Listen To Champaran’s People

The voices of Champaran’s peasants have been drowned in the white noise of history since 1917. Their testimonies are now being transcribed at the Sabarmati ashram.

Written by Shahid Amin | Published:April 16, 2017 12:03 am
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The Champaran centenary is upon us. And, as with the centenary and a half of 1857 a decade ago, it is going to be celebrated with high-handed gusto. In August 2007, a large-scale cut-out of an ailing Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ was manipulated, akin to a Javanese puppet, from the spacious lawns of Red Fort. The week, beginning April 10 this year, is to mark the yoking of the remembrance of Champaran as a pro-peasant metaphor to the cleanliness drive of our present times. Its lofty aim: removing all the stink, dirt and garbage that is now so much a part of our public space. Closer home, in north Bihar, where the drama and upheaval of Champaran was enacted years ago by an intrepid Mohandas K Gandhi and even more daring indigo-growing peasants, a set of mock re-runs of those heady times is planned — fair enough, for historic events (PR razzmatazz aside) are tied to particular locales and places. The official Bihar mascot for the year-long festivities has an aged, heavily-draped Gandhi, keeping a paternal hand over the shoulders of two school-going boys and a girl, rising, so it appears, above the swirling currents of the here and now.

But where are the indigo- growing peasants of Champaran in all these proposed festivities? These were the (so far) nameless Bhojpuri-speaking kisans who grated under the yoke of European plantations that dotted the fertile north Bihar landscape. The peasants of Banbirwa, Murli Bharbharwa, Mahrani Bhopat and such other villages did the nilhe saheb’s bidding, by laying aside 3/20th part of their best lands under oppressive supervision and onerous contracts. Crop ready, they carted it to the kothi, sorted it, loaded large vats with the indigo plant, and then, standing waist-deep in large tanks, beat the steeped indigo with sticks into shape. Contemporary photographs show bare-backed peasants toiling under the humid Kuar or mid-September sun, with white-trouser-ed Englishmen in their sola-topis and their desi myrmidons, also bare-backed, but with the comforting attire of a white turban and the regulation lathi. The last stage was the cutting of large slabs of indigo cakes into smaller bits, which were then used as the dyeing agents for cloth.

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This system of production of the crucial dye in the cloth trade the world over, first in Bengal and, post 1860s, in north Bihar, specially Champaran, was a British colonial monopoly. It had begun to be challenged in the rapidly-industrialising Germany, where chemical advances had led to the production of a perfect substitute for Indian plant-indigo. A pressing desire of a new nation to make things in Germany, which did not have its own indigo-plant producing colonies made German chemists do the next best thing: they, and specially one Adolf von Bayer (winner of the Chemistry Nobel, 1905), produced a synthesised substitute. It brought down the price of Bihari indigo and the profitability of its European plantations. World prices of plant indigo fell, and the nilhes (as the gora-planters were derisively called), put the squeeze on the peasants. Either the prices at which they had to part with the indigo crops were slashed, other crops such as sugarcane and oats were sought to be procured under indigo-like contracts, a sharah-beshi (additional or higher rent) was charged from indigo lands pledged to factories, or tawaan (high compensation) was demanded for earning the freedom to be rid of the indigo obligation.

The high-handedness of the nilhe sahebs became even more oppressive as they tried to cut and transfer their losses on to the peasants: physical assault, punitive fines, forced grazing of fields, forcible affixing of thumb-impressions on to blank pieces of legal paper. It was a remarkable heightening of oppression in the dehats (villages), figuratively “owned” by the planters, where their writ ran hard and large. Even the richer peasants of Champaran began to feel the oppression of the sahebs as an everyday occurence. It was on the persistent cajoling of one such money-lending-peasant, Raj Kumar Shukul, that a young Gandhi arrived in Champaran to do some independent fact-checking. There was tension in the air enough. As far as the local British officials were concerned, for them, “Blue Champaran”, with its white agro-capitalists, was a foreign country, even for such a well-known “public man” of South Africa as the Gandhi.

