Most who read this blog would have heard of Kalavati (Bhandurkar), the Vidharbha Widow whom Rahul G mentioned in his 2009 speech in Parliament. But no one would have heard of Rajkumar Shukla and not many of Champaran. Champaran was the theatre of the first Civil Disobedience Movement in India in 1917.
Rajkumar Shukla was a share cropper involved in cultivation of Indigo. The fields of Champaran were mainly owned by the English who let the land under sharecropping provided the peasants cultivated Indigo in 15% of the land and gave it to the landlord free. By 1915 Germany had developed Synthetic Indigo. (Incidentally, it was Phthalacyanine Blue, synthesized in 1927, from Phthalic Anhydride, a product I was handling for 12 long years eventually replaced Indigo.) This hit the market for natural indigo.
So the landlords renegotiated the lease terms. While most farmers agreed there were some who were not agreeable. There are two versions of this story. The facts in both are roughly the same. While the one told by Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, is more matter of fact, the one told by Louis Fischer is racy.
Louis Fischer says Rajkumar Shukla met Gandhi at the Lucknow Annual session of INC (1916) and requested him to take up the case of Indigo workers. While Gandhi dithered, he chased Gandhi all across Northern India till one day Gandhi told Shukla to wait for him in Calcutta on an appointed day. Shukla met Gandhi on the appointed day in Calcutta and took him to Rajendra Prasad’s house in Patna. Prasad was not in town and Gandhi waited in vain for 2 days. Later he moved to Muzzafarpur and with the help of J B Kripalani and Prof. Malkani started his work with the farmers at Champaran. The farmers told him about the legal cases and the huge fees collected by the lawyers.
Gandhi went from one official to another and everyone refused to co-operate. As he kept investigating and getting first hand information, the District Administration started worrying. Soon the Police Superintendent issued a Restraining Order. When served with the notice, he politely acknowledged it and wrote on the order that he would disobey it. He was asked to appear in Court the next day. Gandhi asked Prasad to come from Patna with influential friends. He also sent a firsthand report to the Viceroy. By the morning more than 5,000 farmers had collected in the town (Motihari). The administration couldn’t control the crowd and looked upto Gandhi to take charge. Gandhi was polite and friendly with the administration and ensured the crowd was orderly.
He pleaded guilty and when the Judge asked him bail for the two hours recess before he proposed to sentence Gandhi, there was a flat refusal. The Judge had no alternative but to release him without bail. After two hours the Judge said, he would take few days to deliver the Judgement and allowed Gandhi to remain free till then.
Gandhi asked Prasad and his friends, what they would do if Gandhi was arrested. They said they had come to assist Gandhi and if he was arrested, they had no other work. Gandhi asked them “What about the farmers, who would take care of them?” The Lawyers realized their error. Gandhi an outsider was fighting for the peasants, while the Lawyers who had represented them were indifferent. They agreed to participate in whatever Gandhi proposed. A detailed plan of protest was drawn up and Gandhi waited for the administration to act. But the Lieutenant Governor ordered the case be dropped. Civil disobedience had won its first case in India.
Gandhi organised for an inquiry and more than 10,000 peasants deposed. After a seven month stay and several short visits, the English Planters realised they could no longer hold back the illicit gains. They were worried he would demand 100% of the gains. Gandhi asked for 50%. As a tactic to stall, the English planters agreed to 25%. To their surprise, Gandhi agreed to it. Gandhi explained that with surrender of part of the money, they had also lost part of the prestige. With time, the British planters went away and the land reverted to native peasants.
There is a lesson in this to our Aam Aadmi Party Netas. Hope they learn it.