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Mainstream, VOL LV No 20 New Delhi May 6, 2017

An Appraisal and Perspective of Champaran Satyagraha

Monday 8 May 2017, by A K Biswas

Part I 

 Mahatma’s ‘Mother cow’ 

Perhaps the loudest and most sonorous euphoria over the cow was penned 95 years ago: “The cow is a poem of pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind.”1 Four years later the same ecstatic writer went to a higher plane: “I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world.”2 At his 70th year, his devotion knew no bounds for the bovine creature: “Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Here is an unbroken record of service which does not end with her death. Our mother, when she dies, means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body—her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin. Well, I say this not to disparage the mother who gives us birth, but in order to show you the substantial reasons for my worshiping the cow.”3

India’s cowbelt has today launched a massive drive marked by unbridled barbarism targeting Dalits and minorities over Gandhi’s mother cow which ignited the initial sparks for the Champaran Satyagraha.

Part II

Agriculture and Economics of Indigo incompatible with the Champaran Satyagraha

On April 9, 1917, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi reached Motihari in Champaran in an agrarian mission to study the conditions of farmers, who were groaning under the oppressive and exploitative European indigo planters. He turned the Champaran district into the theatre of his first ever Satyagraha on Indian soil. It is, therefore, appropriate to understand and appreciate the indigo cultivation, trade and economy in perspective. In 1904-05 the total area under indigo across India aggregated at 233,100 acres and the out-turn at 24,300 cwt. Cultivation reached its highest development in North Bihar, the chief districts of which “are Champaran, which in 1904-05 had 84,000 acres; Muzaffarpur, 35,000 acres; Darbhanga, 32,000 acres; and Saran, 18,000 acres. The forecast for Bengal in 1906 estimates the total area as 137,800 acres and the yield as 1,323,400 lbs. (11,816 cwt.).”4

Progressive decline in indigo cultivation across India was a notable feature since the first decade of the 20th century. In 1892-93, the total area all over India was 1,218,766 acres and yield 237,494 cwt.; in 1896-97, 1,608,901 acres and yield 168,673 cwt.; in 1898-99, 1,010,318 acres and yield 139,320 cwt.; in 1900-01, 990,375 acres and 148,0219 cwt.; in 1902-03, 645,511 acres and 79,207 cwt.; in 1904-05, the area was 473,757 acres and the out-turn 53,200 cwt.5 Besides Bihar, the Madras Presidency, Punjab, the United Provinces, Central Provinces and Berar, and Bombay and Sind cultivated indigo in the 19th century. Punjab’s Multan, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan, and Rohtak districts in 1904-05 devoted 67,500 acres and yielded 9900 cwt.; but in 1906-07 the estimated area of indigo culti-vation declined to 62,300 acres. Punjab was the solitary supplier of indigo seeds. In 1904, the province had produced 1,673,800 seers of indigo seeds; in 1905, 1,785,000 seers; in 1906, 3,227,600 seers; and in 1907, 1,248,900 seers.6

In the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) the chief districts producing indigo were Aligarh, Azamgarh, Bulandshahar, Etah, Kanpur, Mainpuri and Faizabad. In 1904-05, UP’s total area growing indigo was 107,516 acres. In 1906-07, the area shrank to 40,374 acres.7 In 1904-05, the Madras Presidency devoted 126,000 acres and the out-turn of indigo was 16,700 cwt. The noted districts were Cuddaapah which in 1904-05 put 32,149 acres; South Arcot, 28,784 acres; Nellore, 14,618 acres; North Arcot, 7352 acres; Karnul, 7056; Anantapur, 5098; and Krishna, 3208 for the dye. In 1905-06, an estimated 212,300 acres yielded an out-turn of 1896 tonnes of indigo.8 The special feature of the southern province was that it grew dry-leaf indigo for exclusive exports to Egypt which, happily, was addicted to the Madras indigo despite the discovery and marketing of synthetic dye in the 19th century.

Decline in the area under cultivation led to corresponding decrease in the indigo exports from India as well. Indigo exports from India to Great Britain declined from 72,494 cwt. 1875-76 into 10,743 cwt. in 1904-05.9 German imports from India dwindled from 16,929 cwt in 1895-96 to 970 cwt in 1905-06. In 1908, Prof George Watts of Calcutta University found that Germany practically ceased to import vegetable indigo from India though German exports of artificial dye aggregated at 25,00,000 marks (£1,250,020) to all countries. Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik Company, reputed to have discovered the synthetic dye, started commercial manufacture and export since 1897. Its exports stood at £583,787 in 1903 and at £544,936 in 1904.10

In 1897, 19,000 tonnes of organic indigo were produced from plant sources. A total of 17,000 tonnes of synthetic indigo were produced worldwide in 1902.11 The discovery of synthetic indigo dealt a terminal blow to natural indigo before the end of the nineteenth century. Gandhi, who landed in Champaran a decade and-a-half after the scientific discovery, was perhaps unaware of the scientific development. His advisers and assistants, who were well educated men, too were either ignorant of the revolu-tionary development involving chemical indigo or kept him in the dark deliberately. Their ignorance about the scientific discovery of the very substance that furnished the very platform of the over-hyped satyagraha seems not only shocking but paradoxical as well.

Part III

Charsa, an Unknown Tool to obfuscate Native Extortion

On May 13, Gandhi addressed, 34 days after his arrival in Champaran, a letter to H. McPherson, the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bihar and Orissa, from Bettiah pinpointing that “in some villages the Chamars have been forced to give up to the factories the hides of dead cattle belonging to the ryots. Against the carcasses the Chamars used to supply the ryots with shoes and lather straps for ploughs and their women used to render services to the latter’s families at child birth. Now they have ceased to render these valuable services. Now some factories have for collection of such hides opened godowns.”12 Hide godowns found an exceptional place in the feudal social structure. The Chamars in Indian society are untouchables and for them a sane voice, crying out for justice favouring the despised masses in distress, was raised. He began thereby a political chess. Overnight Gandhi became the champion of 11,14,467 Chamars in Bihar over the cow and charsa.13

The District Magistrate of Champaran, W.B. Heycock, was quick to pay Gandhi in his own coin and silenced him over the hide. He wrote on June 19, 1917 to the Commissioner, Tirhut Division, Muzaffarpur, saying: “Mr Gandhi’s statement that the Chamars in some villages have been forced to give up the hides of dead cattle belonging to ryots is founded on fact.” But Heycock underlined therein that “the Bettiah Estate claims and takes the skin of all animals dying within a large tract of country called Rajpur Soheria Hide Mahal. This particular Mahal is always leased out by auction [......].”14 The first nail, therefore, was thrust on the contro-versy which died out soon.

On July 2, 1917, the Settlement Officer of North Bihar, J.A. Sweeney, while concurring on charsa levied by indigo planters, wrote that “for this the factories are not responsible as there is a Charsa (Hide) Mahal in the Bettiah Raj, which is leased out for periods.”15 The Bettiah zamindar was the largest Bhumihar landlord of Bihar. No complainant could survive in Bihar by publicly antagonising the powerful landlord. Planters were not alone in extractions of charsa, an illegal abwab. The Bettiah Raj was deeply involved in the sin of making money out of cow hides. Imagine what happened in 1857, some six decades ago with the Enfield rifle. A rumour was spread that the cartridges were made from the fat of cows and pigs. Loading the Enfield required tearing open the greased cartridge with one’s teeth. Political calculation and expediency, however, dawned on Gandhiji against raising the voice of protests targeting the Bhumihar landlord lest the community of 1,265,902-strong turned against the satyagraha overnight.16

In his aforementioned communication, the Champaran District Magistrate elaborated that “The term Hide Mahal was used because under the terms of the lease the thikadar was authorised to realise the rent in kind by taking skin in lieu of rent. The number of skins the Chamars were liable to give depended on the rent they had to pay [.....] The bodies of cattle are usually thrown on wasteland when they die. The Chamars from time immemorial have skinned these animals and appropriated the skins. In return for this privilege, Chamars and their wives render certain village services free such as midwifery services and give certain articles such as shoes to the zamindars. No doubt the village services are rendered to the villagers in return for the skin of their animals and articles such as shoes to the zamindars for the use of the wasteland on which the cattle die. To take away the skins from the Chamars means to deprive the villagers of these customary services for which the Chamars must in future demand payment. The custom under which the Chamars take the skins is an old village custom, a reasonable custom and one, which deserves encouragement. It is pity to attempt to break this custom in order to set up a hide monopoly in favour of the zamindar and its thikadar.”17 The official argument disarmed Gandhi. And we find no scholastic discourses on the Champaran satya-graha, focusing on the Chamars and charsa vis-a-vis Gandhiji.

Suffice it to state that the District Magistrate and Settlement Officer were unanimous that the native zamindars, like the European indigo planters, exploited the Chamars. They made it clear that European indigo planters were neither the original nor the only sinners. They imitated the local zamindars who were the original exploiters. The British bureaucrats, in other words, caught Gandhi on telling a half-truth. This remained ever unchallenged.

