The Unsung Heroes of the Champaran Satyagraha

As India commemorates the centenary of the Champaran satyagraha, we must ensure that heroes like Pir Muhammed Munis are brought to the forefront of the narrative.

India is commemorating the centenary of the Champaran satyagraha, also known as the Indigo revolution. Long official celebrations are underway, beginning with an academic seminar at Muzaffarpur on April 10 – because it was on this day in 1917 that Mahatma Gandhi had reached Muzaffarpur. Such celebrations will serve a better purpose if the names of those unsung heroes, which have faced erasures across schools, are restored.

Muzaffarpur in Bihar was, and continues to be, the headquarters of the commissioner of the Tirhut division under whose jurisdiction the East (Motihari) and West (Bettiah) Champaran districts fall. From here, Gandhi proceeded to Champaran.

Historians have thus far largely ignored significant research about hitherto lesser known local leaders of the Champaran satyagraha. Far too much importance has been accorded to Raj Kumar Shukla. Even the introductory essay added by Bhairav Lal Das – the compiler of Shukla’s recently published diary – also suffers from big omissions. The diary was originally in the Kaithi script, which Shukla was familiar with. The most glaring omission in Shukla’s memoir is that of Pir Muhammed Munis (1882-1949), who was arguably the most significant leader of the Champaran peasants in the third phase of the struggle in 1917. Das, for reasons best known to him, has deliberately looked away from Pir Munis’ contributions as a writer and activist. Shukla was his associate.

The first phase of the peasant struggle in Champaran was during 1867-77, when peasant resistance remained couched within the legalities and resulted in small ripples without long-term effect. In the second significant wave of the peasant protests in Champaran (1907-09), there was defiance and violence. Shaikh Gulab (1858-1943) of the Chand Barwah village and Shaikh Rajab Ali were the leaders of this phase. These leaders could prevail upon the cultivators not to grow indigo and to resist the planters, sometimes with violence, when they tried to coerce the peasants to grow the cash crop. Gulab was tried on charges of unlawful assembly, arson, loot, and instigating fatal attacks on the planters and their property. The agitators were united in their opposition to the European planters irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Muslims took an oath of loyalty on the Quran; the Hindus did so before their idols, cows and under the sacred peepal trees. For a while there was widespread belief in the district that the reign of the English was over.

Pages of Shukla’s diary, where the most crucial details are covered, are largely wasted with trivial details. Even Gandhi had found his trip to Patna in the first week of April 1917 to be “a mistake”, wrote Arthur Herman in 2008. Gandhi was thoroughly disappointed with Shukla’s company – he described him in a letter as an “ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist” – and the sorry spectacle of untouchability that he witnessed at an advocate’s house in Patna, while the advocate was away. This induced Gandhi to shift his place of stay. “Then Gandhi remembered,” Herman wrote, “that a lawyer he knew from his London days was … a Muslim named Mazharul Haq”. Thereafter, Gandhi took matters into his own hands and arrived at Muzaffarpur.

Rajendra Prasad’s Autobiography (1957) and At The Feet of Mahatma (1956, p 9), and a number of other primary and secondary sources, abundantly testify that the delegation that went to Lucknow to draw the attention of the politically noteworthy in December 1916 consisted of Pir Munis, Haribansh Sahay and Shukla. The trip is said to have been funded by Haji Deen Mohammad Ansari (1883-1961). Pir Munis had already been writing news reports and columns about the wretched subjugation of the Champaran peasantry in the Hindi daily, Pratap (of Kanpur), edited by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi (1890-1931). Pir Munis was a local correspondent in the district. It was Pir Munis’s columns in Pratap that nationalised the cause of the Champaran peasantry. In fact all historical records suggest that Shukla was not very educated. Several local historians have also mentioned that it was Pir Munis who was the original author of the letters written to Gandhi in Shukla’s name.

Gulab and Shital Rai had heard of Pir Munis through his writings about the Champaran peasants in the Hindi press. In 1910, Pir Munis had travelled to Allahabad where he met Pundit Sundarlal, who introduced him to Vidyarthi. In his memoir, Banarsidas Chaturvedi (1892-1985) provides a lot of information about Pir Munis. B.B. Mishra’s collection of documents (1963) also makes many references to Pir Munis. The colonial records had already declared Pir Munis a ‘badmaash’ (criminally oriented) journalist. Based on archival documents, correspondences and other primary evidence, at least two thin biographical accounts of Pir Munis have come out in the current decade. One is by Shrikant (2011), a senior journalist who worked with the Hindi daily Hindustan (Patna) and is now the director of Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Studies and Politics in Patna. The other is by Afroz Alam Sahil (2015).

A sketch of Pir Munis.

A sketch of Pir Munis.

The two biographers of Pir Munis cite sources that claim that in early 1915 the writings of Pir Munis in Pratap, along with a pamphlet written by him, suggested that there were rumours in the area that the man from South Africa will soon be in their midst to mitigate the indigo farming drudgery. Confidential official correspondences published by Mishra carry documents wherein Pir Munis was kept on official surveillance by the Raj. The sub-divisional officer, W. H. Lewis, had declared that Pir Munis was a link leader between the educated, the semi-educated and the ryots (peasants). Furthermore, Lewis had claimed that, “Munis was the most prominent one” to have “offered assistance to Gandhi” by persuading him to visit Champaran.

