How would you like to remember the battle of Champaran? As a special milestone in India’s war for Independence that gave a meaningful turn to the struggle that has its origins in human suffering? A passage of time that brought Mohandas on the warpath that took him from being a man to a Mahatma? Or, will you call it the heralding of a revolution that inspired people of repute in the society to stand shoulder to shoulder with the exploited and the oppressed?
To answer these questions, let me take you back a hundred years. At the onset of the 20th century, the despicable practice of slavery was prevalent in Champaran, Bihar. Farmers were coerced into growing indigo and forced to pay sundry taxes to feudal land owners. These taxes filled the coffers of their masters but the farmers ended up sleeping on an empty stomach. What may come as shock to you is the fact that at that time, around 1910, the farmers were forced to pay 46 kinds of taxes.
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The nature of history is such that whenever exploitation crosses all limits, a few of those exploited begin to raise their voice. Raj Kumar Shukla was part of this endangered species. He jumped into battle but it was beyond his capabilities to take it past the finishing line. Around the same time, at the Lucknow session of the Congress, he met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He convinced Gandhi that he had to visit Champaran at least once to witness the farmers’ oppression first-hand. The barrister accepted his invitation.
On 10 April 1917, when Gandhi alighted at the Motihari railway station, he was unaware that his destiny was about to be transformed. Hundreds of people had converged on the station to meet him. After Natal in South Africa, this was the second occasion when the oppressed were seeing a glimpse of their messiah in this diminutive man. The English collector of Champaran heard about this and predictably got a whiff of a popular uprising. He was arrested on suspicion of disturbing public order. This just fanned the passions further. To ensure that the anger of his supporters doesn’t cross all limits, the district administration gave him a bail proposal. But Gandhi refused to comply and carry out the documentation needed for the bail application. This made him an overnight hero and during the hearing that followed, thousands of people began gathering outside the court room.
A stunned district administration had no option but to release him. Those few hours of detention paved the way for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s transformation into a Mahatma. Gandhi fought this war not with outrage but with tact. He got a survey conducted of 8,000 indigo farmers in 2,841 villages of Champaran. These days, television personalities begin holding forth on the mood of a country of 1.21 billion people after speaking to just 500-1,000 people. Just imagine the credibility of such a comprehensive survey conducted 100 years ago.
Still, it may be unfair to perceive the Champaran rebellion as a part of the struggle for Independence. The farmers of Champaran dreamt of freedom from exploitation in 1917. Has their dream been realized? The bitter truth is that the administrators of Independent India haven’t treated them any better. Even today their farm earnings are not enough to fill their stomach. The indigo tyrants may have gone away, but their place has been taken by moneylenders who are free to suck the blood out of the farmers.
How will we get freedom from them?
Let us return to Bihar. The initiative of land reforms has not yet borne fruit here. The directives of the judiciary in this regard haven’t proved useful either. Till a few months back, Bihar had a law under which even the Supreme Court’s rulings could be sent for review to the revenue minister. Capitalizing on this, the politicians in the state were sitting over the reforms. This was the condition when parties with a socialist philosophy had been in power in the state for more than 25 years.
Like Champaran, farmers in other parts of the country are also in a sorry state. Several thousand of farmers commit suicide in India every year. Villages are being deserted owing to lack of employment opportunities. And because of these migrants the infrastructure of the cities is crumbling. But there was some relief on this front last week. The UP government waived the loans of up to Rs1 lakh for close to 8.7 million farmers. The Madras high court has directed the government in Tamil Nadu to waive farm loans. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has expressed a similar desire. A few other states may soon follow suit. It will be nice if, after this populist decision, politicians make some arrangements that ensure that the sons of soil need not get trapped in the quagmire of farm loans again.
This is required because earlier there was just one Champaran and today there are hundreds of Champarans in India. This is Independent India’s tragic gift to Independent India.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.