Raj Kumar Shukla may have been an “ignorant, unsophisticated” farmer from rural Bihar but the truth is, it was this stubborn peasant who compelled Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to launch his first civil disobedience movement in India – the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917.
During the four months he spent persuading Gandhi to take up the cause of the indigo farmers in Champaran, Shukla virtually shadowed Gandhi to draw his attention to his mission – to end the utter enslavement and brutal mistreatment of Champaran’s poor, landless peasants at the hands of the colonial British. During this time, Gandhi was not entirely convinced of the cause as he couldn’t verify Shukla’s credentials but this relentless farmer wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
So, how did a peasant from a place Gandhi had never heard of coax the Mahatma to conduct his first ‘experiment with truth’ in India?
Shukla, The ‘Sutradhar’?
Raj Kumar Shukla occupied an awkward place in history.
A minor landowner in a village in what is now West Champaran Shukla was a ‘nuisance’ to the British. He was always in their crosshairs for resisting the indigo planters and factory owners, and was regarded as a ‘troublemaker’ for frequently mobilising fellow farmers against their ‘masters’. As a result, Shukla was driven to penury due to the litigation they buried him in.
On the other hand, there are some historians who feel Shukla wasn’t exactly a friend of the poor peasants. Born into an upper-caste Brahmin family, he owned 20 acres of land and also ran a flourishing money-lending business, which was not uncommon in those days.
Shukla is therefore viewed as a perpetrator, guilty of exploiting poor and landless peasants, as much as he was a victim of the British indigo planters.
Sandwiched between these two camps, he seems to have fallen through the pages of history and his tale never told.
Not until 2014, that is, when a book was published on Shukla’s pivotal role in Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. Authored by Bhairav Lal Das, Project Officer, Bihar Legislative Council, the book is titled Gandhi ji Ke Champaran Andolan Ke Sutradhar Raj Kumar Shukl Ki Diary. In his book, Das calls Shukla a “sutradhar”, which in the language of theatre means a ‘compere’. Shukla can thus be called the ‘facilitator’ of the Champaran Satyagraha.
Das’s book draws heavily from a diary maintained by Shukla, who wrote in the Kaithi script, which was widely used in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh for legal and administrative purposes. A Bhojpuri speaker, Shukla was not conversant in English and seems to have had only a rudimentary knowledge of Hindi.
But his diary, its entries written with obvious care, contained details about his engagements with fellow farmers, his legal troubles, his meetings with lawyers, social workers and local journalists – and his tryst with one of the greatest leaders on the Indian subcontinent, Gandhi.
Shukla Meets His ‘Messiah’
North Bihar was home to many men who went on to become prominent lawyers, freedom fighters, stalwarts of the Indian National Congress, and even a President of India. These were people like Rajendra Prasad (later, India’s first President), Acharya J B Kripalani (he was to become Congress President in 1946, a leading Parliamentarian and a harsh critic of Indian Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi), Brajkishore Prasad (a lawyer from Bihar who represented the indigo farmers in legal disputes and became an associate of Gandhi), and Anugrah Narayan Sinha (a lawyer who held senior ministerial positions in the Bihar government, post-Independence).
Thanks to Shukla’s frequent run-ins with the indigo planters and his penchant for networking, he was well-acquainted with these men. After some deliberation, he decided to attend the Lucknow session of the Congress in December 1916, hoping to put the plight of Champaran’s farmers on the national agenda.
Once in Lucknow, Shukla briefed senior Congress leaders Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Madan Mohan Malaviya about the oppression of his people but they were indifferent to his cause. But Shukla’s unassuming credentials were not a stumbling block for this farmer from Champaran. He had a bona fide cause. He was tenacious. And these were his greatest strengths.
Gandhi had returned from South Africa only two years earlier, in 1915, and stories of his civil disobedience movement in that country had already reached Champaran. Farmers and Congress supporters alike were calling him a “magician”, a “miracle man” and “Mahatma ji”.
The indigo planters had made life a living hell in Champaran and Shukla was in search of a ‘messiah’. He was going to plead his case before Gandhi.
When he saw Mohandas Gandhi for the first time, it was a dramatic introduction. The 41-year-old peasant threw himself at Gandhi’s feet.
Gandhi was still testing the waters of the Indian freedom movement and was carefully planning his moves on the advice of his mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
He gave Shukla a patient hearing but, like the others, he too was not impressed. Gandhi excused himself, saying that unless he saw things for himself, he could do nothing about Champaran.
