Champaran Satyagraha, 100 years on: Reimagining Gandhian politics in times of violence, greed and fear

In Mahatma Gandhi’s own words, Champaran was the place that first introduced him to India. To discover more about his association with the region, on the eve of the 100th year celebration of the Champaran Satyagraha – Gandhi’s first Satyagraha movement in India – this author wandered into Bihar, hoping to unearth glimpses of the past, unlearn modern history and stumble upon real people's stories.

Searching through the ruins of Patliputra, multiple Gandhi ashrams and some of India's most bio-diverse villages in northern Bihar, I was on a quest to uncover embers that unshackle Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the prison of PR agencies, ad firms and currency notes. This piece attempts to paint an image of not just the person, but rather to canvas his ideas, thoughts and non-violent Satyagraha in a time of violence, greed and fear.

The man born in "Leningrad" of India

After turning off the Gandhi Maidan Chowk in Patna, I arrived at my first destination - the Gandhi Sangrahalya. Here, I met with its founder-secretary since 1959, Dr Razi Ahmad. Born in Begusarai, the "Leningrad" of India, Ahmad has written over a dozen books in English, Hindi and Urdu – including one on Gandhi and most recently on Narendra Modi.

 Champaran Satyagraha, 100 years on: Reimagining Gandhian politics in times of violence, greed and fear

Representational image. Reuters

Ahmad is the grand patriarch of the Sangrahalya and a living storehouse of memories and history associated with the Gandhian thought and philosophy. In his lifetime, he has crossed paths with leaders like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Husain, JB Kriplani, Balwant Rai, Ram Manohar Lohia and has worked "very closely with JP Narayan".

The Partition, the Emergency, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom; Ahmad has lived through and seen a lot in his life. He knows and believes that the Gandhian way is perhaps the only route to save India, and this planet, from another holocaust.

The 'miracle man' in Champaran

"It all began with the greed of the British Empire and their Indigo planters... their insatiable corruption knew no bounds. First, they captured the Bettiah Raj (the second-largest zamindari estate in India, now known as Bihar) and then all of Champaran," Ahmad said.

As per his research, since the 19 century, British planters had started to exploit farmers in India by forcing Indigo cultivation on them. Non-compliant farmers were harassed by the planters as ditches would be dug around their houses, to create a barricade for essential resources and services. The planters demanded triple taxation in form of kaithiya lagaan, and did not permit the planting of food crops.

Local voices were brutally crushed and the lands of the resisting farmers were auctioned off. "It was since the entry of the planters and the establishment of the Indigo factories that the plight of farmers in Bettiah Raj, began. By 1907, a chain of rebellions against the planters had started. But, everything was not organised,"

"There was an Arya Samaj preacher by the name of Jamunananda, who went around Champaran telling people that a miracle man (Gandhi) was coming to Champaran. When Gandhi arrived, the farmers believed that he was the miracle man, and history has shown that he was indeed a miraculous man," Ahmad said.

The arrival of Gandhi in Champaran gave the anti-planters movement direction. It also helped converge all forces fighting against the British atrocities.

"At great personal cost, people like Kheda Rai, Gulab Rai and Sheikh Gulab prepared the ground for the Champaran Satyagraha, by resisting the British. We can never forget the role of Raj Kumar Shukla, who was involved in almost all of the rebellions before Gandhi.. he is responsible for bringing Gandhi to Champaran,"

"Today, great efforts are being made to re-write history – abuse Gandhi’s name and Champaran Satyagraha for political gains. But, we as Indians can never forget what the people of Bihar, along with Gandhi, have done for the world. They have lit a path of us, that we need to follow in these troubled times," Ahmad said.

The Times of Bettiah

Champaran today is spilt into two districts, of East and West Champaran. It is, without doubt, one of the most fertile and bio-diverse areas of India. The legacy of the Bettiah Raj lies in ruins. Though one can still three peculiar things when wandering in these parts; that the people are simple, the mutton savoury and that there are no beggars.

Though this part of Bihar is peaceful, Ahmad warns us that it may not be so for long.

An Indian college student, smeared with clay to resemble Mahatma Gandhi, sits beside a spinning wheel during an event to mark the 55th anniversary of the death of Gandhi in Bombay January 30, 2003. Students from a city college reenacted several scenes from Gandhi's freedom struggle against the British colonial rule. The day is observed as 'Martyr's Day' in the country. REUTERS/Arko Datta AD/CP - RTRHG9P

Representational image. Reuters

"Today, historian Bipin Chandra must be laughing in his grave, as his prophecy has come true. He had said, 'to save democracy, the leaders of oppositions shook hands with fascists back in the 1970s and the fate of India forever changed,” Ahmad remarks. He is referring to the formation of the Jan Sangh and the first non-Congress government.

"In my views, Narendra Modi is a direct result of the Sampurna Kranti of JP," Ahmad said. On being asked about the RSS, he said, "Well the RSS is spineless, as they can only trouble and torture the Muslims. That is there only agenda."

Ahmad said that we was very much perturbed by the internal violence erupting in India. The divisions, the hate, he says, troubles his soul. He wonders is this Gandhi’s India?

So, where do we go from here? What is the Gandhian way out? His answer was simple: "We have to save the Indian Constitution. That is our only saviour." There will be an attempt to change the Constitution by the present government and the corporations, but we have use Satyagraha to resist, he adds.

For Ahmad, the Indian system of democracy is incomplete and broken as there is no right to recall, no accountability.

"India belongs to every Indian – rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, etc. It troubles me to see what we have become, and it is very painful to know that this is the India we helped build, went to jail for... for which leaders like Gandhi died for," an emotional Ahmad added.

Walking through Ahmad's recollections and memories does raise a vexing question: Where did India go wrong?

Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 08:03:31 IST