People’s Hero of Champaran: Comrade Gambhira Sah
On July 3, 1977, when Com. Gambhira Sah (06.08.1946-03.07.1977) embraced martyrdom in police custody of the then Janata govt. of Karpuri Thakur, Blitz commented ‘Gandhi’s Champaran has now turned into Gambhira’s Champaran’. As the news of his martyrdom spread, peasants came out with whatever traditional weapons they could get hold of. Seeing the 7000 strong funeral procession, policemen in Darpa police camp all fled to Chouradano P.S. The peasant masses vowed to complete the unfulfilled tasks of Comrade Gambhira Sah and 20 peasant activists became full time cadres of the Party.
Ironically the Janata regime of Karpuri Thakur, elected after the downfall of the Emergency, claimed to be the embodiment of democracy and social justice – and it was this regime that killed Comrade Gambhira in police custody in abject negation of all democratic, constitutional norms. Interestingly Comrade Gambhira had once personally arranged shelter for Karpuriji during the Emergency. However, neither the Karpuri government nor subsequent governments of all hues bothered even to lodge cases against the guilty policemen or conducted any inquiry into the illegal custodial killing of a popular mass leader. In fact, they were rewarded with promotions. When the demand was raised in the assembly, Karpuri Thakur rejected it on the plea that Gambhira Prasad was a Naxal extremist. Later, when Karpuri Thakur sent a cheque of 25 rupees to his wife in order to placate the poor and the OBCs and dalits, she refused it with befitting disdain, saying “My husband did not die for money; he embraced martyrdom in his struggle for the ‘Raj’ of the poor!” Dinman, a noted Hindi weekly of those days, commented that “She roars like a lioness!”
Com. Gambhira Sah was just 31 years old at the time of his martyrdom and within a short and stormy political career of five years he created an upheaval in Champaran. Born in a middle peasant, Teli-Vaishya family, he got an Intermediate level education from Motihari College. In search of a job, he first went to Muzaffarpur and then to Calcutta to try his luck, but was unsuccessful. However another destiny was waiting for him in Calcutta which actually changed the entire course of his life.
He belonged to the first post-independence generation of Indians which grew up under the great promise of freedom and prosperity. However the expectations of a whole generation were soon to be belied, generating a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment. Since his childhood, Comrade Gambhira was sensitive to the barbaric feudal oppression present in many forms around him: near-bonded labour, begari, all sorts of social oppression including untouchability, and assaults on the dignity of the women. A prevalent feudal practice required that people from his own Teli community hide themselves inside their houses when feudal forces would set out for journey, because it was believed that seeing the face of a Teli while going out was ominous! Even an unintended violation of this feudal writ, by ‘mistake’ or by chance, was punished cruelly, either by beating or some penalty.
While Congress, quite obviously, sided with the feudal forces, Socialists, too, aligned with the other sections of the feudal forces, and remained silent on such issues. It was the Naxalbari upsurge which had a tremendous impact on Comrade Gambhira and soon he came in contact with CPI(ML) in Calcutta. He preferred to work in his home-town and returned to Champaran. Here he joined hands with communist revolutionaries active in the area and launched battle against the usurious moneylenders. True to his principles, he launched the first attack within his own home. Unable to tolerate his moneylender father’s treatment of a poor peasant, he tore apart all the records related with money –lending and set them on fire. This battle against moneylenders developed into a popular movement against usury. The poor peasants stopped repaying the loans and in many villages they were liberated from the clutches of the moneylenders.
Wage struggles were launched in some 50 villages, strikes were organized and soon the wages increased from 2.5 kg paddy to 4 kg. Soon a land struggle was launched. Around 100 acres of land was confiscated and distributed among the poor. When the vengeful landlords stopped lending money to the poor, Com. Gambhira had a creative alternative: he developed a pool/ reservoir of around 25 quintals of grains. The poor could borrow from it when necessary and then return it in a month time. Under Comrade Gambhira’s leadership, village committees comprising of agricultural labourers and poor peasants were formed in around 25 villages, which debated out the contradictions among the people and discussed various problems of the village. The village committees met once a week and to ensure popular democratic participation, villagers were called to join by drum-beats.
