All of 77 years now, economic historian Girish Mishra still remembers vividly that day in 1950 when India’s first President Rajendra Prasad alighted from a special train at the railway station in Motihari, then the district headquarters of undivided Champaran, which is now split up into East and West districts, in Bihar.

A 10-year-old schoolboy then, Mishra and his classmates were taken to catch a glimpse of the son of the soil, a Bihari who had risen to the august office of President. “Rajendra Prasad had come to condole the death of a relative,” Mishra recalled.

On the railway platform was a bunch of people whom the president was to address. Suddenly, there was a commotion at the entrance gate of the platform – an old man insisted that he must be allowed to meet the president.

Prasad promptly walked to the gate. He escorted the old man to the dais, gave him a chair next to his, and engaged him in a brief animated conversation. To the gathering that gasped in surprise, the president narrated a story dating to 1917, the year in which Mahatma Gandhi came to Champaran to investigate, and eventually oppose, the Teenkathia contractual system through which British planters compelled farmers to grow indigo.

Prasad introduced the man sitting next to him as Batakh Mian (Ansari), a cook who, despite his poverty, turned down “all kinds of inducement” offered by a British planter, Erwin, to poison Gandhi and him. Had it not been for Batakh Mian, Gandhi would have died, Prasad said, wondering what impact such a tragedy might have had on the freedom struggle.

Prasad’s disclosure seared Batakh Mian into Mishra’s and Champaran’s public memory for all time to come. Perhaps Champaran felt gratified to have among them a person who was the antithesis, so to speak, of Nathuram Godse, who only two years previously, on January 30, 1948, had assassinated Gandhi. For a country still under the overhang of that assassination, the contrast between Godse and Batakh Mian was simply too stark to be forgotten.

Batakh Mian’s feat

History is often a medley of versions of an event in the past, gradually embellished over time. This is as true of Batakh Mian’s deed, more so as neither Gandhi nor Prasad, quite surprisingly, wrote about him. To check the story of Batakh Mian, this writer spoke to the Congress MLA from Narkatiaganj, Vinay Varma, who is a member of the family that founded the Shikarpur Estate.

Varma’s version, as handed down by successive generations of the family, is a little different from Mishra’s. Varma’s grandfather was Bhagwati Prasad Varma, the son-in-law of India’s first President. In 1950, Bhagwati Prasad Varma’s older brother, Awadesh, was ailing, which is the reason Prasad took a special train to meet him, Varma said.

In Varma’s retelling of the presidential visit of 1950, Prasad alighted from a special train not at Motihari, but at Narkatiaganj Railway Station. As Prasad walked through the crowd gathered to see him, he chanced upon Batakh Mian, old, his clothes in tatters. So overwhelmed was Prasad that he embraced Batakh Mian there and then. “This was how the story of Batakh Mian came to be known,” said Varma.

Mishra agreed that he might have been mistaken about Prasad’s purpose of visit. But he insisted that the meeting between the president and the cook took place at Motihari. Mishra, who taught economics at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College and has authored several books, wrote about the episode in the Mainstream Weekly in 2010.

There is, again, no one version on how Batakh Mian foiled the plot to poison Gandhi. In his Mainstream piece, Mishra wrote of Gandhi insisting on those volunteering for him in Champaran to eat together in a “common mess without considerations of caste and religion. The cook was a Muslim, Battack [Battakh] Mian.”

Angry at Gandhi for hopping from village to village inquiring about the Teenkathia system, a British planter, Erwin, offered inducements, apart from issuing threats, to Batakh Mian to mix poison with the food he prepared for Gandhi and his volunteers. Not only did Batakh Mian refuse, but he also disclosed Erwin’s diabolic plot to Gandhi and Prasad.

There are other, more dramatic versions. In one, Batakh Mian is said to have been the cook of British planter Erwin (neither Mishra nor anyone else knows his full name), who had invited Gandhi and Prasad over for dinner. Postprandial, Batakh Mian was instructed to lace a glass of milk with poison before giving it to Gandhi, who was presumably staying overnight at the plantation. On entering Gandhi’s room, where Prasad was also present, Batakh Mian instructed him not to drink the poisoned milk.

In another version, as retold by Varma and many others, Batakh Mian entered the room and offered the glass of milk to Gandhi. Just when Gandhi was to drink it, Batakh Mian was overcome by pangs of conscience. He snatched the glass from Gandhi and poured out the milk on the floor. With tears flowing, Batakh Mian narrated how Erwin had threatened him and, alternatively, offered inducements for poisoning Gandhi. (An even more embellished version says a cat licked the milk on the floor and died instantly.)

Is there any evidence for the existence of Erwin of Prasad’s story that Mishra recapitulated in his Mainstream Weekly article? A perusal of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volumes XV and XVI, online shows that there did exist one WS Irwin, manager of Motihari Ltd, an indigo concern. Irwin earned notoriety for brutally oppressing peasants and usurping their land, apart from becoming an implacable foe of Gandhi during his fact-finding mission in Champaran.

Irwin wreaked vengeance on those who deposed before Gandhi and his fellow satyagrahis regarding the depredations of British planters. On May 24, 1917, Gandhi wrote a letter to Irwin accusing him of uprooting in his own presence the crops of two farmers who had made statements to the fact-finding team. A day later, Gandhi wrote to the Collector WB Heycock accusing Irwin of mercilessly beating the two.

On May 30, 1917, Gandhi wrote yet another letter to Irwin informing him that farmers have accused him of whipping them.

Gandhi wrote: “One of them showed strong marks on his calves and on his back. They were sent by you to the murghikhana (fowl-house) and were fined Rs 10 each. They were released at midnight on their promising to secure the fines in the morning.”

Both Gandhi and Irwin were engaged in verbal jousts in the columns of The Pioneer and The Statesman newspapers.

