Thursday, 11 October 2012

Raj Kumar Shukla- usurer or agriculturist?

In 1911 or 1912, the King Emperor visited the Nepal border terai for a spot of shikar. 15,000 tenant farmers from Champaran turned up to shout out their grievances to him. He was told they were just shouting because they were excited to see him. They then sent a petition. This was returned because it hadn't gone through the proper channels.

If King Emperors are useless, what about Mahatmas?

Mahatma Gandhi tells us that he came to the aid of the indigo cultivators of Champaran at the insistence of a humble agriculturist- Raj Kumar Shukla.

Yet I read here that Shukla 'was accompanied by two local Marwari businessmen in his visits to Gandhiji in Kanpur as well as Calcutta. A moneylender of village Murli Bharwa near Narkatiaganj in West Champaran, earning, according to his own statement before the enquiry committee set up by the provincial government, a sum of rupees two thousand a month from interest, Shukla, by no standard, was a needy or poor man. Earlier he was in the employ of a landlord in Benares but was dismissed on account of malfeasance. So he was a disgraced man per se.'

I would like to point out that the author of this comment, Dr. A.K. Biswas, though a former U.P University Vice Chancellor, is nevertheless not a criminal- charge sheeted or otherwise. This glaring lack of even the minimal qualification appropriate to high Academic office in the Gangetic belt totally undermines his credibility.

Still, he has solved the mystery of Raj Kumar Shukla. The man was a money-lender and thus wanted the agriculturists to have more disposable income so they could incur and service more debt. That's why the tenants trusted him and sent him to the I.N.C meeting at Lucknow. Bihari lawyers too wanted the same thing because, as Gandhi pointed out, they charged a lot of money and, driven by insatiable greed, were scheming to expand their potential client base even in the boondocks. Furthermore, in Champaran, there were many European leaseholders so what was essentially an agitation against the illegal advabs levied by zamindaris (i.e. illegal extortion by landlords of tenants) gained a sort of 'swadeshi' Nationalist tinge.

Prof. Girish Mishra writes- 'In December 1916, the Indian National Congress was holding its annual session at Lucknow, not very far from Champaran. A group of peasants, advised by some well-wishers, went there. This session proved to be extraordinary because, for the first time, a semi-literate rustic was allowed to speak from the dais. Raj Kumar Shukla spoke in broken Hindi but with lots of emotion and sincerity that moved the elite audience, but no one was prepared to go to Champaran to lead the agitating peasantry. Lokmanya Tilak was too unwell to accept their request. Almost dejected, they sought the advice of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya who advised them to persuade Mohandas Gandhi who had recently returned from South Africa after leading a prolonged, but successful, struggle. If he agreed to go there, he would surely make them achieve their goal. Shukla, then, met Gandhi and narrated his tale of woes, but Gandhi did not commit though he listened attentively and asked Shukla for some time to think over his request after he reached Kanpur.

'When Gandhi arrived at the office of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s newspaper Pratap, he found that Shukla was already there, beseeching him to come to Champaran. Gandhi told him that he was going to Kolkata (then Calcutta) to visit Barrister Bhupendra Nath Basu and there he would give a thought to his request and decide. Lo and behold! Shukla was already there when Gandhi arrived. Shukla’s sincerity and genuineness of his case impressed Gandhi immensely and both of them set out on their journey to Champaran.'

So what do we have here? Gandhi sees this guy pop up wherever he goes yet calls him a simple agriculturist. Why? Because Gandhi liked 'experimenting with Truth'.


Champaran is the land of King Janaka. Just as it abounds in mango groves, so used it to be full of indigo plantations until the year 1917. The Champaran tenant was bound by law to plant three out of every twenty parts of his land with indigo for his landlord. This system was known as the tinkathia system, as three kathas out of twenty (which make one acre) had to be planted with indigo.
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.

Rajkumar Shukla was one of the agriculturists who had been under this harrow, and he was filled with a passion to wash away the stain of indigo for the thousands who were suffering as he had suffered.

This man caught hold of me at Lucknow, where I had gone for the Congress of 1916. "Vakil Babu will tell you everything about our distress," he said, and urged me to go to Champaran. "Vakil Babu" was none other than Babu Brajkishore Prasad, who became my esteemed co-worker in Champaran, and who is the soul of public work in Bihar. Rajkumar Shukla brought him to my tent. He was dressed in a black alpaca achkan and trousers. Brajkishore Babu failed then to make an impression on me. I took it that he must be some vakil exloiting the simple agriculturists. Having heard from him something of Champaran, I replied as was my wont : "I can give no opinion without seeing the conditions with my own eyes. You will please move the resolution in the Congress, but leave me free for the present." Rajkumar Shukla of course wanted some help from the Congress.