During Emergency, Comrade Gambhira was arrested under MISA and sent to Bhagalpur Central Jail. Earlier, he was working with some other communist revolutionary group. Comrade Mohd. Rasool tells us that it was after discussions with comrades in jail that Comrade Gambhira was persuaded to join CPI(ML) Liberation.
When Comrade Gambhira was released from jail after emergency, people had made grand arrangements to greet their ‘hero’ in Motihari but instead of appearing there he silently reached Gamharia market via Ramgarhwa, because according to the then Party line, he was to lead an underground class struggle. Sometime during this period he visited Nepal, returning with 1400 books. He used to say, “We have not only to change the old system but also create a new one. So we must grasp Marxism and learn from the experiences of Communist movements of other countries.”
With Comrade Gambhira once more amongst them, the enthused peasants started land grab movement in many villages. Red flag was hoisted on 100 acres of Munshi Singh of Tinkoni, 50 acres of Adapur landlord, 100 acres of Harendra Singh, and all ceiling surplus land and ceiling surplus as well as Bhoodan land of Darpa Math. As noted in Report from The Fleming Fields of Bihar, “He organized a militant peasant movement in Chouradano which soon assumed proportions of an upsurge. Alarmed at this peasant militancy, local landlords and their henchmen decided to finish him off.” Landlords in collusion with police and administration hatched a conspiracy and he was arrested in the early hours of July 3 from a village. In Chauradano Police Station, all notorious landlords of the area assembled. And after inhuman torture, expecting that he would be demoralised and surrender, the police offered, “Leave the Party, your life will be spared.” Comrade Gambhira responded, “I am making a Party against your tyranny. As long as your oppression continues, people like me will keep on making the Party. I am not doing anything wrong which I should refrain from. It’s battle for justice, no matter if I lose my life in this endeavour. Like me, thousands and lakhs more will be born and ultimately this tyrannical system will be overthrown. You can kill me but I will not leave the Party.” Responding to Comrade Gambhira’s appeals to their class consciousness (“you too belong to the poor and our battle is against the atrocities that you too face”), Chowkidars and policemen refused to beat Comrade Gambhira. The police officers then allowed landlords and their henchmen to beat him to death in police custody.
Comrade Gambhira still lives on in the memory of the people who are determined to carry forward his unfulfilled mission!
On July 3, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Comrade Gambhira’s martyrdom, his statue was unveiled in his native village, Mahuavan, by Comrade Dipankar. Thousands of peasants and toiling masses flocked to the mass meeting, undeterred by rain. Every year, people who gathered to garland the memorial of Comrade Gambhira had to clash with the police in order to do so. For the first time this year the police were absent from the scene. Addressing the mass meeting Comrade Dipankar said that Comrade Gambhira Sah’s revolutionary career spanned just five years, of which, two were spent in jail. Yet he galvanised landmark struggles in Champaran, for which people remember him so fondly. His experience is an example that people’s movements can be raised to great heights even within short spans of time.
Earlier, a booklet on the life of Comrade Gambhira ‘People’s Hero of Champaran: Comrade Gambhira Prasad’ was released by Comrade Dipankar.
On July 2, on the occasion of the centenary of the Champaran Peasant Rebellion, a seminar was organized in Betia to commemorate the memory of Sheikh Gulab, the hero of that movement. The seminar was the first of its kind in the region, and a good number of intellectuals attended it. Prominent among the speakers were Prof. Parvez, Principal, Gulab Memorial College, Comrade Ahmad Ali, Member, State Secretariat CPI, Birbal Sharma of CPI(M), teachers’ leader Upendra Mohan Thakur, Employees’ leader Ram Surat Raut and CPI(ML) leader Comrade Sunil Kumar Raut. The seminar was conducted by Comrade Virendra Gupta, Member of the CPI(ML) Bihar State Committee. Comrade Dipankar was the main speaker at the Seminar.