2017 is the 100th anniversary of the indigo satyagraha in Champaran. It was based on the refusal to grow indigo. The peasants had repeatedly said: “We would rather die than grow indigo”. The British forced Indian peasants to grow indigo for the textile industry in England at the cost of growing food for themselves. The peasants starved while England grew rich. As R.W. Tower, the magistrate of Faridpur in Bengal, said to the commission on the grievances of the indigo tenants: “Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” (Quoted by Rajendra Prasad in Satyagraha in Champaran). According to Mahatma Gandhi, “As long as the superstition exists that unjust laws must be obeyed, so long will slavery exist.” As Gandhi acknowledges, he did not “invent” satyagraha. He learnt it from the people of India. As he writes in Hind Swaraj: “The fact is that, in India, the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us. This is passive resistance.”
Movements of non-cooperation started wherever the British tried to tax the lands of the peasant and the homes of the people. The 1810-11 house tax satyagraha in Varanasi is the best recorded. But similar non-cooperation movements took place in Patna, Bhagalpur and other cities. Having learnt from the people how India stayed democratic over centuries through the power of non-cooperation, Gandhi first used satyagraha in South Africa in 1906 to refuse to cooperate with the laws of the apartheid regime imposing compulsory registration on the basis of race. The contemporary movements against apartheid — “separation” — on the basis of religion and race, are a continuation of the spirit of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915, he was called to Champaran by our freedom fighters — like Rajendra Prasad, who became President after India gained Independence — to strengthen the movement of peasants against the forced cultivation of indigo. In 1930, when the British introduced the salt laws to make salt-making their monopoly, and the making of salt by Indians illegal, Gandhi undertook the Salt March, walked to Dandi Beach, picked up salt from the sea, saying: “Nature gives it for free, we need it for our survival. We will continue to make salt. We will not obey your laws.” As I have written in Ecology and the Politics of Survival: “The Salt Satyagraha spread rapidly to forest regions, and became the forest satyagraha against the British appropriation of community forests. Chipko had its roots in the forest satyagraha of 1930 in Tilari in Garhwal.”
Satyagraha, the force of truth, is more important than ever in our age of “post-truth”. Satyagraha was, and has always been about awakening our conscience. In April 2017, on the anniversary of the Champaran Satyagraha, movements will undertake a satyagraha yatra, starting in Meerut, where the first Independence movement against the East India Company began in 1857. We will visit Varanasi to celebrate the 1810 movement against the British-imposed house tax. We will make a pilgrimage to Champaran on April 17, the day Gandhi started his satyagraha against the forced cultivation of indigo. We will join the valiant communities of Singur and Nandigram who stopped land grab through the land satyagraha. After paying homage to those who participated in the Salt Satyagraha of 1930 by travelling the salt road in Odisha, we will conclude the yatra on Mother Earth Day (April 22) at the Navdanya Community Seed Bank in Odisha, which has spread seeds of hope across India, after cyclones, after the tsunami and after repeated droughts.
We will renew our satyagraha for the Earth, with a renewed commitment to save and sow the seeds of freedom. We know that the freedom for the Earth and all her beings is inseparable from the freedom of people. And it is the higher laws of protecting the planet and defending our interconnected rights and responsibilities that give us the “compassionate courage” to challenge petty laws and policies rooted in greed, based on violence. The Salt Satyagraha inspired Navdanya’s seed satyagraha (bija satyagraha) and Seed Freedom movement. Since 1987 when I first heard corporations talk of owning seed through intellectual property rights, my conscience, my mind did not accept it. I made a lifetime commitment to save seeds, and not to cooperate with IPR systems that make seed saving and seed exchange a crime. Bija satyagraha is a people’s movement for the resurgence of the real seed, of the intelligence of farmers to be breeders and to co-evolve with the intelligence of the seed towards diversity resilience, quality.
It is a movement that springs from the higher laws of our being members of the Earth community — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — from the higher laws of our duty to care, protect, conserve and share. The bija satyagraha pledge that our farmers take says: “We have received these seeds from nature and our ancestors. It is our duty to future generations to hand them over in the richness of diversity and integrity in which we received them. Therefore, we will not obey any law, or adopt any technology that interferes in our higher duties to the Earth and the future generations. We will continue to save and share our seeds.” The bija satyagraha against Monsanto and its attempt to patent seeds and collect royalties, the jal satyagraha against Coca-Cola in Kerala and in Doon Valley, against water privatisation in Delhi, against industrial aquaculture in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha initiated by women successfully protected people’s right to safe drinking water. The sarson satyagraha against dumping of GM soya oil in 1998, the attempt to introduce GM mustard in 2015 and the satyagraha for Gandhi’s ghani have brought centre stage the right to safe, healthy food. The satyagrahas of the tribals in Niyamgiri, and peasants in Singur and Nandigram, stopped the corporate land grab unleashed by globalisation. These are just a few examples of the continuing power of satyagraha against the most violent resource grab and wealth grab of giant global corporations in our times.