The successful struggle of the erstwhile indigo cultivators of Champaran against European planters introduced to India satyagraha — non-violent civil disobedience as a stratagem of mass politics that Gandhi had experimented with earlier in South Africa. Over the next 30 years, he was to employ satyagraha to galvanise millions into one of history’s biggest mass movements against perhaps the greatest imperial power of all time. Champaran saw the earliest demonstration of the Gandhian political strategy — an attack on the existing structure using constitutional space available within the structure, in combination with elements of extra-constitutional struggle; the employment of moral force against an adversary who was, in its self-image, an exemplar of the rule of law; and the use of compromise as a gambit where spectacular heroism was unlikely to succeed.
Around the early 19th century, white planters had forced cultivators in this part of present-day northwest Bihar into agreements known as teenkathia, under which they were obligated to grow indigo on 3/20ths of their landholdings. Several decades later, as synthetic dyes all but finished the global market for indigo, the planters sought to end the agreement — but set extortionate rents and a range of other dues as the price for releasing the cultivators.
In January 1915, Gandhi returned from South Africa and embarked on a journey across India to familiarise himself with the struggle that he was about to join. He was followed on his travels by a Champaran man, Raj Kumar Shukla, who managed ultimately to persuade him to visit the theatre of the indigo farmers’ struggle.
In Champaran, Gandhi was ordered to leave immediately — but he refused, telling the administration that he would rather take the punishment for disobeying the law. This was a new manoeuvre, and the government, not prepared to use force immediately, took a step back. The first round won, Gandhi went about investigating the grievances of the peasants. Accompanied by Rajendra Prasad, Mahadev Desai and J B Kripalani among others, he went about, recording detailed statements in the manner of modern commissions of inquiry.
The government had by then ordered an inquiry and, keen to hold up its fairness, named Gandhi as a member. He went on to present evidence collected from 8,000 farmers, and made out an irrefutable case for the abolition of teenkathia and payment of compensation for illegally extracted dues. He agreed, however, to a refund of only a quarter of the sum the planters had extorted illegally, arguing that the blow to their morale compensated for the rest. Over the next few years, almost all planters went away from the area.
Champaran was the first of 3 movements during 1917-18 that marked the entry of Gandhi — and civil disobedience — in Indian politics. His next intervention — in the Ahmedabad mill workers’ stir — saw the use of another of his signature political weapons: the fast.
Millowners wanted to scrap a ‘plague bonus’, but workers argued it was needed to make up for the wartime increase in the cost of living. Gandhi got the two sides to agree to arbitration, but told workers to go on a strike after the millowners reneged. When the strike started to flag, he went on a fast, telling the workers that if starvation was to be their lot, he would be the first to face it.
The real impact was on the millowners. The moral force of Gandhi’s action pressured them to agree to arbitration by a tribunal. The strike ended, and the tribunal awarded a 35% raise — the original demand of the workers.
Gandhi’s third intervention in this phase was on behalf of farmers in Kheda district, whose appeals for remission of land revenue had been denied despite the fact that drought had cut the yield to below the one-fourth level fixed for full relief under the revenue code. Gandhi told peasants to “fight unto death against such a spirit of vindictiveness and tyranny”, and “show that it is impossible to govern men without their consent”. (David Hardiman, Peasant Nationalists of Gujarat, quoted in Bipan Chandra et al., India’s Struggle for Independence) As the peasants’ tussle waxed and waned, the government secretly ordered recovery of revenue only from those who could pay — and Gandhi, his object fulfilled, called off the agitation.
Champaran, Ahmedabad, Kheda brought forth a style of politics that would bring the Raj to its knees and set a template for action in multiple future historical and geographical contexts. The elements at its heart — non-violent satyagraha, hartal, fast and prayer — were to be employed, in February 1919, in the countrywide protest against the Rowlatt Bills and, in the subsequent year, the Non-Cooperation Movement. While the first had to be withdrawn in the face of the paralysing brutality of Jallianwala Bagh, the second was thrown off the rails by Chauri Chaura. But the National Movement had by then acquired an unstoppable momentum, as much in the Gandhian mainstream as in the actions of fearless revolutionaries, and the many subaltern strands of peasant, tribal and workers’ movements.
Suggested Reading: India’s Struggle for Independence, by Bipan Chandra, with Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, KN Panikkar and Sucheta Mahajan