Saturday, April 15, 2017


[Extract from a biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad written by Dr BSM Murty; shortly to be published]

 Call of the Indigo

        ‘Not a chest of indigo reaches England without being stained with human blood.’
-          A British official

We may as well continue the story with these diary entries by Rajkumar Shukla who was not merely a half-literate farmer, but also a crusader against the tyranny of the indigo planters of Champaran. From Calcutta he left for Patna with Gandhi on way finally to Champaran.

9 April : Two tickets from Howrah to Patna. Many people besides Bhupendranath Basu came to bid farewell to Gandhiji. We both got into the train. It started at 3.25 p.m.
10 April : Reached Patna at 10 a.m .Went with Gandhiji to the residence of Rajendra Babu. At 3 p.m. Gandhiji sent two telegrams to Mr Kriplani, Muzaffarpur, and to Brajkishoreji, Darbhanga.Then Gandhiji sent me to Majharul Haque Sahab. Majharul Haque Sahab came with me in his car to Gandhiji and went out with him for a walk. Left with Gandhiji for Muzaffarpur at 8 p.m.[Reached] Muzaffarpur station at 1 a.m. Mr Kriplani gave a gala reception…. 

J.B. Kripalani was professor of History at G.B.B. (now L.S.) College, Muzaffarpur. He was also a popular Warden of the college hostel. He had already met and spent a week with Gandhi at Shantiniketan. Gandhi  then had appeared to him ‘as yet an unknown quantity [in] Indian public life’ and a ‘rather…eccentric specimen of an England returned educated Indian’. Kripalani was a man of ready wit and humour in life. But in his biography he writes about this ‘first impression’ of Gandhi with imaginative empathy.

He appeared to be a man who could, if need be, stand alone, provided he was convinced that the course of action he was following was the right one…Gandhiji was rather austere and puritanic. But he was not censorious….he was friendly and cheerful and did not lack humour….His love for the poor was neither intellectual nor sentimental, nor romantic. It was deep and abiding…One could see that Gandhiji was not patronizing the poor but was trying to live like them and feel one with them.

When Kripalani got Gandhi’s telegram about his arrival at Muzaffarpur, his students joined him enthusiastically for a grand reception to the Hero of South Africa. They arranged flowers and arati for their great guest, and when the coconut could not be had from the market at that late hour, Kripalani did not dither for a moment and – ‘I was a good climber and went up the tree [in the compound] and took down some coconuts’.

At the crowded railway station it took Kripalani and his entourage quite some time to locate Gandhi, dressed as he was in rustic clothes, ‘carrying a bundle containing his papers, while his spare bedding was with Shukla’. An embarrassed Gandhi bore with patiernce all the rigmarole of garlanding, arati, and, later the ‘unhorsed carriage’ stealthily drawn by the students themselves.

I had made arrangements with my colleague Prof. Malkani to put up Gandhiji in his house. He was living in the same compound. In a two-storeyed house he occupied the upper storey. His family was not there. The ground floor was occupied by another colleague of mine. In the morning as soon as he heard that Gandhiji was accommodated in the upper story, he was so frightened that he immediately left the house.

Quite aware of the risk that Gandhi was putting his host to, he quickly moved next day to the house of a local lawyer, Gaya Prasad, where two other lawyers – Ramnavami Prasad and Dharanidhar Prasad – soon joined him and acquainted him with the gravity and details of the plight of Champaran farmers. Ramnavami Prasad had already sent telegrams to Braj Kishore Prasad and Rajendra Prasad, the two senior-most lawyers and provincial leaders to join Gandhi’s mission. In the mean time Gandhi met the Tirhut Commissioner, L.F. Morshed, after seeking an interview with him through a brief note in which he had written : ‘Having heard a great deal about the condition of the Indians working in connection with indigo plantation, I have arrived here to ascertain so far as is possible, for myself the true position. I would like to do my work with the cognizance and even cooperation, if I can secure it, of the local administration’,etc. But Morshead was singularly officious and bullying to Gandhi in that interview, asking him peremptorily to go back at once.

When Gandhi met J.M.Wilson, Secretary, Bihar Planters’ Association, Muzaffarpur, on April 11, he also tried to dissuade Gandhi from going to Champaran.  Meanwhile, even before Gandhi proceeded to Motihari with Ramnavami Prasad, Dharanidhar Prasad and Gorakh Prasad, reaching there in the afternoon of April 15, Morshed had also informed W.B. Heycock, the District Magistrate of Champaran, through a letter in which he wrote : ‘[His] object is likely to be agitation rather than a genuine search for knowledge…I consider that there is a danger of  disturbance to the public tranquillity should he visit your district. I have the honour to request you to direct him by an order under Section 144 Cr.P.C. to leave it at once if he should appear’.

