The Bihpur, Bihar Satyagraha Campaign

by Rajendra Prasad

Dustwrapper art courtesy Ocean Books;

Editor’s Preface: The historical accounts of the Indian nonviolent independence movement generally focus on Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns, whereas the Satyagraha Movement was widespread across India, with more than one leader. Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) was one such. The account that follows draws a vivid picture of the courage and sacrifice of the campaign that Prasad led in 1930 in his home state of Bihar. His leadership qualities and commitment to nonviolence were well recognized; when India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947 he was chosen its first president. Please see our explanatory endnotes, note on the text, and editor’s note at the end of the article. JG

An outstanding example of the faith and firmness with which people acted on Mahatma Gandhi’s words was provided, in 1930, at Bihpur in Bhagalpur. (1) Bihpur is on the banks of the Ganges and is exposed to floods. The river always changes its course, as happens in all places near the Ganges. As a consequence, the boundaries marking off one man’s field from another’s are washed away, and when the floods subside, very often conflicts arise among rival claimants of land. […]

When I was touring that region in 1929, I found evidence of great enthusiasm among the people. I was convinced that when Satyagraha was started, its inhabitants would enthusiastically participate in it. I carried this impression because of an incident which occurred there. In the course of my tour, I had fixed up a meeting to be held at a particular place about two o’clock in the afternoon. I had been to another village at some distance from the place where the meeting was to be held, and had hoped to return in time for it. While I was on my way back, heavy rain came down suddenly, a strong wind began to blow, and I was delayed for two or three hours. When I arrived, soaked to the skin, I found a very big crowd which, I was told, had been awaiting my arrival in the rain for some hours. The rain itself was still falling. I stood up in the crowd in the rain and talked to them. It was this incident which impressed itself on my mind that the people of that region had courage as well as determination.

When the Satyagraha Movement was launched some months later [in 1930], the people of that area also started Satyagraha. Not only were the Salt Laws broken, but a movement in favour of the prohibition of intoxicating liquor and drugs was also going on. There was a ganja shop (2), and at a short distance from it was the Congress Ashram. On one side was the railway station and a small market comprising a few shops, while close by was a Dak Bungalow [British government office building]. A little farther off was the police station. Some volunteers began to picket the ganja shop. When the police heard about it they came and beat up the picketing volunteers; but this only added to their enthusiasm, as a consequence of which the picketing became even more vigorous. When the district officers received intimation of this, they sent down a larger police force. One day, the police forcibly entered the Ashram and drove away the volunteers and other workers, looted and scattered yards upon yards of khaddar [homespun cloth] and everything that was used in the making of this kind of cloth. The owner of the ganja shop took fright at these activities of the police and ran away. The shop thus automatically closed down.

The police camped in the Ashram after taking possession of it. The volunteers, therefore, started Satyagraha in order to get back its possession. The form in which this Satyagraha was offered was this: a few people would march to the Ashram, carrying national flags. The police would obstruct them. Everyday a batch of volunteers would set out like this. The police would generally beat them up and disperse them, and occasionally arrest them. When news of this reached the neighbouring villages, crowds began to collect at the time the Satyagraha was offered. When the crowd became large, the police would disperse it by a lathi charge. Sometimes they would beat up the volunteers; sometimes they would arrest them and keep them in the Ashram, and send them to the police station or to jail after the crowd had dispersed. Things went on like this. Everyday the crowd became bigger, so much so, that, when people from far distant villages swelled its ranks, it would run into twenty and even twenty-five thousand persons. They would bear lathi blows from the police, and disperse. The police force was not a large one. As I have mentioned above, the people of that region were great fighters, and would have made short work of the police had they desired to do so. But not one of them ever tried to hit back at them or even utter harsh words against them.