Instead, he suggested that Shukla and his colleagues move a resolution at the Congress session. So Brajkishore Prasad, who was a part of the delegation from Bihar, moved the resolution. Finally, Champaran was in the spotlight and Shukla seized the opportunity to put across his views.
In his speech, Shukla didn’t mince words. He described the plight of Champaran’s indigo farmers and said, “They (the planters) have become so powerful that they decide civil and criminal cases themselves and punish the tenants. I am a ryot and don’t know what will I have to suffer for coming here after going back to Champaran.”
The resolution was unanimously adopted.
But Shukla was looking for more. His only hope was getting Gandhi to visit Champaran. When Gandhi agreed to include Champaran in his itinerary and assign it a day or two, Shukla remarked, “One day will be enough, and you will see things with your own eyes.”
Finally, he was making headway.
But it was only a vague assurance as Gandhi had not fixed a date. Again, Shukla wasn’t satisfied.
He followed Gandhi from Lucknow to Kanpur. When he caught up with him there, he urged his ‘messiah’, “Champaran is very near. Please give it a day.”
Gandhi replied, “Pray, excuse me this time but I promise you I will come.”
From Kanpur, Gandhi proceeded to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, and when he arrived there, guess who was waiting for him? The “ubiquitous” farmer from Champaran was there to greet him! “Fix a date,” he insisted.
And Gandhi did.
In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi was to later describe Shukla as an “ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist” who “captured” him with his dogged pursuit and took him to Champaran to see the plight of the indigo farmers there.
Off to Champaran, At Last
Gandhi had already planned on visiting Calcutta and asked Shukla to meet him there, so that they could proceed to Champaran together. He was still wondering whether he had made the right decision. In his autobiography, Gandhi admits, “I didn’t know where was I to go, what to do, what things to see.”
Shukla missed Gandhi’s telegram and, by the time he reached Calcutta, Gandhi had left! Shukla returned home and wrote to Gandhi. His letter, dated 27th February 1917, read:
“Respected Mahatma, please listen to our pleas. You have achieved something even a great person like Tolstoy couldn’t. Our plight is even worse than that of the people of South Africa for whom you fought. Please do keep the promise you made in Lucknow and en route to Kanpur, that you will visit Champaran in March/April.”
After another exchange of telegrams, the two of them met in Calcutta and, this time, they boarded the Howrah-Delhi train.
The diehard peasant’s efforts had paid off. And Gandhi was on his way to make history.
Gandhi was still not convinced of the man whose mission he had committed to, as he had nothing to go by except his word. But there was no turning back now.
The unlikely pair, Shukla and Gandhi, arrived in Patna on 10th April 1917. Shukla took Gandhi straight to the home of ‘Vakil Saheb’, Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was already a prominent lawyer and would later go on to become the first President of India. Prasad was away in Puri and in his absence, Gandhi had a brush with the harsh reality of untouchability in Champaran.
Unsure of his caste, the domestic help refused to let him draw water from the well in the bungalow’s compound. Gandhi wrote, “Lest drops of water from my bucket might pollute them, the servants did not know to which caste I belonged.”
Despite Shukla’s pleading, they also did not allow Gandhi to use the toilet inside the house either, and directed him to the one outside. Gandhi dismissed the episode as “entertaining experiences” but he was clearly annoyed. We know this from a letter he wrote to Maganlal Gandhi, his nephew who was in charge of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from Prasad’s house. His letter read:
“The person who has brought me here is ignorant. He has brought me to an unknown person’s house. The owner of the house has gone somewhere. Servants are behaving as though we are beggars. They are not allowing me to use the toilet, forget arranging for food and water. I will not be able to visit Champaran if the situation continues.”
That night, Gandhi and Shukla boarded a train in Patna and halted in Muzaffarpur en route to Champaran. Here, he met Acharya J B Kripalani, then a professor of history in a local college. It was in Muzaffarpur that Gandhi began making inquiries about the indigo farmers.
It was a prelude to the satyagraha he would launch a week later.
Champaran: Moment of Truth
When Gandhi arrived in Motihari, then the district headquarters of Champaran, his impression of the “ignorant” and “unsophisticated” farmer he had met four months earlier quickly changed.
Shukla left Gandhi in the company of Kripalani, Rajendra Prasad, Brajkishore Prasad, and left to tour the villages to mobilise farmers.
It was Shukla’s moment of truth.
Gandhi, for his part, met lawyers and peasants, heard their stories, witnessed the situation firsthand, and was able to verify Shukla’s claims. He was finally convinced, and writes in his autobiography: “What Shukla told me about Champaran is correct.”
