Louis Fischer was an admirer of Gandhiji. He met Gandhiji several times and wrote his biography, ‘The Life of Mahatma Gandhiji’. This lesson Indigo is taken from that book.
The annual convention of the Indian National Congress was held in Lucknow in December 1916. A poor illiterate peasant came there to complain against the injustice meted out to the peasants in Champaran. Gandhiji had never heard of Champaran. He had many engagements. So he did not give any assurance to Shukla. But Shukla was resolute. He followed Gandhiji wherever he went. At last, Gandhiji fixed a date. He told Shukla to meet him in Calcutta on that particular date.
In Calcutta, Gandhiji found Shukla waiting for him. Both of them went to Palna by train. Shukla led Gandhiji to the house of a lawyer, Rajendra Prasad. The lawyer was out of town. But the servants knew Shukla. He had been there several times to request the lawyer to help the indigo sharecroppers. They let them stay on the grounds as they mistook Gandhiji for another peasant and untouchable. They did not allow them to draw water from the well lest the entire water in the well should become polluted.
Gandhiji decided to break his journey to camp at Muzaffarpur, because he wanted to gather more information that Shukla had been unable to provide. He sent a telegram to Professor J.B. Kripalani whom he had metdat Shantiniketan. Kripalani came to the station with his students to receive Gandhiji. At Muzaffarpur, Gandhiji stayed in the house of Mr Malkani, a government teacher. In those days, Indians were afraid to harbour men like Gandhiji who were advocates of home rule, but Malkani had the courage.
The news of Gandhiji’s arrival in Muzaffarpur and his mission spread quickly. Sharecroppers came to Muzaffarpur to see him. The lawyers also called on him. They briefed him about their cases. Gandhiji chided the lawyers for collecting heavy fees from poor peasants. He thought the most important thing was to free the peasants from the fear of their British landlords.
British landlords held large estates in Champaran. Indians worked as sharecroppers on their land. By a long term agreement, the sharecroppers were compelled to plant 15% of their holdings with indigo and surrender the entire indigo produced to the landlords as rent. Harvesting indigo was an irksome business for the peasants.
Recently, the landlords had heard that Germany had developed synthetic indigo. British landlords knew that the prices of indigo would fall and planting indigo was no longer profitable. They offered to release the sharecroppers from their obligation to harvest indigo. But the Britishers demanded compensation. Many peasants agreed, while a few of them resisted. Soon, the peasants learnt about the synthetic indigo. Those who had paid compensation demanded their money back.
A dispute arose between the landlords and the sharecroppers. The landlords hired thugs. The sharecroppers engaged lawyers.
Gandhiji wanted to get the facts. He visited the secretary of the British landlords association. But, the secretary refused to give any information saying that Gandhiji was an outsider. Gandhiji told him that he was not an outsider.
Then, Gandhiji called on the commissioner of Tirhut division. He was rude to Gandhiji. He told Gandhiji to leave Tirhut immediately. But Gandhiji did not leave. Motihari was the capital of Tirhut. Gandhiji made it his headquarters. He started his investigations. A peasant was maltreated in a nearby village. Gandhiji decided to go and find the facts. But the police stopped him. He was served with a notice to leave Champaran. Gandhiji wrote back that he would not concede the notice. Consequently, Gandhiji was summoned by the court. Gandhiji sent a report to the Viceroy.
The peasants learnt that the Mahatma who wanted to help them, was in trouble with the authorities. Thousands of peasants gathered around the court building. This spontaneous show of their courage baffled the British authorities. They felt powerless. Gandhiji helped them to regulate the trial.
In the court, Gandhiji pleaded guilty. He asked for penalty. He read out a statement. He said he was faced with conflict of duties, he respected the lawful authority. He was not a law-breaker. But he could not disregard the voice of his conscience to do the humanitarian and national service.
The judge said he would take several days to deliver the judgement. But he let Gandhiji go free.
Gandhiji asked his lawyer friends what they would do if he went to jail. They replied they would go home. Gandhiji asked again what would happen to the poor peasants. Then, the lawyers felt ashamed. Gandhiji, who was a stranger, was willing to go to jail for their sake. The lawyers claimed to have been serving the peasants. Going home would mean the shameful betrayal. They told Gandhiji that they too would follow him to jail. Gandhiji was pleased. He declared that the battle of Champaran was won.
He, then, divided the group into two pairs and put down the order in which each pair would court arrest.
But, the Lieutenant Governor of the province decided to drop the case against Gandhiji. This was the victory of civil disobedience.
Gandhiji and lawyers now proceeded to conduct an enquiry. They recorded the statements of thousands of peasants. In the meantime, the Lieutenant Governor summoned Gandhiji. After long interviews, the Lt. Governor constituted an official commission of enquiry to go through the indigo peasants’ complaints. The commission comprised of British officials, landlords and Gandhiji as the sole representative of the sharecroppers.
The commission collected the crushing evidence against the British landlords. The landlords were nervous. They agreed in principle to refund the peasants’ money that they had extorted illegally.
Gandhiji demanded 50% of it. But, the landlords offered only 25%. Gandhiji agreed to it. He had won a moral victory.
Gandhiji explained that the amount of money was not important. By agreeing to refund the peasants’ money, the landlords had lost their prestige. They were no longer dreaded. The peasants learnt that they had rights and there were people to defend their rights.
The landlords abandoned their estates which went back to the peasants. This was the end of indigo sharecropping in Champaran. Gandhiji was not satisfied by just winning the indigo battle. During his stay in Champaran, he saw that the people of Champaran were socially and culturally backward. He decided to remove their backwardness. Gandhiji decided to open primary schools. He appealed to teachers, two of his young disciples, their wives and several other volunteers. Gandhiji’s wife Kasturba taught about personal hygiene and community cleanliness.
Gandhiji had come to Champaran casually at the entreaty of Shukla. He expected that his visit would last a few days. But he had to stay there for seven months continuously. He kept a distant watch on the Ashram. He called for regular financial accounts. He even wrote to them that it was time to fill in the old latrine trenches and dig new ones.
Charles Freer Andrews was a devoted follower of Gandhiji. He came to Champaran. Gandhiji’s lawyer friends wanted Charles to stay on to help them. But Gandhiji opposed the idea. He said they should not seek an Englishman’s help in their fight. They must fight their battle themselves. For Gandhiji, self-reliance, India’s independence and helping the sharecroppers were all bound together.