I went there one day. The police station is situated to the north of the Ganges, at some distance from Bhagalpur. From the main station at Bihpur is a branch line, which goes to the bank of the Ganges from where the steamer ferries people across to Bhagalpur. As I had gone there from Bhagalpur, some inhabitants of the place had accompanied me. Not that they were going to join the Satyagraha Movement; but they had heard reports of what was happening there, and were interested enough to see things for themselves. Some friends accompanied me from Patna. (3)

News about our visit had preceded us. The crowd, therefore, was much larger than usual. The Police Superintendent was also there with his police force. At the appointed time, a small batch of volunteers started. The crowd lined both sides of the road. A meeting was held at some distance, where I delivered a short speech to the crowd. The police were present, but they did not in any way interfere with the meeting. When the Satyagrahi volunteers reached the Ashram gate, they were arrested and taken inside the Ashram. We thought that nothing more would happen. But the Police Superintendent came out with about fifteen constables wielding lathi, and ordered a lathi charge. The latter used their lathi to good effect and hit the people who lined both sides of the road up to a fairly long distance. As they hit out with their lathi, they proceeded along the road. Not one man in the crowd raised his hand; not one man ran away. We were at some distance and those who had come with me were standing at different places in the crowd. The Superintendent of Police arrived with his men at the spot where I stood. I received several lathi blows and was hurt; but I did not sustain any serious injury because a volunteer shielded me with his own body and took on himself the blows which were meant for me. Naturally, he was badly injured. Professor Abdul Bari, (4) who was a little farther off, also sustained severe injuries, and fell down bleeding. All this happened in a few moments. The Superintendent and the policemen then passed through the crowd, and after wielding the lathi indiscriminately, returned to the Ashram.

The crowd thought that the day’s business was over, for that was what happened everyday, and dispersed in different directions. Those who had come from Bhagalpur stayed on as there was yet some time for the train, which would take them back. A doctor, who lived there, came forward and bandaged our wounds after the crowd had dispersed. We were squatting on the grass, having our wounds cleaned, when we saw the Superintendent of Police coming towards us together with an Inspector and some constables. We thought that there would probably be another assault, but they stopped at some distance from us, and left after arresting one of us.

We were waiting for the train. Some people, who had not disappeared with the crowd, came up to us. They belonged to neighbouring villages, and were greatly excited. They squatted down about me, and said in an angry voice: “You have come here. We have lived to see you and other leaders beaten up in our very presence. We were not able to do anything. Those few policemen would not have dared to raise their hands against anyone, let alone you. But what can we do? Gandhiji had tied down our hands; we cannot raise them against the police. If that were not so, we would have made short shrift of them, regardless of consequences.” They broke down then, and began to cry like children. I explained to them that their courage lay in maintaining peace, and that would ultimately lead us to victory.

Some policemen travelled by the same train by which we went to Bhagalpur. We could not understand the significance of this incident at that time. The next morning I went to the Ganges for a bath. Some Hindu police constables, who had also come there for that purpose, told us what had happened the previous day. They said: “There were two parties among the policemen at Bihpur. When the Superintendent of Police ordered them to beat up the crowd, particularly men like you, we did not like his order. We, therefore, simply made a show that we were wielding our lathi, when, as a matter of fact, we did not hit the crowd at all. But there were some constables who did actually and effectively use their lathi. When you were hit and Abdul Bari Navi Saheb (5) was badly injured and fell down unconscious, we could not hold ourselves back. We told those constables that if they again wielded their lathis in that fashion, it would not be good for them. But they turned a deaf ear to us, and again hit Bari Saheb. We then received their lathi on our own bodies, thus protecting Abdul Bari Saheb, and we hit out at the constables with our own. The Superintendent of Police was ahead of us. He could not, therefore, see what was happening behind him and whose lathi were striking whom. We were thus able to save Bari Saheb’s life and give a good beating to those constables. We, however, feared that the latter would complain against us. So, as soon as the incident was over, we were the first to lodge a complaint against those constables. We said that the latter did not know how to wield the lathi, and they used it in such a way that instead of hitting the crowd they hit one another. Those constables, however, asserted that that was not true, and that we had not only done nothing ourselves but had prevented them from using their lathi, and had actually given them a beating. The Superintendent heard all this but said nothing. At night he sent us back to Bhagalpur. That is how we have returned here by the steamer by which you have come.”

