Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The truth about Champaran

Two different things happened over the course of 1916-17 which defined India's subsequent trajectory. Firstly, Mohammad Ali Jinnah helped the Muslim League come to an agreement with the Indian National Congress. Secondly, well organised Hindu mobs targeted Muslims over a wide area of Bihar on the issue of cow-slaughter. Taken together, these two events determined the subsequent course of Indian history by making it clear that, firstly, Hindus and Muslims would co-operate to take more and more power from the British and finally throw them out all together and, secondly, that Majoritarian policies would de facto obtain, no matter what agreements were made. Minorities would have to accept second class status or migrate.

This was not inevitable and certainly not desirable. For historical reasons, many of the most public spirited people in Hindu majority areas were Muslim. Whichever genuine socio-political problem we look at, we find there were extremely able and far sighted Muslims involved at a grass-roots level. No doubt, there was an elite element with a comprador attitude which turned the existence of minorities into a raison d'etre for the Raj. Yet, organised communalism which instrumentalized mob violence on supposedly religious grounds was equally an elite affair. Both types of elite politics back-fired spectacularly. Sadly, Socialism was not able to fill the vacuum they left because of its own instrumentalization of caste. What remained was the remorseless corruption and criminalization of politics with little thought being given to governance or the Rule of Law.

In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi, still a novice on the Indian political stage, had little or nothing to do with either malign development. However, he did get involved in an unimportant side-show- viz. the anti indigo-planter agitation in Champaran. This did wonders for his reputation though, when we look into matters a little more closely, we find that Gandhi's experiences in Champaran, where he was living amongst people whose language and mode of livelihood he did not understand, shaped his thinking in a highly unfortunate manner.

The inequities associated with Indigo cultivation had long been known. Otto Trevelyan's best-selling 'the Competition wallah' dwells upon it length in a book published before Gandhi was born. The play 'Neel Darpan'- the mirror of indigo- was equally famous among the Bengali and Bihari speaking people. A Scottish missionary was sentenced to jail for translating it into English. 

The presence of European planters meant that the Champaran agitation- spearheaded by moneylenders, businessmen, lawyers and well off tenants- could take on an anti-Imperialist colouring. However, the Government was already aware that the campaign was meaningless. This is because an agricultural institute had been established in Pusa, near Champaran, with money given by an American friend of Lord Curzon. British agricultural scientists had come to the conclusion that indigo was unprofitable though, curiously, it's byproduct was a good fertiliser. The future lay with tobacco. By 1916, ITC was active in encouraging planters to switch to tobacco- new strains of which were being developed in a Scientific manner. Many ex-indigo planters ended up working for or alongside ITC.

The war, which had caused competition from the German artificial dye to be temporarily suspended, had created an anomalous situation where tenants who had refused to pay a bounty to be released from the obligation to grow some indigo, believing the crop to be unprofitable, now found themselves required to do so. This threatened the prosperity of a new indigenous middle class which was upwardly mobile and keenly interested in the vernacular press. Such people saw that the Indian National Congress could become their vehicle for class power if it abandoned its elitist Anglophone ways and embraced the vernacular language and political culture.  The genius of Raj Kumar Shukla- a clever agriculturist who had developed in to a wheeler-dealer earning a good income from money-lending- lay in persuading Gandhi to come to Champaran.  This was because Gandhi was known to be impeccably pro-British. Furthermore, if he was externed from the District, C.F. Andrews would take over. The charge that 'slavery' was continuing in a disguised form was a very serious one. The Govt. rightly considered Gandhi less dangerous than Andrews, so the latter went off to Fiji to look into the plight of the Indian plantation workers there.

Gandhi, a trained lawyer, did a good job in Champaran. He refused to admit obviously fraudulent affidavits. Furthermore, he was able to attract good quality volunteers as well as generous funding for the setting up of Schools etc. However, these initiatives collapsed quite quickly. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Research Institute, together with private sector initiatives, was changing the prospects of the better off agriculturists. The landless labourers and Scheduled Castes however gained nothing or, indeed, lost some entitlements. By the 1930's, there was a clear schism along class and caste lines in the countryside. The British no longer had salience as they themselves saw that only the rational application of Technology and Agricultural Science- not legal trickery or strong arm tactics- could enable them to recoup their investments.

The brilliant, mainly Kayastha, lawyer-politicians, like Brajkishore Prasad (later the father in law of 
JP Narayan) and Rajendra Prasad, became devoted Gandhians because he appeared to cross class and caste lines in a manner that did not undermine the socio-economic order. JP's subsequent highly quixotic trajectory shows both the positive and negative fall out of Gandhi's Champaran campaign. Like Gandhi, JP appeared to be tackling fundamental problems at the grass-roots level. In reality, he was undermining the rule of law and preparing the ground for the apotheosis of the caste based gangster politician.

