Usha Trivedi, daughter of Mahatma Gandhi's personal assistant Rishi ji, before the marble plaque in Motihari and (right) two men sit in front of Gandhi's statue at Bapu Dham railway station. Pictures by Ruchira Gupta
As I stood on the railway platform of Bapu Dham, Motihari, I could see Indians going about their business freely. A vendor was selling milk from a Bihar milk cooperative Sudha. Two men were sitting under the statue of Gandhiji, erected by former chief minister Lalu Prasad. There was a peace and a self-confidence among the passengers, porters, vendors. And there were no white guards or officers. We take for granted what once must have seemed impossible.
In 1859, just two years after India's first battle of independence, thousands of peasants revolted in Bengal against indigo cultivation. They wanted to cultivate rice, which they ate, on their own small plots. But the British, seduced by greed of the huge profits they could make by selling the blue dye produced from neel (indigo) in Europe, forced the farmers to cultivate indigo, and that too at a low price set by the British on 15 per cent tinkathia of their land.
Farmers began to starve - neither could they produce grain that they could eat, nor could they make money from selling indigo and buy grain. Men armed with spears, bows and arrows and swords and women with pots, pans and other utensils attacked the indigo factories and planters. Intellectuals from the city flocked to write about the plight and resistance of the peasants. The famous Neel Darpan, translated by Michael Madhushudan Dutta, was written then. After the neel (blue) rebellion, the Indigo Act was passed, planters were forced to stop this exploitation and indigo production in Bengal collapsed.
The indigo planters simply shifted base to Bihar.
In Bihar, the British colonisers wanted to ensure that no such rebellion could occur. Laws were created to keep the peasants in marginal conditions. Access to water was rationed, properly built homes were disallowed, toilets were limited to fixed hours, children were kept away from literacy and women were not allowed more than one set of clothes. Individual farmers were not permitted to own cattle.
Peasants were not just compelled to cultivate indigo but pay British planters for the seed forced on them through a loan given by the British planters. Debt bondage was introduced as a system of control. Hungry, starving, disease-ridden peasants died by the thousands every year. Malaria and cholera were routine.
Unlike 1859, British power was at its peak in 1917. The Indian National Congress was in its nascent stages. Gandhiji had just returned to India from South Africa. He was known in select circles. It seemed impossible to challenge the might of the Angrezi Hukumat. Their guards, clerks, officers and sahebs with guns and cannons were everywhere. Their powers were superhuman.
A farmer from Champaran, Raj Kumar Shukla, heard that Gandhiji was coming to Patna. He asked him to come and see the plight of the indigo cultivators in Champaran.
Gandhiji agreed, arriving in Motihari station at 3pm on April 3 to meet and record the statements of peasants. On the way to Jasualipatti village, Gandhiji was served an order by the government to leave the district by the first available train. Gandhiji gave a letter of his intention of not obeying the order to the district magistrate. He was arrested and on April 18, 1917, gave a historic statement at the court of the sub-divisional magistrate of why he would disobey the order.
This was Gandhiji's first act of satyagraha (Insistence on Truth).
At the building where Gandhiji gave his first statement on civil disobedience, I was a little disappointed. An ugly granite pillar has been planted in his memory. It had no resemblance to Gandhian simplicity. On the other hand, the small champa tree and the two indigo bushes planted in the compound spoke more eloquently of the history of the magnificent satyagraha as did the marble plaque with Gandhiji's words written on it:
"...I have taken a very serious step of seemingly disobeying the order made under Sec 144 Cr P.C ... it is a question of difference of opinion between the local administration and myself. I have entered the country with motives of rendering humanitarian and national service. I have done so in response to a pressing invitation of the ryots, who urge they are not being fairly treated by the indigo planters. I could not tender any help without studying the problem...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 of lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of being the voice of conscience."
Champaran was named after the champa (magnolia) forest where ascetics would come to meditate. It was inspiring to see that the only place in Champaran that the indigo bush still exists is in the Gandhi Sanghralaya, and that too next to a champa tree.
The museum itself is one of the shabbiest places I have seen. A few photographs stuck to a wall, with no captions at all, dim-light from extremely low-wattage bulbs to hide the dust perhaps, and some clothes which no one knew the meaning of. It was heartening to see three 15-year-olds wandering about. I asked them why they were there and they said they were interested in Gandhiji's concept of ahimsa. I wish there was a better display for them to learn from. The district magistrate could perhaps think of revitalising the museum by getting local schoolchildren to create exhibitions and display them there as a class project - a win-win for both the museum and the students. He could immediately get the place cleaned and put better lighting, make the windows bigger for natural light and put captions near the photos.
I then went to the jail, which is now a college, where our freedom fighters were housed. All the rooms are classes, except one. That is the faansi (hanging) room with a well in it. This is locked because students can sense the ghosts of those who were hanged and tortured in the room.
Usha Trivedi, the daughter of Rishiji, Gandhiji's PA for 10 days, who too was a satyagrahi, ran the Janata Sarkar for six months, bringing British administration to a halt, and went to jail for nine years, tells me that she and her brother used to hide in the grass when the British soldiers came to look for her father and mother.
"Once we gained Independence, I studied and became a teacher. My daughter is an engineer. My son works in Google. People who say nothing has happened since the British should come and see the changes in Motihari. We have hospitals, schools, colleges, museums, transportation, banks, shops, and most importantly the vote. We have freedom. The poverty was so deeply entrenched. It will take generations to overcome."
• Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University,
adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.
Follow me on twitter @ruchiragupta and on facebook.com/RuchiraGuptaJournalistWww.apneaap.org