In assessing the socio-political contribution of Gandhi in the context of the freedom struggle, his inherent contradictions have been suppressed and a sanitised Gandhi was presented in academic discourses. Landlords in Bengal and Orissa, besides Bihar, brazenly levied abwabs on tenants but it is morally unfair to single out alien planters for exploitation of the tenants in Champaran. This only exposed the leader’s weakness towards a class of exploiters simply because they were dominant! The tenants too were countrymen. Morality warranted that all exploiters and oppressors were measured by the one and the same yardstick. For the common man or ryot, the complexion of the skin of the exploiter—either brown or white—was imma-terial. Whether the bloodthirsty landlord was an European or a Bihari or a Bengali or an Oriya, the sufferings and agony of the tenants—usually the lowly poor productive class—was the same. The District Magistrate’s stinging observation is above reproach: “That it is an Indian custom and that all Indian zamindars do the same (levy abwabs). In answer to this it may be pointed out that two wrongs do not make a right and that a higher standard is looked for in the case of European thikadars.”18 The official position dented, beyond repair, Gandhi’s honesty and uprightness.

To portray angelical images of leaders selectively, a section of Indians shies away from threadbare analysis and assessment of hard and relevant facts of their activities. The Champaran satyagraha propelled Gandhi on the national political canvas. So hard socio-economic issues affecting millions of poor countrymen were brushed aside with careful calculation. Under patriotic slogans, the victims of untouchability, inequality and discrimination were encouraged to join the movement. After independence, the remarkable sacrifices and contributions of the poor and lowly countrymen to the freedom struggle have just been erased. A minuscule privileged section has been harvesting economic and political benefits unabated.

 With a mass of evidence on hand, Gandhi charged the planters that with “methods adopted to bend the ryots to their will, the planters have impounded the ryots’ cattle, posted peons on their houses, withdrawn from them barbers’, dhobis’, carpenters’ and smiths’ services; have prevented the use of the village wells and pasture lands by ploughing up the pathway and land just in front of or behind their homesteads, have brought or promoted civil suits, or criminal complaints against them, and resorted to actual physical force and wrongful confinements.”19 Gandhi had raised issues of serious concern affecting the poor ryots. Were the Champaran ryots the solitary sufferers under a feudal dispensation? The truth is that the indigo planters followed the footprints of the native feudal class across Bengal, Bihar or Orissa. The famed satyagrahi did not bring the native zamindars within the ambit of his focus of enquiry. He nonchalantly targeted the Euro-pean planters in Champaran. The moral high ground he took would suffer serious setback had he probed the feudal exploitation with integrity.

Part IV

Historical Evidence of Feudal Exploitation 

According to The Friend of India, the Bengal ryots were compared with “the brutes they employ for the purposes of agriculture. Their ignorance was held as the most fertile ground of all their miseries. Comparing the ryots with the legen-dary cow, kamadhenu that never refused to give milk when she was required to, the ignorant and helpless ryot is made to serve as the sacred cow of the Shastras. The avaricious zamindar and his amlahs, the unprincipled worthies of the police and the crafty priests of the land screw out our poor ryot whatever can be got from him...... The zamindar very often compelled the ryot to render service without payment. If there be a pujah or marriage or some festival held in his house, the ryot must attend and serve gratis on the occasion. He may be required to supply a part of the vegetables that may be needed.”20

About eleven months before Mohandas Karamchand’s birth on October 2, 1869, the aforesaid Calcutta journal highlighted the brazen highhandedness of Bengal zamindars who included those in Bihar and Orissa as well.

  Part V

Abwabs Banned by Calcutta High Court in 1881

Were the indigo planters guilty of anything that their native counterparts were free of? In a ruling, the Calcutta High Court in Chulton Mahto vs Tilakdhari Singh of Gaya had declared in 1881 that “all abwabs are illegal”.21 The feudal class trashed the verdict with impunity. A wrongdoer never requires a specialised training, orientation and motivation save and except an evil soul. Many of Gandhi’s ardent advisers and assistants of the Champaran movement in 1917 rose to the commanding heights of national affairs and guided the destinies of the country after independence. They did not advise him honestly and candidly for safeguarding their own vested interests as most of them, if not all, belonged to the feudal background.

The Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), Bettiah reported to the Champaran District Magistrate on June 1, 1918 that “supply of labour is all important: without it no factory can work. [.....] leases of village are taken for the command they give over labour..... the factory has first call on labour supply of those villages in which it holds the position of landlord...... In villages, however, where they are a large proportion of high caste, Brahman or Rajput tenants, the factory’s demand for labour supply clash with the ryots’ own needs: but the first claim on available labour is exercised by the factory.”22 In a report to the Champaran District Magistrate, the Bettiah SDO highlighted one critical fact, least focused. He had subjected to questioning a man, who, 33 years later, rose to be the President of independent India. The SDO, Bettiah, reported that “Some 10 days ago in Mr Gandhi’s presence, I was questioning Babu Rajendra Prashad Vakil, one of Mr Gandhi’s assistants, who owns milkiat in Saran on his own system of zamindari management. Among other points he submitted that he called on his tenants twice a year to assist him with their ploughs and labour in the cultivation of his zirat. This principle, therefore, for what it is worth is admitted by Mr Gandhi’s own helpers.”23 Gandhiji’s assistants and volunteers were in direct conflict with the indigo planters over labour supply. By virtue of caste status, social custom or diktat of scripture many of the Gandhians habitually availed the services of the menial class gratis.

