Book review: Chronicles of the Champaran Satyagraha

The Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 brought the miseries of the region’s peasants to official notice. A volume of 165 testimonies of peasants translated into English is revealing of their wretched lives, but many aspects of the struggle remain unexplored and there remain gaps in our understanding.


Thumb Printed: Champaran Indigo Peasants Speak to Gandhi, Vol. 1, Shahid Amin, Tridip Suhrud, Megha Todi (eds), Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 2022.

Since the 19th century, Champaran, the Bhojpuri-speaking region of north Bihar, in the foothills (terai) of the Himalayas, bordering Nepal, was seething with peasant discontent. The collusion of the Bettiah Raj (at the time one of the biggest zamindars of Bihar) with the European indigo planters (Nilaha Sahibs) was the main source of miseryfor the wretched peasants. In the 1860s and in 1907, there were two noticeable waves of resistance by the peasants under the leadership of the local intelligentsia, who mostly spoke in the vernacular.

It was only in April 1917, with the intervention of M.K. Gandhi, that the peasants’ voices were heard by the Raj. The Champaran Satyagraha that Gandhi led has immense significance in the history of India’s anti-colonial struggle. The ‘regional patriotism’ or ‘sub-national nationalism’ of Bihar acquired a pan-Indian nationalist identity in the ongoing anti-colonial struggle. Till then, Bihar’s articulate intelligentsia and elites (mostly English-educated Kayasthas and upper-caste Muslims) had been preoccupied with obtaining statehood for the region, which was then a part of Bengal. This had become a reality in 1912. It was with the Champaran Satyagraha that peasant question became integrated with the national movement.

Thumb Printed contains 165 testimonies, or recordings “of the statements of the aggrieved but fearful peasants” from the Bhojpuri-speaking villages of Champaran. These Bhojpuri-language documents—‘the small voice of history’—had been unexplored by professional historians.

This volume (18 more to come) of the Bhojpuri documents rendered into English now makes them accessible to a wider community of historians, scholars, and researchers than before. Butthis collection of testimonies is not meant to be read only by academics; they do have a popular appeal.

These Bhojpuri documents, “confessions wrenched in police lock-ups, depositions nervously uttered before Magistrates”, had been in the National Archives of India since 1973. These testimonies (izharbayan) include the caste composition and socio-economic status (quantum of landholding and other agricultural tools/assets) of the deponents, or the aggrieved peasants. One deposition is signed in English and many are in the local Kaithi script.All the testimonies are thumb printed, showing that the literacy level was low. At least three are signed by Gandhi. These testimonies were transcribed by Gandhi’s lawyer assistants and the statements were verified. In addition to being harrowing stories of exploitation of hapless peasants and landless labourers by European planters, these testimonies tell stories of the fraud and chicanery that peasants had to suffer at the hands of the Indian amlas (functionaries) of the planters.

Here are two of the testimonies included in the volume..