As we gear up to celebrate India’s 72nd Independence Day, we will come across many references to the national freedom struggles such as the Non-Cooperation Movement and Civil Disobedience Movement, and the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, among the thousands who gave their lives for the freedom of India. But as we focus on the nation-wide movements that shook the anchors of British colonialism, what we often don’t realise is that there were countless smaller and regional revolutions (Satyagraha) within the length and breadth of the country, that not only added to the nation-wide agitation, but could often have helmed a more grand and widespread movement.
This year, we take a look at one such Satyagraha, which was the first of its kind under the British Colonial rule in India, and even gained recognition from Mahatma Gandhi at the time. The year was 1920, and it is known as the Kandel Nahar Satyagraha, which currently falls under the state of Chhattisgarh. Referred to as the Jal Satyagraha, or Water Satyagraha, in the history pages, the incident was the result of the decree by the British government, which imposed a very high irrigation tax on the people. The government also insisted that the local farmers enter into a 10-year contract with the state, the payment of which was impossible for the locals.
However, as Vipin Tirkey, Assistant Professor, History in Chhattisgarh’s Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya, writes in a paper on ‘Success of Various Satyagharas in Dhamtari Area (A Study from 1920-1930)’, without demanding water from villagers’ order to bring Kandel village under their settlement, the government flew some water in their fields. Thus, the British government forcefully declared money payment warrant of about Rs 4,000 from Kandel villagers. In protest, the villagers launched a satyagraha against the British government.
The British administration tried to “illegally” collect money from the villagers, but they — led by Pt Sundarlal Sharma, Narayan Rao Meghawale and Babu Chhotelal Srivastava — collectively agreed to protest by not paying up. Quite unsurprisingly, the government did not take kindly to this, and seized all their cattle for an auction. However, since the neighbouring villages and local authorities were cognizant of the atrocities by the government, no one came up to bid for the cattle, foiling the British attempt to punish the rebellious Dhamtari locals.
The administration was neither able to recover the fines nor was it able to arrange for ample fodder for the animals, and they started becoming sick. This was a new problem for the administration, as both sides refused to give in. This, coupled with Gandhi’s nationalist cry to protest against the British government, led to the satyagraha continuing for five months. The Satyagrahis of Kandel decided to contact Gandhi for guidance and leadership on how to take the movement forward. Sharma even went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to meet him and invite him to Kandel.
Interestingly, acknowledging the gravity of the issue, even the irrigation department officials supported the villagers. By this time, the Jal Satyagraha had created quite an uproar, and the Deputy-Commissioner of Raipur launched an investigation into the matter. He soon found in favour of the locals, because of which the fine of around Rs 4,000 was cancelled and the cattle returned to their respective owners. Thus in fact, by the time Gandhi came to Kandel for the first time on 21 December 1920, the Jal Satyagraha of Kandel Nahar had already become successful.
Not only were the cattle returned to the villagers and the fine cancelled, but the possessions seized by the government were also returned. When Gandhi came to Dhamtari, he praised the efforts of the local villagers and satyagrahis during his address at the Makai-Band Chowk.
“In some ways, this was the first no-tax campaign against the British in India…and could be seen as the genesis of the Civil Disobedience Movement, which began a decade later in 1930,” says Prof Abha Rupendra Pal, Head of Department, History, at Chhattisgarh’s Pt Ravishankar Shukla University.