Testimonies of the indigo peasants played a pivotal role in making the Mahatma
An India post miniature sheet commemorating the centenary of Gandhi's Champaran Satyagraha
IT IS DIFFICULT TO capture the voices of peasants from our colonial and pre-colonial pasts, for peasants of those times didn’t write, they were written about. Petitions and Memorials framed by scribes, confessions wrenched in police lock-ups, depositions nervously uttered before Magistrates—these are the usual conduits through which the voices of ordinary folk make their way into historical records. In a few instances, it could be a jeevni, the autobiographical account of an exceptional, literate peasant, that illuminates the lives of the unlettered—those who produce goods and services, not documents. It is rare indeed when thousands of peasants seek out a Mahatma-in-the-making and recount in telling detail the onerous conditions under which they toiled for the nilhé—the indigo sahibs—of Champaran.
The arrival of Gandhi in the district in April 1917, his desire to make inquiries into the indigo situation and his momentous disobedience of the order to vacate the district, the official turnaround in permitting his investigations, leading to the appointment of a high-powered commission, with Gandhi as the peasants’ advocate; the abolition of the existing variant of the tinkathia system of indigo cultivation on peasant holdings… These are the motifs common to most accounts of Gandhi in Champaran. This, however, is to foreshorten his encounter with the ‘indigo peasants’, a move unwarranted by Gandhi’s own views and his exertions in the district. For, when in his Autobiography he writes of the Champaran inquiry as ‘a bold experiment in Truth and Ahmisa’, he is not referring solely to ‘the voice of conscience’ that urged him to disregard the firmān of the local officer to vacate the district. He seems equally to have had in mind the testimonies (izhār, bayān in Urdu legalese) his assistants Rajendra Prasad and half a dozen other lawyers elicited from the thousands of indigo-growing peasants. And this, under a carefully designed protocol of public evidence gathering, often in front of local officials. Lawyers who had built their practices appearing regularly on behalf of ‘indigo peasants’ in local courts were now being asked by Gandhi to act as mere transcribers of the spoken word. Reams of paper in hand, Rajendra Prasad and colleagues went around villages and smaller towns, registering first-hand what peasants were eager to recount about their past and present travails. It is so that Gandhi’s short stay in Champaran yielded a massive cache of documents— a veritable peasant archive running into eight folio registers, now lodged in our national repository in New Delhi.
How these volumes running into several thousand pages reached the safe coffers of our national repository is a story worth telling. Shridhar Vasudev Sohoni, the Commissioner of Tirhut Division in the mid-1950s, has narrated his discovery of these folios in the record room of his office in a somewhat dramatic manner. This was the same office from which L.F. Morshead, his colonial predecessor, had ordered Gandhi to be externed. Sohoni tells us how at the end of a day’s work in August 1955, he chanced upon a worm-eaten bundle of papers which turned out to be the collection of these peasant testimonies. He showed these to Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant, now the President of India, who was immensely pleased at this discovery and wished copies to be made, with the active involvement of Ramnavami Prasad, one of the original band of testimony recorders. The President also desired that one set of these registers be made for his personal collection. A few months later, Mritunjay Prasad, the President’s son, gave some of these Registers to Commissioner Sohoni. It appears that five typed volumes of these peasant affirmations were deposited soon after in the Sadaqat Ashram, Patna, the Ashram founded by Maulana Mazhar-ul-Haq, a close friend, referred to by Gandhi in the original Gujarati version of his Autobiography as the ‘Simple Bihari’—lawyer nationalist.
It is rare indeed when thousands of peasants seek out a Mahatma-in-the-making and recount in telling detail the onerous conditions under which they toiled for the indigo sahibs of Champaran. The arrival of Gandhi in the district in April 1917, his desire to make inquiries into the indigo situation, the official turnaround in permitting his investigations, these are the motifs common to most accounts. This, however, is to foreshorten Gandhi’s encounter with the ‘indigo peasants’
Basing himself on these hitherto unknown volumes, K.K. Datta, the foremost historian of colonial Bihar, conveyed their discovery to the Indian Historical Records Commission in 1958. The full set of eight folio volumes, along with an index, was handed over by Mritunjay Prasad to the National Archives in early November 1973. This is clearly the original manuscript set of testimonies, for the thumb impressions of peasants and the signatures of the lawyer-transcribers have remained unsmudged by the passage of time. In a sense, this is what Gandhi had in mind while issuing detailed instructions for ‘workers’ for the recording of these peasant voices—a collation for immediate use, for his personal understanding of the situation, and as historical document. And what an archive it has turned out to be!