The Champaran indigo planters were face-to-face with Brahmans, numbering 100,521; Rajputs, 40,283; Babhans, 176,323; and Kayasths, 48,159, aggregating at 365,28624 who also depended on the same workforce.

Part VI

Dwarkanath Tagore and Raja Rammohan Roy testified the blessings of Indigo Cultivation

The experiences with regard to indigo of two outstanding Bengalis, Dwarkanath Tagore and Raja Rammohan Roy, may, with benefit, be cited in his context.

The first was one of the first Indian industrialists and successful entrepreneurs, trader, importer and exporter and zamindar, Dwarkanath Tagore. His testimony runs as follows: “I have several zamindaries in various districts, and that I have found that the cultivation of indigo, and the residence of Europeans, have considerably benefited the community at large; the zamindars becoming wealthy and prosperous; the ryots materially improved in their condition, and possessing many more comforts than the generality of my countrymen where indigo cultivation and manufacture are not carried on; the value of land in the vicinity to be considerably enhanced, and cultivation rapidly progressing. I do not make these statements merely from hearsay, but from personal observation and experience as I have visited the places referred to repeatedly and, in consequence, am well acquainted with the character and manners of the indigo planters. There may be a few exceptions, as regards the general conduct of indigo planters, but they are extremely limited, and, comparatively speaking, of the most trifling importance. I may be permitted to mention an instance in support of this statement. Some years ago, when indigo was not so generally manufactured, one of my estates, where there was no cultivation of indigo, did not yield a sufficient income to pay the Government assessment: but within a few years, by the introduction of indigo, there is now not a bigha on the estate untilled, and it gives me a handsome profit. Several of my relations and friends, whose affairs I am well acquainted with, have in like manner improved their property, and are receiving a large income from their estates.”25 Dwarkanath was the father of Debendranath and grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Nobel Laureate of Asia. Dwarkanath died on August 1, 1846. In an obituary The London Mail, observed on August 7: “Descended from the highest Brahman caste of India his family can prove a long and undoubted pedigree. But it is not on account of this nobility that we now review his life but on far better grounds. However gifted, his claims rest on a higher pedestal—he was the benefactor of his country... [T]hey testified to his merits in the encouragement of every public and private undertaking likely to benefit India.”

Raja Rammohan Roy, on the other hand, deposed that “From personal experience I am impressed with the conviction, that the greater our intercourse with European gentlemen, the greater will be our improvement in literary, social, and political affairs; a fact which can be easily proved, by comparing the condition of those of my countrymen who have enjoyed this advantage, with that of those who unfortunately have not that opportunity; and a fact which I could, to the best of my belief, declare on solemn oath before any assembly. I fully agree with Dwarkanauth Tagore in the purport of the resolution just read. As to the indigo planters, I beg to observe, that I have travelled through several districts in Bengal and Behar, and I found the natives residing in the neighbourhood of indigo plantations evidently better clothed and better conditioned than those who lived at a distance from such stations. There may be some partial injury done by the indigo planters; but on the whole, they have performed more good to the generality of the natives of this country than any other class of Europeans whether in or out of the service.”26

Part VII

Vested Interest blinded the Leaders

The entire feudal dispensation was exploitative and extortionate. They subjected everyone below the upper social layers to bleed for them. Not long after Gandhi left Champaran, the following deplorable facts emerged in public domain about realisation of abwabs from ryots to testify against the the bloodthirsty class. A few illustrations would suffice.

Goalas were required to supply ghee, clarified butter, to the landlord at the rate 35 seers for rupee. Koiri was to supply 15 seervegetables for 15 paise. Chamar was to supply shoes, sleepers free of cost. Oil-presser, Teli, had to make available 16 seers of oil for a rupee on sohrai celebration; 11 seers on the occasion of shradh. Kumhar, potter was to deliver upto 4000 tiles for a rupee. Of course, he was to supply utensils [earthen] free of cost without any limit. Gareria supplied blanket and seating mats free. They reared sheep and goats. Dhobi rendered free services for washing cloths of the zamindar household. Dom supplied the landlord bamboo-made items on occasion either of social or religious importance. Forced labour of three kinds was the order of the day. The ploughman did not receive any payment for his labour. The coachman was relatively treated well: he received food for his services. High castes, for example, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, etc. compelled others to labour for them according to their need and desire.27

Gandhiji’s own weird philosophy on caste exonerated the Brahman, Kshatriya, etc. from paying any price for labour from whom they could commandeer. The Mahatma applied a divine glow to exonerate the beneficiaries from any moral guilt for enjoying free services. “Shudra only serves the higher castes as a matter of religious duty and who will never own any property. The gods will shower down flowers on him.” The Musahars, in hot demand as indigo labourers, were imported from south Bihar by planters who paid them in cash. Payment of wages to the Musahars was against the aristocracy in Bihar. The Mahatma was slave to his own pernicious philosophy to appreciate the injuries of the sufferers! The beneficiaries had every temptation and justifi-cation to hail him as their avatar.