Thus we came to know that there was a great deal of sympathy for us even among policemen, who were prepared to act against us only to the extent to which they were required to do so. They were not prepared to give up their jobs, but at the same time they were not prepared to commit excesses on the Satyagrahis. This, however, was not true of the officers, although some of them were very decent people. I had another similar happy experience in Bhagalpur.

I have said that while our injuries were being dressed, a Superintendent of Police, accompanied by an Inspector and some constables, had come to the place where we were sitting, and arrested one of us. I did not recognise the Inspector then, but I did so later. I remembered that he had been a classmate of mine in school, and was now in police service as an Inspector. From Bhagalpur I sent a man to Bihpur to take charge of the khaddar [homespun cloth] and yarn of which the police had taken possession, for there was no Government order for the seizure of the property, which belonged to the All-India Spinners’ Association. My messenger met this Inspector. In the course of the conversation which ensued, he mentioned what I had said—that a man bearing the name of the Inspector had been my classmate, and that I had not been able to recognise him the previous evening. The Inspector was visibly upset when he heard this. Tears started in his eyes, and he changed the conversation. He asked the messenger to talk only about khaddar and not about other matters. But the messenger was a clever man. After talking a little about khaddar, he mentioned my name again; and again the Inspector was deeply affected.

When my messenger reported all this to me, I realised at once that there were many persons who, because of their jobs, appeared to be opposed to us but who, at heart, had both sympathy and regard for Satyagrahis. I appreciated then how Mahatmaji’s principle of ahimsa was influencing even our antagonists.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) India is divided into states and the states into districts. Bihpur is a small city (today it is c. 25,000), in the district of Bhagalpur, state of Bihar. It is a flat, arid region in the Ganges river basin, and has been for centuries one of the more impoverished areas of India. During Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns Bihar was often a center of protest.

(2) Ganja is the hemp form of cannabis sativa. It is widely grown in the Indian subcontinent and used for making rope and clothing. The flower of the plant is also made into a narcotic. It is alleged by some to be the sacred soma referred to in the Vedas, although this is much disputed.

(3) Patna is the largest city and state capital of the state of Bihar. It is considered to be one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world, and archaeological remains point to its being founded c. 490 BCE. Its population today is c. 1.6 million.

(4) Abdul Bari (1892-1947) was an Indian academic and social reformer. He became a professor at Bihar National College in 1921 at the urging of Mahatma Gandhi. In March 1947 he was the victim of a political assassination and his killer never brought to justice.

(5) Abdul Bari Navi (1886-1976) taught philosophy and religion at Gujarat College in Ahmedabad, and Osmania University in Hyderabad where he retired as Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department. He met Gandhi on 11 March 1919, when he visited Lukhnow. Gandhi favourably mentions (Navijan, 14 September 1919) sharing his thoughts about communal harmony with Navi.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This excerpt was scanned by the editors from the first edition of Rajendra Prasad, At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi, Bombay: Hind Kitabs Publishers, 1955; pp. 191-96.

EDITOR’S NOTE: India is a parliamentary democracy with a Prime Minister, elected by popular vote, and a President, chosen by members of parliament. Upon gaining independence from British rule in 1947, Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) was chosen the first President of the Republic of India. A lawyer by training, Prasad joined the Indian National Congress in 1911, and became a major figure in the 1920s and 30s in the Satyagraha Movement in Bihar. (See Endnote 1 above.) A staunch supporter of Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhian nonviolent civil resistance, Prasad was imprisoned by British authorities during the Salt Satyagraha of 1931 and also during the Quit India movement of 1942. Besides the title from which this extract is taken he is also the author of: Satyagraha at Champaran, New Delhi: Ocean Books, 2013 (the first edition was published in 1922); India Divided, Bombay: Hind Kitabs Publishers, 1946; and, Mahatma Gandhi and Bihar: Some Reminiscences, New Delhi: Ocean Books, 2015 (the first edition was published in 1949).

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi