Friday, April 14, 2017

Venu Madhav Govindu - 100 Years of Champaran and a Forgotten Figure

The historical narrative of the events of 1917 is rather well-known and can be very briefly summarised thus. Upon arriving in Champaran, Gandhi sought to witness and understand the state of affairs for himself. Served with an order of externment from the district, Gandhi introduced a new innovation into Indian public life. He refused to obey the order and also pleaded guilty to the charge of disobedience when hauled before the court. The local administration was at its wits end in the face of this novel approach and was eventually ordered by the Lieutenant-Governor to withdraw the case against Gandhi. Armed with this moral victory, Gandhi and his newly found colleagues recorded thousands of statements from peasants who overcame the fear of reprisals to depose against the planters. Eventually, an enquiry committee was appointment with Gandhi as a member, tinkathia was abolished and Gandhi's Champaran satyagraha passed into legend.

Revisiting Gandhi’s Leadership: As much as it has been celebrated in historiography, Gandhi's leadership of peasant causes has also been denounced and criticised. In a very broad sense, the critics can be grouped into two categories. The first of such approaches—exemplified by the Cambridge school—questions the motives of the leaders of the Indian struggle against British rule. In this view, the primary motivation was not the high value of a thirst for freedom and justice, but a rather base desire to enhance ones social and economic standing. For instance, in the case of Champaran it has been suggested that the upper caste agitators against the planters were motivated by the desire to be able to freely exploit the hapless peasants on their own terms. This is a rather derogatory interpretation of the fact that many individuals gave up comfortable careers, spent years in prison and subjected themselves and their families to much material privation.
The obverse of this approach has been a variety of devices employed to diminish the depradations of colonialism. Thus, in the well-known study Champaran and Gandhi: Planters, Peasants and Gandhian Politics, the French historian Jacques Pouchepadass blames Champaran zamindars for setting a bad example. “A planter”, Pouchepadass argues, “who in England would have been ashamed of the means which he employed, nonetheless resorted to them in India, because they were common in the indigenous milieu”. Wholly sympathetic to the poor planters’ predicament, Pouchepadass goes on to note that “there is no dearth of evidence concerning the paternal relations existing between the planters and his raiyats, and the humanitarian assistance which he dispensed to them in times of trial”. Presumably this fact was so self-evident that he did not deem it necessary to proffer any evidence for such a claim.

The other approach that spans the left-subaltern spectrum of historical analysis argues that the Gandhian mass mobilisation only served to preserve the unequal class structure in the Indian countryside and thereby nullified the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. Much as one may disagree with this assessment, it merits a closer examination than that of the Cambridge School. Although a detailed analysis of Gandhi's position on zamindari and peasant-landlord relations is outside our purview here, in Champaran, the goals were of a limited nature. It must be remembered that as a new arrival on the Indian political scene and an outsider in Bihar, Gandhi had very limited manpower and resources at his disposal. In fact, just two months prior to his arrival, Gandhi did not even know where Champaran was located. While it is true that in the 1930s and 1940s one sees a great divergence between the conservative Bihar Congress leadership and the peasant militancy of the Kisan Sabha, it is historically incorrect to apply this class divide to the Gandhian challenge to European planters in Champaran in 1917.

There were multiple events of sporadic protest against the planters in the years prior to Gandhi's arrival in Champaran, many of which would qualify as subaltern protests from below. But, independent of the moral undesirability of violent protest without a coherent objective, it is hardly the case that these constituted a truly revolutionary scenario in the Bihar countryside. As a new entrant on the Indian political scene, Gandhi could scarcely be expected to take on the wider and more serious challenge of entirely reworking the agrarian power structure in the region. In any event, both schools of critics fail to accord importance to the many novel ideas that Gandhi introduced into public action in Champaran. Just to consider one such factor, it is no mean feat to embolden an oppressed peasantry to testify against the planters at grave risk of personal harm….

Raj Kumar Shukla: Sympathetic as these portrayals are to Gandhi and India's cause for freedom, they fail to do adequate justice to the persona of Shukla. Born on 23 August 1875, at the turn of the century, Shukla worked for a period of four years for the Bettiah Estate. Contrary to popular perception, Shukla was not always a penurious peasant. Living in the west Champaran region, he had a substantial money-lending business, owned a large number of buffaloes and cattle and was a cultivator of 20 bighas of land in Belwa and Sathi. Shukla's trouble started with his refusal to pay an illegal irrigation cess that was being extorted by A C Ammon, the English manager of the Belwa indigo factory. Ammon decided to teach Shukla a lesson that would act as a deterrent against further protests. Ammon's lathiyal henchmen continually harrassed him and also looted and burnt down his house. A number of frivolous cases were filed against Shukla and fighting them took up a substantial amount of time and resources. In the process, as intended by Ammon, Shukla ended up in prison and his personal fortunes went into precipitous decline. Shukla's story was by no means unique and being at the receiving end of the animus of the local planter was the fate of many a Champaran resident. What is unique, perhaps, is the dogged determination and endurance with which Shukla faced the woes inflicted on him.

The cry for redress from the Champaran peasantry was mostly ignored by the colonial administration. Although the educated, urban Indian elite were a bit more sympathetic, their involvement was also on very limited terms. Similarly the local newspapers were wary of directly opposing the powerful planters community. In this atmosphere, valuable support was provided by the Kanpur based newspaper Pratap, which was published by the nationalist Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. In any event, towards the end of 1916, unable to muster adequate local support for action, Shukla headed to Lucknow for the 31st annual session of the Indian National Congress. This decision had momentous consequences in the following year.

As evidenced in his letters from early 1917, Gandhi's early perception of Shukla was not altogether positive. Apart from Shukla's inability to answer the many probing legal questions posed by the Mahatma, their difficulty in communication was also an important factor. The two men belonged to distinct linguistic backgrounds. Gandhi spoke Gujarati and, at that point, had limited facility with Hindi. Shukla was a native speaker of Bhojpuri, a language distinct from Hindi. Indeed, since Shukla spoke only rudimentary Hindi and could not write in Devanagari, his well-known letter to Gandhi reminding the latter of his promise to visit Champaran was actually penned by someone else. That individual was another champion of Champaran peasants, the largely forgotten Pir Mohammad “Munis”. A teacher in Bettiah, Munis had written a number of articles in Pratap from 1914 which vividly portrayed the oppression inflicted by the planters. Owing to such activities, Munis lost his job, was imprisoned in 1918 and spent a life in penury… read more:

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