Champaran Satyagrah

History of Champaran Movement

The Champaran Andolan of 1917 was India’s first civil disobedience movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi in the Champaran district of Bihar. This movement marked Mahatma Gandhi’s first attempt of implementing his satyagraha mode of protest which was a passive non-violent civil resistance of the masses against the British colonizers. The main focus of the Champaran movement for Mahatma Gandhi was to address the plight of the farmers of Champaran. The British directed the tenant farmers of the Champaran region to grow crop of indigo on a large scale by force. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized the people of the Champaran district with his band of capable lawyers where he played an active role in educating the masses as well as established them economically by teaching them the various methods of self-sustaining livelihood. The movement was a resounding success not only in terms of revoking the forceful cultivation of indigo by the British colonizers but also in terms of being India’s first landmark civil disobedience movement along with the effectiveness of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha mode of protest.

What was the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917?

The April afternoon of 1917, the Motihari Railway Station in the East Champaran district of Bihar along with the people gathered there caught a glimpse of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. His arrival marked a change not only to the people of that region but also gave birth of a new trajectory of that freedom struggle of India. This historical juncture was the first attempt to materialize Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha; the non-violent civil resistance towards the draconian British Government and their policies of exploitation. The farmers of the Champaran district found themselves under the forceful compulsion to grow the crop of indigo for the British colonizers. Indigo for the British happened to be a very profitable cash crop that was used for making dye. The demand of the dye further increased after the recession of the synthetic dye invented by the Germans owing to their massive defeat in the First World War. Hence, the lucrative profits behind the indigo crop forced the formulation of new land laws that was focused on maximizing the indigo production which took no consideration of the well-being of the farmers. This led to the cultivators to go through a lot of suffering and pain. The immediate idea of Mahatma Gandhi was to relieve the farmers of the Champaran district of Bihar from such plight.

Purpose of Champaran Movement

The Champaran Andolan had a two-fold purpose. The first was to challenge the British Raj of the forceful cultivation of indigo and the draconian land laws that were imposed on the farmers to maximize the output of indigo. Mahatma Gandhi accomplished this not only by dissenting against the colonial authorities but also by educating the farmers and the masses of the villages of Champaran and by teaching them various other crafts where they could be fairly economically independent and could sustain themselves. The second purpose of this movement for Mahatma Gandhi was to formally materialize his Satyagraha; the passive resistance towards the British colonial government by non-violent means by involving the masses. The movement saw great mileage in terms of achieving both of these objectives and was the initiation of a new chapter In India’s freedom struggle against the British Raj.

Circumstances leading to Champaran Movement

Mahatma Gandhi had arrived to Champaran on the request of Raj Kumar Shukla. The two met each other in the 31st Session of the Congress Session in Lucknow held in the year 1916. Raj Kumar Shukla managed to convince Gandhiji to visit Champaran on account of the sufferings of the tenant farmers who were forced to cultivate indigo by the British. Indigo plant was used to make natural dye and this was very profitable for the British, who in turn, forced the tenants to grow indigo on a large scale. The peasants who refused to cultivate this specific crop faced the weight of exorbitant taxes levied by the landlords. These landlords were mostly the British colonizers themselves with the rest of the land owners under them. To further add to the plight of the farmers, the British enforced a system of indigo cultivation called ‘tinkathia’. This system laid out the mandatory conditions to grow the indigo plant in three out of twenty parts of a peasant’s land. The agents of the landlords saw to the implementation of these conditions even by brute means if necessary. Apart from many other hardships the people had to face from the indigo cultivation, a famine-like condition in the region was central. This was predominantly on account of the farmers not being able to produce other crops in the land. It was only indigo that was given preference on account of the demand of the British. The result was that the farmers could not cultivate other crops for food in the bare minimum required to sustain the population of the village. This led to an acute shortage of grains that eventually led to a situation of food crisis.

Commencement of the Champaran Satyagraha

Mahatma Gandhi on his arrival to the Motihari Railway Station in the Champaran district received a notice from the then district magistrate of the British, W.B. Heycock where he was asked to board the next available train and leave the region. Mahatma Gandhi refused to comply with the demands of the authority and said that he had come to render humanitarian services to the people and that he would not leave Champaran until he had helped those who were suffering. This led the police to arrest him. However, the continuous mass public support for Mahatma Gandhi from of the people of Champaran led the British authorities to mark his release as well as permit him to reside on account of fear of an uprising. Hazarimal Dharmashala in the Bettiah village became Mahatma Gandhi’s place of residence from where he took to many villages to understand the grievances of the peasants. Mahatma Gandhi met eight thousand cultivators of indigo where he studied their plight and the reasons behind it. Amidst these interactions, Mahatma Gandhi noticed that the illiteracy of the indigo cultivators was one of the prime reasons for their exploitation and subjugation. Mahatma Gandhi sought to mend this by focusing on actions that would alleviate the economic and the educational conditions of the peasants. He set up three schools in Motihari, Bhitiharwa and Madhuban to impart education. Mahatma Gandhi also established ‘buniyadi’ schools that taught farming, carpentry spinning and other such activities that further strengthened the self-sustenance of the people. During the course of his stay, Mahatma Gandhi involved many eminent personalities of the INC such as Brajkishore Prasad, Rajendra Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Sinha Ramnavmi Prasad and others including J. B. Kripalani for the cause. Mahatma Gandhi after his continuous efforts very soon found himself a chair in an enquiry committee that was examine the exploitations of the peasants by the landlords. This was significant as it was through this committee that a report was passed to the government that gave momentum to the Champaran Agrarian Bill that was pushed in the Bihar Legislative Council. On the 4th of March, 1919, nearly after a year of Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest by W.B. Heycock, the Champaran Agrarian Bill transcended into a law which finally delivered the abolition of the tinkhatia system of plantation.

Contribution of Champaran Andolan in the Indian Independence Movement

The significance of the Champaran Satyagraha transcends far beyond the eradication of the exploitative practices of the indigo planters and the betterment of the people of Champaran in terms of their educational and economic stature. Champaran Satyagraha marks the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s new trajectory of India’s freedom struggle where passive non-violent civil resistance was the prime mode of dissent against the British colonizers. The success of this movement gave assurance to Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom fighters of the importance of the involvement of the masses along with the effectiveness of the Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent mode of protest. This movement showed the importance of being self-dependent and self-sufficient in the parameters of economics and education for the general masses which in turn helped them to be more aware and sensitive to the exploitations of the British Raj along with improvement of their own standards of living. More importantly, the Champaran Andolan was a tremendous symbolic victory for Mahatma Gandhi. This protest was India’s first civil disobedience movement and made way to other of Mahatma Gandhi’s significant struggles of emancipation which ultimately ushered a new era of the nationalist movement that slowly transformed Mohandas into Mahatma.

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