gandhi wanted it to be a voluntary effort by  involving  and educating masses.  So while fighting for the rights of farmers he also fought for the cause of education and sanitation.  He wrote in one of his articles that if villages were kept pollution free many diseases affecting people could be prevented.  It teaches us a vital lesson concerning pollution free villages which we are striving to achieve in face widespread pollution of our atmosphere across the country.

While in Chamaparan in 1917 Mahatma Gandhi established a Goshala and delivered a speech on protection of cows.  He said that as a Hindu he would protect the cow but in the  process he would not kill a Muslim or Christian whose religion did not prevent him or her to kill the cow. That statement he repeated in Belgaum in 1930s when he said that protection of cow is part of Hindu faith and he could not approve of use of law to impose Hindu faith on others who followed and professed other faiths.  At a time when we are witnessing killing of Muslims and Dalits by cow vigilante groups we need to recall those words of Mahatma Gandhi who articulated those words in the context of Champaran Satyagraha of 1917.   


Another aspect of Chamaparan Satyagraha concerning Hindu Muslim unity assumes enormous significance for our time when there is a unbridgeable gulf being created among Hindus and Muslims in our country.  When communal riots broke  out in Western and eastern parts  of India following partition of our country Mahatma Gandhi invoked Champaran Spirit of non-violence and exhorted people to invoke that spirit to establish harmony and peace among all faiths.  


He also recalled Rajendra Prasad who helped Gandhiji in Champaran in 1917 and stated that use of Urdu by Shri Prasad to communicate with people during Champaran Satyagraha should be revived to promote the cause of Urdu and thereby uphold the language spoken both by Muslims and Hindus.  In other words Gandhiji promoted the cause of Urdu language by invoking the spirit of Champaran.  


There was an international and global significance of Champaran.  In 1931 Mahatma Gandhi after attending the first Round Table Conference visited Geneva and addressed a meeting where he deeply reflected on the functioning of League of Nations. He did applaud the vision of the League to establish peace in the world by arbitrating the conflicting interests of the nations. While doing so he he did say that there was no sanction of non-violence behind the League and such sanction he invoked by referring to the Chamaparan spirit.  He wanted theLeague of nations to be actuated by Champaran spirit to avoid war in the world and cautioned that in the absence of such sanction the League of Nations was bound to fail. Eventually the League failed and Gandhiji was proved right. His speech in Geneva proved the point that he located the global significance of Champaran Satyagraha for the cause of world peace.

It is rather distressing that the cause of farmers which Gandhiji took up in 1917 and redressed by non-violent method had worsened in twenty first century world.  Lakhs of farmers are committing suicide and the state of agriculture is in a deplorable condition in our country.  The spirit of Champaran is therefore of critical necessity to save our framers who are in despair and losing hope.  In this context Gandhiji's remarks that fruits in Champaran were expensive and his lamentations that in the fertile land of Champaran no measures were taken to harvest fruit bears significance for our time when cultivation of fruits are being emphasised.  


More than any thing else Mahatma Gandhi stressed on higher form of non-violence for independent India and that form of non-violence which would be higher than that of non-violence put into practice in Champaran of 1917 bears significance for our time.  Can India scale up the levels of non-violence which Gandhiji wanted to achieve in 1947 by invoking Champaran Satyagraha? This is the biggest challenge. It requires deepening of public reasoning in a higher scale than was done by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917 when he started Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 and achieved his objectives in six months.  We need to deepen public reasoning which can promote peace, non-violence,  harmony and reconciliation in society.  through dialogue and multi Logue. In doing so we can truly pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and enrich the legacy of Champaran Satyagraha.

# On 100 yeras of Champaran Satyagrah, this speech is given by Mr S N Sahu at Champaran. Mr Satya Narayan Sahu was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India Shri K.R. Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister's Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed by him are personal and not that of Rajya Sabha Secretariat.
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