Caste determined entitlements in every sphere of Hindu society. In Bihar the quantum of rent payable by a ryot depended on his caste. An official account discloses that “....... by far the larger part of old cultivated land throughout the district pays rent according to the caste of the occupier,—a high-caste man paying much less than a man of low position. Thus, it is not uncommon to find a field occupied by a Brahman or Rajput, held at only one-third the rate paid by Dosadh or other low caste man for land of precisely the same quality.”28 In neighbouring Saran district “It is very common to find Brahmans, Babhans, Rajputs, and other high castes, holding the best lands in a village at rates varying from 50 to 75 per cent. below what a low caste man, such as Koiri, or Kurmi, or Chamar, would pay for inferior lands.”29 The Kayasths too received lenient deal. Did Gandhi earn Fatherhood of the Nation by upholding and defending the practice of exploitation of the low castes for the benefit of the upper order?

This was the state of affairs long before the Champaran Satyagraha. Gandhiji turned a Nelson’s eye to these ryots who belonged to the Koiri, Kurmi, Chamar or Dusadh castes. Had the Mahatma with his satyagraha come in the line of feudal interest, none should be under illusion, he would have surely been thrown out of Bihar overnight lock, stock and barrel. His prominent assistants, for example, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Singh and many others in the satyagraha, belonged to feudal families. Could they be accessories against feudal interests?

Chapter VIII

Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee

Gandhi’s movement led the government to institute an inquiry with members, official and non-official, native and European, into the issues highlighted by him. In his written statement on July 19, 1917 to the Enquiry Committee, Raj Kumar Shukla disclosed that a Brahman of village Satwaria, he was owner of two houses and a moneylender earning annual interest        Rs 1610. The district had 70 indigo factories including their branches. Almost the whole district was in the hands of these factories. Shukla was an indigo cultivator on the tinkathia system. Claiming personal knowledge, he furnished several names of abwabs. Illegal abwabs levied from ryots by planters were as follows: Bapahi putahi—When the father or any relative of a person dies and his land devolves by inheritance on him, the factory does not allow him to take possession of it until he pays Rs 5 per bigha to the factory. Ghorahi Bhaisaihi—that is, when a buffalo or horse of the factory become old, then the Manager sells it by lottery and realises Re 1 from each tenant. Bungalahi—When the bungalow has to be repaired Re. 1 is realised from each tenant. Hak Talbana—When the peon is posted on any tenant for any purpose, then Re 1 is realised as talbana. Phaguahi—Every year Re 1 is realised from every tenant on the occasion of Phagua. Halwahi or Motorahi—For purchasing a motorcar Re 1 is realised from each tenant. Hak Farkhawan—was realised at the rate of one anna per rupee of rent. Beth Begari—labourers are forcibly made to do begari. They take our labourers also and make them do begari (gratis) work or pay them four dhibuas lohia for a day or gave them one seer of sattu for food. If any labourer was not willing to work for the food merely, then he was beaten.30

 According to one scholar, the equivalence of Raj Kumar Shukla’s investment was worth four lakh of rupees in the 1990s.31

There are more evidences about caste carrying premium under feudal dispensation. Though Bettiah Raj was then under Court of Wards, “the average rent paid by Ahirs, Kurmis, and Kahars is Rs 4 per bigha, while Brahmans and other high castes only pay Rs 3.”32 This ipsofacto shows that Ahir, Kurmi and Kahar were subjected to 25 per cent higher rent vis-a-vis Brahmans, Rajputs, Bhumihars, and Kayasths. Ending discrimination was a patriotic duty. The Mahatma, however, did not take up this issue. He could not stand against the beneficiaries of the discriminatory rent.

Part IX

Super feudal club 

The feudal class was a formidable force in the socio-economic threatre of the Lower Provinces of Bengal. In 1911, Brahman landlords were 88,000; Kayasth 73,000; Babhan 36,000; and and Rajput 35,000 there. Brahman zamindars were found all over the province but specially numerous in the Orissa Presidency, Patna and Dacca Divisions, but they were outnumbered in the Presidency and Dacca Divisions by the Kayasths and in Patna by Babhans and Rajputs, especially by the former, who were more than twice as numerous.33

The Maharaja of Darbhanga, a darling of the colonial rulers, was the President of the Bihar Landholders’ Association. He was also the President of the All India Landholders’ Asso-ciation. The avowed objective of these asso-ciations was to promote and safeguard feudal interest. In 1911, Bihar and Orissa had 61,496 landlords as against 89,791 returned from Bengal.34 In 1887-89, the landlords of the districts of Patna Division are presented below at Table-1.

Table-1 shows the landlords in the sprawling Patna Division bifurcated by the River Ganga into North and South Bihar. The districts, that is, Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Saran and Dar-bhanga of north Bihar were home to Bihar indigo. Though Champaran became the theatre of the indigo satyagraha, others too had their share of indigo cultivation. Interestingly, all the aforementioned districts grew opium in the nineteenth century.

In fact, larger tract of land was devoted to opium than indigo though it exerted more blighting socio-economic influences on the society. But no whimper of protest against the poison was ever heard in Bihar or anywhere in India. The feudal class was the major benefi-ciary of opium which explains why there were no protests. The British Government under international pressure and policy phased out opium cultivation in ten years ending 1911. India’s biggest opium factory at Gulzarbagh, Patna was closed down by then.36 The second opium factory at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh is still in operation.

Part X

Feudal Lord as Patron of Cow and Religion 

The study and analysis of the degraded man with the thread of charsa that Gandhi had espoused as a cause of abuses of the tanners and leather workers merits attention. In the sprawling Darbhanga Raj,charsa mahal furnished a robust source of revenue. The trade of hides and bones of the dead cattle in the zamindari was farmed out to contractors appointed by the Maharaja of Darbhanga through auction; and the Chamars were required to collect and deliver up hides and bones to the Maharaja’s designated contractors. Disobedience or non-compliance invited strong feudal disfavour.

Maharaja Sir Rameshwar Singh Thakur Bahadur (born January 16, 1860, died July 3, 1929) ruled from 1898 to 1929. He was appointed to the Indian Civil Service in 1878 and served as an Assistant Magistrate at Darbhanga, Chapra, and Bhagalpur. Exempted from atten-dance at the Civil Courts, he was appointed a Member of the Legislative Council of Bengal (MLC of Bengal) in 1885. A Srotriya Brahman, tantrik and Sanskrit scholar, he was the first Indian to be appointed to the Lieutenant Governor’s Executive Council. President of the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, the Maharaja was held in the highest esteem and hailed as the supreme head of the Maithili Brahman community. The estates, larger than many European nations, comprised lands situated in the districts of Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Gaya, Monghyr, Purnea, and Bhagalpur covering a total of 2410 square miles,. He was also the owner of house property in the towns of Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Patna, Benares, Calcutta, Allahabad, Darjeeling, and Simla, and of the indigo concerns of Sarahia and Bachaur in Muzaffarpur District, Pandaul in Darbhanga, and Gondwara in Purnea. The rent roll exceeded 32 lakhs of rupees, and the Government revenue, including cesses, was Rs 7-14 lakhs.37

On recommendation of the Lieutenant Governor of Bihar and Orissa, C.S. Bailey, the Darbhanga Maharaja was decorated with the Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) on June 26, 1902 and later promoted to a Knight Grand Commander of Indian Empire (GCIE) in 1915.38 He had assured Bailey to organise a Hindu Sabha during the Kumbh Mela at Hardwar and pass a resolution for the success of the King Emperor in the First World War. The Maharaja had donated one lakh of rupees for the Cow Memorial Fund in 1889.39 Nobody had the courage to point out the paradox: the Maharaja of Darbhanga, on the one hand, was the chief patron of Gauraksha and on the other, cow hides and, bones yielded revenue to his exchequer.

The Maharaja stood by his class if and when any of them was desirous of exhibition of loyalty to the colonial rulers. When the First World War broke out, Gopal Narayan Singh, the Maharaja of Tikari in Gaya district, “took a loan from the Maharaja of Darbhanga and donated a squadron of tanks in the war efforts”.40 Till 1840 the Tikari Raj, it is interesting to note, received 10 per cent of gross collection of pilgrim tax the East India Company levied from Hindus resorting to Gaya.41 Besides Gaya, the Company collected tax at Puri, Prayag, Tirupati etc. Of all these centres, Gaya garnered the highest revenue on account of pilgrim tax.42


A Dacoit made Maharaja in Holy-land of Gaya

The zamindars committed crimes of every conceivable description with unrestrained ferocity against their tenants. Many of them had in their employ men who were dreaded highway robbers and dacoits. An army of brigands was maintained for sharing booty which proved clandestine source of their fabulous resources. The criminals were valuable human capital in feudal lexicon. An illustration, again from Gaya, Bihar might be cited with advantage to support the contention. “Tikari state originated, so the legend goes, with an ancestor who enjoyed success plundering the Mughal caravans plying between Delhi and Patna. The emperor realized the only way to stop the attacks was to give charge of the area to the most successful dacoit. The dacoit was gifted land by the emperor and became the maharaja of Tikari. The Tikaris were more like zamindars than royal rulers though they were wealthier than the rulers of many salute states. They were said to be the richest landowners of Bihar.”43 (Italicised by this writer)

The time-honoured principle “Break bones by knocking bones” stood here in good stead. Many of this class were anointed, after independence, as freedom fighters and patriots. Descendants of some of this class have been at helm of affairs to guide the destinies of millions of people. The ignorant and credulous countrymen believe that they will prosper on all fronts under leadership of such wo/men.

