This week (April 10- 17, 2017) the Government of India and Government of Bihar are commemorating the centennial of the Champaran Satyagraha. Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Champaran, a district of North Bihar, has found a significant place in the history writing of our national movement. The Champaran Satyagraha is commemorated as an awakening of Indian peasants against the colonial planters and policies in India.
Just a month earlier the young Gandhi, an activist who had returned from South Africa, led a similar movement there. This movement was for the Indian peasants suffering on the sugar plantations overseas. It was the anti-indenture movement. The indenture system (also known as girmit pratha) was introduced in 1834 to resolve the shortage of plantation labour that resulted after the abolition of slavery in the British empire. Between 1834-1917, more than 1.3 million Indian peasants left their homeland to work on the sugar plantations of Mauritius, Trinidad, Demerara, Guyana, South Africa, Surinam, Fiji and many other smaller islands. As soon as the system was introduced, it came to the notice of anti-slavery society members who claimed it to be ‘A New System of Slavery’. Despite their protest in and out of the British Parliament, the indenture system existed with some modifications made from time to time. But the system was ended in March 1917 when a mass agitation followed by an anti-indenture resolution in Imperial legislative council was attained by Indian nationalist leaders under the leadership of M K Gandhi. It was Gandhi’s effort and public mobilisation, which compelled then Governor General of India Lord Hardinge to announce termination of the indenture system.
As per historian K I Gillion, the anti-indenture movement ‘enlisted wider public support than any other movement in modern Indian history, more than the movement for independence’. Surprisingly though, such an important mass movement is hardly referred to in the popular history of the national movement.
The Champaran movement of Gandhi in India was to a large extent inspired from his South African experience and his Satyagraha for equal rights of Indians there. In 1915, Gandhi attacked the colonial policy of labour emigration under the indenture contract. He addressed a large gathering in Bombay on October 28, 1915 and criticised the effort of colonial Indian government to continue the indenture system. On October 29 he wrote a long piece in the Bombay Chronicle and contended that the indenture system was ‘semi-slavery’. ‘Labourers were bound hand and foot to the employer… the system robbed India of national self-respect and was a hindrance to the growth and national dignity’. The colonial critique of Gandhi was so powerful that it compelled the governor general of India, Lord Hardinge to announce the termination of emigration of Indian peasants under the indenture system.
The South African activism and a successful anti-indenture movement made Gandhi a special person amongst the oppressed population of India. It is in this context that the tenants of north Bihar requested young activist Gandhi to visit the indigo peasants of Champaran. On February 27, 1917, Raj Kumar Shukla on behalf of tenants of Champaran sent a letter to Gandhi requesting him to visit them and see the deplorable condition in which they were compelled to live in. The letter written to Gandhi began with following lines: ‘Kissa sunte ho roj auron ke Aaj meri bhi daastan suno’ (you listen to the stories of others everyday, do listen to my story today) and then mentions that the peasants of Champaran district of north Bihar are in more pitiable conditions than the Indian brethren and sisters in South Africa. Gandhi accepted the invitation of Rajkumar Shukla and reached Patna on April 10. Although the Champaran Satyagraha could not achieved its final goal, the visit of Gandhi gave new energy and awakening amongst the Indian peasants, which soon made Gandhi a ‘Mahatma’ among general, masses of India.
Today, when our government is asking the descendents of the indentured labourers abroad to invest in India, it is high time to make the history of their struggle a part of our history. It is ironical that Indian history has always been about those Indians who remained in India whether in villages or in towns or cities and the emigrant Indians are almost absent. Just like Gandhi who went to South Africa as a lawyer and returned to India is an important part of our history, similarly it is necessary to remember the indentured labourers who went abroad and their contribution in inspiring Gandhi’s first struggle against an unfair colonial policy both abroad and in India