summary of indigo

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The author visits Sevagram

Fischer visited Sevagram, the ashram of Gandhi, in 1942. There, Gandhi revealed the reason behind the decision to urge the departure of the British, in 1917.

A Champaran peasant and his request

In 1916, Gandhi attended the annual convention of the Indian National Congress in Lucknow. During the proceedings, an illiterate peasant, Rajkumar Shukla, approached Gandhi and requested him to visit his district. He was one of the sharecroppers of Champaran, who had come to appeal against the injustice of the landlord system in Bihar.

The peasant accompanied Gandhi everywhere he went and unrelentingly begged him to ‘fix a date’ for his visit to Champaran. In due course, Gandhi, impressed by the determination and the woeful tale of the peasant, consented to his request and asked him to meet in Calcutta.

Gandhi’s visit to Rajendra Prasad’s house

At an appointed time, the duo boarded a train to Patna. First, Gandhi was taken to the house of Rajendra Prasad, a lawyer who later went on to become the President of the Congress party and then the first President of India. Rajendra Prasad was out of town. Though the servants allowed them stay on the grounds, Gandhi was not allowed to draw water from the well as they mistook him for an untouchable.

En route to Champaran

Gandhi decided to halt at Muzzafarpur en route to Champaran to gather more information on the sharecroppers of Champaran. Eventually, on 15 April 1917, Gandhi and Shukla arrived at Muzzafarpur station, and were received by Professor J.B. Kripalani and a great number of students. Professor Malkani, a government school teacher, dared to accommodate Gandhi at his home though it was considered quite unsafe for Indians to help ‘advocates of home-rule’.

Gandhi’s solution - Freedom from fear

With the spread of the news of Gandhi’s arrival, many sharecroppers started to throng in. The lawyers of Muzzafarpur, who often represented these farmers in courts, conveyed to Gandhi the nature of the condition faced by the peasants. On being told the size of their fee, Gandhi reproached the lawyers. Gandhi concluded that approaching the court was hardly the solution; the real respite would be their freedom from fear.

Indigo sharecroppers’ predicament

The Englishmen owned large estates of arable land in the Champaran while the Indian tenants toiled hard. They were obliged by long-term contracts to grow indigo on 15 percent of the holdings and surrender the entire indigo harvest as rent. With the development of synthetic indigo, the landlords exempted the tenants from the 15 percent arrangement but only after they paid compensation. When they got to know the real reason for exemption, many of those who had signed asked for their money to be returned. For the ones who tried to resist, the Englishmen hired thugs.

Gandhi’s mediation

After his arrival, in order to get the facts right, Gandhi visited the secretary of the British landlord’s association. However, he was denied any information. Next, he visited the British official commissioner of the Tirhut division. But instead of providing Gandhi with the information, the commissioner bullied him and asked him to leave the place at once.

However, Gandhi did not leave; instead, accompanied by quite a few lawyers, he went to Motihari, the capital of Champaran, from where he continued his investigations.

Gandhi ordered to leave

One day, while on his visit to a maltreated peasant, Gandhi was stopped by a messenger from the police superintendent commanding him to return. Gandhi complied. He was given an official notice to leave Champaran immediately. Gandhi signed the order and wrote that he would disobey it. Consequently, he was asked to appear before the court the next day.

First step towards freedom from fear

Gandhi spent a busy night. First, he wired Rajendra Prasad requesting him to come from Bihar, along with his influential friends. Then, he sent instructions to the ashram and also wired a full report to the Viceroy.

In the morning, peasants in thousands, gathered in front of the courthouse. This, according to Gandhi, was their first step towards emancipation from their fear of the Englishmen. The officials turned powerless and it was Gandhi who finally helped them to control the crowd.  

The perplexed authorities sought to postpone the trial. However, Gandhi protested against the delay.

Gandhi released without bail while the trial remains unsettled

Gandhi read out a statement pleading guilty. He told the court that he disobeyed the law, not because he disregarded the law but rather because he wanted to render the ‘humanitarian and national service ... in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience”.

The magistrate declared a two-hour recess after which the sentence was to be pronounced. He also asked Gandhi to supply bail for those 120 minutes. But when Gandhi refused, he was released without bail.

After the court reassembled, the judge announced that he would not be delivering the judgement for several days during which Gandhi was allowed to remain at liberty.

Victory of Civil disobedience

As per Gandhi's request, Rajendra Prasad, Brij Kishore Babu, Maulana Mazharul Huq and several other prominent lawyers arrived from Bihar. These lawyers opined that they would return to their own places in the event of his imprisonment. But as Gandhi helped them understand their duty towards the peasants, they agreed to follow him to the jail. Civil disobedience won for the first time with the dropping of the case against Gandhi, following the order of the Lieutenant-Governor of the province.

Official commission of enquiry

Gandhi and the lawyers together noted down the statements made by ten thousand peasants. Amidst the protest of the landlords, they made investigations and collected added evidences and documents. Gandhi also sketched out civil disobedience plans with associates to be carried out in case of his arrest.

Gandhi was summoned to Sir Edward Gait, the Lietenant-General in June. After a series of four interviews with him, Gandhi succeeded in making the latter appoint an official commission of enquiry into the indigo sharecroppers’ situation which consisted of the landlords, government officials and Gandhi, the only one who represented the peasants.

Triumph over the sharecropping arrangement

Evidence was collected against the planters and it was agreed to make refunds to the peasants. Gandhi initially quoted a repay of 50 per cent, but later approved the landlords’ proposal of just 25 per cent. According to him, the amount was less important than the fact that the planters were obligated to submit their prestige. After a few years, British officials abandoned their estates. This put an end to the sharecropping arrangement.

Gandhi’s effort to eradicate social and cultural backwardness

Unsatisfied with just political and economic solutions, Gandhi wanted to bring about a change in the social and cultural condition of Champaran. He opened up schools in six different villages, and several of his disciples and family members volunteered as teachers. His wife, Kasturbai, worked on the personal cleanliness and community sanitation of the place. Gandhi also hired a doctor for the improvement of the health condition.

Even though living away from it, Gandhi regularly made enquiries about the ashram, sending instructions and asking for financial accounts.

Impact of the Champaran episode

Although what he did was an ordinary thing, the episode was a decisive moment in his life.

According to the author, the politics for Gandhi was intricately linked with the everyday activities. He considered it important that Indians stand on their own feet, without any fear.

Among other things, Gandhi also taught his fellow men the importance of self-reliance rather than taking support of props. He was against using the help of Charles Freer Andrews, an Englishman, since it showed the lack of self confidence.

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