It goes without saying that Gandhi’s experiment with Non-Cooperation and Satyagraha in Champaran was a turning point in his life! It was a phase in his life when he used the tools of Non-Cooperation and Satyagraha to force the British Administration to accept that there was a problem with the contract that the British Landlords had entered into with the innocent peasants regarding the share-cropping contract. The sharecropping contract dealt with an agreement that the sharecroppers would till fifteen per cent of the land hired by them with Indigo. The entire crop of Indigo cultivated by the peasants would be handed over to the landlords in lieu of rent. The cultivation of Indigo was irksome to the peasants so the British Landlords in Champaran jumped at the idea of accepting rent in the form of cash on learning that Germany had developed a synthetic form of Indigo which was much cheaper than the natural form. The landlords wanted to cash on their advance information and so they fixed the value of fifteen per cent of the harvest in terms of cash value based on the existing market rates of natural Indigo. When the peasants came to know about the discovery of synthetic Indigo, they realised that they had paid more than the value of Indigo to the Landlords. They demanded a refund of the difference of the amount they had handed over to the Landlords as per the existing value of Indigo. The Landlords refused to return the difference.
Raj Kumar Shukla was an illiterate but rather stubborn sharecropper and he brought the problem before Gandhi who was attending an Indian National Congress meeting at Kanpur. Gandhi was busy at that time and he told Raj Kumar Shukla to meet him many months hence at a particular spot at a park in Calcutta. When the moment came, he found Raj Kumar Shukla waiting at the appointed spot. Gandhi had to acquiesce and agreed to accompany Shukla to Champaran. At Patna Gandhi stayed at the house of Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Incidentally Dr.Rajendra Prasad was not at home. The servants thought that Gandhi was another peasant, an untouchable because of his simple dress and they didn’t allow him to draw water from the well lest some of the drops from his bucket should pollute the water. This in essence speaks volumes about his simplicity!
Once in the district of Champaran, Gandhi set out to collect evidence of the excesses of the Landlords. History tells us about how one day he set out to investigate a case of the maltreatment of a peasant at the hands of thugs employed by the Landlord. On the way he was accosted by a messenger of the Police Superintendent who ordered him to return to Motihari, on the way back, the messenger served him a notice to leave the district immediately. Gandhi accepted the notice and wrote on it to the effect that he would disobey the order. This was the first example of his use of the tool of Civil Disobedience, and it resulted in a summons to appear in court the next day.
The common people of Motihari came out in full support of their champion with the result that the next day on the day of his hearing, a large number of peasant turned up in his support. The multitude was a cause of concern for the authorities, although Gandhi helped control the crowd. The government was baffled and the prosecutor requested the judge to postpone the hearing. Gandhi however did not wait for the judgment and read out a statement pleading guilty for a “conflict of duties” for breaking the laws of the land, but that he couldn't be held guilty for upholding the higher laws of humanity. The judge then proceeded to order Gandhi to furnish bail for two hours. Gandhi refused to furnish the amount with the result that the perplexed judge was forced to release him without bail. This was a moment of triumph for Gandhi’s experiment with non-cooperation. Now that the arrest of Gandhi had been postponed, the lawyers who had come to advise him stated their desire to return to their hometowns especially since their practices were suffering.They added that since they had come to advise him and that if he went to prison, their services would no longer be required. Gandhi replied to them and asked them what would happen to the sharecropper’s plight. This simple but loaded question put them into a tizzy and they were ashamed of their selfishness. They were ashamed of the fact that if Gandhi who did not belong to the district was ready to go to jail for the peasant, where would they who belonged to the district be placed! Shamed by this, the lawyers returned to Gandhi and told him that they were with him and were ready to go to jail with him. This speaks volumes about Gandhi’s skills as a leader. He was able to convince and cajole his followers to his point of thought by setting an example and by shaming them! For Gandhi, this turn around of the lawyers was proof that the battle of Champaran had been partly won!
What happened next was that Gandhi was granted an audience by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Edward Gait and resulted in the setting up of a commission to go investigate the grievances of the sharecroppers. Commission was highly biased in favour of the landlords because of the fact that the majority of the representatives were from the landlord’s side and Gandhi was the sole representative of the peasants. The landlords agreed in principal to refund the amount they had taken from the sharecroppers but the question they put before Gandhi was about the percentage that was to be refunded. The Landlords were clever and they wanted to enter into a stalemate as they wanted to drag the whole issue based on an argument on the percentage of the amount to be refunded. They believed that Gandhi would demand a hundred percent refund, so in order to prolong the case they asked Gandhi about the percentage, Gandhi replied that he wanted a fifty per cent refund. To this the landlords bargained for a twenty-five per cent refund, and Gandhi agreed! Gandhi later stated that the amount of the refund was not as important as the fact that he had made the landlords return part of the amount that they had wrongfully taken from the peasants and the fact that they had been compelled to surrender part of their prestige. Gandhi had been able to send a message across to the landlords that they were not above the law, and along with this message to the landlords, he had been able to tell the peasants that they had rights and champions to fight for their rights. He had been ultimately been able to teach the peasants a lesson in courage! Finally because of this debacle, the landlords couldn’t face the peasants and they were forced to flee from the district-their prestige had been finally tarnished! This was the enigma of a man called Gandhi!
The greatness of this man lay in his simplicity and his exceptional qualities of leadership. He was a man who didn’t flaunt his charisma, and he was a man who didn’t bask in his superior intelligence. He was foresighted and could read the minds of not only his opponents, but also his followers! What Gandhi did in Champaran is an eye-opener for all of us in today’s times of terrorism and violent dissent. We need to learn from him that there are more effective tools than violence and terrorism that can help us ventilate our grievances! There are better ways of fighting exploitation and ventilating grievances than with guns and bombs!
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