Gandhi in Motihari

Gandhi had huge welcoming crowds at stations along the way and on reaching Motihari he went straight to the house of Gorakh Prasad where he was to stay. Unfamiliar with the local Bhojpuri dialect, he sought help from Dharanidhar Prasad and Ramnavami Prasad to act as his interpreters. Learning there about a recent atrocity at a nearby village, Jasaulipatti, Gandhi started for the village early next day with Dharnidhar Prasad and Ramnavami Prasad, riding on an elephant. As he was resting midway at a village, about 15 kms from Motihari, conversing with the local farmers about their problems, a police sub-inspector appeared on the scene.

We had scarcely gone half way when a messenger from the Police Superintendent overtook us and said that the latter had sent his compliments. I saw what he meant. Having left Dharnidhar Babu to preoceed to the original destination, I got into the hired carriage which the messenger had brought. He then served on me a notice to leave Champaran, and drove me to my place.

In that notice the Champaran D.M. had  asked Gandhi to leave the district ‘by the next available train’ as per orders from the Tirhut Commissioner, in view of the perceived danger by his presence  to ‘public peace’. A copy of the Commissioner’s letter was also attached to the notice. Gandhi immediately sent a reply to the D.M., in acknowledgement of the notice, saying that, ‘I feel it to be my duty to say that I am unable to leave this District but if it so pleases the authorities, I shall submit to the order by suffering the penalty of disobedience’.

Soon the administrative machinery swung into action and telegraphic printers got buzzing with urgent messages. Confidential despatches  through special messengers were sent urgently by train between Patna, Muzaffarpur, Motihari and Bettiah. As the first World War was on, the Indian government did not want any new internal trouble anywhere. The Champaran indigo problem was already an ugly skeleton in the government’s cupboard and it did not want it to be rattled at this crucial hour. Also the British indigo planters exercised a lot of influence on the local authorities, and together for them Gandhi’s arrival on the scene straight out of the South African imbroglio was like a sudden poke into a hornet’s nest.

Confronted by Gandhi’s calculated disobedience, Heycock issued a summons on April 17, under section 188, asking Gandhi to appear before the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s court by the following noon to face charges. By instinct and experience Gandhi had anticipated all this, and he worked sleeplessly throughout the night writing letters and telegrams to the local authorities and friends like Mazharul Haque, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Mr Polak explaining the fast developing situation in Motihari. He also wrote a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, saying that since the government no longer trusted him enough to allow him to do public service in Champaran, he felt obliged to return the medal of honour (Kaisar-e-Hind) recently conferred on him by the British government for his commendable help in the Boer and Zulu conflicts. The statement that he wanted to make before the Magistrate was also prepared by him during the night. With the coming of the morning people started assembling near Gandhi’s place and there was a palpable excitement in the air all around as Gandhi started for his court appearance accompanied by his two friends Ramnavami and Dharnidhar.

The Motihari Trial

The news of the notice and the summons spread like wild fire, and I was told that Motihari that day witnessed unprecedented scenes. Gorakh Babu’s house and the court house overflowed with men. Fortunately I had finished all my work during the night and so was able to cope with the crowds. My companions proved the greatest help. They occupied themselves with regulating the crowds, for the latter followed me whereever I went.

Unprecedented the scene must have been for a small town like Motihari because when Gandhi  entered the Magistrate’s court there was  such a stampede that glass-panes were smashed and doors and windows were unhinged. Gandhi had to wait in the ‘Mukhtarkhana’ till the police could bring some semblance of order. The court proceedings began in a tense atmosphere.

The trial began. The Government pleader, the Magistrate and other officials were on tenterhooks. They were at a loss to know what to do. The Government pleader was pressing the Magistrate to postpone the case. But I interfered and requested the Magistrate not to postpone the case, as I wanted to plead guilty to having disobeyed the order to leave Champaran…

Gandhi was an experienced Barrister. He was aware of the shaky legality of the order of extradition. As Rajendra Prasad, himself a brilliant lawyer, later observed:

True, a difficult point of law was involved in the case: it was not very clear whether an order like the one passed by the District Magistrate, was legal. If it was not, its disobedience was no offence, and Gandhiji could not be tried for it. Some little thought that I had given to the question had led me to the conclusion that the District Magistrate’s order was illegal and that Gandhiji could not be penalized for non-compliance with it.

It was, perhaps, for the first time that British law had landed itself in a muddle of its own creation. In Gandhi’s words :

According to the law, I was to be on my trial, but truly speaking Government was to be on its trial. The Commisioner only succeeded in trapping Government in the net which he had spread for me.

As the Indian adage has it : the snake now could neither swallow nor throw up the mole. And Gandhi must have chuckled internally at the discomfiture of the government when he read out his brief but carefully worded statement before the court. Some of its sentences were remarkably trenchant:

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 ryots, 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. I have no other motive, and cannot believe that my coming can in any way disturb public peace and cause loss of life….As a law-abiding citizen my first instinct would be, as it was, to obey the order served upon me. But I could not do so without doing violence to my sense of duty to those for whom I have come. I feel that I could just now serve them only by remaining in their midst. I could not, therefore, voluntarily retire….
I venture to make this statement not in any way in extenuation of the penalty to be awarded against me, but to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.

