Farmers in Bihar of the early 1900s were forced to cultivate indigo, or Neel, for foreign markets. In Champaran district, the Britishers had imposed a system of tinkathia under which tenant farmers were forced to grow the blue dye on 15% of their land. The farmers were poorly compensated and had to face heavy taxation if they chose not to grow indigo, which was a cash crop that not only needed lots of water but also left the soil infertile. Such exclusive farming also led to reduced production of much-needed food crops which, in turn, resulted in a famine-like situation in many parts of Bihar.
Gandhi had been unaware of these state of affairs until an agriculturalist from Bihar told him about the woes of the people. He went to Champaran in early 1917 where he was greeted by large crowds of peasants at railway stations in Muzaffarpur and Motihari. When he was on the way to a village to see a tenant who had been beaten, he was served a notice by a British district magistrate to leave Champaran on the first available train.
Gandhi disobeyed the order.
The police then arrested Gandhi and the magistrate proposed a deal saying that he would withdraw cases if he promised not to return. Gandhi rejected the offer and said that he had come to Champaran to render his humanitarian services and work for the suffering people. Meanwhile, a large crowd had gathered outside the court, including many peasants and farmers, shouting slogans against the police. Gandhi stepped out of the court and requested the crowd to disperse peacefully, telling them that violent acts will harm the cause.
Fearing unrest, the British government released Gandhi and instructed officers to look into the suffering of indigo farmers. Gandhi recorded the grievances of around 8,000 indigo cultivators, realising that illiteracy made it easy for Britishers and landlords to exploit farmers. He set up organisations and founded schools in the district to bridge the gap between education and work and a year after Gandhi’s arrival, the exploitative tinkhatia system was abolished.
Two things came out of the Champaran uprising. Satyagraha became the ways and means for freedom fighters to attain independence and it was during this agitation that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was called “Mahatma” for the first time.