Indigo by Louis Fischer
About the author … Louis Fischer (1896-1970) was a prolific writer who wrote highly acclaimed books on Gandhi and Lenin. He fought in the British army during the First World War, and as a journalist, lived through and reported about the Second World War, and the epoch-making rise of the Soviet Union. He was a Jewish American who was greatly influenced by Gandhiji’s use of non-violence and spiritualism as political tools. He observed Gandhiji’s work to fight the cause of the voiceless, downtrodden Indians who reeled under the rule of the indifferent oppressive colonial British rule. ‘Indigo’ is one of the many episodes of Gandhiji’s long political struggle. Fischer reported these tumultuous events very succintly for the American press.
The story …..
An emaciated visitor from Champaran meets Gandhi during Indian National Congress session in Lucknow, and invites him to visit his place.
Louis Fischer happened to meet Gandhi in the Sevagram Ashram in 1942. During a conversation, Gandhi told the author how the idea to ask the British to leave India had dawned on him way back in 1917.
The annual convention of the Indian National Congress was going on in Lucknow. Scores of delegates from all over the country had come to the venue. Some visitors from abroad were there in the audience too. A man looking pale and drawn came up to Gandhi and urged him to visit his home place Champaran, a place in northern Bihar. Apparently, he had a grievance and wanted Gandhi to see it first hand.
Rajkumar Shukla, the victim of exploitation of his land lord can’t take it any more, and decides to meet Gandhi for redress.
The man was Rajkumar Shukla, who had been a share cropper by tradition, not by choice. He was illiterate, and so voiceless. Although he languished under the exploitative land lord-tenant farmer system, he was powerless to fight back. But, the voice to rebel burned alight in him and he was determined to stand up to his tormentors. When someone suggested him to approach Gandhi, the poor Rajkumar Shukla made up his mind to approach the perceived messiah, Gandhi. That is how, he was there standing before Gandhi.
Rajkumar Shukla followed Gandhi till Sabarmati, and prayed him fervently to come to Champaran. Gandhi accedes to Rajkumar’s heart-felt plea.
Ganghiji’s altruism, character, and charm seemed to cast a spell on Rajkumar Shukla. He followed the leader to Cawnpore and many other places of India, and finally to the Sabarmati Ashram. He beseeched Gandhiji to fix a date to visit Champaran. Rajkumar Shukla persisted in seeking Gandhiji’s nod to make him visit Champaran. Finally, Gandhiji relented and told Rajkumar Shukla that he would be in Calcutta on a certain date, from where he would have to escort his leader to Champaran.
Finally, Rajkumar catches up with Gandhi in Calcutta, and the two go to Patna to meet Rajendra Prasad – a lawyer of eminence.
A few months elapsed. Rajkumar Shukla finally met Gandhiji in Calcutta. As usual, Gandhiji had a hectic schedule, but Rajkumar waited doggedly till his leader was free. The duo made a train trip to Patna to meet a lawyer named Rajendra Prasad. [This lawyer later rose to be the President of India.]
In the absence of Rajendra Prasad, his caste-obsessed housekeeper assumes Gandhi to be an untouchable, but agrees to let him stay through Rajkumar’s intervention.
Rajendra Prasad was out of town. His household staff knew Rajkumar Shukla as a regular visitor to the lawyer. He was a litigant deeply involved in endless legal battles pertaining to share cropping disputes. They allowed Rajkumar to stay there in the house till Rajendra Prasad returned. Gandhiji, too, was allowed to stay, though condescending manner. Little did the housekeepers know that that had such a distinguished guest among them. Thinking Gandhi to be one from the untouchable class, they forbade him to draw water from the well, lest a drop from the bucket contaminated the whole well.
Gandhi proceeds to Muzzafarpur on a fact-finding trip.
From there Gandhiji decided to go to Muzzafarpur first to collect more first-hand information about the plight of the sharecroppers. He sent a telegram to Acharya Krpalini who taught in the Muzzafarpur Arts College. Gandhiji’s acquaintance with Prof. Kripalini had started when they were together in Tagore’s Shantiniketan School.
Gandhi becomes the guest of Prof. Malkani in his Muzzafarpur house. The host braved the wrath of the British administration in hosting Gandhi.
Their train arrived in Muzzafarpur on April 15, 1917. Gandhiji was duly received at the station by Prof. Kripalini and a large group of students. Later, he stayed at the house of Prof.Malkani, who taught in a government school. Gandhiji was overwhelmed by the hospitality and courage of his host. During those days, any one openly extending patronage to anti-colonial rule invited the wrath of the authorities. Such threats didn’t deter Prof. Malkani from extending hospitality to Gandhiji.
Gandhi’s arrival electrifies the peasantry in Muzzafarpur and Champaran.