The statement seemed to spill over with subtle irony; after all ‘lawful authority’ must learn to operate within its own lawful ambit! It was a dazzling instance of confronting the ‘law of truth’ against the ‘law of dissimulation’.

The court was totally flummoxed. The accused had outwitted the Magistrate by pleading guilty to a charge that hardly signified a punishable guilt. The court understood the full implications of awarding the sentence for defiance of law, because it would not hold water in a higher court, so ‘the Magistrate postponed judgment’. And  during the next few days there was a flurry of telegrams and confidential messages between the Tirhut Commissioner, Morshead, and the Bihar government’s Chief Secretary, McPherson, the latter severely berating Morshead for his ill-conceived handling of the whole affair. Both the telegram (of April 19) and the long D.O. letter (of April 20) express the extreme displeasure of the Governor General-in-Council. Only a few critical sentences need be quoted to show the anger and exasperation of the Government.

[Telegram:19.4.1917] There is nothing in your letter to show that Gandhi intended to stir up trouble and it would have been far better to let him see officers concerned and visit spots after warning him that he would be held responsible for any disturbance that might ensue.

[D.O. letter:20.4.1917] His Honour-in-Council considers that in your dealing with Mr Gandhi you did not go about the matter in the right way… you made a still greater mistake in that, without ascertain the views of the Government or even waiting for Mr Gandhi’s production of his credentials, you issued an anticipatory instruction to the District Magistrate of Champaran to keep an order under  section 144 Cr.P.C. ready waiting for Mr Gandhi should he arrive in Motihari. Such an order, as you yourself practically admit, was of doubtful legality….

But the course adopted by you was just that which was most calculated to intensify suspicion and create an impression that Govt wanted to stifle enquiry and it had produced the embarrassing position mentioned in your telegram received yesterday that Gandhi awaits conviction under sec. 188 I.P.C. and sentence is deferred pending the order of Govt….Mr Gandhi is doubtless eager to adopt the role of martyr which as you know he has already played in South Africa and nothing perhaps would suit him better than to undergo a term of imprisonment at the hands of an ‘unjust’ magistracy….
Orders have now been issued to Heycock to afford Mr Gandhi such assistances and guidance in the pursuit of his enquiries as may be obtainable from the local officers….This is all that can be done now to retrieve the mistakes that have been made in the treatment of the case….A very difficult and delicate situation has now arisen and it will have to be handled with great tact, care and circumspection. 

This was a classic case of a ‘trial of truth’. As Gandhi himself said of the Champaran peasantry whose lawful rights he had come to fight for: ‘It is no exaggeration, but the literal truth, to say that in this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth’.

 The Magistrate postponed judgment in the case for a few days, apparently to buy time for consultation with the higher authorities at Patna. Meanwhile, even before the day appointed for the judgment ‘the Magistrate sent a written message that the Lieutenant Governor had ordered the case against me to be withdrawn’. The government had seen sense and removed the hurdle it had placed in the path of humanitarian justice, thereby losing face in the national press .

© Dr BSM Murty

No part of this extract can be used in any way so as to infringe pre-publication rights.

Pics: L S College, Muzaffarpur   J B Kripalani    House of Gorakh Prasad 
  where Gandhi went first     Dharmshala where the recording of witness accounts took place

Some Photos: Courtesy Google Images

 Other extracts from the book which are available on this Blog (Scroll by year and date)

2011: May 28 : The Indigo Story; July 8: The Butcher of Amritsar; July 17: A Planter’s Murder
2014: Sep 14 : The Seven Martyrs; Dec 3 : Early childhood in Jeeradei
2015: Jun 30: Congress in disarray; Aug 27: Clash of Convictions; Oct 8: Presidential Itineraries;             
             Dec 20: Congress at crossroads
2016:  Mar 15: Election for Second Term; May 13: Visit to Soviet Union; Aug 25: Limits of Presidency
             Aug  28 : The Last Phase
2017:  Apr 15: Champaran Saga (The Indigo Story: Repeat of 28 May 2011)

Other Important blogs

Sahitya Samagra : 5 Oct 2010 / On Premchand: 26 May 2011 / Has Hindi been defeated by Shivpujan Sahay : 7 Dec 2011 / Memoirs on Prasad and Nirala : 25-26 Oct 2012 / Shivpujan Sahay Smriti Samaroh: 27 Jan 2014 / On Amrit Lal Nagar: 18 Aug 2014 / On Bachchan : 27 Nov 2014 / On Renu: 3 Mar 2015 / On Trilochan: 1 Apr 2015 /Odes of Keats + Shantiniketan: 25 May 2015 / Premchand Patron Men: 3 Aug 2015/  Suhagraat: Dwivediji's poem: 13 Nov 2015/ Dehati Duniya: 8 Aug 2016/ Three stories of JP: 6 Jul 2016/ On Neelabh Ashk: 24 Jul 2016/ Dec 25 2016: Anupam MIshra: Paani ki Kahaani