Though the farmers of Bihar and Gujarat are not in the forefront of the on-going movement, whenever the history of the farmers’ struggle in India is written, Champaran and Kheda found special mention
Soroor Ahmed | Clarion India
PATNA – It was in 1917 that the first farmers’ movement was launched in the recent memory. The battleground for this maiden experiment with satyagraha (struggle for truth) was an obscure village in Champaran district of Bihar.
Led by a barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi , who had returned from South Africa about two years earlier, the movement largely succeeded in its objective but not before the British officials tried to suppress it.
Later, the leader became Mahatma Gandhi and came to be known as the Father of the Nation after Independence. In 1918, he was in Kheda district of Gujarat to lead yet another movement by the sons of the soil.
After living in South Africa for two decades, Gandhi returned to India on January 9, 1915. As he was fresh from outside and had little idea about India, he decided to travel throughout the entire country. The Champaran movement against indigo planters provided Gandhi an opportunity to learn a lot about the plight of Indian farmers who were being exploited by the British, asking them to grow indigo in at least three out of 20 cottahs of land (teenkathiya system).
It was in the 1916 Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress that a farmer from this district, Raj Kumar Shukla, informed delegates about the condition of farmers and invited Gandhi to Champaran. There is another version, too, which says that Gandhi learnt about the ryots’ plight in Champaran from other sources as well.
Though the farmers of Bihar and Gujarat are not in the forefront of the on-going movement on Delhi’s borders, the truth is that whenever the history of the farmers’ struggle in India is written, Champaran and Kheda found special mention. Not only that, the earliest farmers’ movement launched more than a century ago clearly shows the real potential of farmers.
It is true that more than a hundred years later, independent India has travelled a lot. Unlike the largely agrarian economy at the time of World War-I, manufacturing and service sectors have grown much in the country.
However, Gujarat and Bihar, the epicentres of the two earliest farmers’ movements, are a study in contrast. Gujarat, which has the largest coastline in the country, is among the most industrialised states of India. In contrast, Bihar continues to be a largely agrarian state and the least industrialised one—at least after the November 15, 2000 bifurcation which led to the creation of minerally- and industrially-rich Jharkhand.
After 1917, it was in 1930s that the most agriculturally fertile land on both sides of river Sone in Bihar saw the emergence of another farmers’ movement under the leadership of Swami Shahjanand Saraswati. Though the latter was born in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, his struggle for small farmers had its roots in Bihar. He also set up All India Kisan Sabha.
Incidentally, Bihar was the first state which tried to abolish the zamindari system immediately after Independence. But the efforts largely failed because of the feudal lobby. Inter alia, the judiciary also played the role of a stumbling block on its path.
The land revenue minister of the post-Independence Bihar, K B Sahay, who tried to end landlordism, failed in his efforts, Thanks to the lobby of big farmers, by the time he became the third Chief Minister of Bihar, Sahay was a much maligned man.”Gali, gali mein shor hai, K B Sahay chor hai,” rent the air. Whether he was really a thief or not could not be known but at least a perception was so created.
It was in 1970s and 1980s that Bihar started witnessing land struggle with landless labourers and in some cases even small farmers, too, played their role. After the brutal suppression of the Naxal movement in neighbouring West Bengal, a large number of Maoists fled that state to take shelter in Bihar where they regrouped. By the post-Mandal 1990s, the whole struggle acquired a form of caste tussle, too.
However, after Nitish Kumar came to power in November 2005, the scenario changed. His government took almost the same decision which the Narendra Modi government took in September 2020. It abolished APMCs in 2006. But the state did not witness any farmers’ proest–maybe because the number of big farmers producing surplus food grains is very small.
Yet, there is another irony. When the Nitish Kumar government set up the Bandopadhyaya Commission to empower, the sharecroppers on the pattern of Operation Barga in West Bengal, the big farmers lobby–whose number may have got reduced considerably–put enormous pressure on the Nitish government which subsequently buckled under it.