Gandhi’s movement, a century ago, was a political campaign operating in a more hostile environment than today’s. Yet it brought lasting reform without alienating the opposition
Our nationalist mythology has painted the Champaran movement as an outright revolt against an oppressive colonial government and business interests. But in fact, there never was a Champaran movement as such. Gandhi did not organise protest marches, no-rent campaigns, strikes, satyagraha or civil disobedience in Champaran.
Rather than inciting an open rebellion against the government, he used the subtle art of political persuasion to bring about lasting change that was acceptable to all sides. In Champaran, relations between the government, British planters and the peasants had been problematic for many decades, primarily due to the oppressive system of forced indigo production and unfair rents. In the decade before Gandhi’s arrival, the peasants had tried everything from violent uprisings to government petitions, but had failed to change the fundamental situation.
In April 1917, Gandhi arrived at the scene not to lead an agitation but with the stated purpose of merely studying the problem. Suspicious local officials were eager to get rid of him, but had little legal basis to arrest him. Apart from a brief initial incident, the government pretty much let Gandhi operate with impunity. The strategy was to give him enough rope to hang himself.
However, Gandhi refused to fall for the trap. Not only did he remain on right side of the law throughout his stay, he also took pains to maintain respectful relations with the local officials and the planters. He kept the government informed of his movements and remained mindful of its advice. His first visit to the plantations was often to the planters, who were invited to accompany him during his interaction with the peasants. At one point he even wrote to the District Magistrate suggesting that the policemen who had been following him might as well come forward and assist him in his tasks. His reasonableness was earnest enough to earn him the grudging respect of local officials, some of whom ended up convinced of his “good intentions”.
Yet, at the same, Gandhi was also busy shaping the latent public frustration into a viable political tool. Ostensibly, he and his team were only studying the problems — documenting hundreds of testimonies from peasants about their condition. Gandhi kept compiling these and submitting them to the government as reports. He even insisted that the peasants continue with their obligations as before. However, his activities ensured that the anger in the community begin to stir up. Parallel to his activities, many of the local leaders began to agitate the public in his name. The situation became such that an official noted that “so long as he is here his name can be used as a peg of every great rumour, while he uses his personal influence, which is great, in the direction of moderation”.
Essentially, Gandhi managed to bring the public mood to a simmer and then put his hand firmly on the lid. An outright rebellion would have only brought on government repression and, at any rate, damaged planter-peasant relationship in the long run. On the other hand, the current situation held the risk of going out of hand, but wouldn’t until Gandhi was around. The threat of a movement was more potent than an actual movement.
It was the planters, irritated by the one-sided publicity that Gandhi’s investigation was generating, who started calling for a governmental inquiry into the peasant condition. The provincial government, reluctant at first, had to eventually give in. In June, a commission was announced which included Gandhi as the representative of the peasants.
The appointment of the commission was only a half-victory. Gandhi knew that without the acquiescence of the planters, its recommendations would have little weight. He emphasised that the commission should limit its scope lest it end up being too anti-planter. He also used the commission deliberations as a platform for negotiations, at times inviting planters to the table to make specific deals on thornier issues. Crucially, some aspects of the commission recommendations were already agreed upon by the planters even before the commission had finished its report.
In October, the commission recommended abolishment of the forced indigo cultivation, a major victory for the peasants. But it also allowed planters some face-saving relief. Resultantly, instead of opposing the recommendation in unison, planters were divided and their political party, Bihar Planters Association, left in disarray. Eventually two planters took each other to court over these reforms.
It was a momentous achievement, one that rightly catapulted Gandhi to the helm of national politics. However, it is crucial to remember that Gandhi realised it without a single protest march, a single anti-planter speech or even a newspaper editorial criticising the government. In fact, Gandhi saw his work as his contribution to the imperial cause: “by resisting the agelong tyranny, I have shown the ultimate sovereignty of British justice”.