When I first visited Gandhi in 1942 at his ashram in
Sevagram, in central India, he said, “I will tell you how it
happened that I decided to urge the departure of the British.
It was in 1917.”
He had gone to the December 1916 annual convention
of the Indian National Congress party in Lucknow. There
were 2,301 delegates and many visitors. During the
proceedings, Gandhi recounted, “a peasant came up to me
looking like any other peasant in India, poor and emaciated,
and said, ‘I am Rajkumar Shukla. I am from Champaran,
and I want you to come to my district’!’’ Gandhi had never
heard of the place. It was in the foothills of the towering
Himalayas, near the kingdom of Nepal.
Under an ancient arrangement, the Champaran
peasants were sharecroppers. Rajkumar Shukla was one
of them. He was illiterate but resolute. He had come to the
Congress session to complain about the injustice of the
landlord system in Bihar, and somebody had probably said,
“Speak to Gandhi.”
Gandhi told Shukla he had an appointment in
Cawnpore and was also committed to go to other parts of
India. Shukla accompanied him everywhere. Then Gandhi
returned to his ashram near Ahmedabad. Shukla followed
him to the ashram. For weeks he never left Gandhi’s side.
“Fix a date,” he begged.
Impressed by the sharecropper’s tenacity and story
Gandhi said, ‘‘I have to be in Calcutta on such-and-such a
date. Come and meet me and take me from there.”
Months passed. Shukla was
sitting on his haunches at the
appointed spot in Calcutta when
Gandhi arrived; he waited till Gandhi
was free. Then the two of them
boarded a train for the city of Patna
in Bihar. There Shukla led him to
the house of a lawyer named
Rajendra Prasad who later became
President of the Congress party and
of India. Rajendra Prasad was out
of town, but the servants knew
Shukla as a poor yeoman who
pestered their master to help the
indigo sharecroppers. So they let
him stay on the grounds with his
companion, Gandhi, whom they took
to be another peasant. But Gandhi
was not permitted to draw water
from the well lest some drops from his bucket pollute the entire
source; how did they know that he was not an untouchable?
Gandhi decided to go first to Muzzafarpur, which was
en route to Champaran, to obtain more complete
information about conditions than Shukla was capable of
imparting. He accordingly sent a telegram to Professor
J.B. Kripalani, of the Arts College in Muzzafarpur, whom
he had seen at Tagore’s Shantiniketan school. The train
arrived at midnight, 15 April 1917. Kripalani was waiting
at the station with a large body of students. Gandhi stayed
there for two days in the home of Professor Malkani, a
teacher in a government school.
‘‘It was an extraordinary
thing ‘in those days,’’ Gandhi
commented, “for a government
professor to harbour a man
like me”. In smaller localities,
the Indians were afraid
to show sympathy for
advocates of home-rule.
The news of Gandhi’s
advent and of the nature of
his mission spread quickly
through Muzzafarpur and to
from Champaran began
arriving on foot and by
conveyance to see their
champion. Muzzafarpur lawyers
called on Gandhi to brief him;
they frequently represented
peasant groups in court; they
told him about their cases and
reported the size of their fee.
Gandhi chided the lawyers for
collecting big fee from the
sharecroppers. He said, ‘‘I have
come to the conclusion that we
should stop going to law courts.
Taking such cases to the courts
does litte good. Where the peasants
are so crushed and fear-stricken,
law courts are useless. The real relief
for them is to be free from fear.’’
Most of the arable land
in the Champaran district
was divided into large
estates owned by Englishmen and worked by Indian tenants.
The chief commercial crop was indigo. The landlords
compelled all tenants to plant three twentieths or 15 per
cent of their holdings with indigo and surrender the entire
indigo harvest as rent. This was done by long-term contract.
Presently, the landlords learned
that Germany had developed
synthetic indigo. They, thereupon,
obtained agreements from the
sharecroppers to pay them
compensation for being released
from the 15 per cent arrangement.
The sharecropping arrangement
was irksome to the peasants, and
many signed willingly. Those who
resisted, engaged lawyers; the
landlords hired thugs. Meanwhile,
the information about synthetic
indigo reached the illiterate peasants
who had signed, and they wanted
their money back.
At this point Gandhi arrived in Champaran.
