A century ago, Gandhi tested the idea of satyagraha to fight for indigo farmers. While the crop is seeing a revival in the south, Champaran is in the throes of another peasant struggle
100 years of status quo
By Tushar Gandhi
It is a tragedy that the agrarian situation in the country doesn’t seem to have changed much even after a century. The plight of indigo farmers in Champaran a hundred years ago is the plight of farmers all over the country in modern-day India. The Champaran movement, or Neel Satyagraha as it was popularly called, was a symbol of the fight for ethics and rights. There was a clear exploitation of the poorest of the poor and the motive was unbridled profiteering. It became a very emotive issue because on one side were rich landlords backed by the most powerful empire of the time, while on the other side was a completely disenfranchised and enslaved community—that of the subsistence farmer. It was assumed that they did not have any voice or pose any threat.
Terms like common market and world community that are used today were, in certain ways, also present at that time. Then, as it is now, the philosophy was to extract raw materials at the cheapest rate and to find markets to sell them at most remunerating prices. The trade was loaded in favour of the manufacturer, while the seller of the raw material as well as the purchaser of the finished product were the sufferers.
The mills of Manchester were thriving because of the dye that was being produced by farmers in India, who were made to produce it compulsorily. But once the colonisers got cheaper synthetic substitutes, the farmers were abandoned. The situation is similar to what cotton farmers of Vidarbha have faced in recent years. At one time, textile mills used cotton produced by Vidarbha farmers, but now they have shifted to synthetic yarn produced by petrochemicals giants. This is unfortunate because at a time when people are trying to move towards natural, organic and eco-friendly products, we have abandoned our traditional expertise.
So today again, both commercially and as a symbol of justice, the Neel Satyagraha is relevant. But organising a satyagraha today is more difficult than it was under the British. At that time, it was a fight against an alien rule. Now we have to fight our fellow citizens or our own government. We are also divided by our political loyalties. Unfortunately, none of the movements, even farmers’ movements, have been able to stay completely clear of political overtones. As soon as political overtones emerge, movements lose steam.
A satyagraha today would have to focus on farmers’ suicide. The farmers who killed themselves to escape their reality were really strong, but we have to ensure that their children, widows and parents do not become seeds of future conflicts and seek revenge. Mahatma Gandhi chose to fight for farmers because he realised that we were an agrarian culture and what affected farmers would affect the entire society. Otherwise he could have picked many other issues. When he arrived in India from South Africa, the intellectual debate on home rule and freedom was urban-centric. But the Neel Satyagraha galvanised the whole nation and became a symbol of resistance.
Even today, there is a worldwide concern for the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the conflict this is bound to create in future. So Champaran becomes a very powerful symbol of the fight to provide justice to the poor. If one looks at the Neel Satyagraha only as a movement for the rights of indigo farmers, one may say that it has lost pertinence. But as a movement for the empowerment of the downtrodden, it remains relevant.
I have never been to the Champaran region, but I have heard that travelling there feels like time travel. That’s how backward the place is. And there are so many places in India for which this holds true.
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