Indigo started growing commercially in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal in 1750 by the British East India company, primarily for export to China, UK and Europe.
The trade was lucrative and led to the fortunes of several Asian and European traders and companies.Hence the British colonialists forced farmers to grow indigo, often by making this the condition for providing loans, and through collusion with local kings, nawabs, and landlords.
Being a cash crop which needed high amounts of water and which left the soil infertile, local farmers usually opposed its cultivation, instead preferring to grow crops for daily need such as rice and pulses. The farmers were protesting against having to grow indigo with barely any payment for it.
The farmers of Champaran used to follow the “panchkathiya” system, whereby five katthas of land in a bigha had to be planted with indigo.
The local agitators and leaders like Sheikh Gulab, Harbans Sahay, Pir Mohammed Munsi, Sant Rawat and Lomrah Singh agitated against the “panchkathiya” system and managed to extract some concession and the system that came to be practised was the “tinkathiya” system (three, instead of five, katthas of land was to be planted with indigo).
Raj Kumar Shukla was not happy with concession and wanted to change the obnoxious system of agricultural labour prevailing in Champaran. They could not grow the food they needed, nor did they receive adequate payment for the indigo.
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi and Peer Muneesh published the condition of Champaran in their publications because of which they lost their jobs.
In 1915, when Gandhiji returned from South Africa, and attended Lucknow Session of the Congress, his attention was taken by the peasants’ delegation, that went all the way to Lucknow from Champaran to drag the attention of the top leaders towards their plight. Gandhi believed that it was the best time to start Satyagraha and that too from Champaran.
Raj Kumar Shukla and Sant Raut, a moneylender who also owned some land, persuaded Gandhi to go to Champaran and thus, the Champaran Satyagraha began. Its objective was to create awakening among the peasants against the European planters.
Gandhi arrived in Champaran, on 10 April 1917 and stayed at the house of Sant Raut in Amolwa village.
His handpicked team of eminent lawyers comprising Rajendra Prasad, Anugrah Narayan Sinha & Babu Brajkishore Prasad organised a detailed study and survey of the villages, accounting the atrocities and terrible episodes of suffering, including the general state of degenerate living.
Gandhi established few basic school near Champaran to fight illiteracy, generate awareness among the rural people and to recruit fresh volunteers.
As a result, he was arrested by police on the charge of creating unrest and was ordered to leave the province. Hundreds of thousands of people protested and rallied outside the jail, police stations and courts demanding his release, which the court unwillingly did.
Gandhi led organised protests and strikes against the landlords, who with the guidance of the British government, signed an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the poor farmers of the region, and cancellation of revenue hikes and collection until the famine ended.
Finally, Government set up committee of enquiry, with such broad terms of reference as to cover all the matters that were relevant to peasants, their grievances was to be instituted, the committee to include Gandhiji as member along with a representative of planters and another of zamindars and three British officials, including the president of the committee.
It was due to his leadership that the planters expressed their readiness to reduce the rent but by only 25%, while Gandhiji demanded a reduction of at least 40%. Finally, he without annoying anyone accepted a 26% reduction.
When the committee made its report on 3rd October, 1917, it ultimately proved the success of the movement and the leadership of Gandhi. It recommended the abolition of the tinkathia system and gave freedom to the peasants to grow whatever crop they chose.
Further, the British showed no hesitation in setting up a Committee of Enquiry which included Gandhiji as a member and thereafter proceeded to pass the Champaran Agrarian Act of 1918.
The Champaran movement is described to be a success story in the history of peasant movements in India.
It was during this agitation, that first time Gandhi was called “Bapu” (Father) by Sant Raut and “Mahatma” (Great Soul). Gandhi himself did not like being addressed as “Mahatma”, preferring to be called Bapu.