The Extraordinary Life and Times of Mahatma Gandhi – Part 10

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The story thus far….Gandhi permitted a lower caste family to reside at the ashram that he established at Ahmedabad. He met with much opposition. He also amazed and angered the British officers, upper-class Indians, and friends gathered at a foundation stone laying ceremony at Banaras University by speaking out against usage of the English language on the university premises that he deemed “sacred”.

The annual meeting of the Congress was held in December 1916 in Lucknow. The Congress was divided as there were the moderates and there were the extremists, but at Lucknow the Congress met without tension between the two wings. The President, Ambika Charan Mazumdar, spoke in terms of Swaraj, which previous leaders had demanded. A resolution was passed appealing to His Majesty’s Government and demanding that a definite step should be taken towards Indian self-government by granting the reforms contained in a referendum prepared by the All-India Congress Committee and adopted by the All-India Muslim League.

In Lucknow the Congress and the Muslim League came to an agreement. This was later known as the Lucknow Pact. For the sake of the unity of India the Congress conceded many points demanded by the Muslims. For two years Gandhi had traveled extensively in India and had talked at different places. He now wanted to start some work connected with labor. His interest first centered on the problem of indentured labor, the system under which poor, ignorant laborers were enticed away from India to work in the British colonies. He disapproved of this system in South Africa, fought it there, and he wanted to see it abolished.

The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, announced that His Majesty’s Government had agreed to abolish the system in due course. Gandhi, however, wanted a definite date before which the system would go.

Gandhi started a great agitation on this issue. He went to Bombay and consulted all the Indian leaders there. They fixed May 31, 1917 as the last date for the abolition of indentured labor. He then went around the country to get support for this view. Meetings were held in important places. Everywhere there was a great response.

Even Gandhi admitted that he had not expected so much public support. As a result of the agitation, the Government announced that the system of indentured labor would be stopped before July 31,1917. Then Gandhi had heard about an obnoxious system of agricultural labor prevailing in the Champaran district of Bihar, where the cultivators were forced by Europeans to grow indigo, a blue dye. This imposed on them great discomfort. They could not grow the food they needed, nor did they receive adequate payment for the indigo.

Gandhi was told of this by an agriculturist from Bihar, Rajkumar Shukla. He requested Gandhi to go to the place and see the state of affairs there. Gandhi was then attending the Congress meeting at Lucknow and he did not have time to go there. Rajkumar Shukla followed him about, begging him to come and help the hapless villagers in Champaran. Gandhi at last promised to visit the place after he had visited Calcutta.

Gandhi went to Champaran with Rajkumar in early 1917. On his arrival the District Magistrate served him with a notice saying that he was not to remain in the district of Champaran but must leave the place by the first available train. Gandhi disobeyed the order. He was summoned to appear before the court. The magistrate said that if Gandhi left immediately the charges would be dropped.

“This cannot be,” said Gandhi. “I came here to render humanitarian  and national service. I shall make Champaran my home and work for the suffering people,” added Gandhi.

A large crowd of peasants gathered outside the court shouting slogans. The magistrate and the police looked nervous.

Then Gandhi said, “I shall help you and calm these people if you let me speak to them.”

Gandhi appeared before the crowd and said, “You must show your faith in me and in my work by remaining quiet. The magistrate had the right to arrest me, because I disobeyed his order. If I am sent to jail, you must accept that as just. We must work peacefully. Any violent act will harm our cause.”

The crowd dispersed peacefully. The police stared at Gandhi in admiration as he went inside the court. Gandhi wrote about the incident later.

“That day in Champaran was an unforgettable event in my life ….. 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 Government withdrew the case against Gandhi and allowed him to remain in the district. Gandhi stayed and studied the grievances of the peasants. He visited many villages. He cross-examined about 8,000 cultivators and recorded their statements. In this way he arrived at an exact understanding of their plight and the causes.

He came to the conclusion that the ignorance of the cultivators was one of the main reasons why the European planters could exploit them. Gandhi set up voluntary organizations to improve the economic and educational conditions of the people. They opened schools and taught the people how to improve sanitation.

The Government recognized Gandhi’s strength and devotion to just causes. They themselves then set up a committee to enquire into the grievances of the cultivators. They invited Gandhi to serve on that committee, and he agreed. The result was that within a few months the Champaran Agrarian Bill was passed. It gave great relief to the cultivators and land tenants. Gandhi could not stay longer in Bihar. There were calls from other places. Labor unrest was brewing in Ahmedabad and Gandhi was requested to help settle the dispute.

Gandhi hurried back to Ahmedabad. Before taking up the labor dispute Gandhi wanted to move his ashram. The Satyagraha  Ashram was in a village near Ahmedabad, but the surrounding was not clean and plague had broken out. It had spread there from  Ahmedabad. A rich merchant of Ahmedabad, wanted to buy alternative land for the ashram. Gandhi went about with him looking for land and they chose a place on the bank of the Sabarmati river, near the Sabarmati Central Jail. The land was purchased and the famous Sabarmati Ashram was established.

In Ahmedabad there were many textile mills. Prices had gone up and the mill workers were demanding higher wages. The mill owners would not agree. Gandhi sympathized with the workers and took up their cause. He launched a struggle and resorted to peaceful resistance. The workers proudly followed Gandhi and pledged their full support to him. They paraded the streets with large banners, and said they would not go back to work until a settlement had been reached.

-To be Continued next week

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