Gandhi’s own recollection of such testimony-gathering helps us peep into the world of ‘indigo peasants’, who unmindful of the threat of the planters, were now stepping out of their villages to have their say before his associates.
Crowds of peasants came to make their statements and they were followed by an army of companions who filled the compound and the garden to overflowing. The efforts of my companions to save me from darshan– seekers were often of no avail, and I had to be exhibited for darshan at particular hours.
It is tempting to visualize Gandhi’s assistants writing up the peasants’ izhār—lit. to articulate (Rajendra Prasad’s words). Hundreds of peasants have gathered at Hazarimal’s dharamshala, an outwork of a factory or, to deploy a colonial trope, ‘under the cool shade of a Banyan tree’. As there is no roll call for peasants to come forward to ‘testify’, there is some confusion as to who goes first. Or, as seems more likely, a small crowd gathers near the writing table of Dharnidhar or Rajendra Prasad. The peasant, or a group from the same village who gather round the desk are asked a routine set of questions about their present and past travails. It is doubtful whether they were simply told, as often happens in a court of law: tumko kya kahna māngta?—‘go ahead and say what you have to say’ in local Bhojpuri. More likely, Moti Raut, resigned to submission, the boy Afdar, forced to graze large herds of cattle on the field of Raj Kumar Shukla, or Jhunia, the disconsolate old widow, is asked to repeat, or pause a bit so that a Dharnidhar could write down their story. It is quite surprising that there is only a single case of crossing out and rewriting, and that too in the case of an affirmation taken down—no doubt with some lingual assistance—by Gandhi himself.
SOME WIDELY USED terms, such as bigha and katha (more properly kattha), the local units of land measurement, and fasli (the revenue year) were rendered directly by our lawyer-recorders into English. Even here, something interesting was happening with the term ‘katha’, the root of all the trouble: katha, or more properly kattha = 20th part of the bigha, the local unit of land measure. It is this term that was at the heart of the Indigo Question—the requirement for the peasants to set aside 3/20th parts of a bigha, i.e. three katthas of their land at the factory’s command: three (teen) kattha—tikathtia, the system of land control that the factories had willed into being. Yet, it is curious—nothing more—that, as in its official rendering, local lawyers invariably wrote down kattha in its English variant ‘cottah’. This ‘Anglo-Indian’ word aside, it was the nuances of the local Bhojpuri, in its thent—rustic variant inflections and turns of phrase, that posed problems, especially given the simultaneous translation. And so, when Moti Raut, recounting the saheb’s lathaits literally uprooting his arhar—lintel crop sighs, ‘[And so] I was forced to pass the sword over my own throat’, one can hear a local idiom struggling to find an adequate expression in a foreign tongue.
This very Gandhian mode of eliciting information was a radical move that encouraged the peasants to speak about their lived experience—bhoga hua yathāarth, as one would say in the correct Hindi of the region.
What clearly emerges from these testimonies is how the raising of indigo on factories’ terms left little room for peasants to allocate land and labour for their own crops. Peasants who had flocked to Bettiah and Motihari in April-ay 1917 complained about the loss of control over their choice of crops
A few years before Gandhi’s Inquiry, the radical Hindi press had been deeply critical about the ways of the ‘Nilhé’—a nicely derogatory term for the indigo, neel planters. Pratap, the leading nationalist weekly of Kanpur, in neighbouring U.P., was especially agitated about the situation in Champaran, constantly importuning local elites to feed it more information; nor were the ‘indigo peasants’ always supine. There were what officials dubbed ‘disturbances’ in 1907-08, and in subsequent years, memorials were sent to the Lt. Governor. In December 1911, ‘a large body of peasants assembled at the Narkatiaganj railway station to put forward their grievances’ before the King- Emperor no less, returning from a hunting trip in the jungles of Nepal. In mid-January 1916, the Pratap newspaper printed an appeal for the collation of all available information on the plight of the peasants of Champaran. Titled ‘Prathna’ by ‘a dukhi átma’ (an aggrieved soul), it was an unsigned piece written by Pir Mohammad ‘Moonis’, an ‘organic local intellectual’ with a view to its eventual publication and distribution as a broadsheet. Reprinted as a leaflet, its circulation in the countryside was seen by local officials as presaging ‘a newspaper campaign against the [indigo factories]’. It was ‘also rumoured’, noted an Intelligence Report, ‘that Mr. Gandhi who has once agitated Indians [sic!] in South Africa is coming here to deliver lectures’.
