100 years after Mahatma Gandhi undertook his iconic Champaran Satyagraha, a dhoti-clad man like himself set out on a mission. He undertook a Satyagraha yatra of his own, which began in the historic location of Meerut, where the First Independence movement began 160 years ago. Thereafter, he visited the ghats of Varanasi, where the movement against the Imperial House Tax had been mobilised 200 years ago. He then made a pilgrimage to Champaran on the 17th of April, which was the very day when Gandhi ji commenced his movement. His next stops comprised of Singur and Nandigram, sites associated with the Bhu Satyagraha movements. The Dhoti man then ventured on the Salt Satyagraha road in Orissa until he concluded his journey on the community Seed Bank in Orissa on Mother Earth Day. Having travelled 3000 kilometres across six states, fifteen districts with a travel bag filled with four khadi dhotis, Indra Shekhar Singh or the Dhoti man, as he refers to himself in this article, shares the story of his extraordinary journey.
To answer these questions, I spoke with Gandhians, students, thought leaders and farmers across the extraordinary breadth of northwest India. But far from the a simple answer, they opened a pandora’s box of questions, which still lie unanswered.
To begin with, many people would ask me: Why a yatra in the month of April in 2017?
Well, a Vedic political astrologer may see 2017 as the year of the greatest convergence of political events in India, but let me stick to facts only for now. The propitious year of 2017 marks the 160th anniversary of the First War of Independence (1857), 100 years of the Champaran Satyagraha (1917), 75 years of the Quit India Movement (1942), 70 years of India’s independence (1947) and finally, 260 years of Bharat’s conquest by the East India Company, after the defeat Battle of Plassey (1757).
I started my journey from Kali Paltan (Black Platoon) Mandir in Meerut, reaching next to remember the Jallinwaha Bagh Massacre in Delhi and then finding my way along the Ganga into Varanasi, Patna, and taking a detour into most biodiverse regions of India, Muzaffarpur, Motihari, Beetiah, Chapra, and then drifting into Singur, Kolkata, Nandigram, the site of the biggest people’s victory against corporate land grab, and then onwards to largest site of the Salt Satyagraha in Balasore and finally reaching our last destination Bhubaneshwar on the Bay of Bengal. Throughout my extensive wanderings, I was hoping to unearth glimpses of the past, unlearn modern history and stumble upon real people's stories about how Bharat resisted the savage British Empire and their attempts to break and plunder the soul of India.
If I had to search for the ideal, of the “half naked Fakir”, I had to be the fakir myself. You can’t search for Gandhi and feel Gandhi if you butcher his principles. So for this journey, I shed all western clothing wrapped myself in a one-cloth swadeshi-spun dhoti and thus began my quest.
Rolling, folding and wrapping in different types of folds and styles from each place I visited.
But searching through the ruins of Patliputra to Balasore, meandering through multiple Gandhi ashrams and some of India's most bio-diverse villages in northern Bihar, Bengal and Odisha, I was on a deeper quest to uncover embers that unshackle Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the prison of PR agencies, ad firms and currency notes. This yatra attempts to paint an image of not just the person, but rather to canvas his ideas, thoughts and non-violent Satyagraha in a time of violence, greed and fear.
The man born in Leningrad of India
After turning off the Gandhi Maidan Chowk in Patna, I arrived at my destination - the Gandhi Sangrahalya. Here, I met with its founder-secretary since 1959, Dr Razi Ahmad. Born in Begusarai, which is popularly hailed as the ’Leningrad of India’, Ahmad has written over a dozen books in English, Hindi and Urdu – including one on Gandhi and most recently on Narendra Modi.
Ahmad is the grand patriarch of the Sangrahalya and a living storehouse of memories and history associated with the Gandhian thought and philosophy. In his lifetime, he has crossed paths with leaders like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Husain, JB Kriplani, Balwant Rai, Ram Manohar Lohia and has worked “very closely with JP Narayan”. The Partition, the Emergency, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom; Ahmad has lived through and seen a lot in his life. He knows and believes that the Gandhian way is perhaps the only route to save India, and this planet, from another holocaust.
The 'miracle man' of Champaran
“It all began with the greed of the British Empire and their Indigo planters... their insatiable corruption knew no bounds. First, they captured the Bettiah Raj (the second-largest zamindari estate in India, now known as Bihar) and then all of Champaran," Ahmad said.
As per his research, British planters had started to exploit farmers in India through forcible Indigo cultivation ever since the 19th century. Non-compliant farmers were harassed by the planters as ditches would be dug around their houses to create a barricade for essential resources and services. The planters demanded triple taxation in form of kaithiya lagaan, and did not permit the planting of food crops. Local voices were brutally crushed and the lands of the resisting farmers were auctioned off. Ahmad continues, ”It was since the entry of the planters and the establishment of the Indigo factories that the plight of farmers in Bettiah Raj began. By 1907, a chain of rebellions against the planters had started. But they were not well-organised”.
"There was an Arya Samaj preacher by the name of Jamunananda, who went around Champaran telling people that a miracle man (Gandhi) was coming to Champaran. When Gandhi arrived, the farmers believed that he was the miracle man, and history has shown that he was indeed a miraculous man," Ahmad elaborates.The arrival of Gandhi in Champaran gave the anti-planters’ movement a definitive direction. It also helped converge all forces fighting against the rampant British atrocities.
"At great personal cost, people like Kheda Rai, Gulab Rai and Sheikh Gulab prepared the ground for the Champaran Satyagraha by resisting the British. We can never forget the role of Raj Kumar Shukla, who was involved in almost all of the rebellions before Gandhi.. he is responsible for bringing Gandhi to Champaran. Today, great efforts are being made to re-write history – abuse Gandhi’s name and Champaran Satyagraha for political gains. But, we as Indians can never forget what the people of Bihar, along with Gandhi, have done for the world. They have lit a path of us, that we need to follow in these troubled times,” concludes Ahmad.
The Times of Bettiah
Champaran today is spilt into two districts- East and West Champaran. It remains, without doubt, one of the most fertile and bio-diverse areas of India. The legacy of the Bettiah Raj lies in ruins. While wandering in this locality, one can distinguish three characteristics- that the people are simple; the mutton savoury; and that there are no beggars. Though this part of Bihar is peaceful, Ahmad warns us that it may not be so for long.
“Today, historian Bipin Chandra must be laughing in his grave, as his prophecy has come true. He had said, “to save democracy, the leaders of oppositions shook hands with fascists back in the 1970s and the fate of India forever changed,”” Ahmad quotes. He was referring to the formation of the Jan Sangh and the first non-Congress government. In Ahmad’s view, Narendra Modi is a direct result of the Sampurna Kranti of JP. On being asked about the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), he comments, "Well the RSS is spineless, as they can only trouble and torture the Muslims. That is there only agenda.” Ahmad said that we was very much perturbed by the internal violence erupting in India. The divisions, the hate, he says, troubles his soul. He wonders is this Gandhi’s India?
So, where do we go from here? What is the Gandhian way out?
His answer was simple: "We have to save the Indian Constitution. That is our only saviour. There will be an attempt to change the Constitution by the present government and the corporations, but we have to use Satyagraha to resist” he adds. For Ahmad, the Indian system of democracy is incomplete and broken as there is no right to recall, no accountability.
"India belongs to every Indian – rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, etc. It troubles me to see what we have become, and it is very painful to know that this is the India we helped build, went to jail for... for which leaders like Gandhi died for," an emotional Ahmad added. Walking through Ahmad's recollections and memories does raise a vexing question: Where did India go wrong?
It is no secret that Gandhi is long dead and his vision - Bharat of 700,000 village republics are putrefying with poverty, dependence and chemical poisons spreading in our agriculture.
Most people I met and interviewed for the story laughed at Gandhi and his ideals, while other used him as a shield to run business.
While I was making swadeshi salt in Inchudi, site of the salt satygraha, the taste made me realise, that corporations control our salt supply and profit hugely was rebranding real salt as “sea salts”. So why did Gandhi fight for rights of people to make salt?
But Gandhi is not irrelevant, each time when a farmer commits suicide because of debt, maybe Gandhi is laughing at the helpless India and her cad people. By veering off from swadeshi Bharat, and Hind Swaraj we have lost out. Today, very much like the East India Company, corporations such as Monsanto/Bayer, Dow/DuPont not only threaten to control our foods and medicine, but their reach is so intimate that they command life.
When the violence and pain gets too much and still you harbour compassion in your heart, Gandhi comes to life. When you want peace truly Gandhi comes to life. When hypocrisy, deceit and public relations run countries and the world Gandhi is smirking at us, for the only solution, it seems today is to go beyond Gandhi. It is to be guided by the principles of non-violence, swadeshi and truth. In a country where 3,10,000 farmers have committed suicide in over ten years, we have to make our desi seeds the chakra of today. If we can apply these principles in each dimensions of our lives it is the only way we can win back Bharat, it is the only chance at real freedom, that was lost to the Company Raj, 300 years ago.
About the writer
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh’s Daiya village, Indra Shekhar Singh is an ex-Mayoite and Stephenian, who is presently working as a freelance writer and environmental activist. He is actively involved with organic farmers across India and has also been invited to represent Indian farmers at the Monsanto Tribunal, in The Hague 2016. Furthermore, Indra has written extensively on GM (genetically modified) crops, environmental issues, demonetisation and politics. He has been invited to brief Parliamentary Standing committees on GM and environmental issues. Indra also happens to be the grandson of India’s former Prime Minister, Shri V.P. Singh.
To know more about Indra Shekhar Singh, please log onto www.indrvani.blogspot.in
Alternatively, he can be e-mailed at email@example.com and his Twitter handle is @IndraSsingh.