Babu Brajkishore Prasad moved the resolution, expressing sympathy for the people of Champaran, and it was unanimously passed.

Rajkumar Shukla was glad, but far from satisfied. He wanted me personally to visit Champaran and witness the miseries of the ryots there. I told him that I would include Champaran in the tour which I had contemplated and give it a day or two. "One day will be enough," said he, "and you will see things with your own eyes." From Lucknow I went to Cawnpore. Rajkumar Shukla followed me there. "Champaran is very near here. Please give a day," he insisted. "Pray excuse me this time. But I promise that I will come," said I, further committing myself.

I returned to the Ashram. The ubiquitous Rajkumar was there too. "Pray fix the day now", he said. "Well" said I, "I have to be in Calcutta on such and such a date, come and meet me then, and take me from there." I did not know where I was to go, what to do, what things to see.

Before I reached Bhupen Babu's place in Calcutta, Rajkumar Shukla had gone and established himself there. Thus this ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist captured me.

So early in 1917, we left Calcutta for Champaran, looking just like fellow-rustics. I did not even know the train. He took me to it, and we travelled together, reaching Patna in the morning.

This was my first visit to Patna. I had no friend or acquaintance with whom I could think of putting up. I had an idea that Rajkumar Shukla, simple agriculturist as he was, must have some influence in Patna. I had come to know him a little more on the journey, and on reaching Patna I had no illusions left concerning him. He was perfectly innocent of everything. The vakils that he had taken to be his friends were really nothing of the sort. Poor Rajkumar was more or less as a menial to them. Between such agriculturist clients and their vakils there is a gulf as wide as the Ganges in flood.

Rajkumar Shukla took me to Rajendra Babu"s place in Patna.

Rajendra Babu had gone to Puri or some other place, I now forget which. There were one or two servants at the bungalow who paid us no attention. I had with me something to eat. I wanted dates which my companion procured for me from the bazaar.1 There was strict untouchability in Bihar. I might not draw water at the well whilst the servants were using it, lest drops of water from my bucket might pollute them, the servants not knowing to what caste I belonged. Rajkumar directed me to the indoor latrine, the servant promptly directed me to the outdoor one. All this was far from surprising or irritating to me, for I was inured to such things. The servants were doing the duty, which they thought Rajendra Babu would wish them to do.

These entertaining experience enhanced my regard for Rajkumar Shukla, if they also enabled me to know him better. I saw now that Rajkumar Shukla could not guide me, and that I must take the reins in my own hands.

Reading the above, one would conclude that Gandhi wanted to stop peasants being forced to grow indigo. But the invention of a chemical dye by the Germans had already made indigo less lucrative. Acreage under indigo fell from a high of 96000, in 1897, to just 8000 acres in 1914. It was only thanks to the War that demand for indigo increased and acreage went up to 27000 acres in 1917.

Previously, the share-croppers, under the leadership of Sheikh Gulab, had put up some resistance to the planters, including murder and arson, and this had been partially successful though some tenants, including Sheikh Gulab, had to spend some time in Jail. Incidentally, a Marwari banker had played a part in this violent struggle. He was let off with a fine of 3000 rupees. The Govt. did make
inquiries in 1908 and a report was compiled but never published- a fact protested by Brajkishore Prasad in the Bihar Council in 1911 or thereabouts. Gandhi, of course, belittles him as an alpaca wearing lawyer sucking the blood of the tenants. Yet this man knew more in 1910 about Champaran's grievances than Gandhi ever discovered.

