Forgotten learnings from Champaran – India’s “first direct object-lesson in Civil Disobedience”
The Champaran movement, now a century old, was the country’s “first direct object-lesson in Civil Disobedience”, says Gandhi in the autobiography. [The term used in the Gujarati original, ‘Satyagraha’, is not used even once in the English translation, preferring the term coined by HD Thoreau.]
As Gandhian satyagrahas go, Champaran was rather straight and simple. It did not have the touch of an epic narrative, which was to unfold much later in Dandi. Champaran did not have many of the finer aspects that Dandi had: The symbolic choice of the subject matter (salt), mode (padayatra, or foot march, over a period, passing through scores of villages), preparation (a thorough training in non-violence for all participants), and aim of a wider outcome beyond the immediate goal (shaming the colonial masters before the world, proving the moral might is more powerful than the physical force).
But Champaran was the one that provided a template for Gandhi’s future campaigns in India.
It was just his luck that his first major political action after returning to India was to come in a place he had barely heard of, involving a commodity – indigo – about which he knew little. What he went on to demonstrate over several months in the magnolia forest, or Champa Aranya, was purely the methodology of Civil Disobedience.
Read: Champaran Satyagraha and a long lost diary
In the autobiography, Gandhi devotes eight chapters to narrate the Champaran saga. Here are the crucial lessons for a satyagrahi, culled from ‘My Experiments with Truth or the Autobiography’:
* “Having heard from him something of Champaran, I replied as was my wont: 'I can give no opinion without seeing the condition with my own eyes.’ ”
The British rulers had forced them to grow indigo in three out of 20 kathas of land. Unhappy farmers had half-heartedly tried to oppose the century-old system, but they were ruthlessly suppressed. Rajkumar Shukla, a poor farmer, wanted Gandhi to do something for them. He met Gandhi at the Congress session in Lucknow. Anybody else might have signed a petition, introduced a resolution. Gandhi would instead go there, meet the victims, study the problem, and if convinced, give his full time and energy to helping them.
* “All this was far from surprising or irritating to me, for I was inured to such things.”
Taking up the cause of the marginalized is a romantic notion, but few are prepared for the messy realities. Gandhi was putting up at Rajendra Prasad’s place, on the way to Champaran. Rajendra Babu was away from home, and the servants were mistreating Gandhi, asking him to not to use the toilet inside the home. The stoic in Gandhi found these experiences only “entertaining”.
* “The real relief for them is to be free from fear.”
This was his diagnosis, going to the very root cause. People were afraid to speak up, afraid of being jailed, afraid of losing life. Gandhi too was once fearful. In Africa he systematically exposed himself to dangers, seeking out or inviting violence. In Bihar, he was fearless, and wanted to show the people to become like him. A British planter in Champaran apparently said Gandhi was afraid and hence kept himself surrounded by people. When Gandhi heard the talk, he knocked on his doors one early morning, and told him to go ahead and shoot him now that he was unaccompanied.
* “We cannot afford to pay for this work. It should all be done for love and out of a spirit of service.”
In these days of legalising foreign contributions for Indian political parties, it is difficult to understand this, but Gandhi insisted on only selective sources of funding: in Champaran, it was only Rajendra Babu and Co’s lawyer friends – and Gandhi’s perennial benefactor Pranjivan Mehta.
He was equally careful in spending too: “I have an impression that we expended in all not more than three thousand rupees, and, as far as I remember, we saved a few hundred rupees from what we had collected.”
* “But I deemed it essential, before starting on my inquiry, to know the planters' side of the case and see the Commissioner of the Division.”
A not much appreciated side of Gandhi: what if, contrary to appearances, the other side is indeed right? He sought out the other version. Planters and the British representatives were initially not convinced of his intentions, but soon they started helping him.
* “It is no exaggeration, but the literal truth, to say that in this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth.”
It’s difficult to unpack the ‘how’ part , but the ‘what’ part is clear. Gandhi has a mission statement for his life, as put in the introduction of the autobiography: “What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years - is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.” Here, in interacting with poor farmers, who were essentially strangers in a strange land for him, he has a religious experience. Of coming face to face with God. (In Gujarati, the chapter title refers to “Ahimsa Devi” – non-violence as goddess.)
* “I venture to make this statement not in any way in extenuation of the penalty to be awarded against me, but to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me, not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.”
The district administration comes to know of his troublesome presence, and asks him to leave. He refuses, and the matter goes to court. The Motihari court witnesses by far the largest crowd. As if the downtrodden who had not heard of him so far now know their savior has arrived. What follows is a precursor to the Great Trial of 1922: he turns the trial upside down and puts the state in the cage. He readily admits, beforehand, that he is guilty of the crime he is accused of. But the accuser – the state, the colonial rulers – are guilty of a vastly bigger crime.
* “So I wrote to the editors of the principal papers requesting them not to trouble to send any reporters, as I should send them whatever might be necessary for publication and keep them informed.”
Gandhi never shied from self-promotion in the media and elsewhere for a cause, writing letters to the editor (or to Tolstoy). But his perception management was extremely nuanced. In Champaran, he wanted to avoid any publicity that may anger the other side which could bring his campaign to an early end.
* “I had seen that, even where the end might be political, but where the cause was non-political, one damaged it by giving it a political aspect and helped it by keeping it within its non-political limit. The Champaran struggle was a proof of the fact that disinterested service of the people in any sphere ultimately helps the country politically.”
The two sentences require several readings to make sense, because in the first he offers the ‘political’ (‘rajya prakaran’ in Gujarati) in the narrow sense, like realpolitik, somewhat pejoratively. In the second, the term is neutral; welcome even. What does not need a second reading is the outright focus on ‘disinterested service of the people’ (shuddha lokseva).
* “Ultimately it was agreed that the servants should be dispensed with…”
Rajendra Babu and Co were rich lawyers, who would not move without a caravan of attendants – servants, barbers, cooks and all. Champaran was the first instance where Gandhi started teaching Indian political leaders to, first of all, be closer to the people they profess to serve. He asked them to dispense with the retinue. A common kitchen was established. This of course was not kosher for the local lawyers, when everyone was conscious of his caste and untouchability was rampant. But Gandhi started teaching them equality. Rajendra Babu apparently had his first meal in life not cooked by his cooks.
* “As I gained more experience of Bihar, I became convinced that work of a permanent nature was impossible without proper village education.”
Not only education but sanitation and health too. As Gandhi established a camp and collected first-person accounts of hundreds of farmers with the help of Rajendra Babu, JB Kripalani and others, forming a dossier of evidence against the ills of the forced indigo plantation, eventually convincing the rulers to bring a law to end the system, he did not ignore the condition of villages. He called up colleagues and well wishers, and gave the first demonstration of the ‘constructive programme’ he had in mind for villages. From the Sabarmati Ashram, Kasturba, Mahadev Desai and his wife, Narahari Parikh and his wife and others came down to teach children. Dr Dev from Servants of India Society arrived to take case of health concerns.
For Gandhi, a political campaign was not cut off from the larger conditions. Unfortunately, he had to rush to Ahmedabad a few months later to take up the cause of the textile labourers. The Champaran struggle was successful, but his was regretful. “It was my desire to continue the constructive work for some years, to establish more schools and to penetrate the villages more effectively. The ground had been prepared, but it did not please God, as often before, to allow my plans to be fulfilled.”