How was India ruined in 70 years

How Mahatma Gandhi brought together the local peasant protest and the national resistance movement 100 years ago.

Anyone thinking about protest in India cannot ignore Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869–1948). To this day, all forms of nonviolent resistance are influenced by his concept of "Satyagraha". Satyagraha is Sanskrit and freely translated means "power of truth". It is based on the philosophical assumption that nothing exists outside of the truth. "Truth (satya) means love and firmness (agraha) and is a synonym for power," Gandhi explained his concept. And: "I have started to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, a force that is born of love and truth or non-violence."

In April of this year, the government of the state of Bihar celebrated the beginning of the Satyagraha movement in India, which historians believe began with protests by indigo farmers in the Champaran district in 1917 and culminated in the country's independence from 200 years of British colonial rule in 1947.

While the term Satyagraha was first used by Gandhi during his time in South Africa (1893-1914), where he stood up against the apartheid regime as a young lawyer, the concept was slow to take shape in his home country. According to the Indian historian Irfan Habib, the structures of exploitation in Bihar were so deep that “Satyagraha in the form that Gandhi had organized in South Africa was not possible”.

«Since the Battle of Plassey in 1757 (when the British East India Company annexed Bengal) British rule meant the continued exploitation of India. Farmers, artisans and the working poor suffered the most, ”said Habib. Indigo farmers in Bengal, who produced the raw material for the production of the well-known blue dye, were forced by British conquerors to sell indigo cheaply to them as early as the 17th century. Their protests were put down. In Champaran in Bihar, whole villages were leased to British producers by the large landowners ("zamindars"). This forced the farmers to grow indigo plants in the best parts of the land they had leased.


When Gandhi was arrested, hundreds of thousands protested.

When an artificial blue dye was developed in Germany in 1880, the prices of indigo fell dramatically. The big landowners tried to make up for their losses by charging higher rents when farmers reduced indigo cultivation. Farm workers were forced to work. When the dye from Germany became scarce during the First World War, farmers were again forced to grow more indigo.

Then came Gandhi. In no way did he immediately call for resistance. Instead, he put together a team that went to Champaran to gather information about living and working conditions there. It spoke to the farmers and submitted detailed complaints and suggestions for improvement to the government. When Gandhi was arrested for allegedly inciting a riot, hundreds of thousands protested outside the prison demanding his release. The government buckled. Gandhi personally oversaw the process of implementing the proposed legislative changes in October 1917. "The way Gandhi handled the Champaran crisis is an example of good leadership," says Irfan Habib. From then on, people respectfully addressed him as “Mahatma” (Great Soul) and as “Bapu” (Father).

Many more protests followed. Gandhi always linked the fate of ordinary people with the greater goal of India's independence. So he mobilized millions. "It was an important intellectual achievement of the early nationalists that they could show how the exploitation of wealth and de-industrialization ruined India," said historian Habib.

Today there is no longer a clear enemy in India. The country is a democracy in which governments can be elected and voted out of office. It's more difficult for protest movements. They have to show that they do not only represent particular interests. But the memory of Gandhi's creative forms of nonviolent resistance has remained.

Britta Petersen is a Senior Fellow at the Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Delhi.