It was Gandhi’s moment of truth.
Gandhi opened two offices to collect the testimonials of farmers – one in Motihari and the other in Bettiah, the latter manned by Shukla. Soon, thousands of farmers started arriving in Motihari to meet Gandhi and narrate their stories of savage exploitation and brutality at the hands of the British indigo planters.
Champaran was brimming with anguish – and Gandhi was shocked and moved. He felt it was futile to take legal recourse against the planters. The priority was to first free the farmers from fear.
Gandhi had planned to stay in Champaran for only a day or two; now he decided to stay until the tinkathia system, the root of the peasants’ oppression, was abolished. Under this system, the farmers were forced to reserve three out of 20 kathas (20 kathas were equal to 1 acre) of land for indigo plantation. In return, they were paid little or nothing.
Indigo was in great demand in Europe for its signature blue dye and the colonial British were amassing huge profits from it at the cost of Champaran’s helpless peasants. In addition, the planters imposed as many as 40 different taxes on the farmers, pushing them into perpetual debt and a life of penury.
Gandhi began recording the testimonials of Champaran’s farmers, who were so desperate that they set aside their mortal fear of the indigo planters and virtually laid siege to the Motihari office. The stream of half-naked, emaciated peasants became so difficult to manage that Gandhi had to ask Kripalani to control the crowd.
During the course of his evidence-gathering, on 16th April, Gandhi, Shukla and some others had set off for a village called Jasaulipatti, where a peasant had been mistreated by an indigo planter. They were on elephant back when they were stopped by a police sub-inspector on a bicycle. He told Gandhi that the District Magistrate wanted to meet him. Gandhi hired a bullock cart arranged by the police sub-inspector and he returned to Motihari.
Once there, Gandhi was served a notice to leave Champaran.
After brainstorming with prominent lawyers, Gandhi decided against contesting the notice in court. Instead, he chose ahimsa and satyagraha to defy the English.
The most dramatic moment of the Champaran Satyagraha came on 18th April 1917. Amid a sea of 4,000 farmers who assembled outside the Motihari court, Gandhi walked in, knowing exactly what he was about to do.
Gandhi told the court he would not contest the notice he had been served but would plead ‘guilty’ instead. He said he would rather listen to the “voice of his conscience” and be jailed for it than leave Champaran.
Gandhi had evolved his tools of non-violence and civil disobedience only a few years earlier, in South Africa, and the British in India had never seen anything like it before. Champaran’s farmers had obviously accepted Gandhi as their leader and the British wondered what might happen if they indeed had to escort him to jail. Confused and apprehensive, the District Magistrate withdrew the notice.
The Satyagraha Succeeds
Gandhi had prepared a dossier of over 8,000 testimonials given by the peasants, and within two months, the Bihar government set up the Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee to examine the tinkathia system and the planter-peasant relationship. Six months after Gandhi had arrived in Champaran, in October 1917, the committee’s report recommended the abolition of the tinkathia system.
Gandhi’s first experiment with truth on Indian soil had succeeded.
Shukla never forgot the man he had ‘shadowed’ for the cause of his people. Over the years, he visited Sabarmati Ashram many times, and was there to pay his respects to the Mahatma just weeks before he died, on 20th May 1929, at the age of 53.
According to Bhairav Lal Das, Shukla then went to the dharamsala in Motihari, where Gandhi had stayed during the satyagraha, and booked the room Gandhi had occupied. He died in that very room a few days later.
Das writes in his book that Shukla’s family was so poor that they couldn’t afford to cremate his body. So an Englishman, A C Ammon, stepped in. The manager of an indigo factory, Ammon sent across Rs 300 via an assistant to help with the last rites. When his dismayed assistant asked him why he was helping to cremate a man who had clearly been his “enemy”, Ammon replied, “I have great respect for him, for he fought me like no other.”
It wasn’t just his enemies who cared. Prominent Bihar Congress leaders, Rajendra Prasad and Brajkishore Sharma, who had stuck by him through his troubles with the indigo planters, too were present at the cremation.
Gandhi’s first satyagraha in India and the capitulation of the British had made him a national hero overnight but it is only in the last few years that Raj Kumar Shukla, the peasant who ignited that spark, has come to national attention.
Ashok K Singh is a senior journalist and political analyst based in the National Capital Region, and has worked with, and written for, major media organisations in India in a career spanning several decades.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.
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