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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 10
In July 1914, Gandhi and his family left the shores of South Africa to return to India. Gandhi first went to England in the hope that Gokhale would be in England, and he would be able to meet him. But as Gandhi's ship neared Britain, the First World War broke out.
Gandhi was concerned about what he should do as a citizen of the British Empire. He still believed that the Empire stood for values that would benefit the people of India. Moreover, as long as he enjoyed the benefits of being a citizen, he could not neglect or ignore the duties that were attached to citizenship. Since he believed in Ahimsa, he could not take to arms. But there were other ways in which he could serve. He, therefore, offered to raise an Ambulance Corps and started training. But he contracted pleurisy. He was advised that the cold of England would make recovery difficult. So he decided to leave for India.
He was given a rousing reception when he arrived in Bombay. Gokhale himself was at the dock to receive him. He was keen to meet Gokhale because he wanted to learn more about conditions in India before he plunged into public work in India. Gokhale had asked him to spend one year observing and learning. That would help him to understand men and issues, and to feel the pulse of the Indian nation.
Gandhi first went to Rajkot and other places in Gujarat. From there, he went to Shantiniketan in Bengal. The great poet Rabindranath Tagore had set up Shantiniketan to serve as the centre of his small versatile sadhana, and as an instrument for the transmission of his vision to succeeding generations. When Gandhi decided to leave South Africa, he had to find a new home for his colleagues in the Phoenix Settlement and the Tolstoy Farm who had joined him to live as members of the spiritual community and participate in his sadhana. Though Gandhi and Tagore had never met each other, both knew each other as kindred spirits, though following different paths of sadhana. Rabindranath was the first leader to describe Gandhi as 'the Mahatma' — "a great saint in a beggar's attire", and to Gandhi, Rabindranath was Gurudev, or the Great sentinel of Shantiniketan. It was, therefore, natural for Gandhi to think that Shantiniketan would be a good temporary home for his colleagues, till he decided where to set up his own Ashram or permanent abode in India. Gandhi's visit to Shantiniketan was a landmark. A new stream of consciousness flowed from him, and even though his stay was short, Gandhi left an imprint on the students and teachers of Shantiniketan. Gandhi's sojourn was, however, interrupted when news came of the passing away of Gokhale.
Gandhi rushed to Poona which was the headquarters of the Servants of India Society and Gokhale himself. Since he had looked upon Gokhale as his political Guru, he offered to work for the Servants of India Society which Gokhale had set up. But he knew that his ways of thinking were not identical with those of Gokhale's main colleagues like Srinivasa Sastri. Gandhi did not want to embarrass anyone. So, he withdrew his application for the membership of the Society.
In the meanwhile, after much thought, Gandhi decided to set up his Ashram at Ahmedabad, in his native province. He set up his Ashram first at Kochrab in the town itself. Later he moved to the outskirts of Ahmedabad, and set up an Ashram on the banks of the river, Sabarmati.
Gandhi's Ashrams were different from those of the ancient sages. He was a seeker after Truth. To him, Truth was God. So he was a Sadhak. But he did not believe that one had to withdraw from the world or society to seek Truth or God. Truth could be and should be sought in all fields of human activity. He did not believe in dividing life into 'this worldly' and 'other worldly'. There was only one world. Whether it was the inner world of the human being or the external world in which he lived, — society and environment. Truth ruled both the worlds. So the path to Truth or the sadhana for truth had to be identical.
He identified this common sadhana as Satyagraha — life and action based on Truth, a way of life that would enable one to find and cling to Truth in personal and social life. "Such a way of life had to be based on Truth, love, brahmacharya or total consecration of oneself to the pursuit of truth; non-
stealing; non-possession (non-acquisitiveness) and freedom from the slavery of the palate; bread-labour: equal respect for all religions: Swadeshi; respectful tolerance of differences of opinion, fearlessness and humility. On the basis of these beliefs he formulated eleven vows that every member of the Ashram had to observe. He looked upon the Ashram as a spiritual community of social activists.
Gandhi went to attend the session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta. He had been present at an earlier session of the Congress. But then Gokhale was there. He was not on his own. Since then, things had changed. The Indian struggle in South Africa had made Gandhi known all over India. He had acquired the reputation of a man who was both a saint and a militant. India is a land that venerates saints. So Gandhi had his first taste of the veneration of people who were eager for his darshan.
At this session, a young man from Champaran in Bihar, Rajkumar Shukla, met him and talked of the woes of the peasants of Champaran and their exploitation by the British. The planters were forcing them to cultivate Indigo on their lands and imposing and extracting many illegal levies from them.
The poor peasants were compelled to make offerings of poultry, meat and the like, whenever there were celebrations in the house of the planters. Gandhi was touched by these accounts, but told Shukla that he would be able to go to Bihar only after some days. Shukla persisted, following him from place to place. Finally, a date was fixed, and Gandhi went to Champaran. There, his preliminary enquiries confirmed all that Shukla had said. Gandhi decided to stay and make a detailed enquiry before deciding on a course of action. He was assisted by eminent lawyers like Brij Kishore Babu, and Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who, later became the first President of India.
The news of Gandhi's arrival spread to the villages. 'A Mahatma had come to save the starving and exploited poor peasant.' Thousands of villagers flocked to see Gandhi. The town was overflowing. The British Collector got nervous. He ordered Gandhi to leave the district. Gandhi refused saying that he had gone to Champaran to help the poor, not to challenge the Government. He was arrested and produced in Court. But the trial had to be postponed because the Magistrate did not know whether the massive crowds that had thronged to the premises of the court would remain peaceful. He postponed the trial and sought Gandhi's help to control the crowds.