Part XII

Self-seekers blinded Gandhiji’s Vision 

Indigo was a highly labour-intensive industry. Prof George Watts, observed in his monumental treatise, The Commercial Products of India, that indigo cultivation required four-and-a-half times more labour than any other agricultural operation. Throughout the year the indigo industry offered employment to tens of thousands of migrant labourers. Raj Kumar Shukla was an employee of Maharani Janki Kuer of Bettiah Raj. According to an American scholar, Anand A. Yang, the so-called “anti-factory oligarchy” was composed primarily of high-caste peasants: Brahmans, Rajputs, Babhans, Kayasths, Muslim Sheikhs, etc. Most of these leaders were well-off or rich peasants.44 They had obfuscated Gandhi’s vision.

Shukla deposed before the Champaran Agrarian Inquiry Committee that “they (labourers) get for whole day’s work 6 seers of paddy, 1 seer of food and ½ seer of breakfast, the value of which is about 3½ annas. The factories take ploughs begari. If any payment is made, it is only one anna. The hire for cart is 2 annas. Agriculturists pay 3 annas for a plough and 3 to 12 annas for carts.”45 This seems a prevari-cation of truth.

In 2002, the District Magistrate and Collector, West Champaran, Parmar Ravi Manubhai, and the Superintendent of Police, A.K. Ambedkar, Bettiah filed cases against powerful people of the district under the Bonded Labour Act. “The administration identified 1000-odd bonded labourers, who have been slaves for their masters in the backwaters of Bihar. The life of the bonded men and women is marked by brutality—humiliation, abuse and threats. The wages that were paid to them has not changed since the colonial days. They were paid three hatai (equivalent to 21/2 kilograms) of coarse grains worth Rs 15 as against minimum wage of Rs 41 per day for prescribed hours of labour.”46 Sadly Gandhi took Raj Kumar Shukla’s statement on face value without veracity.47 Shukla did not deserve the space history has yielded to him.

In the same breadth, we recall a native of Bettiah, Peer Mohammad Munis, an activist journalist who, before Gandhiji reached Champaran, had launched an awareness campaign against feudal exploitation there in the columns of Pratap, a Hindi journal established in 1913 and edited by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. A school teacher of Bettiah Raj English High School, Munis’ campaigns earned him unmixed displeasure of the indigo planters and local zamindars who dismissed him from service.48 Munis, a pioneer in anti-indigo cam-paigns in Champaran, was an unsung patriot.

It will be clear from the above narrative that Bihar’s Champaran alone did not grow indigo nor did the European planters only operate there. Muzaffarpur had land under indigo and indigo factories besides Saran and Darbhanga. Madras, United Provinces, Punjab, Central Provinces and Berar, Bombay and Sind along with Rajputana had indigo cultivation and factories. Peasant unrest did not break out against indigo planters either before, during or after the Champaran Satyagraha except in Bengal. The discovery of chemical dye had dealt a death blow to natural indigo leading to the dramatic fall in the volume of trade and commerce. In 1914 the production of indigo by natural sources dropped to 1000 tonnes and continued to contract.49 In the given circum-stances, it is a sad reflection on the leader’s intellect, commitment and objective that a movement, the plank on which it was launched, had already eroded and disappeared completely, and yet was still carried on. Gandhi, his advisers and assistants harvested immense political dividends.

The advisers and assistants of Gandhi were not farmers. They comprised a growing class of intellectuals and professionals of Bihar who had no shared interests with the masses nor did they stand with them on any common platform over any issue. The Champaran Satyagraha promoted no interest of the masses nor social solidarity. Gandhi took no interest in alleviating the sufferings and exploitation of the poor ryots under the overpowering feudal dispensation in Champaran. According to one intelligence report, Raj Kumar Shukla and few of his compatriots were the brain behind rumour-mongering to draw the credulous masses around Gandhi for miracles.50 Had he, at the same time, taken any interest in redressing the grievances of the masses, make no mistake, a powerful backlash from the entrenched feudal forces would have thrown Gandhi out of Bihar overnight. The Mahatma had championed the grievances of ryots and moneylenders of the dominant caste, who were aggrieved under the indigo planters.


