Indigo - Summary

Louis Fischer (1896-1970) was born in Philadelphia. He served as a volunteer in the British Army between 1918 and 1920. Fischer made a career as a journalist and wrote for The New York Times, The Saturday Review and for European and Asian publications. He was also a member of the faculty at Princeton University. The following is an excerpt from his book-The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. The book has been reviewed as one of the best books ever written on Gandhi by Times Educational Supplement.


This story by Louis Fischer is a sort of good history lesson into how Mahatma Gandhi jumped headlong into the struggle for Indian independence. He states that Gandhi himself told him that it all started in 1917.
In December 1916, Gandhi attended the Indian National Congress’ annual convention in Lucknow. During the session, a peasant, Rajkumar Shukla, approached him. He was from Champaran and wanted Gandhi to visit the place though Gandhi had never heard of the place.
The peasants of Champaran were sharecroppers and Rajkumar Shukla was one of them. Though illiterate, he was resolute and had gone to the session to complain about the injustice being done by the landlords and someone advised him to speak to Gandhi about it. Gandhi told him that he had appointments everywhere around India but Shukla did not leave his side for weeks and followed him everywhere he went. He begged Gandhi to go with him and Gandhi asked him to come to Calcutta on a particular date and to take him to Champaran from there.
A few months later, he reached where Gandhi asked him to and took him to Patna in Bihar. There, he took him to the house of a lawyer, Rajendra Prasad, who later became the President of India. He was out of town but his servants let them stay on the grounds as they had seen Shukla come there earlier and took Gandhi to be another peasant. Thinking he was an untouchable, they told Gandhi to not draw any water from the well.
Gandhi decided to go to Muzzafarpur en route to Champaran to obtain more information about the issue. He sent a telegram to Prof. J. B. Kripalani whom he had seen at Tagore’s Shantiniketan school. Kripalani met them at the station and they stayed in the town for a couple of days. The news of his arrival brought several sharecroppers from Champaran to Muzzafarpur on foot. The lawyers from Muzzafarpur too called on him to brief him about the cases they had taken up on behalf of the peasants. Gandhi chided the lawyers for collecting big fee from the poor peasants and, at the same time, concluded that it was useless going to the courts for such cases and other steps had to be taken.
Most of the land in Champaran was divided into large estates that were owned by Englishmen and the Indian peasants worked there as tenants. The Indians were forced to grow Indigo on 15 percent of their holdings and the harvest of Indigo was rent for the land as per long-term contracts signed by them. When the landlords learnt the Germany had developed synthetic Indigo that was cheaper, they offered the sharecroppers to get out of the 15 percent arrangement and pay money instead of harvest. Some signed willingly and others were threatened and forced. When the news of synthetic Indigo reached the peasants, they understood they had been deceived and wanted their money back
Upon reaching Champaran, Gandhi decided to get more information and reached the Secretary of British Landlord’s Association and the Commissioner of Tirhut division but neither gave any details and the Commissioner even threatened him.
Gandhi moved to Motihari, the capital of Champaran, along with several lawyers, where he was greeted by a multitude. He stayed at a house and was going to a nearby village next day, to see a maltreated peasant, when the police superintendent’s messenger overtook him and ordered him to return to Motihari. Once back, Gandhi was served a notice to quit Champaran immediately. Gandhi signed the notice and wrote on it that he would not comply. As a result, he received a summons to appear in court the next day. He telegraphed Rajendra Prasad to come with influential friends and wired a full report to the Viceroy.
Next morning, the courthouse was surrounded by thousands of demonstrating peasants and the helpless officials had to ask Gandhi to help them regulate the crowd.
The prosecutor requested the judge to postpone the trial so that they may get directions from superiors but Gandhi protested against it and pleaded guilty. “He was involved, he told the court, in a “conflict of duties”— on the one hand, not to set a bad example as a lawbreaker; on the other hand, to render the “humanitarian and national service” for which he had come. He disregarded the order to leave, “not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience”. He asked the penalty due.”
The judge allowed Gandhi to stay in Motihari till he gave a judgement in a few days.
 Rajendra Prasad and several other prominent lawyers conferred with Gandhi and when he was told that they would go back if he was sentenced to prison, he asked them about the injustice to the peasants. The lawyers decided that if Gandhi, being a stranger, could go to prison for the sake of peasants, they too could do the same. Gandhi divided the group into pairs and put down the order in which each pair was to court arrest and exclaimed, ‘‘The battle of Champaran is won.’’
Several days later, the case was dropped by the Lieutenant-Governor of the province and Civil Disobedience triumphed for the first time in India.
Gandhi and the lawyers proceeded to conduct a detailed inquiry into the grievances of the farmers with depositions by about ten thousand peasants, notes on other evidence, and documents. In June, Gandhi was summoned by Sir Edward Gait, the Lieutenant-Governor. Before leaving, he again laid detailed plans for civil disobedience for others if he did not return.
The Lt. Governor, after meeting Gandhi four times, appointed an official commission of inquiry into the case that consisted of landlords, govt. officials, and Gandhi as peasants’ representative. The inquiry assembled a mountain of evidence against the landlords due to which they agreed to make some refund. They asked Gandhi how much he wanted and knowing that they would not make a complete refund and would keep fighting, he asked only for half the money to be refunded. The landlords offered only 25 percent and Gandhi accepted the offer to break the deadlock.
When asked about it, Gandhi explained that the amount of refund was less important and the win over the landlords was much more important. His decision was justified by time when the landlords abandoned their estates a few years later as they had become non-profitable when natural Indigo stopped selling, and he estates reverted to the farmers.
Gandhi did not stop with just the economic and political victory. He wanted to do something about social uplifting and appealed to teachers to volunteer. Several volunteers from around the country, including Gandhi’s wife and youngest son, reached Champaran and Primary schools were opened in six villages. He got a doctor to volunteer his services as well though not many medicines were available.
The Champaran episode was a turning-point in Gandhi’s life as it declared that Indians cannot be ordered about in their own country. The episode started as an act of helping poor peasants but turned into an act of defiance and self-reliance. When his lawyer friends suggested that Charles Freer Andrews, an Englishman who had become Gandhi’s follower, stay back in Champaran as it would be helpful, Gandhi opposed it vehemently saying that Indians need to self-reliant and need to win on their own instead of showing weakness by taking help from an Englishman.
And, in that manner, Indian independence, self-reliance, and help for peasants in Champaran got intertwined.
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