News of Gandhiji’s arrival and his mission spread like wild fire in Muzzafarpur and Champaran. The peasants were agog with excitement. They poured in from all directions to see Gandhiji. Quite a few lawyers who had taken up the cases of the sharecroppers came to brief Gandhiji. All looked upon him as a one-man army who could bring them deliverance from the age-old suffering and oppression.
The pervasive distress of the share-croppers saddens Gandhi. He had to stand up to the powerful landlords. He asks the farmers to give up fear.
Gandhiji was struck by the gloom and helplessness of the peasants. He pulled up the lawyers for charging fat fees from the distressed share croppers. He knew the landlords had both money and muscle in their side. The law courts could do little to bring justice to the peasants when the dice was so heavily loaded against them. A poor peasant simply couldn’t stand up to the clout and might of the landlord. Fear of the landlords and the administrative set-up was so pervasive. As the first step of the journey to undo the wrong, the peasants must collectively banish ‘fear’ from their minds, suggested Gandhiji.
The British landlords had cornered all lands, forcing the peasants to grow indigo in 15% of the land, and give it off free to their white land owners, as per an entrenched, exploitative system.
A handful of English landlords had managed to usurp the vast arable land of Muzzafarpur. The peasants toiled in the sprawling farms of their British landlords. Indigo was the cash crop of Muzzafarpur. As per a one-sided contract thrust on the peasants by their colonial landlords, the poor farmers had to grow indigo in 15% of the land leased to them. The entire harvest of Indigo had to be given up to the British landlords. The decades-old contract perpetuated exploitation and the resultant poverty. With Englishmen as judges, n great victory could come for the peasants in their legal battle against Englishmen landlords. It was a lost cause for the peasants.
Indigo farming comes to an end as synthetic substitutes from Germany enter the market. The land, however, is not freed, as the British owners demand money for parting with ownership rights.
An innovation in far-away Germany brought the days of gloom right to the peasants’ door steps. The Germans succeeded to make synthetic blue. In one stroke, they managed to push the farm-grown blue out of market. The Englishmen owning the lands lost interest in Indigo farming. However, instead of freeing the farmers from the contracts gracefully, they demanded money from the sharecroppers to release their lands. It was clearly an atrocious demand. The peasants, already enfeebled by years and years of exploitation couldn’t garner the amount demanded by the colonial landlords.
Gandhi arrives in Champaran, but gets a cold response from the Secretary of the British association.
Gandhiji arrived in Champaran when the whole district was simmering with discontent. The Englshmen had managed to smother any open show of defiance. Gandhiji, being a trained lawyer himself, thought it roper to ascertain facts from the other side first. He went and met the secretary of the British Landlords Association. The secretary skirted any query from Gandhiji maintaining that the latter was an outsider. ‘I am not an outsider’, quipped Gandhiji.
Even the Commissioner in Tirhut scoffs at Gandhi, ordering him to leave the area.
Then he went to meet the British Commissioner of the Tirhut Division under which Champaran fell. The Commissioner was rude and evasive. Even he ordered Gandhiji to leave Tirhut with no more delay.
Gandhi stays put, and begins to gather information from the field.
Gandhiji didn’t heed the Commissioner’s dictat. Instead, accompanied by an entourage of lawyers, he proceeded to Motihari, the capital of Champaran. He began to ascertain facts in the field. Staying in a house, and using it as a base, he began to collect facts and see the trail of misery the share-cropping system had left. He came to know that in a nearby village, a peasant had received some heavy-handed treatment from the authorities. He decided to see him.
A representative of the Commissioner orders Gandhi to stop his tour, and leave Champaran.
Mounted on an elephant, he made his way to the village. A messenger of the British police commissioner pulled up from behind and accosted Gandhiji asking him to accompany him to his office. There the police official served an order on Gandhiji that asked him to leave Champaran forthwith. Gandhiji received the order formally, but wrote that he would disobey the same.
Gandhi receives a court summon. He calls Rajendra Prasad for legal help.
Gandhiji received a summon from the court to appear before it the next day. This was the first time the British-trained barrister was facing the long arm of colonial law. Gandhiji was distraught, but determined. He remained awake the whole night. He summoned his lawyer-friend Rajendra Prasad to come to the court with some of his influential friends. Through a telegram, he kept the Viceroy posted of the goings-on in Champaran.
Crowds throng the court premises to see how a tiny man stands up to the mighty British power. The court proceedings becomes a watershed moment in India’s colonial history.
Showing solidarity with their beleaguered benefactor, scores and scores of peasants converged around the court area. Little did they know that their leader had returned from South Africa after waging a successful peaceful battle against the oppressive white colonial powers. All that they knew was that their tiny-framed ordinary-looking was confront the might of the British. They wanted to extend their support to him. For Gandhiji, it was the first successful mobilization of the public for an anti-colonial cause. The turn of events in that small remote town Motihari on that day would mark a watershed in Indo-British history.