A similar remark was made by the commissioner of Tirhut, in one such confidential correspondence. In February and March 1917, Pir Munis had written at least three letters to Gandhi, persuading him to come to Champaran. It is quite unfortunate that although this fact has been acknowledged by most local vernacular historians, as well as by Rajendra Prasad, most of the actual letters have been lost. Ramachandra Guha should not have overlooked all these significant accounts while writing about Shukla’s diary. Guha, it would appear, neglected to consult documents in Mishra’s volume, not to mention the more recent Hindi works on Pir Munis. It is of utmost importance to draw attention to the fact that on arrival in Bettiah, Gandhi made it a point to visit Pir Munis’ house first to meet his mother.

We don’t have much evidence to ascertain whether Gandhi looked back to the wretched peasantry of Champaran after the satyagraha of 1917, even though he did pay some more visits subsequently. Arvind N. Das wrote in 1983 that the Gandhi’s satyagraha in Champaran was no more than a 56 day wonder. Indigo farming was finished but the exploitation continued. The movement neither ended nor indeed was it aimed at ending exploitation. The people in Champaran explain through their folk saying, ‘Nilahe gaye, milahe aaye’ (The planters have gone and in their place have come the sugar-mill owners).

The issue of agricultural labour wage earners remained pathetically ignored. D.N. Dhanagre (1992) therefore says that perhaps it was a sense of pity or remorse, or both that prompted Gandhi to undertake some relief work for the poor peasants in Champaran. To run the schools and other ameliorative activities, Gandhi had to import volunteers from western India. Local support was lacking, hence it could not be sustained. Herman also concurs, “Gandhi was unhappy that the committee of inquiry’s final recommendations did little to change the lives of Champaran’s cultivators, and the peasant schools he had set up all folded once he left Bihar”.

It is a minor mystery as to why Gandhi, while writing in detail of Shukla in his autobiography, omits references of Pir Munis, Sahay or Gulab. Of course, Shukla’s diary too, refrains from mentioning these personalities.

In a public meeting in Champaran in 1950, Prasad, as the first president of independent India, promised to give 24 acres of government land to the poor Batakh Miyan, a cook who had, in 1917, prevented Gandhi’s assassination by a British plantation manager. Economist-historian Girish Mishra was also present at the meeting. But till 2010, the promise remained unrealised.

It may be noted that during 1946-50, hundreds of acres of lands in Sathi (Champaran) were being settled in the names of various influential people as per Arvind N. Das, (1983). Ram Manohar Lohia had enquired into it. In their accounts, peasant activists like Indradeep Sinha (1969), Ramnandan Mishra (1952) and others have written about the land loot in Sathi (Champaran). Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel resented the loot with tacit official support, and asked to cancel the settlements with Prajapati Mishra and his brother Ram Prasad Shahi. The Saathi Land Restoration Act was also legislated in 1950. But the likes of Pir Munis and Batakh Miyan remained landless, even  after India’s independence.

Historians also need to look into the class composition of the leaders of the Champaran satyagraha, which would partly explain why Champaran continues to suffer from poverty and inequality.

Prasad and Anugrah Narayan Sinha during Mahatma Gandhi's 1917 Champaran Satyagraha. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prasad and Anugrah Narayan Sinha during Mahatma Gandhi’s 1917 Champaran Satyagraha. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shukla’s holdings were seven times more  than the average landholding in Champaran, and he was a big moneylender too. So were Sant Raut, and Khendar Rai, who earned an interest of about a lakh per year from money lending. These leaders would appear to be fighting the Europeans for their own class interest. The Indian zamindars forcing opium cultivation were no less exploitative. But this issue did not draw the attention of the Congress stalwarts. Be it the interventions and writings of Gandhi and his upper caste urban advocates of Patna and Muzaffarpur – all discourse remained directed only against European planters, whereas local exploitative elements were left untouched. This explains why subaltern heroes like Pir Munis remain unsung.

As against this, Pir Munis kept writing about the Champaran peasantry even after 1920. He died wretchedly with severe ailments procured during frequent and long incarcerations. He was dismissed from his services as a teacher in the Bettiah Raj School. Shukla, on the other hand, went to jail only once in 1914 on charges of picking a fight with a planter. Chaturvedi’s memoir contains Pir Munis’ letters of privations in his personal life, during his last days, because of which, despite Chaturvedi’s insistence in 1944, Pir Munis could not find time to write his own memoir. A profile of him has been written by Acharya Shivpujan Sahay also. Rahul Sankritayan has also written about him at length. In 1958-59, historian K.K. Datta (1905-82) had obtained from Pir Munis’ house some correspondence, and a manuscript on the history of Champaran. He reported it in the Regional Records Survey Committee Report of 1958-59. Unfortunately, all these are lost now. Quite a lot of Pir Munis’ works which had been compiled for publication were destroyed in the earthquake of 1934.

A thankless nation has forgotten the man who suffered so much for the emancipation of hapless peasants of his area and later, for the larger freedom struggle. It is surprising that the Congress did not put forward Pir Munis as a symbol of struggle against divisive forces during 1937-46 elections. For the Congress, Pir Munis had resigned from the chairmanship of the district board in 1939. He was among the founders of the district Congress committee of Champaran in 1921, and never quit the Congress. The centenary celebration must ensure that the unsung heroes of the Champaran satyagraha are resurrected and brought to the forefront of the narrative. Historiography has thus far, regrettably, been very unkind to such unsung heroes.

Mohammad Sajjad is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University. Afroz Alam Sahil is a freelance journalist. 

Note: This article was edited to replace Arthur Herman’s description of Gandhi’s characterisation of Raj Kumar Shukla as an “idiot” with Gandhi’s own words to describe him: an “ignorant, unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist”.