Retrieving the Erased Histories of The Champaran Satyagrahaa

 (The author is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University.)

THE centenary celebration of the Champaran Satyagrahaa coincides with half a century of the Naxalite movement. If the Champaran Satyagrahaa nationalised the peasant discontent of Bihar and integrated it with the ongoing anti-colonial struggle, it was the Naxalite movement of 1967, which drove a point home to the people of Independent India that the peasant and land issue remain least attended. Both the agitations exposed the character of the Congress, and therefore of the Indian nationalism, before as well as after the independence. Incidentally, Muzaffarpur was, and continues to be, the headquarters of the Commissioner’s Division of Tirhut, of which Champaran is a part; and also the Naxalite movement started in Bihar in 1967 from Mushahri, a village close to the town of Muzaffarpur.

Needless to say, while doing much lip service for the rural poor, the state cannot be expected to make a serious, informed, meaningful and sincere introspection about the rural poor, about the land relations, about agrarian improvements. It hardly needs a reiteration that real breakthrough in Bihar’s development can come only from a reorganised agrarian economy, agro-based industries, and a vibrant home market. The new agricultural vision of both the Union and the provincial governments is to corporatize the agriculture and agri-business, displace the poor peasants, the small holders and the insecure tenants.

One needs to look into the lavish and expensive centenary celebrations of the Champaran Satyagraha in this specific backdrop.

In 2017, the provincial government of Bihar chose to celebrate centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha. By funding a lavish academic seminar, it also chose to commemorate some of the leaders of the peasants as well as the companions of Gandhi who was persuaded to intervene into the issue; such sarkari events also felicitated some of the heirs of the peasant leaders, who have remained relatively lesser known in the better known books on the history of Champaran Satyagraha. This is despite the fact that the significant memoirs, diaries and correspondences of the better known leaders of the movement have either omitted or downplayed some of the significant names associated with the Satyagraha. Not only this, such accounts have also tried to conceal certain important facts about the class/profession characters of some of the leaders.

For example, the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), vol. 15, deals with Gandhi’s stay in Patna and Muzaffarpur, on his way to Champaran in April 1917; subsequently, in January-February 1929, once again Gandhi recollects the details of his initiatives and correspondences about the Satyagraha of 1917, and gives details about all these in CWMG, vol. 44. In both these accounts as well as in his autobiography, there is no mention of Batakh Miyan Ansari (1867-1957), who had saved the lives of Gandhi, and of Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was accompanying Gandhi in 1917 to Champaran. This significant episode finds no space whatsoever in the accounts of Rajendra Prasad, not even in the memoir, My Times: An Autobiography, of Acharya J. B. Kripalani (1888-1982) which was written in the 1970s, long after the British had gone, and was published, in 2002. Pir Mohammad Ansari ‘Munis’ (1882-1949) has been acknowledged by Rajendra Prasad, very sparingly, and by Gandhi not at all. Munis, (son of a toddy seller, named Fatingan Miyan), managed to get a smattering of education in Nagri-Hindi. That was an era when primary and secondary education in Persian was almost a mainstream. Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) and many more of such figures went to maktabs and received their education in Persian. Despite this fact, from the late 19th century onwards, the Hindi-Urdu dispute acquired overtones of a Hindu-Muslim conflict as well. In this scenario, Munis emerged as a Hindi writer and graced the sessions of Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. Rather than writing for the religious identity he could be identified with, he chose to fight for his class identity. This in itself awaits historical exploration even while some of the towering nationalists have largely chosen to almost erase him out of the narratives. Acknowledgements of the roles played by the peasant leaders like Shital Rai, Haribansh Sahay, Sheikh Gulab (1858-1943), Sheikh Rajab Ali, and many such leaders remain inadequate even in the proverbial footnotes and margins.