He began by trying to get the facts. First he visited the
secretary of the British landlord’s association. The secretary
told him that they could give no information to an outsider.
Gandhi answered that he was no outsider.
Next, Gandhi called on the British official commissioner
of the Tirhut division in which the Champaran district
lay. ‘‘The commissioner,’’ Gandhi reports, ‘‘proceeded to bully
me and advised me forthwith to leave Tirhut.’’
Gandhi did not leave. Instead he proceeded to Motihari,
the capital of Champaran. Several lawyers accompanied him.
At the railway station, a vast multitude greeted Gandhi. He
went to a house and, using it as headquarters, continued his
investigations. A report came in that a peasant had been
maltreated in a nearby village. Gandhi decided to go and see;
the next morning he started out on the back of an elephant.
He had not proceeded far when the police superintendent’s
messenger overtook him and ordered him to return to town
in his carriage. Gandhi complied. The messenger drove
Gandhi home where he served him with an official notice to
quit Champaran immediately. Gandhi signed a receipt for
the notice and wrote on it that he would disobey the order.
In consequence, Gandhi received a summons to appear
in court the next day.
All night Gandhi remained awake. He telegraphed
Rajendra Prasad to come from Bihar with influential
friends. He sent instructions to the ashram. He wired a
full report to the Viceroy.
Morning found the town of Motihari black with peasants.
They did not know Gandhi’s record in South Africa. They
had merely heard that a Mahatma who wanted to help them
was in trouble with the authorities. Their spontaneous
demonstration, in thousands, around the courthouse was
the beginning of their liberation from fear of the British.
The officials felt powerless without Gandhi’s
cooperation. He helped them regulate the crowd. He was
polite and friendly. He was giving them concrete proof that
their might, hitherto dreaded and unquestioned, could be
challenged by Indians.
The government was baffled. The prosecutor requested
the judge to postpone the trial. Apparently, the authorities
wished to consult their superiors.
Gandhi protested against the delay. He read a statement
pleading 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 magistrate announced that he would pronounce
sentence after a two-hour recess and asked Gandhi to
furnish bail for those 120 minutes. Gandhi refused. The
judge released him without bail.
When the court reconvened, the judge said he would
not deliver the judgment for several days. Meanwhile he
allowed Gandhi to remain at liberty.
Rajendra Prasad, Brij Kishor Babu, Maulana Mazharul
Huq and several other prominent lawyers had arrived from
Bihar. They conferred with Gandhi. What would they do if
he was sentenced to prison, Gandhi asked. Why, the senior
lawyer replied, they had come to advise and help him; if
he went to jail there would be nobody to advise and they
would go home.
What about the injustice to the sharecroppers, Gandhi
demanded. The lawyers withdrew to consult. Rajendra
Prasad has recorded the upshot of their consultations —
“They thought, amongst themselves, that Gandhi was totally
a stranger, and yet he was prepared to go to prison for the
sake of the peasants; if they, on the other hand, being not
only residents of the adjoining districts but also those who
claimed to have served these peasants, should go home, it
would be shameful desertion.”
They accordingly went back
to Gandhi and told him they were
ready to follow him into jail. ‘‘The
battle of Champaran is won,’’ he
exclaimed. Then he took a piece
of paper and divided the group
into pairs and put down the order
in which each pair was to court
Several days later, Gandhi
received a written communication
from the magistrate informing
him that the Lieutenant-Governor of the province had
ordered the case to be dropped. Civil disobedience had
triumphed, the first time in modern India.
Gandhi and the lawyers now proceeded to conduct a
far -flung inquiry into the grievances of the farmers.
Depositions by about ten thousand peasants were written
down, and notes made on other evidence. Documents were
collected. The whole area throbbed with the activity of the
investigators and the vehement protests of the landlords.
In June, Gandhi was summoned to Sir Edward
Gait, the Lieutenant-Governor. Before he went he met
leading associates and again
laid detailed plans for civil
disobedience if he should not
Gandhi had four protracted
interviews with the Lieutenant-
Governor who, as a result,
appointed an official commission
of inquiry into the indigo
The commission consisted of
landlords, government officials,
and Gandhi as the sole
representative of the peasants.