On the one hand, Gandhi's 'mass contact' initially had an alethic basis. Gandhi was actually taking down some truthful affidavits. On the other, he completely neglected the broader Economic and Scientific picture. Why? Gandhi espoused a worldview stuck hopelessly in the past. He was against factories. His clients had brought him in because they knew he would see the indigo factory as something inherently evil. The need for tobacco or sugar or flour factories- to which farmers wanted to sell their produce- is what is missing from his report. Thus, it suggested no new way forward for the people of the region.

The most glaring lacuna in Gandhi's report on Champaran is the manner on which it capitalises on the genuine suffering of the poorest but does so in a disingenuous manner by conflating it with the economic harm sustained by the better off. A wealthy man owning 200 hundred acres, who has an elephant in his stable, suffers some property damage inflicted by goons employed by the factory. His pain and suffering gets recorded and is used as an argument against Imperialism. Meanwhile the 'untouchable' deprived of customary rights by that same man is completely ignored.

Gandhi in his autobiography constantly harps on the indigence and simplicity of Raj Kumar Shukla. Yet the man was earning more, according to his own testimony to the Inquiry Commission, than an ICS officer.  He had been previously dismissed from a post as an Estate Manager for peculation. He may have been born into relative poverty, but he was a cunning man who had done very well for himself.

Around the same time that Gandhi was earning his spurs in Champaran,  a 26 year old Muslim's talent and good character was taken official note of by his elevation to the style and title of Nawab of Chattari. He had been educated up to the Tenth standard at a good school but then been forced to take over the management of his small family estate. He turned out to be a very good farmer. By his thrift and energy he was able to buy up surrounding estates and also to establish schools and see to the proper running of the local administration. Later he would lament his failure to set up factories on his Estates so that agricultural improvement went hand in hand with the creation of better quality livelihoods. However, his education had been purely literary. Still, people like him were starting to understand the importance of technical education- in particular in engineering.

 The Nawab of Chattari's ability made him a natural representative of the 'Landlord's party' and so he was appointed a Minister of Industries in the Provincial Cabinet in the Twenties. Gaining access to technocrats, the Nawab fostered agro-industries. He had a distinguished public career and was trusted by all. Curiously, he was Pakistan's second High Commissioner to India yet, by prior agreement, he kept his Indian citizenship and died many years later full of honours in his ancestral home.

Gandhi's politics did have appeal to brilliant lawyers, like Rajendra Prasad, as well as enterprising landlords like the Nawab. Why? Well, Gandhi was appealing to Universal Morality. He wasn't peddling a paranoid sectarian message- e.g. 'Islam is in danger!' or 'Protect the Cow!. 

Unfortunately, Gandhi was ignoring something more important than Universal Morality- viz Practical Reason- doing sensible things rather than talking worthless shite. The result was that he and his followers became habitual liars and self-aggrandising fantasists. Gandhi wasted over a million dollars on his Khadi campaign. Yet Khadi, like indigo, was bound to disappear. The obstinate European planters, who ostracised the British agricultural expert for telling them this truth, were forced to change their minds. Indigo was abandoned, Tobacco flourished. Similarly, those handloom weavers who rejected Gandhi's advise and bought Mill Yarn for their looms and mill-cloth for themselves, were able to make a good living by concentrating on the top end of the market. Others, who relied on Gandhian institutions- which were later on taken over by the Government- slowly starved.

The truth about Gandhi's sojourn in Champaran is that it was the opposite of  Ceasar's-  'veni, vidi, vici'. He came to Champaran but he didn't see what was really happening there because he hadn't been brought there to see anything except what his client wanted him to see. Still, as Rajendra Prasad says, he did weed out some of the more obviously fraudulent affidavits. But he didn't see the bigger fraud being practised upon him. He conquered nothing. He was conquered by a particular upwardly mobile Hindu class and used thereafter as a sort of mascot by them. Thus, at the same time as Gandhi was taking affidavits in Champaran, the Shahabad riots were being planned. Prasad himself remained a high level Hindu Mahasabha member for some years subsequently. Majoritarianism, in Bihar, proceeded apace under a Gandhian mask. With hindsight, everybody lost, not gained, by this fraud because able people- like the Nawab of Chattari- were being shut out of policy making because they belonged to the wrong religion or caste. Politics, as a profession, became tarnished- it was seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

The Indian countryside would like quite different now if money raised for Khilafat or Khaddar or other such worthless kaka had been invested in Agricultural Research Institutes and Colleges.  Similarly, had the worthless boodhan movement concentrated on updating Land Registers and educating villagers to ensure that title in land was accurately and incorruptibly kept, then Socio-economic development would have been much more rapid and benign.

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