Rajendra Prasad, in his book ' Satyagraha in Champaran', paints a picture of a decline in the Government's ability or willingness to challenge 'adwabs' (illegal cesses) which distressed indigo factors were using to squeeze money out of the tenants to compensate them for their losses on capital invested in Indigo factories. Furthermore, Sir Rasbihari Ghose had given a legal opinion to the planters that they could increase rents by more than the statutory amount on the excuse of releasing tenants from growing a specific crop. Thousands of tenants agreed to higher rents so as to get rid of the onerous burden of growing indigo because, as they later said to Mahatma Gandhi, they were all beaten and dishonored till they agreed. They said that they knew indigo would disappear by itself because it was no longer profitable so why on earth would they voluntarily agree to a rent hike that would affect their posterity? Of course, the fact that War would break out and indigo once again become profitable was not known to them then. Thus, the truth of the matter is, those being forced to grow indigo were the ones who hadn't agreed to the higher rent, because they hadn't foreseen that Britain would go to war with Germany and thus the cheaper chemical dye would no longer be available. Not wishing to admit this was the case, they, with rustic logic, claimed to have agreed to higher rents only because they were beaten and tortured. Since the beating and torture was imaginary, they could maintain that they were unable to stop growing indigo, despite paying higher rents to escape from that onerous burden, because yet more beating and torture was being constantly piled upon them.

Rajendra Prasad observes- 'every tenant was not roughly dealt with, every tenant was not tied to a tree and then beaten with leather straps, every tenant was not shut up in a chicken-pen or in some dirty place in the factory, peons were not quartered at the house of every tenant, Dhangars (a low class untouchables)may not have been posted obstructing the egress from and ingress into the house of every tenant, every tenant may not have been tied down in the hot sun or a heavy load placed on his head or breast it may be that the services of barber, washerman, carpenter and smith may not have been stopped in the case of every tenant, every tenant may not have been made the victim of a false prosecution in the criminal courts, the roads leading to every village may not have been closed and the grazing lands may not have been closed against the cattle of every tenant ; but this much is certain that some of the biggest and most respectable and influential among the tenants were severely dealt with in some one or more of these ways, and their spirit having been crushed, the rest of that and the neighbouring villages were easily coerced into submission.
It was only natural that they should submit to what they considered to be the inevitable.' 

In other words, the testimony given to Gandhi was 99.99 % lies because the planters simply did not have enough coercive power to inflict all the atrocities attributed to them. Still, they did have some coercive power so some at least 0.001 % of the statements taken had some substance. 

This is not to say that the planter's rent enhancements were legal even if freely consented to. The District Judge, a Mr. Sheepshanks, found that in 5 out of 9 test cases the rent increases were illegal prima facie and appeals against this decision was subsequently barred by the Champaran Agrarian Act. In other words, if you read between the lines, Rajendra Prasad is telling us that Gandhi's tamasha in Champaran, aimed at disintermediating the Vakils (lawyers) was bound to fail. 

Poor idiot, the Mahatma thought he was destroying a source of profit for the lawyers but the issue had already been decided in law so and all those vultures needed was Administrative compliance. Here Polack and the great C.F. Andrews- as white men- were particularly useful in the early stages but Gandhi insisted Andrews return to Fiji- the Govt. of India had sent him to Fiji in 1915 to report on the conditions of indentured labourers there and so the danger existed that he'd get the credit for the I.N.C inquiry in Champaran into India's own quasi slavery- which was maybe why nothing lasting took root in Champaran despite some pretty impressive volunteers turning up to start schools with money from, the Marwari, Birla.

 Rajendra Prasad's book on Champaran is well written, Prasad was highly intelligent and well educated, and shows a mastery of the facts. But the conclusion it relentlessly militates towards is that it was the Zamindar's employment of goons which vitiated legal forms of redress. Add in well financed White planters with their ties to the Administration and the Anglo Indian Press and, clearly, the native lawyers and moneylenders were put at an unconscionable disadvantage when it came to making hay here where the Sun of Injustice shone so brightly. They needed an independent Inquiry in Champaran and- because Gandhi could still, at this early point in his career, be tricked into doing something useful- that's exactly what they got. But Zamindari as an institution- one that overwhelmingly benefited native lawyers and moneylenders- wasn't touched. Neither was Caste discrimination.

 Prof. Biswas (that brazenly un-charge sheeted Vice Chancellor) points out that the Champaran Agrarian Act did nothing to abolish illegal cesses and discriminatory rents on Scheduled Castes. Which, of course, just goes to show Gandhi's visitation really was the work of the same God who devised the terrible 1934 Earthquake in Bihar. Yet, the fact remains, Gandhi's Champaran sojourn wasn't utterly futile. It didn't actually make matters much worse. Why? The answer I suppose is because there was no 'dharna', no hunger strikes, no jail bharao, no nonsense about satyagraha. Just some sound lawyerly work which, strangely enough, was something Gandhi had actually been trained to do. There is a lesson here such that 'all who run may read'.
Mind it kindly.

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