When Gandhi did arrive a year later, it was not to lecture but to enquire first-hand. As he memorably told the Magistrate at Motihari:
I have entered the country with motives of rendering humanitarian and national service. I have done so in response to a pressing invitation to come and help the raiyats who urge they are not being fairly treated by the indigo planters. I could not render any help without studying the problem. I have, therefore, come to study it with the assistance, if possible, of the administration and the planters.
To recapitulate: Gandhi’s Inquiry consisted in getting the testimonies of peasants, spoken in local Bhojpuri, translated and transcribed into English by his lawyer assistants. The Inquiry collected, along with the signature of the recorder– transcriber, formalizing the averment. In a good many cases, peasants actually wrote up their signatures in the local kaithi script. There is even the solitary case of Gajadhar Mahton of Khadda village signing his name in English as Gajadhar.
With Gopal Lohar’s testimony (in all likelihood translated into simple Hindustani by one of the lawyers), Gandhi crossed out and rewrote what he had initially taken down—a clear evidence of what he had demanded of his ‘workers’: always cross examine. The overwriting suggests that on cross examination, the statement by the son of Hiramani about the factory’s minions forcibly taking away a cart of hay from his father’s threshing floor, turned out to be ‘hearsay’.
The full text of Gopal’s testimony shows Gandhi’s adherence to his principle of exactitude. It provides a window into the everyday forms of oppression by the kothis’s minions. Equally, Gopal’s is a telling instance of a peasant (here the son) marching immediately after an incident to get his account recorded at Gandhi’s ‘office’ at Motihari or Bettiah. Here is Gopal recounting the affair to Gandhi.
Testimony of Gopal, son of Hiramani Lohar of Tola Gajpura, Mauza Chatauni [Chitauni], before Gandhi and in his hand at Motihari Kothi on 25 May 1917:
My father Hiramani Lohar is living. I am living with my father. I have a cousin Nepali who is living with his father Musahar. We have 6 1/2 Bighas of land. On Sunday last, nine men belonging to the Kothi including Gumastha Sarvar Rai, Godni[,] Butan Dusad[h] and [a] molazim whose name I do not know came with a cart to the kharihan. Sarvar Rai was about to remove bhusa belonging to me/us: [sentence crossed out by Gandhi and replaced it by] I was not in the field at the time. About evening I observed that factory people were beating my father. In common with others I intervened. My father was at last released. I and my cousin Nepali then began to walk towards Mr. Gandhi’s offices in Motihari. Six cartmen and Sarvar Rai ran after us and caught us, beat us and got us on the cart, took us to the Kothi.
The situation took a serious turn with the arrival of manager Irvin Sahib, all the way from the kothi to Hiraman Lohar’s threshing floor in Mauza Chatauni—a telling case of the manager taking an eagle-eyed personal interest in his dehāt, the villages leased from the Bettiah Raj for indigo cultivation. To return to Gopal’s testimony:
At about 10 p.m. the Sahib Mr. Irvin came. The factory people complained that the villagers would not allow them to take bhúsa and that they drive them away. We wanted to make a statement before the Sahib but he would not listen to us and beat us both, Nepali more severely than me[,] and ordered that we should be fined and kept in the fowl house. We were to pay Rs. 10/-each as fine and talbana Rs. 1/-each to the factory men. Sarvar Rai taking pity on us released us at midnight, but only on my saying that the fine would be paid in the morning. Next morning Liladhar, our Mahajan undertook on our behalf to pay Rs. 22/-. It is the Kothi practice to take by force bhúsa [hay] from the raiyats.
Reams of paper in hand, Rajendra Prasad and colleagues went around villages, registering first-hand what peasants were eager to recount about their travails. Gandhi’s short stay in Champaran yielded a massive cache of documents—a veritable peasant archive now lodged in our national repository in New Delhi
Section 3 of Gandhi’s “Instructions to Workers” had read: ‘Evidences should be taken even where the parties decline to sign. Reason for refusal should be noted’. Indeed, when Ramgovind Raut accompanied by 42 others walked the two miles from Dhumnagar into Bettiah town to testify against Rajghat Hardia Kothi, the group included one Ghulam Nabi who was the first to corroborate the statement of the leader Ramgovind, but reneged immediately, withholding both consent and his left thumb.