In the meanwhile, the Viceroy and the Governor ordered that the case against Gandhi should be withdrawn, and he should be allowed to proceed with his enquiry. Gandhi was set free. Gandhi resumed the work of collecting evidence. He, and his colleagues interviewed thousands of peasants and recorded their evidence after questioning the witnesses, to be sure that what was being recorded was nothing but unvarnished truth. Even the British officers of the Indian Civil Service were impressed by Gandhi's relentless and dispassionate concern for truth. The Government received reports that the evidence was overwhelming and indisputable. They appointed a Commission of enquiry, and made Gandhi a member of the Commission. After a careful assessment of the evidence, the Commission upheld Gandhi's case in every respect. The system that compelled plantation of Indigo was given up, and it was agreed that the peasants would be paid reasonable compensation. This was the first victory of Satyagraha in India.
While taking evidence, Gandhi had also been appalled by the poverty, illiteracy and shocking sanitary conditions in the villages. He set up schools and centres of popular education, and called his friends from Bihar, Gujarat, Bombay and elsewhere to go to Champaran and work for the betterment of the conditions of the villagers. Acharya Kripalani was then working as a Professor in Muzaffarpur. He joined Gandhi, and became one of his closest associates.
Gandhi was still in Champaran when he was informed about the serious trouble that was brewing in Ahmedabad. The workers of the textile mills were restless. It was feared that they might go on strike, and the city might be in the grip of violent disturbances. Anasuyaben Sarabhai, who was working with industrial labour sought his help. So did the mill-owners who were led by Anasuyaben's brother, Ambalal Sarabhai. Even the Collector, who was the representative of the British Government, asked Gandhi whether he could not step in to save the city from violent disturbances. Gandhi studied the case of the workers. It was mainly for the restoration of some allowances that they were drawing. Nearly 80% of these had been cut down. Meanwhile the cost
of living had gone up. Mill-owners were making higher profits. Gandhi pleaded with the mill-owners to settle the matter through negotiations or arbitration. They agreed, but went back on a flimsy and technical excuse. Gandhi had no alternative but to advise labourers to strike. But he got workers to take a solemn pledge not to go to work till their demands were met, not to resort to violence under any circumstance. The workers took the pledge, and Gandhi took up their leadership.
It was an uncommon struggle. There was no bitterness and no hatred. The leaders of the owners as well as the employees met Gandhi every day. Gandhi was continuing his efforts to persuade the employers. Everyday all workers assembled at a prayer meeting, and Gandhi advised them on the state of the strike and the duties of workers. Twenty days passed. Workers began to get restive. Someone whispered that it was the workers who suffered by the prolonged strike, not Gandhi who ate his meals and went about in cars. This cut Gandhi to the quick. At the prayer meeting of the day, he announced that he was giving up food. He would fast till the workers reiterated their determination to stand by the pledge they had taken. It was not a fast against the employers, to make them accept the demands of the workers. It was meant to make workers realize the need to stand by the plighted word. Gandhi's announcement resulted in a wave of repentance. Men and women were in tears. They implored Gandhi to give up his fast. The fast also brought pressure on the owners, though Gandhi did not want to influence
them with a fast. A compromise was arrived at. An arbitrator was appointed. His award totally vindicated the demands that Gandhi had formulated, Gandhi called the struggle a "Dharma Yuddha", because it was waged for justice, and with the pure means of persuasion, love and voluntary suffering.
Gandhi was elected President of the Gujarat Sabha. His attention went to the plight of the peasants in the Kheda district of Gujarat. Peasants were reeling under the impact of one of the worst famines in memory. Crops had failed, but the Government was insisting that land revenue should be paid in full. Gandhi told the peasants that since their case was just and indisputable, they should be prepared to fight non-violently. They should refuse to pay the land revenue, unless it was reassessed in the light of the failure of crops. If the government retaliated by confiscating their property, farms and bullocks they should not surrender or take to violence. Peasants were ready, and Gandhi started preparing them for the hard struggle that lay ahead.
It was then that Gandhi made the acquaintance of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a barrister who had returned from England and was practising in Ahmedabad. Vallabhbhai became a lifelong colleague of Gandhi, attracted by his courage and dynamic methods of struggle for justice. The Sardar himself was of peasant origin. He was one of the ablest organisers the country had ever seen. People stuck to their determination even at the cost of the forfeiture of their property and the harassment and suffering that the Government inflicted. Finally, the Government yielded in the face of the heroic, nonviolent and unflinching struggle of the peasants. There was a compromise on the agreement that only those who felt they could afford would pay the revenue imposts.
Gandhi had taken up the causes of peasants and workers in different parts of India, and proved that Satyagraha was a practical and effective method, and was in tune with the genius of the people of India.
Gandhi was invited by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya to attend the foundation ceremony of the Benaras Hindu University at Benaras. The Viceroy delivered the inaugural address. A galaxy of British officials, political leaders and the princely Rulers had assembled. Dr. Annie Besant was in the Chair. When Gandhi's turn to speak came, the great assemblage got a taste of the revolutionary in Gandhi. He began by regretting that he had to speak in a foreign language to his own people. He went on to talk of the poverty of the starving millions and the glittering jewellery of the princes; how the poor farm labourer toiled and sweated in the sun to produce two blades of paddy, where there was only one, while the British and the princes lived in luxury and opulence. "Whenever I hear of a great palace rising in any great city of India, be it in British India or be it in India which is ruled by our great chiefs, I become jealous at once and I say: 'Oh, it is the money that has come from the agriculturists'." He said that tears rose in his eyes when he thought of the starving toilers who produced all wealth, but did not get two square meals a day. India would have no peace or progress till the poor came into their own. The Chair tried to stop Gandhi, but he was undaunted. Finally, bowing to the Chair, he sat down. But he had sounded the bugle of revolt and revolution, and sent a message of hope to the people who were groaning under exploitation.