Champaran is the land of King Janaka. Just as it abounds in mango groves, so used it to be full of indigo plantations until the year 1917. The Champaran tenant was bound by law to plant three out of every twenty parts of his land with indigo for his landlord. This system was known as the tinkathia system, as three kathas out of twenty (which make one acre) had to be planted with indigo.
I must confess that I did not then know even the name, much less the
geographical position, of Champaran, and I had hardly any notion of
indigo plantations. I had seen packets of indigo, but little dreamed
that it was grown and manufactured in Champaran at great hardship to
thousands of agriculturists.
Rajkumar Shukla was one of the agriculturists who had been under
this harrow, and he was filled with a passion to wash away the stain
of indigo for the thousands who were suffering as he had suffered.
This man caught hold of me at Lucknow, where I had gone for the
Congress of 1916. 'Vakil Babu will tell you everything about our
distress,' he said, and urged me to go to Champaran. 'Vakil Babu'
was none other than Babu Brajkishore Prasad, who became my esteemed
co-worker in Champaran, and who is the soul of public work in
Bihar. Rajkumar Shukla brought him to my tent. He was dressed in a
black alpaca achkan and trousers. Brijkishore Babu failed then to
make an impression on me. I took it that he must be some vakil
exploiting the simple agriculturists. Having heard from him
something of Champaran, I replied as was my wont: 'I can give no
opinion without seeing the condition with my own eyes. You will
please move the resolution in the Congress, but leave me free for
the present.' Rajkumar Shukla of course wanted some help from the
Congress. Babu Brajkishore Prasad moved the resolution, expressing
sympathy for the people of Champaran, and it was unanimously passed.
Rajkumar Shukla was glad, but far from satisfied. He wanted me
personally to visit Champaran and witness the miseries of the ryots
there. I told him that I would include Champaran in the tour which I
had contemplated and give it a day or two. 'One day will be enough,'
said he, 'and you will see things with your own eyes.'
From Lucknow I went to Cawnpore. Rajkumar Shukla followed me there.
'Champaran is very near here. Please give a day,' he insisted.' Pray
excuse me this time. But I promise that I will come,' said I,
further committing myself.
I returned to the Ashram. The ubiquitous Rajkumar was there too.
'Pray fix the day now', he said. 'Well,' said I, 'I have to be in
Calcutta on such and such a date, come and meet me then, and take me
from there.' I did not know where I was to go, what to do, what
things to see.
Before I reached Bhupen Babu's place in Calcutta, Rajkumar Shukla
had gone and established himself there. Thus this ignorant,
unsophisticated but resolute agriculturist captured me.
So early in 1917, we left Calcutta for Champaran, looking just like
fellow rustics. I did not even know the train. He took me to it, and
we travelled together, reaching Patna in the morning.
This was my first visit to Patna. I had no friend or acquaintance
with whom I could think of putting up. I had an idea that Rajkumar
Shukla, simple agriculturist as he was, must have some influence in
Patna. I had come to know him a little more on the journey, and on
reaching Patna I had no illusions left concerning him. He was
perfectly innocent of every thing. The vakils that he had taken to
be his friends were really nothing of the sort. Poor Rajkumar was
more or less as a menial to them. Between such agriculturist clients
and their vakils there is a gulf as wide as the Ganges in flood.
Rajkumar Shukla took me to Rajendra Babu's place in Patna. Rajendra
Babu had gone to Puri or some other place, I now forget which. There
were one or two servants at the bungalow who paid us no attention. I
had with me something to eat. I wanted dates which my companion
procured for me from the bazaar.
There was strict untouchability in Bihar. I might not draw water at
the well whilst the servants were using it, lest drops of water from
my bucket might pollute them, the servants not knowing to what caste
I belonged. Rajkumar directed me to the indoor latrine, the servant
promptly directed me to the outdoor one. All this was far from
surprising or irritating to me, for I was inured to such things. The
servants were doing the duty, which they thought Rajendra Babu would
wish them to do.
These entertaining experiences enhanced my regard for Rajkumar
Shukla, if they also enabled me to know him better. I saw now that
Rajkumar Shukla could not guide me, and that I must take the reins
in my own hands.