Testimony of poor Champaran farmers

It was 100 years ago on April 18, 1917 that, standing in a Motihari court room, a young Gandhi stood up to disobey conscientiously the orders passed against him under section 144 of the Cr.P.C. By refusing to vacate Champaran, this 48-year-old novice to Indian politics denied the right of the King Emperor’s Government in India to “sanitise” the poor indigo-growing Bihari peasants from the contagion of speaking truth to power that he had brought along in his wake. Gandhi displayed a willful persistence to stand firm by the truth of his conviction — “to help the raiyats (peasants)” by making them study the indigo question, “with the assistance, if possible of the administration and the planters”. The rest, as that hackneyed phrase has it, is history. The colonial state relented. Gandhi retained his freedom to inquire, but his was not a sarkari inquiry that we in independent India have got used to, where only the report matters, and the voices of the concerned citizens (statements, depositions, submissions) are digested (if that is the right word!) in the interest of the end product — the official report.

What mattered in Champaran in 1917 and enabled Gandhi to gain victory for the indigo peasants, was that thousands of peasants defied the nilhe sahebs to seek Gandhi and his lieutenants, and deposed in native Bhojpuri their woes . Their depositions were written up under Gandhi’s strict instructions about verification and cross-examination (often in the presence of the CID). And now, untouched so far by historians, what we have are nine volumes running into 5,200 pages in handwritten verbatim English translations by Rajendra Prasad, Brajraj Kishore and others, of the testimonies of some 4,000 peasants who came to Motihari or the spacious Dharamshala of Hazarimal in Bettiah.

The testimonies of poor peasants and charwahas like Afdar.

For instance, we have Musammat Jhunia, 80, widow of Dhodhai Rai, whose original rent of Rs 16 had been raised after sharah-beshi to Rs 26. “I had deposited [the original rent] in Court. I have a son who is a simpleton. The kothi has instituted a suit against me. But, while the suit is pending, the factory servants – Ramji Rai and others, went to my house and asked me to give them ghee and dahi. The garad [guard] sipahis were also there with them. They beat my son and the jiledar threatened to put a henga (harrow) on his breast. I wept before them and paid Rs 27 there. I sold my land to Matuk Sigh who paid the money to the kothi. I sold it for Rs 49. Out of the Rs 27 paid to me, they credited Rs 24 to my account; Rs 3 was taken away by the sipahis and others. Sadhu Saran Lal [the village Patwari] has taken away from me the receipt of the deposit of money in Court”.

Consider this statement, detailing the systematic looting of even things of regular use, from the house of one Phadi Miyan, 51, the tenant of Babu Lomraj Singh, an important local opponent of the Jagirah factory establishment. “I discovered some of the things they had taken away from my house in the lohar (smithy) of Parhoo Lohar where they were sitting under a Pakar tree. They returned two paseris (roughly 10 kilos) of rice which they had taken. I could not get anything else. The things taken away were: two lotas, one chhipa (a thali-like flat salver), 1 janani (woman’s) dhoti, 2 kurtas, 2 gamchas”. And, from the neighbouring house of Gharib Mian: 2 gilafs (a doubled sheet) in addition to his mother’s and daughter’s dhotis.

Finally, here’s an unadulterated testimony, dated April 24, 1917, of Afdar, age 11, son of Shakur Jolaha, who spent the day functioning as the charwaha (grazier) of his 23 heads of cattle, in return for a set quantity of grain every year. “One day after Phagun, I was grazing cattle in the parti-pasture [of village Murali Bharbharwa] with Dost, Yusuf and Tulsi. Devraj Singh… of the Kothi came to us and asked us to take our cattle [for forcible grazing of the field of Raj Kumar Shukul, the man who had brought Gandhi to Champaran]. We fled away. Masuri (lentils) and tisi (linseed) were growing [in that field]. The number of cattle must have been more than 100. The following day the Sipahis again came, asked us to take our cattle to the same field again. We refused. They abused us. Then they drove the cattle and grazed in his field”. And, in an obvious answer to a cross-examination and verification by Bindyabasini Prasad, who had come to lend a helping hand in gathering and translating testimonies all the way from Gorakhpur: “It is just about 12 o’clock. Three o’clock would come after it”.

Perhaps, it is contextually appropriate, that these thousands of peasant testimonies, unheard of so far since 1917, are being transcribed at this very moment at — where else but — Bapu’s Sabarmati Ashram. To gloss over these peasant voices of Champaran is, in a very real sense, to undercut the ground from under the feet of the Mahatma at the very moment of his making.

Shahid Amin is a Delhi-based historian and writer.

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