There is no mention of “Erwin”, as spelt by Mishra and others in their retelling of Batakh Mian’s story, in the Collected Works. Given the undeniably cruel streak in Irwin, and his loathing of Gandhi, it is safe to assume that his name was misspelt in subsequent renditions of Prasad’s story.

Regardless of whether it was Erwin or Irwin and what precisely was his plot to poison Gandhi, in Champaran’s memory, Batakh Mian paid dearly for refusing to execute it, and then compounding his recalcitrance by disclosing it. His house and whatever land he owned were auctioned, and he was put behind bars and beaten.

Reduced to a penurious condition, Batakh Mian’s plight prompted President Prasad on his 1950 visit to ask the collector of Tirhut division, of which Champaran was and still is a part, to allocate 50 acres of land to the cook who saved Gandhi’s life – and his three sons, Sher Mohammad Ansari, Rashid Ansari and Mohd Jaan Ansari. It was deemed to be India’s token of appreciation of the man who refused to kill to enrich himself.

Actor Farooq Sheikh's letter to the family.

Mishra in his Mainstream essay does not record the conversation between the president and the collector. Nevertheless, 60 years later, the Hindustan Times did a story, Family of Mahatma’s saviour in dire straits, which quoted from Champaran ke Swatantatra Senani (Freedom Fighters of Champaran) to retell the story of Batakh Mian, the poisoned glass of milk meant for Gandhi, and how President Prasad promised to gift “24 acres” of land to him.

The story caught the eye of Pratibha Patil, then the president of India, whose Officer-on-Special Duty Archana Datta wrote to the newspaper saying, “Her Excellency, an austere Gandhian, has taken note of the HT report.”

Datta also asked the district magistrates of East and West Champaran to file reports on the steps the Bihar government had taken to implement the Presidential Order of 1950. Nitish Kumar, then too chief minister, promised succour to the family.

Impoverished family

This writer tracked Alauddin Ansari and Kalam Ansari, two of the many grandsons of Batakh Mian. They are two of six sons of Mohd Jaan Ansari, the youngest child of Batakh Mian, and with whom he spent his last years.

Both Alauddin and Kalam Ansari said the family was granted six acres of land, not in Siswa Ajgari village, East Champaran, where they lived, but in Ekwa Parsauni village of West Champaran in 1958, that is, a year after Batakh Mian died. Worse, it hugged a protected forest area and had to be broken for cultivation. The location of the land gift meant that Mohd Jaan Ansari and his family had to shift from Siswa Ajgari, where Batakh Mian is buried. (Batakh Mian’s other two sons, according to both Alauddin and Kalam Ansari, were staying with their in-laws.)

In 1960, the family threw anchor in Ekwa Parsauni. But their possession of six acres was challenged in court and they had to wait for another six to seven years before their title to the land was confirmed.

“I remember Mohd Jaan coming to our estate,” said Vinay Verma, the MLA from Narkatiaganj. “The quantum of land promised to them [24 acres or 50 acres] couldn’t be handed over to them because of the Forest Department’s opposition. Jaan even made representations to Indira Gandhi.”

We do not know whether Indira Gandhi interceded, but Kalam Ansari sent this writer a faded photograph, not possible to reproduce here, in which his father, Mohd Jaan Ansari, who died in 1998, is seen with President Prasad in New Delhi. It suggests that he did not forget Batakh Mian even after that chance encounter at Motihari railway station.

Quest for promised land

There is little doubt that Batakh Mian’s family is in dire straits. A rivulet, the Biraha, now flows through the six-acre plot. “Next year, the river might even gobble up our home,” said Alauddin Ansari, who is 62 years old. His children and those of his other five brothers, now work as seasonal migrant labour in Haryana, Delhi and Punjab, the family subsisting on the money they remit home or bring back when they return.

Their quest for the promised “50 acres” of land continues, as also the Bihar administration’s search to provide them relief. Both Alauddin Ansari and Kalam Ansari were summoned in January to Motihari by East Champaran’s district magistrate, Anupam Kumar, who is refreshingly different from most officials. “We have completed the family tree of Batakh Mian, and we are looking at how they can be helped,” said Kumar. “The family has grown over time.”

This is indeed true – for instance, Kalam Ansari has 10 children, another brother six more. Add to this number the children of four other sons of Mohd Jaan plus those of Batakh Mian’s two other sons and one is perhaps looking at the formidable task of rehabilitating at least 50 family members.

But what stings Alauddin and Kalam Ansari is that not only does Prasad’s promise of 50 acres to Batakh Mian remain unfulfilled, none of the family members was facilitated on the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s arrival in Champaran, on April 10. Given Champaran’s romance with Batakh Mian, this seems to have been a rather tragic miss.

But this miss is likely to be politicised now. On April 15, the Pichada Muslim Organisation, a backward caste outfit run by Hesamuddin Ansari, held a press conference on the plight of Batakh Ansari’s family, which was widely reported in the Hindi press. On April 16, Kalam Ansari and others sat on a dharna near Gandhi’s statue in the city’s iconic Gandhi Maidan.

Nathuram Godse with Vinayak Savarkar during the trial for the assassination of Gandhi.

On the face of it, the politicisation is an attempt of subaltern Muslim groups to demand recognition and respect for the contributions made by their brethren to India’s freedom struggle. They feel the dominant historiography that mirrors the class relations in India has, deliberately or otherwise, ignored their heroes.

But the story of Batakh Mian also underlines the irony of our times. While Nathuram Godse, the killer of Gandhi, the emblem of Hindu nationalism, remains firmly implanted in our political consciousness, the saviour of Mahatma Gandhi languishes on its margins. It symbolises why Hindutva is on the rise and the Congress on the decline.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.