How Champaran Transformed Gandhi & India

On the afternoon of April 15, 1917, thousands had gathered at Motihari railway station in Bihar’s East Champaran, waiting for a man who was destined to lift their lives out of misery. It was 3 pm when Gandhi alighted at the station from a train coming from Muzaffarpur. Little did the crowd welcoming him know that Gandhi’s visit would snowball into the first satyagraha (policy of passive political resistance) that he would lead in the country.

After his return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi established the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat. Then, on his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s advice, he embarked on a journey to discover India. He travelled all over the country, from Calcutta and Shantiniketan in Bengal to Cawnpore, Rangoon and Rishikesh.

During the 31st session of the Congress in Lucknow in 1916, Gandhi met Raj Kumar Shukla, a representative of farmers from Champaran, who requested him to go and see for himself the miseries of the indigo ryots (tenant farmers) there. Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography:

“I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position, of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of indigo plantations.”

The farmers were poorly compensated for their indigo crops and if they refused to plant indigo, they had to face heavy taxation. The landlords (mostly British) would enforce this system through their agents, called gumasta, who executed the terms brutally.

As a result, the reduced production of much-needed food crops and exclusive indigo farming (they were not allowed to grow any other crop even during the indigo off-season) had led to untold sufferings for the ryot farmers, including a famine-like situation. So, when the news of Gandhi’s arrival reached Champaran, it spread in the region like wildfire and he was greeted by large crowds of peasants at railway stations all along the way from Muzaffarpur to Motihari.

A day after reaching Motihari, Gandhi left for the village of Jasaulipatti – he had heard about a tenant there who had been beaten and whose property had been destroyed by the landlords.

Gandhi refused to comply and the police arrested him. He was produced before a court on April 18 where the magistrate proposed a deal,

“If you leave the district now and promise not to return, the case against you will be withdrawn.”

“This cannot be,’ replied Gandhi. ‘I came here to render humanitarian services to the people of this region. I shall make Champaran my home and not leave till I have helped these suffering people.”

With the kind of support Gandhi was already receiving from the people of Champaran, the British government, fearing unrest, released him. Two days later the case was withdrawn and Gandhi was allowed to remain in the district. The government also instructed its officers to look into the indigo farmers’ sufferings.



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