Consequently, Ramnavami Prasad, overwrote on Ghulam Nabi’s name: ‘Ghulam Ali fears to sign being servant of Kothi’. The Amla—employees of the Kothi showed no such compunction about getting peasants to affix their thumb-prints on to blank papers, or on sheets whose contents were unintelligible to the illiterate angūtha-teks. This was especially the case with the signing of the sarahbeshi document (sharah = a regulation; bēshi = addition), which signified the peasant’s assent to an enhancement of his rent in lieu of being now free from cultivating 3/20th portion of his holding with indigo. Duarika Rai who had to sell a portion of his land to ‘sign’ a sarahbeshi document, still could not afford to pay the rent for the 1 bigha he had been left with. He absconded. Undeterred, the kothi’s servants forcibly took his wife’s thumb impression instead! As Duarika of Maharani Bhopat testified on 24 April, 1917:
This year also I had not paid rent. The factory demanded Rs. 21/-for that one bigha [,] and on my inability to pay, the Patwari Dhuarika [Dwarika?] Lal, Gulli Raut Gumastha and the peon Dhuni Rai [more on him anon] and one more peon, whose name I do not know, brok[e] open my tātti and forcibly dragged my wife to the shade under [a] Pakar [tree] and took thumb-impression of my wife. They have entrusted the crop of my field to Judagir Chouby as well as the field itself. It is thus the Factory intends to dispossess me. …After getting scent of the arrival of the Factory servants I had left the village and on my return back I learnt of the occurrence from my wife…
Pur Mohamad (village Mahuawan, Chiraia Factory), on the other hand, came forward to distance himself from an improperly taken thumb-print which he valiantly claimed affected its veracity. As he testified before Rajendra Prasad:
Rajeshwar Pandey is the gumashta of the factory in my village. He falsely complained to the Sahib that I owed him money. The Sahib called for me and told me to pay up his dues. I said that I owed him nothing and requested the Sahib to call upon Rajeshwar Pandey to show his papers and prove his allegation. But the Sahib told me that I must pay up the dues.
The Sahib told me that I must surrender my land—about 13 cottahs. I did not agree as I owed nothing to Rajeshwar Panday. Rajeshwar Panday, Rajwantal Patwari and Jhaboo Lal Kirani, Bolai Ojha Sipahi and Maldhari Singh Molazim forced me to put my thumb mark on a book. They threw me down and forcibly took my thumb impression. As the impression was being taken I pulled away my hand with the result that the impression was very much lengthened.
IT WAS NOT just the raising of rents and the systematic deployment of force by the factories that peasants complained about, though as the testimonies reveal there was a fair amount of physical oppression. The underlying problem was that ‘… in north Bihar indigo was not integrated at all with the [usual] cropping pattern. Rather, indigo was a separate enclave and as such presented a threat to the prevailing eco system’.
This is the original manuscript set of testimonies, for the thumb impressions of peasants have remained unsmudged by the passage of time. This is what Gandhi had in mind—a collation for immediate use, for his personal understanding of the situation, and as historical document
What clearly emerges from these testimonies is how the raising of indigo on factories’ terms left little room for peasants to allocate land and labour for their own crops, notably the valuable transplanted or fine Aghani rice spanning the months June to December. Peasants who had flocked to Bettiah and Motihari in April-May 1917 persistently complained about the loss of control over their choice of crops they endured because of the factories.
The decision over the allocation of lands for a certain mix of crops, in rotation with others, the preference, in some cases, for the long duration, high-value transplanted rice, were what the peasants preferred. It was this very basis of peasant agriculture that factories were bent on subsuming to their end.
These testimonies, to use that hackneyed phrase, speak for themselves. To forsake these peasant voices for a generalized politics of the ‘Champaran Satyagraha’ would be to undercut the ground from under the feet of the Mahatma at the very moment of his making.
(This is an edited excerpt from Thumb Printed: Champaran Indigo Peasants Speak to Gandhi | Edited by Shahid Amin, Tridip Suhrud and Megha Todi | Navajivan Trust and National Archives of India | 360 pages | ₹ 500).