Summary of the First Satyagraha | Champaran Movement (1917-18)

The Champaran peasant movement was also a part of the wider struggle for independence. When Gandhiji returned from South Africa, he made the experiment of non-cooperation in a smaller way by giving leadership to the peasant struggles in Champaran (Bihar) and later on in Kheda (Gujarat). These struggles were taken up as a reformist movement but the idea was to mobilise the peasants for their de­mands.

The Champaran peasant movement was launched in 1917-18. Its objective was to create awakening among the peasants against the European planters. These planters resorted to illegal and inhuman methods of indigo cultivation at a cost which by no canons of justice could be called an adequate remuneration for the labour done by the peasants.

Gandhiji studied the grievances of the Champaran peasantry. The peasants opposed not only the European planters but also the jamin­dars.

Some of the important causes of Champaran peasant struggles were as under:

(1) In Champaran and as a matter of fact in the whole of Bihar, there was an enormous personal increase in the land rent.

(2) The peasants were obliged to grow indigo and this curtailed their freedom of cultivation.

(3) The peasants were compelled to devote the best part of their land for growing particular crops as desired by the landlord. They were also required to give their best time and energy to the crops decided by the landlord.

(4) The peasants were paid very poor wages. These were so meagre that it was very difficult for them to earn their livelihood. Briefing the situation of peasants in Champaran D.G. Tendulkar writes: The tale of woes of Indian ryots, forced to plant indigo by the British planters, forms one of the blackest in the an­nals of colonial exploitation. Not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.

(5) One very important reason for the Champaran unrest was the sub-human life led by the people. Gandhiji when visited Cham­paran was very much displeased by the abject poverty of the peasants. He expressed his feelings in the following words: “The peasants in Champaran are leading their lives like animals, suffer­ing from all kinds of miseries.”

The Champaran peasantry suffered terribly at the hands of Euro­pean planters. The landlords and the government officials combined together also oppressed the peasantry. Gandhiji, who had returned from South Africa, wanted to experience his non-cooperation move­ment and satyagraha in India. Champaran seemed to be a suitable place for making such an experiment.

The people were also ready to accept the leadership of Gandhiji, though in the end the incidence of Chauri-Chaura turned the movement to violence. Gandhiji was not happy with all this. However, we would reiterate that the Champaran peasant movement was a part of the national movement of inde­pendence.

The course of events that led to the Champaran peasant struggle can be described as under:

(1) One very important feature of Champaran movement was that it was led by intelligentsia. Some of the prominent leaders of the country, namely, Gandhiji, Rajendra Prasad, Brijkishore Prasad and Muzharul Haq participated in the movement. This provided strength and direction to the movement.

(2) On 10th April, 1914 the sufferings of the Champaran peasants were discussed thoroughly at the annual conference of the Bihar Provincial Congress Committee, which found that the Cham­paran peasants were in a serious situation.

(3) Next year, in 1915, the Provincial Congress Committee recom­mended for the constitution of an inquiry committee to take stock of the Champaran peasantry.

(4) It was in 1916 that the Indian National Congress, in its Lucknow session, discussed the peasant situation of Champaran. It was de­cided that something had to be done to give immediate relief to the Champaran peasants.

(5) On 14th May, 1917 Gandhiji wrote a letter to the District Magis­trate of Champaran, W.B. Heycock, wherein he showed his concern to give the peasants freedom from landlords and govern­ment. Gandhiji wanted to improve the relations between the jamindars and tenants.

(6) Rajendra Prasad was very much unhappy with the inhuman life led by the Champaran peasants. He himself was an eye-witness to the poor and miserable condition of the peasants.

(7) It was in 1908 that the peasants at the Sathi factory and other neighbouring factories stopped the cultivation of indigo and or­ganised an agitation. To quell it, 19 persons were convicted in

December 1908. Nearly 200 prisoners awaited trial at Motihari under different charges including assaulting planters and arson.

(8) The struggle of the Champaran peasants took place in April 1917. The British government adopted very serious methods to oppress the peasants. They were tortured for not paying the excessive revenues. “Among the methods adopted were setting Dhangars and Doms, the low caste people, on the high caste tenants decides the policemen tying them down and beating them, and putting logs of wood on their chest.

In another method of torture the hands were put underneath the leg and tied to the neck, the leg be­ing raised. If the peasants did not pay even then, they were brought to the factories. They were forced to embrace a neem tree with both their hands tied together, and set upon by policemen.

On such occasions, the indigo planter used to be present on the scene. On the other hand, the red ants on the tree would bite the man tied to the tree, but he could do nothing as his hands were tied. The Champaran peasant movement had to undergo severe suffer­ings.

But the participation of the general peasantry and the ideology of non-violence gave strength to the peasants. It is interesting to look at the outcomes of this movement. The Champaran movement is described to be a success story in the history of peasant movements in India.

Some of the important outcomes of the movement are given below:

(1) One very important outcome of the movement was the enact­ment of Champaran Agrarian Act assented by Governor General of India on 1st May, 1918.

(2) E.M.S. Namboodripad, the leader of the left movement in In­dia, considered Champaran movement as a contribution to the development of nationalism. He observes:

…despite stiff opposition by the European planters and their protec­tors in the bureaucracy, Gandhiji and his comrades were able to bring the struggle to a successful conclusion

(3) There were few scholars who did not consider the Champaran movement as a success story. The movement did not succeed to strike against the exploitation and discrimination with which the peasants suffered. Ramesh Chandra Dutt, for instance, argued that the settle­ments made between the government and the peasants did not em­brace the exploitation of our peasants by jamindars, so also this agitation led by the Mahatma in Champaran did not lead up to any fight against the main causes for the terrible poverty and sufferings of Champaran peasants, namely, the excessive rents and exorbitant inci­dence of debts… it does strike us rather significant that both he (Gandhiji) and Rajendra Prasad should have remained scrupulously si­lent upon the ravages of the jamindari system.




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Born in Bihar, brought up in India!

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