Gandhi remains unruffled and firm before the prosecutor.
Gandhiji was polite, but firm. While he helped the British police to control the surging crowd, he didn’t extend any help to the British prosecution team. To them, it was the first demonstration of the will and ability of Indians to stand up to the colonial might.
A confused prosecution side asks for adjournment.
The unexpected situation caught the prosecution off guard. Apparently, they needed to consult their superiors as to handle this gritty and defiant challenger. They asked the Judge for postponement of the cse. Gandhiji immediately protested.
Gandhi reads out a statement outlining his moral conviction to side with the peasants.
In a written statement that he read out before the judge, Gandhiji admitted his guilt as a ‘law-breaker’. At the same time, he maintained, he was doing his duty to ameliorate the suffering of the vast mass of peasants so grievously wronged by the British landlords. He was doing ‘humanitarian and national’ service for which he had come to Champaran. He told the court that he was caught in the ‘conflict of duties’.
Gandhi asks the judge to award him the maximum sentence.
Gandhiji, stood still in the court, asking the judge to inflict whatever punishment the law prescribed for an offender who breaks the law. He said, he had no desire to break the law, but he must never ignore what his conscience dictated.
Gandhi refuses to sign the bail bond. The judge lets him off, as he adjourns the hearings to a later date.
It was a piquant situation for the judge. He told the defendant that he would pronounce the verdict in two hours. For this short period, Gandhiji must submit a bail bond, said the judge. Gandhiji flatly refused to sign any such bond. Determined to endure the worst ignominy, Gandhiji was determined to take the might of law, head-on. The judge reflected for a while, and restored the liberty of the accused, provisionally. He said, he would need a few more days to pronounce his final judgment.
Even the lawyer friends of Gandhi chose to submit to the court order, if Gandhi was jailed.
A galaxy of eminent lawyers had come to the court from all corners of Bihar. The legal team included Rajendra Prasad, Brij Kishore Babu, Maulana Muzharul Huq, and a few others. They spoke to Gandhi. Gandhiji wanted to know what they would do if the authorities did jail him. The lawyers said, quite foolishly, that they would go home as there would be no one to defend.
Rajendra Prasad implores his lawyer friends to proactively support Gandhi as his cause was their cause too.
Gandhiji wanted to know what would happen to the cause of the share-croppers. The lawyers withdrew to hold discussions. As Rajendra Prasad recorded later, he told his colleagues that Gandhiji was a total stranger to the area. He had come there to fight a cause which most of them fought in the courts with negligible success. In such a situation, it would be utterly selfish to abandon Gandhiji to his fate and retreat. It was morally indefensible.
The lawyers see reason and assure Gandhi that they too would court jail with him.
Chastened by Rajendra Prasad’s reprimand, the lawyers returned to Gandhiji to tell him that if need be, they would follow him to the jail. Such show of comradery encouraged Gandhiji. He exclaimed, “The battle of Champaraon is won.” He took a piece of paper, and jotted down the names of the lawyers in pairs. This was the sequence in which the lawyers would court arrest and go to jail.
Case against Gandhi is dropped by the Lieutenant-Governor.
Some days later, Gandhiji received an order that said that the Lieutenant-Governor had ordered the case against him be dropped. It was the first successful experiment of civil disobedience as a political tool. A great idea was born in modern India.
A massive exercise to gather evidence starts with the lawyers’ participation.
What followed was a massive exercise in evidence gathering. Lawyers fanned out to their respective areas to meet the aggrieved peasants to record their depositions. Some ten thousand peasants were covered under this exercise. The peasantry in the whole district was electrified, and quite expectedly, the British land lords were very infuriated.
Gandhi is summoned by the Lieutenant-Governor.
In June, the Lieutenant Governor Sir Edward Gait summoned Gandhiji to his office. Before leaving for the meeting, Gandhiji confabulated with his trusted confidantes to decide how the campaign could go on in the event if the LG’s ordered his detention.
The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Edward Gait agrees to set up a commission of inquiry.
Gandhiji held detailed meetings with Sir Edward. It was decided by the later that a commission of Inquiry would be constituted to go into the grievances of the share-croppers. The commission had British land-owners, government functionaries, and Gandhiji as the sole representative of the downtrodden and dispossessed indigo growers.
Gandhi had to stay in Champaran for seven more months.
Gandhiji had to stay for as long as seven months in Champran for the Commission’s work. Later, he had to return to Champaran several times in course of this work. Thus, a reluctant meeting in Rajkumar Shukla culminated in a long-drawn commitment of Gandhiji – the crusader.
The British landlords remained adamant not to give up their right over the land, despite the massive evidence gathered. To break the deadlock, Gandhi agreed to reduce the farmers’s demands by 50%. Finally, the deal was closed in 25%.
n So meticulously was the evidence gathered , and so morally reprehensible was the landowners’ stand that the colonial landlords thought it wise to give up their rights and monetarily compensate the aggrieved peasants. Protracted negotiations followed to arrive at the quantum of compensation to be paid to the peasants by their masters. The negotiation made little headway with the British landlords didn’t cede any concession. Gandhiji reduced the farmers’ demand by 50%. Yet, the other party haggled and haggled. Finally, they offered to pay 25% of the original amount, expecting Gandhiji to bargain further. To their surprise, Gandhiji accepted the offer bringing the long negotiations to a quick end.
It was an unique first-time victory against colonial dominance and oppression.
For the first time, the Indian subjects of the British Empire realized that their colonial masters can be called to justice for their wrongdoings. They couldn’t do illegal things with impunity any more. For Gandhiji, it was a symbolic victory that set the stage for grander struggles in future.
Gradually, the British landlords gave up all their rights, and the farmers got back their lands.
Within the next few years, the British landlords relinquished their rights over their vast estates. The peasants got back their lands. Curtains came down on Indigo farming and the exploitation that went with it. Gandhiji stood vindicated.
The struggle in Champaran convinced Gandhi that the scourge of poverty is the root cause of exploitation by the whites.
The tryst with the Indigo farmers had shocked and saddened Gandhiji. Their backwardness and prejudices appalled him. For Gandhiji, combating such backwardness was perhaps more urgent and important than fighting for victories in the political arena.
Education became center-stage for an effective political fight.
Quite clearly, Gandhiji realized that the masses needed to be educated first, as illiteracy seemed to blight the entire population. For this, he needed volunteer teachers – a whole army of them. Mahadev Desai and Narahari Parikh came to join him, along with their wives. Heeding the call of Gandhiji, many more volunteer teachers came from far off places like Bombay, Puna etc. Mrs. Gandhi, and their youngest son Devdas joined Gandhiji in this campaign to bring literacy and light to the dark Champaran area. Kasturba taught the students the discipline of the Ashram, and the ways to keep clean.
Disease was the next enemy. A doctor joins the drive to help people fight disease.
The next daunting task was the pervasive illness of the people. A doctor joined him to render free service for six months. There were just three very basic medicines — castor oil, quinine, and sulphur ointment. For patients with coated tongue, castor oil was given, Quinine was given for malaria patients and sulphur ointment was administered to those with skin eruptions.
The next step was the dirt and unhygienic conditions all around. Ksturba joins the battle against uncleanliness.
The next unpleasant sight that evoked Gandhiji’s attention was the tattered dirty clothes of women. On being told by Gandhiji, Kasturba went to speak to the womenfolk. One woman escoerted her to her hut and told her that the sari she wore was her only possession, and she had no cupboard or almirah to store anything. The poverty was stark and shocking.
From his camp in Champaran, Gandhiji maintained his superintendence of his Ashram through letters that carried instructions. He kept an watch on the accounts too. On one occasion, he asked the existing latrine pits to be abandoned and new ones built to avoid the old ones getting filled up and smelling foul.
Gandhi draws inspiration from his crusade in Champaran.
The brush with poverty that shrouded Champraran and most parts of India spurred Gandhiji to action. The small experiments he conducted to fight illiteracy and disease filled him with confidence. He became convinced that Indians can take the reins of their destiny onto their own hands, and the British couldn’t lord over them.
Gandhi was not so much a rebel against the British, as he was a messiah for the down-trodden.
What triggered the Champaran experiment was not the urge to defy the Colonial rulers. Instead Gandhiji wanted to bring succor and justice to the downtrodden exploited Indigo farmers. Gandhiji realized that politics can’t be excluded from the efforts to dispel illiteracy and social backwardness. Lofty political goals must be pursued hand in hand with efforts to address mundane issues.
Gandhiji was a great motivator, and a team-builder. With relative ease, he managed to build a large group of inspired volunteers.
C. F. Andrews joins Gandhi in Champaran, and a great meeting of two kindly souls takes place.
Charles Freer Andrews was an Englishman. He was a pacifist who found great convergence in his and Gandhiji’s idealism. Some inmates in Gandhiji’s Champaran camp wanted Andrews to stay with them to bolster their struggle against the British. Gandhiji surned the suggestion saying that their cause, being so justified, didn’t need an Englishman’s involvement as an enabling tool. He let Andrews proceed to Fiji on his work.
Later, while writing on Gandhiji, Rajendra Prasad so rightly commented that the Mahatma had correctly judged how self-reliance was key to the people’s efforts to seek deliverance from so many scourges that enfeebled them.
Like this, the lamp of self-reliance burned with the sharecroppers’ cause as oil.
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