1. Gandhi, M. K., Young India, October 6, 1921, p. 36.

2. Gandhi, M. K., Young India, January 1, 1925, p. 8.

3. Gandhi, M. K., Harijan, September 15, 1940, p. 281.

4.Watts, Sir George, The Commercial Products of India,

 John Murray, 1908, London, p. 673.

5. Ibid., p. 672.

6. Ibid., p. 676.

7. Ibid., p. 675.

8. Ibid., p. 677.

9. Ibid., p. 684.

10. Ibid.


12. Misra, B.B., Some Select Documents on Mahatma Gandhi’s Movement in Champaran 1917-18, Government of Bihar, Secretariat Press, Patna, 1963, p. 128.

13. Census of India, 1911, vol. IV, p.

14. Misra, B. B., op cit., pp. 231-233.

15. Ibid., p. 261. Hathwa Raj in Saran, Tikari Raj in Gaya and Pakur Raj in Santal Parganas districts were other prominent Bhumihar estates.

16. Census of India,1911, Table XIV.— Statistics of main Castes—Bhumihars found in Bihar, Orissa and United Provinces.

17. Misra, B. B, op cit., pp. 231-233.

18. Ibid., p. 226.

19. Misra, ibid., p. 128.

20. The Friend of India, September 24, 1868, quoted in Benoy Ghosh, Selections from English Periodicals 

of 19th Century Bengal, vol. VI, Papyrus, Calcutta, 1981, pp. 144-145

21. Indian Law Reports, 11, Calcutta, p. 175 quoted by Biswas, A. K, in Social and Cultural Vision of India, Pragati Publication, Delhi, 1996, pp. 121-122.

22. Misra, op. cit., p. 184.

23. Misra, op. cit, p. 184. Milkiat, I am told by former Speaker Bidhan Sabha, Uday Narayan Chowdhary, conveys an idea of ownership of a big land holding.

24. Census of India,1911, vol. VI. Babhan is official term to refer to Bhumihar.

25. Reports from Committees of East India Company Affairs, 1831-32, Vol. I, London, pp. 364-365.

26. Ibid., p. 365.

27. Bihar Prantiya Kisan Sabha ki Report 1929-35 by Swami

 Sahajanand Saraswati, pp. 34-35.

28. Hunter, W. W., A Statistical Account of Bengal, Vol. XIII, Tirhut & Champaran, pp. 283-284.

29. Hunter, W.W., A Statistical Account of Bengal, Vol. XI, Districts of Patna & Saran, London, 1877, p. 301.

30. Misra, B. B., op. cit. pp. 273-277.

31. Ajit Kumar and others, article in Bihar Itihas Parisad Proceedings 1994.

32. Misra, B. B., op. cit., pp. 301-302..

33. Census of India 1901, vol. VI, Part-I Report, by E. A. Gait, p. 487.

34. Census of India, 1911, Part I Report, Bengal, Bihar Orissa and Sikkim, p. 536.

35. Report on the Land Revenue Administration of the Lower 

 Provinces,1887-88; Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, 1889, Appendix No. I, pp. I-ii.

36. Biswas, A. K., Understanding Bihar, Blumoon Books, Delhi 2000.


38. London Gazette, June 26, 1902 and London Gazette, June 3, 1915.

39. Saran Samaj, February 1889.

40. Coralie Younger, Wicked Women of the Raj, Harper Collins India, Non-Fiction/History, 2005, p. 107.

41. Peggs, James, Pilgrim Tax in India, London. pp. 18 and 45.

42. Ibid. 

43. Coralie Younger, Wicked Women of the Raj, Harper Collins, May 1, 2005, p. 99.

44. Anand A. Yang, The Limited Raj : Agrarian Relations in Colonial India 1793-1920, page 237. I am grateful to Dr. Ajit Kumar, who has been teaching History in M P Sinha Science College, a constituent unit of

B. R. Ambedkar University, Muzafffarpur for furnishing this fact to me.

45. Misra, B. B., op. cit., p. 277.

46. K. Balachand, report: ‘They Waited for 50 years for freedom’, in The Hindu, Chennai, May 19, 2002.

47. Gandhi, M. K., My Experiments with Truth.

48. Biswas, A. K., ‘Hero of Champaran Satyagraha: PirPr Mohammad Munis’, BBC Hindu, April 17, 2017


50. A wild rumour one morning drew surging crowds at Motihari that Gandhiji would be drowned by the indigo planters in a gigantic pan of boiling oil from which he would emerge alive and unscathed. Expectation to see the miracle sparked off enormous curiosity in the masses. So did his reputation as a man with supernatural powers across the countryside.

The author, Dr A. K. Biswas, is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur. He can be contacted at biswasatulk[at]