By Ansuman Tripathy*
He had arrived in India two years before and following the advice of guru Gokhale had travelled the length and breadth of the country to see, feel and comprehend the miseries of his people before plunging into public service. He was deeply moved by the poverty, hunger, disease, superstitions, evil caste system and all other financial, moral and social maladies that had encased his countrymen and encompassed his country. He had taken a secret vow to eradicate the maladies as best as he could, of course, under the rule of the union jack. Freedom of his country was not at the wildest of his dreams then.
Even though he was not suited, booted and hatted then as was in England, he was not half- naked as yet. He was clad from toe to top in best of Gujarati attire. His language of communication was English, Gujarati and often Sanskritised Hindi, what they call Hindi of the elite. For him, Hindi of the ordinary; as spoken in villages; was as foreign a language as some local dialect of far off Magnolia. For him, the extent of India was from Porbander to Bombay or at best the western coast and some cities like Calcutta, Madras, Banaras. He was still a novice in the social and political scene, being overshadowed by stalwarts like Tilak, Malaviya, Banerjea, Jinnah etc. Despite this, he was very practical and realistic. But like most of the elites of that era, he was busy in arranging meetings, attending conferences, giving lectures in seminars, joining different delegations, calling on high dignitaries; always hard pressed for time; till that day when an ordinary-looking person, an illiterate, simple rustic Bihari indigo farmer; a ryot of an English Zamindar; caught hold of him at Lucknow Congress and persistently urged him to visit his native place at Champaran and help liberate thousands of indigo farmers from an evil system of taxation what they call " tinkathya" imposed upon them by English Zamindars almost over a century. In his own pen, he had confessed "I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the geographical position, of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of indigo plantations. I had seen packets of indigo, but little dreamed that it was grown and manufactured in Champaran at great hardship to thousands of agriculturists." He was reluctant.
The man trailed him, trailed him wherever he went - Lucknow, Cwanpore, Sabarmati Ashram, Culcatta and ultimately captured him there. In his own pen "This ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist captured me."
That was the first time and probably the last time that he succumbed to pressure.
Unlike other "captures" that he was subjected to earlier; like eating meat with his friend Mehtab, stealing money, smoking with friends, going to a brothel and later on in England dressing himself like a perfect Englishman, attending dancing classes etc. which he soon discarded because they appeared unnecessary and immoral; he allowed himself to be captured this time by the rustic Bihari as his persistent urge appeared to him what they call in military language a call out to duty.
He jumped into a war for justice for the indigo farmers of Champaran holding "satyagraha" as his weapon and came victorious in about a year, as an honourable settlement between the contesting parties was arrived at and was approved by the authority. Chamapran made his first "satyagraha" on Indian soil a success.
Reflecting back on that "capture" today; a century on; is it not mind boggling - what a "capture" that was? Was not that "capture", the most potent one that influenced the history of mankind, rather changed the course of history?
Finding the participation of the peasants overwhelmingly passionate, pleasant and positive during his "Satyagraha" at Champaran; he was encouraged to expand his horizon, extend his influence slowly and steadily over the masses to bring about the change that he wanted. Basic education and training, cottage industry, an improvement on cleanness, hygiene, sanitation, empowerment to women, removal of untouchability, unity amongst different communities, self-reliance were the mantras that he taught for attending Swaraj. For this first time in the history of mankind, an ordinary man; a man having no authority of power, no force, no weapon to terrorise; could sway the emotion of a nation holding his personal conduct as his only weapon. When he found his control over the pulse of the nation complete, he asked the occupier to quit, quit honourably, unconditionally, immediately. The occupier had to yield before the moral force he was wielding. The occupier left, along with their departure an evil system of governance what historians term 'colonialism' got dismantled. Nation after nation, country after country; shook off the foreign yoke one after another; became free and independent. Earlier in South Africa, he had stuck the final nail on another evil system - discrimination on the basis of the colour of skin what historians term "apartheid". For the first time in the history of mankind, the sweet smell of liberty and equality spread all over the globe. The man was free. There was none to rule over him but himself. Rousseau's concept of Freeman was born. No chain. No shackle. No fetter.
By this time you know who the 'captive' was.
Call him in any name, Manu, Monia, Mohan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, M.K. Gandhi, Mr Gandhi, Gandhiji, Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, Half naked Fakir, Bapu, Or any other name you like.
He would respond you with his characteristic classical toothless smile.
But, who was his captor?
Who was that man who unwittingly pushed Gandhiji into a path that led him to be revered by his people as Mahatma?
Who was the man who gave Champaran the pride to be the ground for Gandhiji to conduct to first satyagraha on Indian soil?
Who was the man who unwittingly became instrumental in pushing the occupier back?
Who was that "ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist" Gandhiji affectionately referred to? Raj Kumar Sukla.
The story of Champaran is incomplete without describing another character who unwittingly forced Gandhiji to go half-naked in subsequent time.
In Gandhiji's own pen - "It may not be out of place here to narrate an experience that I have described before now at many meetings, Bhitiharva was a small village in which was one of our schools. I happened to visit a smaller village in its vicinity and found some of the women dressed very dirtily. So I told my wife to ask them why they did not wash their clothes. She spoke to them. One of the women took her into her hut and said: ' Look now, there is no box or cupboard here containing other clothes. The sari I am wearing is the only one I have. How am I to wash it? Tell Mahatmaji to get me another sari, and I shall then promise to bathe and put on clean clothes every day."
This cottage was not an exception, but a type to be found in many Indian villages. In countless cottages in India people live without any furniture, and without a change of clothes, merely with a rag to cover their shame."
The frank talk of that unknown woman must have pierced Gandhiji's conscience, must have bled his heart, must have troubled his mind. Being a sensitive person, he must have "felt" what stark poverty was. When millions and millions of womenfolk of his motherland were not getting even two yards of cloth to cover their bodies how could he serve them being covered from toe to top? Unacceptable to him. Immoral. May be, the idea of "Khadi" came to his mind then.
I bow before you Champaran, I bow before you Raj Kumar Sukla, I bow before you the unknown woman of that tiny village near Bhitiharva, I bow before you again and again. It is for you that our nation orphaned since centuries got a 'Father', it is for you that our ancient civilisation got a Mahatma after ages, it is for you that Einstein got "'Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth", it is for you that Churchill got a 'half naked seditious fakir' challenging his empire, it is for you that General Smuts got a "Prince among us has passed", it is for you that mankind got truth and ahimsa as a weapon to fight evil, it is for you that the unknown and ordinary like me got a Bapu to seek solace and guidance in hours of peril .
While celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gandhiji's Satyagraha at Champaran, let us not forget the contributions of Raj Kumar Sukla and that unknown woman of that tiny village, who gave Mohan the identity and image that he gleefully accepted "Half naked Mahatma".