Gandhi remained in Champaran for an initial
uninterrupted period of seven months and then again for
several shorter visits. The visit, undertaken casually on
the entreaty of an unlettered peasant in the expectation
that it would last a few days, occupied almost a year of
The official inquiry assembled a crushing mountain of
evidence against the big planters, and when they saw this
they agreed, in principle, to make refunds to the peasants.
“But how much must we pay?” they asked Gandhi.
They thought he would demand repayment in full of
the money which they had illegally and deceitfully extorted
from the sharecroppers. He asked only 50 per cent. “There
he seemed adamant,” writes Reverend J. Z. Hodge, a British
missionary in Champaran who observed the entire episode
at close range. “Thinking probably that he would not give
way, the representative of the planters offered to refund to
the extent of 25 per cent, and to his amazement Mr. Gandhi
took him at his word, thus breaking the deadlock.”
This settlement was adopted unanimously by the
commission. Gandhi explained that the amount of the
refund was less important than the fact that the landlords
had been obliged to surrender part of the money and, with
it, part of their prestige. Therefore, as far as the peasants
were concerned, the planters had behaved as lords above
the law. Now the peasant saw that he had rights and
defenders. He learned courage.
Events justified Gandhi’s position. Within a few years
the British planters abandoned their estates, which
reverted to the peasants. Indigo sharecropping disappeared.
Gandhi never contented himself with large political or
economic solutions. He saw the cultural and social
backwardness in the Champaran villages and wanted to
do something about it immediately. He appealed for
teachers. Mahadev Desai and Narhari Parikh, two young
men who had just joined Gandhi as disciples, and their
wives, volunteered for the work. Several more came from
Bombay, Poona and other distant
parts of the land. Devadas,
Gandhi’s youngest son, arrived
from the ashram and so did Mrs.
Gandhi. Primary schools were
opened in six villages. Kasturbai
taught the ashram rules on
personal cleanliness and
How did the episode change
the plight of the peasants?
Health conditions were miserable. Gandhi got a doctor
to volunteer his services for six months. Three medicines
were available — castor oil, quinine and sulphur ointment.
Anybody who showed a coated tongue was given a dose of
castor oil; anybody with malaria fever received quinine
plus castor oil; anybody with skin eruptions received
ointment plus castor oil.
Gandhi noticed the filthy state of women’s clothes. He
asked Kasturbai to talk to them about it. One woman took
Kasturbai into her hut and said, ‘‘Look, there is no box or
cupboard here for clothes. The sari I am wearing is the
only one I have.”
During his long stay in Champaran, Gandhi kept a
long distance watch on the ashram. He sent regular
instructions by mail and asked for financial accounts. Once
he wrote to the residents that it was time to fill in the old
latrine trenches and dig new ones otherwise the old ones
would begin to smell bad.
The Champaran episode was a turning-point in
Gandhi’s life. ‘‘What I did,” he explained, “was a very
ordinary thing. I declared that the British could not order
me about in my own country.”
But Champaran did not begin as an act of defiance. It
grew out of an attempt to alleviate the distress of large
numbers of poor peasants. This was the typical Gandhi
pattern — his politics were intertwined with the practical,
day-to-day problems of the millions. His was not a loyalty
to abstractions; it was a loyalty to living, human beings.
In everything Gandhi did, moreover, he tried to mould
a new free Indian who could stand on his own feet and
thus make India free.
Early in the Champaran action, Charles Freer Andrews,
the English pacifist who had become a devoted follower of
the Mahatma, came to bid Gandhi farewell before going on
a tour of duty to the Fiji Islands. Gandhi’s lawyer friends
thought it would be a good idea for Andrews to stay in
Champaran and help them. Andrews was willing if Gandhi
agreed. But Gandhi was vehemently opposed. He said, ‘‘You
think that in this unequal fight it would be helpful if we
have an Englishman on our side. This shows the weakness
of your heart. The cause is just and you must rely upon
yourselves to win the battle. You should not seek a prop in
Mr. Andrews because he happens to be an Englishman’’.
‘‘He had read our minds correctly,’’ Rajendra Prasad
comments, “and we had no reply… Gandhi in this way taught
us a lesson in self-reliance’’.
Self-reliance, Indian independence and help to
sharecroppers were all bound together.
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