Indigo and Indian independence
The reality was that indigo plantations in the West Indies and America produced better quality indigo, but by the 19th century had switched to more profitable cash crops. It was left to the British in India to meet the indigo requirements of the British textile industry.
|Image: Vast quantities of indigo were produced in factories such as this. The beating wheel shown here was needed to oxygenate the indigo.|
Literary championsThe plight of those involved in the indigo industry was first depicted in literature during the reform movement in Bengal, which took place through much of the 19th century. The play Nil Darpan (The Mirror of Indigo), written by Dinabandhu Mitra and translated by an English missionary, the Rev. James Long, focused wholly on the plight of the peasants of Champaran. This work, along with many others, was the subject of a libel suit, and was later banned through Lord Lytton's Dramatic Performances Act of 1876.
Much of the early thinking of the independence movement grew out of the literary endeavours of figures such as Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterji, who were to play such a huge role in turning educated Indian opinion against the British.
19th century povertyIf anything the situation of the peasants of Champaran got even worse with the chemical replication of indigo from the late 19th century onwards. The pressures on estate owners to make a profit and survive in these circumstances increased the pressure on those involved in indigo cultivation, extraction and processing.
Much of the indentured labour that was sent to the colonies by the British, particularly to man plantations after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s also originated from these districts, which gives some indication of just how bad conditions must have been. Interestingly, however, records show that many of these people returned, suggesting that conditions elsewhere were even worse.
Action on the groundWith the return of Gandhi to India in 1915, the trajectory of the independence movement changed. He recognised that dissatisfaction amongst India's intellectual elite was insufficient to create momentum towards independence, and that this needed widespread popular support amongst the smaller towns and villages of India. During the movement of Civil Disobedience, he attempted to mobilise the peasants of Champaran but called it off when the movement turned violent.
The exploitation of the Champaran peasants had become evocative of the plight of India itself. It was typically depicted as symbolic of a rich and abundant agricultural country being ground into remorseless poverty by a colonial economic system. This was held to be true of how the British managed the Indian economy as a whole, and thus fitted with Gandhi's vision of a free India centred on its villages and built on a programme of village revival.