Even the more acknowledged name of Rajkumar Shukla (1875-1929), raises some serious questions as to why did the accounts of Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Kripalani, etc., conceal the fact that Shukla was a moneylender who earned around 1600-2000 a month from interest out of the money-lending. This is a fact stated by Shukla himself while deposing before the enquiry which was conducted by Gandhi himself. Incidentally, even in the sarkari felicitation of 2017, the government of Bihar once again forgot to call the heirs of Batakh Miyan.

A few more questions emerge about the historiographies of the Champaran Satyagrahaa. Why did Gandhi and his companions, the upper caste urban advocates of Patna and Muzaffarpur, as well as the likes of Shukla, leave the suffering peasantry of Champaran in the lurch? Why did Gandhi and the Congress choose to target the European Indigo planters of Champaran, but leave out the more exploitative Opium zamindars?

Thus, erasure of such poor subaltern people from ‘official’ accounts, endures even during the official centenary celebrations. One may defend it by arguing that all these erasures in 1917, and in 2017, happened unwittingly. But how strong would such a defence really be?

Just consider this fact of the history of Champaran immediately after independence.

During 1946-50, hundreds of acres of lands in Sathi (Champaran) were being settled in the names of various influential people (Arvind N. Das, 1983: 223-25). Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-67) had enquired into it. In their accounts, the peasant activists like Indradeep Sinha (1969), Ramnandan Mishra (1952) have written about the land loot in Sathi (Champaran). Gandhiji and Sardar Patel (1875-1950) asked to cancel the settlements with the Congress leader, Prajapati Mishra, and Ram Prasad Shahi (an Excise Commissioner) and his brother. The Sathi Land Restoration Act was also legislated in 1950. But the likes of Pir Munis and Batakh Miyan, remained landless even at this time after India’s independence. They died a wretched life, as landless as ever; even though the resistance of the landless labourers, under the leadership of the Socialists and Communists (moderate and radical), endured in Champaran and in rest of Bihar.

Thanks to a relatively stronger assertion of the peasant movement under the leadership of the likes of Navrang Rai (Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, 1889-1950), Bihar was the first province in India to have abolished zamindari in 1950 and to have imposed ceiling limits on individual holdings in 1961. But tardy implementation of these, and several other legislations, did not allow the rural poor to overcome the shackles of exploitation, subjugation and oppression by the rural rich.

In such a scenario, by the late 1960s there emerged an assertion of the rural poor in the shape of the Naxalite Movement. This movement provided these wretched of the earth with the ideology and means to assert themselves for wages and honour. From Mushahari (Muzaffarpur), this movement spread to the Magadh region of Bihar. Throughout the 1970s, class conflicts and social transformations kept manifesting in many ways. Such assertions did bring about change in social compositions of the ruling elites. This deepening of democracy continued, and in these ongoing transformations, one cannot deny the contributions of the revolutionary forces.

In April 2006, the government of Bihar appointed a Land Reforms Commission under Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, who submitted its report in April 2008. But its recommendations remained unimplemented. On this, later, Bandyopadhyay expressed his disappointment in these words: “Perhaps, land reforms in Bihar will have to wait for a violent and massive social upheaval in future.”

The manner in which the centenary celebrations are being done, it is too clear that the powers that be have not taken the warnings seriously. They are choosing to ignore the issues of rural distress and of agrarian improvements.

The peasantry, the disadvantaged and oppressed classes and the progressive forces need to recall the histories of Champaran Satyagraha and of the Naxalite Movements in these ways rather than being deceived and cheated by the official celebrations where erasures of the brave histories of the subalterns and of the exploited sections and their leaders are being perpetuated as consciously now, as it was in the colonial era.

The ever-widening divide between the rich and the poor in India has been accentuated even more since the liberalization of the economy in 1991. Growing inequality is a menacing reality across the globe, posing a challenge as well as an opportunity. The forces of progress are now in greater need of organising themselves and to assert against the corporate-controlled regimes and right-wing forces. It is this lesson that we need to learn from the centenary history of the Champaran Satyagraha.

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