After returning from South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi let it be known that he intended to stay permanently in India. He attended the 1916 Congress session in Lucknow. Although he was well known in India because of his activities in South Africa, he did not play any significant role in the session. Nevertheless, a very important development took place. A poor peasant from Bihar came to the session in search of someone to take up the cause of the peasantry in Champaran. The peasants were exploited for years by the British plantation owners. At that juncture, Gandhi knew little about Champaran. After listening to their pathetic situation, he took up their cause. He went to Champaran, recruited some bright young lawyers, drew up a plan for Satyagraha and organised the Satyagrahis.

Champaran was, according to EMS Namboodiripad, “the first mass struggle which Gandhi led in India”. Almost immediately, he achieved considerable success. The grievances of the peasants were redressed and the bulk of the extortion money that was collected from them was returned. But Gandhi did not stop at this. He went further and initiated the first village improvement programme that included sanitation, cleanliness and health care. These constructive and long-term programmes were not very successful. But the importance of Champaran was not confined to the alleviation of the miseries of the poor peasants or the successes and failures of long-term programmes. Its importance was in the emergence of Gandhi as the new force in Indian politics. His unprecedented success and his use of a new technique made him an instant national hero.

The importance of Champaran can be assessed in four spheres. First, the Indian intelligentsia was well informed about Gandhi’s success in South Africa which was greeted with public acclaim. However, South Africa was far from India and since his return in 1915, the Mahatma had maintained a low profile. Not much notice was taken of his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river and his somewhat unconventional ideas. But Champaran demonstrated what Gandhi could do.

Second, the achievement at Champaran was Gandhi’s personal triumph. He did it alone, demonstrating self-reliance and thus achieved remarkable results. Third, his method of organising the movement earned wide publicity and was a striking departure from the earlier praxis of the Congress. “It had been a practical achievement,” remarked Moon, “brought about in quite a novel manner. The systematic onthe-spot surveys, the transparent readiness to face imprisonment it was all so different from the endless talk and high-standing resolutions of the stock Indian politicians”. Fourth, to many, the action-oriented Gandhi offered an alternative to terror tactics of the revolutionary nationalists and an ineffective Congress. Apart from these significant achievements, the importance of the agrarian movement in Champaran and the subsequent Kheda Satyagraha movement of 1918 was that Gandhi dealt with specific economic problems of the poor and successfully tested the Satyagraha techniques for the first time in India.

In Ahmedabad, the dispute was over wages. The mill owners offered an increase of 20 per cent and the workers, led by the sister of the mill owner and subsequently by Gandhi, wanted a 35 per cent hike. Gandhi agreed to lead the workers on the clear understanding that they would adhere to the following stipulations: (1) not to resort to violence at any given time; (2) not to molest blacklegs at any time; (3) not to depend on alms at any time and (4) to remain firm for the entire period of the strike and during this period, earn their bread by honest labour. Maintenance of peace and self-respect were the other two principles that Gandhi emphasised.

It was not an easy struggle. The strict stipulations that prohibited any form of charity and the stupendous task of providing alternative jobs to thousands of people had demoralised the workers after two weeks. To restore their morale, Gandhi resorted to a fast for the first time in the name of Satyagraha. Immediately after this dramatic act, an agreement was reached through arbitration and to the satisfaction of the workers. Arbitration was an important instrument for eliminating ill-feelings among the parties after the strike. The agitation, according to BR Nanda, “was a turning point in the labour-employer relations in Ahmedabad”.

Like his efforts in Champaran, Gandhi was not only interested in a short-term settlement but also initiated several long-term constructive programmes. Because of the strike, one of the Gandhian trade unions, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association was formed, and it exists even today. The Association was set up to implement the Gandhian concept of the relationship of employer and employee. It was meant to be much more than a mere trade union, with its library, hospital, school, recreation centres, banks, and newspapers, patterned after the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. The Ahmedabad model differed from the one adopted in Champaran in two ways: (1) it was conducted well within the Indian community while in Champaran it was against the British plantation owners; and (2) it was conducted in one of the most industrialised areas of the country, while Champaran was an obscure rural area.

Gandhi’s successful leadership in Champaran and Ahmedabad was of enormous importance, opening a new phase in Indian politics. Within a few months, he convincingly demonstrated his ability to lead both the rural and the urban masses. By coincidence, rather than by design, the Mahatma entered the Indian political scene when people were looking for change. He was the leader who could bring about large-scale social change, an urgent imperative. Gandhi’s actions in Champaran and Ahmedabad led to the beginning of new politics in India. It assumed greater importance in the early 1920s with the beginning of the non-cooperation movement, the first nationwide struggle for independence. Gandhi provided not only the leadership but the means for effectively organising the freedom movement and for establishing a new order based on Sarvodaya, the welfare of all. The Gandhian era began with the struggles in Champaran and Ahmedabad , notably the effective use of the techniques of non-violent Satyagraha.

The writer is former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi