Protesting farmers, the satyagrahis amongst us

Tushar Gandhi,

December 3, 2020

A hundred years after two of the most crucial pre-Independence farm satyagrahas lead by Mahatma Gandhi, the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 and the Kheda Satyagraha in 1918, India is witnessing another major farmer satyagraha. It may appear to be a satyagraha of farmers from Punjab and Haryana only, but they represent the distress, anger and discontent of farmers nationwide.

Bapu gave great importance to agriculture and the agriculturist: “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves. Only a few know that agriculture in the small and irregular holdings of India is not a paying proposition. The villagers live a lifeless life. Their life is a process of slow starvation. Therefore burdened with debt.”

Gandhi said that a century ago and yet he could be describing the plight of farmers in India today.

News of suicides by debt-ridden farmers, forced to dump their crops because they are unable to get sustainable prices, is now common. During the ongoing agitation, a farmer from Punjab was heard saying, “City folks are paying 50 times more for produce than I am forced to sell it for.” This is the plight of even the ‘big’ farmers. Imagine the condition under which those with miniscule land holdings and rain-dependent agriculture live. It is unimaginable.

It is also because we have forgotten the importance of agriculture to our existence. “He who engages himself in agriculture with the object of becoming a millionaire turns agriculture into an instrument of bondage,” wrote Gandhi in Young India (September 21, 1925). This, unfortunately, seems to be the objective of the new agriculture policy of the present government against which the farmers are performing satyagraha.

Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi established an agrarian way of life. Picture courtesy: Wikipedia

The seeds were sown in South Africa

All his life, Bapu considered himself to be a farmer and strove to be self-reliant for food. Whether it was in his ashrams in South Africa – Phoenix Settlement near Durban or Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg – the first activity was to convert the land into farmland.

The land Bapu bought to establish Phoenix Settlement, his first experiment with community living, was rocky, barren and non-productive. The initial years were spent in digging out rocks, levelling hilly land and irrigating it, all done through back-breaking labour – till all 100 acres were brought under horticulture and agriculture. At one time, 75 of the 100 acres were a sugarcane plantation, the rest producing fruits and vegetables for the consumption of residents. All residents worked on the farm.

The same was true of Tolstoy Farm. When Bapu returned to India and established the Sabarmati Ashram, he replicated the Phoenix Settlement model on a smaller scale but here too the objective was to become a self-reliant community. The same ideology was followed in Sevagram, Wardha. “I should like to slip out of public gaze, to bury myself in the farm and devote attention to farming and educating,” Bapu said and strove to do.

While fighting for equal rights in South Africa, Gandhi started his work as a lawyer fighting cases for persecuted and exploited indentured labourers – glorified slaves, most of them farmhands and mine labourers. Studying the cases, Gandhi began to understand the agricultural system from the point of view of subsistence farmers and farm labourers. Gandhi was a vociferous supporter for land ownership rights for Africans and on many occasions voiced his opinion in support of these rights for black African citizens of South Africa. Bapu understood the importance of farmers and empathised with their plight.

Back home, while he toured India to come to know it, Bapu got acquainted with the India living in its villages and hamlets, an India of small and subsistence farmers and poverty-stricken artisans, and experienced their plight, poverty and resilience. For the rest of his life, Bapu strove to live like them, embracing poverty and a frugal life.

The roots of satyagraha

The first mass movement he spearheaded  was to fight for justice for the criminally exploited Indigo farmers of Champaran. He fought for their rights largely by presenting irrefutable evidence of their exploitation and the criminality of land owners and factory owners, making it impossible for the colonial administration to ignore the farmers’ plight.

It wasn’t as if the administration wasn’t aware of the plight of farmers but as long as someone did not make it impossible for them to be indifferent, they were not bothered. Bapu made it impossible for the colonial administration to pretend to be unaware.

Today, agitating farmers are attempting to do the same to an unsympathetic, uncaring and arrogant political leadership. They may ignore the agitation, they may attempt to malign it but in the end the administration will be forced to capitulate. The truth is on the side of the farmers; they won’t be denied. Gandhi forced an occupying, unsympathetic colonial power to respond humanely and with justice. The present government is of our own people.

The Kheda Satyagraha, which followed Champaran, was once again an agitation born out of farmer distress and discontent. This time it was over the colonial administration’s draconian tax regime and the brutal manner of collecting it despite successive monsoon and crop failures. Farmers were made destitute. Their lands, homes, possessions and animals were confiscated if they were unable to pay the tax. Bapu and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel spearheaded the Kheda Satyagraha and eventually got a reprieve for the farmers of the district.

Patel earned the affectionate and respectful title of ‘Sardar’ for his leadership of the agitation. The present government, which desperately tries to appropriate his legacy, must remember that if the Sardar were alive he would be leading the farmers.

The combination of Champaran and Kheda crowned Bapu as the supreme leader of the freedom movement. Both Sardar and Bapu would have walked with protesting farmers to Delhi and braved the blows and the numbing blasts of the water cannons rained on them by an enslaved police force and a tyrannical government.

Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel spearheaded the Kheda farmers’ satyagraha. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

One satyagraha follows another

“Disciplined agitation is the condition of national growth,” Gandhi wrote in Young India (December 31, 1919).

India has witnessed a very disciplined public agitation in the recent past – the Shaheen Bagh sit-in against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens. That and the farmers’ protest against the new farm laws are examples of disciplined Gandhian satyagraha. The government has responded to both in an amoral manner and has made them that much more powerful and just.

The National Salt Satyagraha Memorial at Dandi. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On the eve of the breaking of the Salt Law at Dandi on April 5, 1930, Bapu sent a message to humanity: “I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might.” The Shaheen Bagh dadis and protesting farmers demand the sympathy of humanity in their battle.

During the Namak Satyagraha that followed Bapu’s breaking the Salt Law, the first protest was planned at Dharasana, a coastal village near Valsad – a traditional salt-making centre under the control of the colonial government. Bapu planned to raid the Colonial Salt Works and ‘steal’ salt from the government depot. True to his nature, Bapu informed the Viceroy about his plan.

At midnight, before Bapu was to embark on the raid, he was arrested. Abbas Taiyebjee, who was to take on the leadership in his place, was arrested too. Finally, Sarojini Naidu lead the satyagrahis.

At Dharasana, the colonial administration deployed a large force of Indian constables led by British officers. They were ordered to prevent the Satyagraha and stop the raid at all costs. The satyagrahis were dealt with brutally, many of them injured. The satyagrahis were so well trained in non-violence that they did not even raise their hands to protect themselves.

The magic of that satyagraha was that every day, at meal time, a truce was called – the villagers would bring food for the satyagrahis. Since native policemen were deployed, the colonial administration did not bother to provide for them. On the first day, the satyagrahis spotted the plight of the policemen who had beaten them brutally. At the next meal time, the satyagrahis served half the food brought by the villagers to the policemen. This continued till the satyagraha ended.


Today, protesting farmers are behaving similarly. By doing so, they have gained moral ascendency over the government. Now, whatever the outcome of the protests, the farmers have won. Their victory is undeniable.


Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: