Champaran District of Bihar where Gandhiji first experimented ''Satyagraha'' - civil disobedience against the British

The nation is preparing to celebrate Gandhiji's 150th birth  (2nd October, 2019) anniversary. It is history how diligently and  brilliantly  he fought against  apartheid regime in white-ruled South, using civil disobedience and non-violence  to subdue the racist government.

On his 150th birth anniversary celebrations, it is good to recall his first experiment in civil disobedience - Satyagraha on the very soil of India. The venue was the Champaran district of Bihar in 1917. Upon his return to India in 1915, no sooner had Gandhiji entered on the political scene under the guidance of  his mentor Gopal Krishna  Gokhale CIE (9 May 1866 -19 February 1915) in  his formative years than he became a  social reformer and took his tirades against  untouchability and other social vices such as alcoholic drinking and temple entry of low caste people. Gokhale was a senior leader of the Indian National Congress, liberal political leader and a social reformer. He intensely campaigned for Indian self-rule and for social reforms and found a good candidate in Mohandas Gandhi. It was a great  credit to Gandhiji who stood as a Goliath with the dictum of  non-violence and civil disobedience in a world ridden with orgy of violence in the name of religion,  racial superiority, man-made hatred etc. It is quite befitting that he is looked upon as a man of universal goodwill and brotherhood, and a protagonist of peace.
Mohandas Gandhi in Lancashire wearin loin cloth.

Mahatma Gandhi & Shaw,  on canvas.Clare Winsten
It was the temple city of Madurai,Tamil Nadu that gave Gandhiji the famous ''loin cloth'' (22 September 1921)  that he was wearing till his death. Spiritually rejuvenated and mentally more resolute, he refused to change his attire to go to London to attend the Round Table Conference  (September, 1931) to impress on the people across the globe  the simple notion that the 'Indian poor are naked because of Britain's oppressive colonial policy and their continued exploitation of India's natural  resources'. This is the avatar first  taken by Gandhiji in Madurai that  caused horrible  irritation to conservative English politician and racial bigot  Winston  Churchill who had tagged him as ''a half-naked fakir', a slur on a great man. Gandhiji left a lasting impression on the British public and gave a good speech in the Conference. He said,  ''I do not in any way wish to belittle the British in India. But I certainly want that England should look upon India as an equal and treat the people of India accordingly.''
After  the Conference had ended, Their Majesties held a reception in honor of the delegates to the Conference. ''Everyone that went to the reception was dressed in his best suit of clothes, but Gandhiji appeared before the King of England, wearing a Khaddar dhoti, a pair of the plainest sandals, and an ordinary blanket. The simplicity and humility of his dress presented a striking contrast to the glory and pomp of the royal palace."

About Gandhiji's  powerful political salvo against the British  Stayagraha - civil  disobedience, it is Champaran, a place in Bihar that gave him an opportunity to kick start his experiment. Why did he choose Champaran to test his political philosophy? Though Gandhiji was aware of the Indigo farmers' plight in Bihar and other places, it was his meeting with one Raj Shukla, a representative of farmers at Lucknow (Utter Pradesh) had a deep impact on him when he explained the untold miseries, pain, intimidation and torture the farmers were undergoing at the hands of  arrogant British who owned the Indigo factories. In those days agrarian issues rarely formed  part of the political discourse and Gandhi had kept it on the back burner for a long time as his focus was more toward freeing India from the unjust British rule.

As the cloth industry in England was dependent on quality Indigo, the British Indigo planters unleashed atrocities on the Indian farmers to augment production manifold to meet the demands in the market.  When the west discovered Indigo dye, an essential item for textile making, the British found huge  potential in making profit by covering the entire European textile industries.They took overwhelming interest in indigo farming, sometimes, illegally.

The planters driven by greed and profit-motive, resorted to violence against the innocent farmers. They unscrupulously  used force against them  to cultivate Indigo on their land at their own cost. Against them the planters used  terrifying methods to intimidate and  instill fear in them by way of abducting their wives and children so that they could follow  the ''Tinkathia'' system.  The farmers monetarily  gained nothing out of indigo cultivation in return for sweat, hard work and nasty treatment.  If they refused to oblige, to their dismay, they would  be beaten up severely, stripped naked and sometimes hanged to death. In the Indigo plantation work, the colonial rulers' forte was instilling fear-psychosis among the agricultural workers.
Tunkathia  was a peculiar system prevalent in Champaran district  in which Indian farmers were forced to cultivate three katha land for every  20 katha (Bigha) of land. A Bigha is roughly equal to one acre of land. The European agriculturists in Champaran followed illegal means of Indigo farming and urged the Indian farmers to grow Indigo on the 3/20th portion of their land holding.

Gandhiji for the first time got to know about the miserable condition of the poor farmers in Bihar after his return from South Africa through a  letter from Raj Shukla. This  made him decide to look into the plight of farmers.

Upon his visit to Champaran district (now comprising East and West Champaran districts), in April 1917 Gandhiji covered many villages with his associates  and had discussion with thousands of farmers. He met as many as 8000 complainants who were forced to work for 70 planters.  Gandhiji realized with heavy heart that the greedy and grasping British Indigo planters committed unspeakable atrocities on Indians. Simply speaking, the farmers were objects of spite. His anger and indignation knew no bounds.

The villages of Bhelwa, Barharwa and Lakhansen were  places where Gandhiji spent much of his time  - more than six to nine months during the Champaran movement. To day, they have become forgotten areas and  lie forsaken with no roads and no basic facilities. It was here the first Indian President Dr.Rajendra Prasad and well known lawyer S, Sinha in their early days participated in the stayagraha movements. This experience later gave them more patriotic zeal  to  take part in the national movement.

The British government arrested Gandhiji  when he led the non-cooperation movement there despite severe warning  and put him in jail. Later, they released him fearing riots by the villagers and others. Thus the first experiment of Satyagraha began in undivided Champaran district of Bihar. "The country, thus, had its first direct object-lesson in Civil Disobedience," Gandhi wrote in his autobiography. The agitation went on later for some time  and at last Indigo cultivation was abolished by the government.

What Mahatma Gandhi wrote in  December 1931, “Though we sing - all glory to God on high and on the earth be peace -- there seems to be today neither glory to God nor Peace on earth” has subtle relevance to day - terrorism in the name of faith and other political conflicts are tearing global communities apart.