Champaran region of Bihar has crucial historical significance, as before independence, it had become the hotbed of the anti-British movement, especially following the Champaran Satyagrah. In 2017, Nitish Kumar’s government celebrated the centenary year of the Satyagrah and felicitated the contributors of the famous anti-imperial movement.
August 23 marks birth anniversary of an important figure, Raj Kumar Shukla, who played a pivotal role in constructing a gigantic mass movement in the soil of Champaran. Besides this, he also acted as a silent mobilising force when M K Gandhi came to Champaran in 1917 for the first time. Along with leaders like Sheikh Gulab, Harbans Sahay and Pir Mohammed Munsi, Shukla managed to pave the way for the agitation against forced indigo cultivation.
Shukla himself was a middle-class farmer who had undertaken cultivation of indigo. However, he also had a good hold on the Kaithi script. In Champaran, the British had imposed a system called tinkathia. Under this system, the tenant farmers were forced to grow indigo (a blue dye) in three kathas of every bigha. Almost a year after Gandhi’s arrival, the exploitative tinkathia system had finally been abolished. Raj Kumar Shukla was one of the victims of this system.
His battle against the British raj was not only limited to the abolition of the tinkathia system. He also focused on the social discrimination targeting especially women and children. Shukla had emerged as a popular anti-imperial face in Champaran region, then, says Mani Bhushan Rai, Shukla’s grandson (75).
In words of Mani Bhushan Rai, who resides in Satvariya village in Bettiah, Raj Kumar Shukla’s contributions have not been widely discussed and are not known to many. He deserved more importance and acknowledgment from the government. A few books about him were authored, but their reach has been limited. Mani Bhushan Rai tells NewsClick that he had to drop his post-graduation in economics from Langat Singh College, Muzaffarpur due to the financial constraints faced by his family.
Mani Bhushan possesses the precious diary of Shukla in which he had jotted down details of every single instance from the times of Satygrah including his meetings with Gandhi. The diary had been written in Kaithi script.
We donated a piece of land to the government of Bihar for setting up an educational institution. A higher secondary school saw the light of the day, but today, it remains a disputed structure.
A Stubborn and Silent Mobiliser
Raj Kumar Shukla had been on his toes when it came to bringing the plight of the farmers of Champaran to the fore. However, desperation to defeat imperial exploitation took him to approach the Congress leadership which then was the axial anti-British force. During 31st session of the Congress in Lucknow in 1916, Shukla had briefed Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Madan Mohan Malaviya about the indigo agitation, but they did not seem too enthusiastic about it to him. Shukla then approached Gandhi, and talked about the woes of the peasants of Champaran and their exploitation by the British. But pleading his lack of knowledge, Gandhi declined to respond, stating, “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.”
Gandhi, in his autobiography, has written about Raj Kumar Shukla under the title “The Stains of Indigo”.
“From Lucknow I went to Cawnpore. Rajkumar Shukla followed me there. 'Champaran is very near from here. Please give a day,' he insisted.' Please 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.”
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.
Words of Gandhi clearly depict that it was Shukla’s undying stubborn persistence that made Gandhi reach the land of Champaran for Satyagrah.
Gandhi had stepped into Muzaffarpur for the first time when he did not enjoy a mass leader’s popularity. As a result, his supporters failed to recognise him. It was Shukla’s diligent efforts that enlightened the masses about Gandhi’s visit and its importance.
Same intense mobilisation was achieved by Raj Kumar Shukla in Champaran before Gandhi’s arrival and later, he again had witnessed large crowd eagerly waiting for him. This could not have been possible without efforts by Rajkumar Shukla, asserts his biographer Bhairav Lal Das.
Role of Raj Kumar Shukla in turning Champaran Satyagrah into a reality, sadly is less known and a subtly discussed chapter of history which resides as agony in hearts of his family members. Without any support of any organisation, Shukla prepared ground for Satyagrah and managed to bring in people’s support for Gandhi on the land of Champaran.
As a crusader of non-violence, he acted without employing violence and prosecution against exploiters and offered refreshing lessons for humanity for peaceful social change as he simultaneously paved path for Gandhi to become a Mahatma (a great soul) for millions.
The author is a reporter and informal researcher based in Bihar.