Amidst official commemorations of the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha, it is necessary to stress the contemporary relevance of that historic peasant movement that played such a crucial part in India’s freedom struggle. The British had, through the Permanent Settlement, established the zamindari system in the villages of Bengal-Bihar-Odisha. Later, tenant farmers in Champaran were forced to grow some indigo on some of their land as a condition of their tenancy. Restricted cultivation of food crops led to the threat of famine. A variety of taxes like baphi-putahi, motahari, painkharcha, phagvui etc were levied on the peasants, and local landlords also would auction off tenant peasants’ lands.
The Champaran Satyagraha was fought by the peasants and agricultural labourers to free themselves not only from the colonial yoke but from the yoke of zaminadari. Eventually, India became free and zaminadari was abolished – but land reform was never carried out in its true sense. The D Bandyopadhyaya Land Reforms Commission for Bihar observed that “Zamindari Raj is still in place in Champaran.” We see this on the one hand in the continuation of the feudal estates of Vilaspur, Shikarpur, Dumariya, and Ramnagar, and the thousands of acres of land owned by the sugar mill owners; and on the other hand in the outmigration for work, the desperate poverty and landlessness in the region. Today, nearly 55,500 hectares of land is illegally possessed by big landlords, industrialists and sugar mills. The Harinagar Sugar Mill, Gawandra and Bahuarva farms lost their cases to retain the illegal possession of land in the Supreme Court; 5200 acres of their land were declared in surplus of the ceiling. According to the Land Reforms Commission’s recommendations, of the 21 lakh acres of land stolen by landlords in Bihar, 1,37,000 acres are in West Champaran. The Government ought to take possession of this land and distribute it amongst the poor. If this is not done, landlords will keep utilizing loopholes in the land reforms laws and selling off their land.
Today, the Modi Government is once again establishing Company Raj in the country and agriculture is especially badly hit by this. Companies are able to grab peasants’ land; laws protecting adivasis’ land are being loosened to facilitate land grab; movements against land grab in Odisha are being branded ‘Maoist’ to justify repression; corporations have a stranglehold over seeds, fertilizers and other necessities.
In Bihar, sugar mill owners continue to exploit the sugarcane growing peasants and workers. In the mills, women and children are made to perform bonded labour, working 10-12 hours a day and getting paid Rs 60 per day (the minimum wage is Rs 197). In many villages of Ramnagar and Bagha-II, the hatahi system of payment is still in place. The Nitish Government is also forcibly evicting poor peasants from land. Lalmati Devi of Pipra village close to Gandhiji’s Bhitaharva Ashram, and Jaynath Manjhi of Semri-Dumri village were among those whose houses were destroyed at the behest of the district administration. In Mainatand, the district administration is evicting the poor from land, declaring its own decision to be a decision of the High Court.
The Bihar government is trying to end the inherent identity of Champaran and publicize it as a mere tourist attraction, whereas the centenary year of the Champaran Satyagraha which is an example of the historic fight of farmers against the British Raj and its atrocities. That is why CPI(ML), AIARLA and Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Mahasabha (AIKM) organised a Bihar-wide Land Rights Week from 25-31 March 2017 to mark the Champaran Satyagraha centenary year.
Land Reforms Satyagraha
The Land Reforms Satyagraha Week commemorated Champaran Satyagraha Centenary Year an year of land reform agitations. The land reform Satyagraha week was organized with the demands: to implement land reform recommendations; 5 decimal housing land for all landless people; parchas to be given to poor who have settled on lands; new urban land ceiling law; all urban poor to be given housing land; stop eviction of poor without first making proper alternative arrangements; parchas for dalits and poor on dakhal-kabja lands; all forest dwellers to be given legal rights to lands as per forest land rights law; registration of and all government facilities for sharecroppers; stop eviction of Sikmi sharecroppers and give them their ancestral land rights.
Motihari Bandh Against Police Firing
The Birla owned Motihari Sugar Mill had closed down in 2005 but till today 100 workers and 200 sugar cane farmers have not received the payment due to them. When appealed to by the workers and farmers, the Supreme Court had directed the mill owners to make the payments without delay. The workers and farmers had been holding a dharna since 7 April at the mill gate demanding compliance with the SC order. When the Bihar government and administration still paid no heed, two protesters Naresh Shrivastava and Suraj Baitha immolated themselves, resulting in the death of the former. The insensitive administration, instead of heeding the dharna demands, cracked down on the protesters with brutal repression. The DM, SP and SDO reached the venue and the protesters were surrounded and subjected to lathi-charge, tear gas and firing, resulting in many being injured.
On 11 April a CPI (ML) team visited the Sadar Hospital, the sugar mill, and the workers’ quarters to enquire into the incident. They found that the dharna-holders had informed 17 authorities (including the PM, CM, Agriculture Minister, and DM) by registered post of the proposed self-immolation programme and had also put up 10,000 posters in different parts of the city, which the administration is now getting removed. Nobody from the police or the DM office went to the spot before the self-immolation neither took any action prior to the incident. The district administration is squarely responsible for the self-immolation and for firing on protesters.
On 12 April CPI(ML) called for a Motihari bandh in which hundreds of people took to the streets, starting from the railway station, proceeding through the main road and blockading the State Highway at Chhatauni Chowk. The brutal firing and lathi charge on workers is an insult to Gandhiji’s Champaran Satyagraha whose centenary, ironically, the government is observing with great pomp and show and hypocrisy.
Hunger Fasts as Part of Land Rights Satyagraha
The CPI (ML) held a 24 hour hunger strike in front of the MuzaffarpurCollectorate on 10-11 April 2017 in the second phase of the land rights Satyagraha to mark the Champaran Satyagraha centenary year, during which they raised slogans exposing the Modi and Nitish governments’ eyewash in the name of Satyagraha and hypocritical ‘following’ of Gandhi, demanding land rights for the poor and stopping the construction of the destructive Baghmati dam and embankment. Similar hunger fasts were observed at Motihari on 17-18 April, and Betia (21-22 April). CPI(ML) General Secretary Comrade Dipankar, senior leader of the party Comrade Rameshwar Prasad, MLA Comrade Sudama Prasad, AIARLA State President Comrade Virendra Gupta and others participated in the Satyagraha at Betia.
Speaking at the Satyagraha where Satyagrahis broke their fast after accepting juice from him, Comrade Dipankar said that Gandhiji had understood Champaran’s pain but today both the Central and State Governments are trying to appropriate Gandhi’s and Champaran’s legacies while continuing to unleash repression on the poor peasants and workers. In Champaran the nilahe (indigo zamindars) are gone but the milahe (mill owners) are here instead, exploiting the poor. He pointed out that the Union Agriculture Minister Radhamohan is visiting Champaran with people dressed up as Gandhiji while in his own home town, the Motihari Sugar Mill is closed and workers demanding their rights face police firing and are forced to immolate themselves in desperation. He said that the land on which the poor live must be acknowledged as their own land from which they cannot be evicted.
He called upon the people of Bihar and the whole country to uphold the legacy and spirit of the Champaran Satyagraha as a peasant resistance to feudal and colonial oppression and forced cultivation of crops to benefit exploitative profiteers. In that spirit, today, we need a peasants’ movement all over India to free peasants from the yoke of MNCs and exploitative agrarian policies that force peasants into a debt trap and take away their own sovereignty and rights over their land.