Know Your State: Modern History of Bihar

Gandhi in Champaran

During most of British India, Bihar was a part of the Presidency of Bengal, and was governed from Calcutta. As such, this was a territory very much dominated by the people of Bengal. All leading educational and medical centers were in Bengal. In spite of the unfair advantage that Bengalis possessed, some sons of Bihar rose to positions of prominence, by dint of their intelligence and hard labor. One such was Rajendra Prasad, native of Ziradei, in the district of Saran. He became the first President of the Republic of India.

 When separated from the Bengal Presidency in 1912, Bihar and Orissa comprised a single province. Later, under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Division of Orissa became a separate province; and the Province of Bihar came into being as an administrative unit of British India. At Independence in 1947, the State of Bihar, with the same geographic boundary, formed a part of the Republic of India, until 1956. At that time, an area in the south-east, predominantly the district of Purulia, was separated and incorporated into West Bengal as part of the Linguistic Reorganization of Indian States.

Resurgence in the history of Bihar came during the struggle for India’s independence. It was from Bihar that Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil-disobedience movement, which ultimately led to India’s independence. At the persistent request of a farmer, Raj Kumar Shukla, from the district of Champaran, in 1917 Gandhiji took a train ride to Motihari, the district headquarters of Champaran. Here he learned, first hand, the sad plight of the indigo farmers suffering under the oppressive rule of the British. Alarmed at the tumultuous reception Gandhiji received in Champaran, the British authorities served notice on him to leave the Province of Bihar. Gandhiji refused to comply, saying that as an Indian he was free to travel anywhere in his own country. For this act of defiance he was detained in the district jail at Motihari. From his jail cell, with the help of his friend from South Africa days, C. F. Andrews, Gandhiji managed to send letters to journalists and the Viceroy of India describing what he saw in Champaran, and made formal demands for the emancipation of these people. When produced in court, the Magistrate ordered him released, but on payment of bail. Gandhiji refused to pay the bail. Instead, he indicated his preference to remain in jail under arrest. Alarmed at the huge response Gandhiji was receiving from the people of Champaran, and intimidated by the knowledge that Gandhiji had already managed to inform the Viceroy of the mistreatment of the farmers by the British plantation owners, the magistrate set him free, without payment of any bail. This was the first instance of the success of civil-disobedience as a tool to win freedom. The British received, their first “object lesson” of the power of civil-disobedience. It also made the British authorities recognize, for the first time, Gandhiji as a national leader of some consequence. What Raj Kumar Shukla had started, and the massive response people of Champaran gave to Gandhiji, catapulted his reputation throughout India. Thus, in 1917, began a series of events in a remote corner of Bihar, that ultimately led to the freedom of India in 1947.

Sir Richard Attenborough’s award winning film, “Gandhi”, authentically, and at some length, depicts the above episode. (Raj Kumar Shukla is not mentioned by his name in the film, however.) The two images here are from that film. The bearded gentleman, just behind Gandhiji, in the picture on the left, and on the elephant at right, is Raj Kumar Shukla.

Gandhiji, in his usual joking way, had commented that in Champaran he “found elephants just as common as bullock carts in (his native) Gujarat”!!

It was natural, therefore, that many people from Bihar became leading participants in India’s struggle for independence. Dr. Rajendra Prasad has been mentioned above. Another was Jay Prakash Narayan, affectionately called JP. JP’s substantial contribution to modern Indian history continued up until his death in 1979. It was he who steadfastly and staunchly opposed the autocratic rule of Indira Gandhi and her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi. Fearing people’s reaction to his opposition, Indira Gandhi had him arrested on the eve of declaring National Emergency beginning June 26, 1975. He was put in the Tihar Jail, located near Delhi, where notorious criminals are jailed. Thus, in Free India, this septuagenarian, who had fought for India’s freedom alongside Indira Gandhi’s father, Jawahar Lal Nehru, received a treatment that was worse than what the British had meted out to Gandhiji in Champaran in 1917, for his speaking out against oppression. The movement started by JP, however, brought the Emergency to an end, led to the massive defeat of Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party at the polls, and, to the installation of a non-Congress government -The Janata Party – at Delhi, for the first time. With the blessings of JP, Morarji Desai became the fourth Prime Minister of India. JP remained the Conscience of the Janata Party and of post-Gandhi – post-Nehru India. He gave a call to all Indians to work ceaselessly towards eliminating “dictatorship in favour of democracy” and bringing about “freedom from slavery”. Sadly, soon after attaining power, bickering began among the leaders of the Janata Party which led to the resignation of Shri Desai as the Prime Minister. JP continued with his call for “total revolution” (sampporna kranti), but he succumbed to kidney failure at a hospital in Bombay in 1979.

Subsequent bickering in the Janata Party led to the formation of a breakaway political party – the Janata Dal. This political party is a constituent unit of the current ruling coalition at Delhi, the so called, United Front. It was also from this party that Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Chief Minister of Bihar was elected. The bickering continued. A new party led by Mr. Yadav was formed as – the Rashtriya Janata Dal – which went on to rule for almost 15 years in Bihar.

This was also a period when Hindi literature came to flourish in the state. Raja Radhika Raman Singh, Shiva Pujan Sahay, Divakar Prasad Vidyarthy, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Ram Briksha Benipuri, are some of the luminaries who contributed to the flowering of Hindi literature, which did not have much of a long history. The Hindi language, certainly its literature, began around mid to late nineteenth century. It is marked by the appearance of Bhartendu Babu Harischandra’s ( a resident of Varanasi in U.P.) drama “Harischandra”. Devaki Nandan Khatri began writing his mystery novels in Hindi during this time (Chandrakanta, Chandrakanta Santati, Kajar ki Kothari, Bhootnath, etc.) He was born at Muzaffarpur in Bihar and had his earlier education there. He then moved to Tekari Estate in Gaya in Bihar. He later became an employee of the Raja of Benares (now Varanasi.) He started a printing press called “Lahari” which began the publication of a Hindi monthly, “Sudarshan”, in 1898. One of the first short stories in Hindi, if not the very first, was “Indumati” (Pundit Kishorilal Goswami, author) which was published in 1900. The collection of short stories “Rajani aur Taare” (Anupam Prakashan, Patna, publishers) contains an extended history of the origin and evolution of the short story as a distinct literary form in the Hindi literature.

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