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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 14, March 27, 2010

Paradox of Gandhiji’s Champaran Struggle

Saturday 27 March 2010



Girish Mishra’s “Gandhi’s Champaran Struggle” (Mainstream, February 13, 2010) was interesting. It focused on certain aspects which are not commonly known to many. At the same time, however, it has left out many information relevant in the context of his struggle in Champaran, which was the first Indian theatre of experiment of his unique satyagraha. Maybe in a small compass, the writer could not bring many important, though relevant, facts in its ambit.

In his first letter to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bihar and Orissa, Gandhiji charged the indigo planters of extorting the tenants of Champaran. He alleged that they exacted charsa, which was an impost without authority on the Chamars for the privilege of flaying dead domestic animals like cows, buffaloes etc. Many would view it as the Mahatma’s compassionate gesture, favouring the Chamar, the most degraded soul in the social hierarchy. Though true, it was, incidentally, not the whole truth. The Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), Bettiah and the District Magistrate and Collector, Champaran were quick to point out to the government that the indigo planters had adopted the vice [of levying selami] from the local zamindars. The underlying implication was that neither was charsa a British invention nor was it imported from their home. This certainly had blunted the intrinsic moral force of Gandhiji’s letter.

Charsa, widely prevalent in the sprawling Darbhanga raj in their neighbourhood, we may recall, was a substantial source of revenue for its Maharaja. The Chamars, after flaying dead animals, were not free to sell its raw skins in the open market. They were under obligation to deliver it up to the dedicated agent appointed by the Maharaja. The agent, on the other hand, used to buy the raw hides at a “privilege price”. The purchaser, interestingly, himself determined the price at which to buy the stock. Besides, the Maharaja’s income from the bones of animals too was again quite substantial. The Chamars, who collected bones, were to sell it to the estate’s designated agent.

The Darbhanga Maharaja, a Srotriya Brahmin, paradoxically, was the life President of the Provincial Cow Protection Committee (Gau Rakshini Samiti) and Bharat Dharma Mahamandal. He was a liberal patron of the Gau Rakshini samiti and used to generously contribute for cow protection every year, for which he was lauded as a pious man. With him earning substantially from the labours of the Chamars, others feudal lords, for example, the Maharaja of Bettiah in Champaran district and Maharaja of Hatwa in Saran district, had little compunction or moral inhibition for flogging the Chamars with the same end in view. The indigo planters, in the given circumstances, could hardly be expected to be indulgent to the skinners and overlook charsa. Exploitation either by foreigners or by home-grown tyrants is identically painful and demeaning.

Long before Gandhiji arrived in Champaran, the Chamars and Dusadhs, occupying the bottom position in the caste hierarchy, were obliged to pay double the rent at which the Brahman, Rajput, Kayasth or Bhumihar ryots paid for identical land in Champaran, Saran, Muzaffar-pur, Patna, Monghyr or Gaya districts. The Maharaja of Bettiah were notorious in levying illegal cesses from his tenants in Champaran and elsewhere for defraying expenditures on account of marriage, annaprasan (first food to child after birth), and death in the family, besides various other purposes. Construction of a dwelling house or temple, buying an elephant, a horse and a motorcar, repairing a boat etc. occasioned exaction of the same ryots. The indigo planters too, therefore, found no objection to indulge in these cesses. In Bengal, the collecting agents, for example, naib, gumashta etc. of some of the zamindars, went to the extent of extorting cess on the plea of conception of their master’s wife! In Orissa, the Balasore zamindars defrayed their expenses incurred for pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple, Puri. Rani Bhawani of Rajshahi had built 380 temples, dharamshalas, etc. in Benares alone. Certainly her tenants had to suffer on account of her religious convictions.


There has always to be a cause for an effect as both go together and are inseparable. Prof. Girish Mishra did not offer an inkling why Raj Kumar Shukla was so eager for a visit of Gandhiji in Champaran. Incidentally, he was accompanied by two local Marwari businessmen in his visits to Gandhiji in Kanpur as well as Calcutta. A moneylender of village Murli Bharwa near Narkatiaganj in West Champaran, earning, according to his own statement before the enquiry committee set up by the provincial government, a sum of rupees two thousand a month from interest, Shukla, by no standard, was a needy or poor man. Earlier he was in the employ of a landlord in Benares but was dismissed on account of malfeasance. So he was a disgraced man per se.

We have historical record to show that indigo plantation was not all that bad or harmful to the peasants and farmers, as portrayed in contemporary historiography. Raja Rammohan Roy’s testimony suggests that indigo farmers were prosperous and happy in the district of Rungpore, now Bangladesh, where he was the diwan of District Collector John Digby. This cannot be brushed aside, despite the fact that there were indigo disturbances in districts like Nadia [West Bengal] and Jessore [now in Bangladesh].

Bengal and Bihar grew indigo. In addition, Bihar along with the North-Western Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh) produced opium. The eight hundred miles long and two hundred miles width Gangetic belt from Bhagalpur to Agra grew poppy that could meet five times the legitimate needs of the whole world. Bihar produced more poison than UP and the output was sufficient to supply threetimes the total global requirements. And in Champaran large areas of land were under cultivation for both these crops. And since the nineteenth century, opium always claimed the lion’s share of land than indigo. Strangely, no voice of sanity by any Indian was ever raised against the opium in the long course of its cultivation, though its moral effects were debilitating and disastrous. Protests against the poison were raised largely, if not wholly, by the philanthropic foreigners. Following the recommendations of the Inter-national Opium Commission, the British Govern-ment phased out opium cultivation in India in ten years ending 1911. The authorities closed down the opium factories in Ghazipur in UP and Gulzarbagh in Patna, Bihar, bringing an end to its manufacture and trade. It is an intractable riddle of the Indian political movement why Indians did not find opium more harmful than indigo. Why did indigo, not opium, become the rallying point for public grievances to usher in satyagraha at all?

The reason appears simple: big peasants and farmers, who made up the landed gentry, were the beneficiaries of opium cultivation under licence with the government. And Gandhiji focused on the planters’ exploitation, overlooking the same vice in the feudal class, sucking them alongside the former. We are shy to speak about it. A good strategy, though it is not true to history. Our intellectual class has much to explain.

The Ashram schools founded by Gandhiji did pioneering work of solitary character calculated for social uplift in Champaran. Nevertheless the same Champaran, both east and west districts taken together, continue at the bottom of literacy in the unenviable record of Bihar in this behalf. And the sparsely populated district grabbed the attention of many of those men who thronged around the great exponent of satyagraha. They soon acquired large estates making it impossible for reforms in land tenure system even now. Powerful opposition and irreversible feudal attitude have retained Champaran even now in the vortex of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, turning it into a fertile ground for perennial agrarian tension and Naxalism.

Kailash Dham, A.K. Biswas

Block-#1, Flat # B-2/310, (Former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur)

Sector-50, NOIDA,
UP, Pin: 201301.

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