The great problems, said Nietzsche, are in the street. True. The real fight for human rights and restoration of dignity can not take place in limited spaces through civilised conversations that debate the law and legalities. The great problems of the nation come alive, when they do, in the streets. And it is there that they must be debated and resolved. For the streets hold both the flesh and the word.

The atmosphere of the street protests by India’s young people against Citizenship Amendment Act and the drive to register all citizens that hangs over the country today is amazingly similar to the time when Gandhi launched his fabled satygraha in 1919, just over 100 years ago. While Gandhi launched the satyagraha to protest against the violence unleashed at Jallianwala Bagh by General Reginald Dyer and the promulgation of a hated Rowlatt Act, the hills suddenly became alive with their own variety of satyagraha.

Here is the story.

The Congress branch of the Uttarakhand (known then as Kumaon) launched a major public movement triggered by the Gandhian Asahyog Andolan down below in the plains. The resentment against the Act was spontaneously linked to the anger of locals against the British system of using locals for free labour – a system known as kulli begar.

When rapacious British officials returned to the plains, they carried loads of free gifts acquired as a matter of course from the poor villagers. The trail of locals made to carry these loads down the tricky mountain slopes referred to it bardainsh (from the Persian “bardasht”, meaning tolerating somehow).

Labour register

As the British made their way into the central Himalyan region, raiding it for timber and holding regular shooting parties, they created a register in 1910. It listed all able-bodied villagers in each village in the Himalayan region . This was maintained by the village head, the pradhan, and the revenue official or patwari.

Whenever a government officer visited the heavily forested area, mostly for shooting and recreation, the residents of villages nearby were summoned to carry the sahibs and their families along with the elaborate items they needed for their stay. The loads ranged from brooms, dogs, bottles of liquor, guns, tents, eggs and live chickens to commodes and chamber pots.

Entire villages could also be summoned under the system of gaon begar to carry, load and unload heavy construction material like timber and steel from one army cantonment to another.

A change

Hargovind Pant.

Soon after the creation of the Kumaon Congress Parishad, things began changing. On December 25, 1919, the respected local leader Hargovind Pant had a resolution passed against the hated kulli begar system. Badridutt Pande, another young leader, the editor of the well-known local Hindi paper Shakti travelled to Calcutta to discuss this with Gandhi. He was also among the provincial leaders who spoke at the Jallianwalla Bagh session of Congress on December 26, 1919.

After he returned, the group began galvanising support in villages by explaining what a satyagraha against free labour meant and why it was a practice they must defy collectively and publically. They also began linking the protests against the coolie register with the civil non-cooperation movement Gandhi had launched. Describing their movement as a public protest against the systematic deprivation of the peoples of Uttarakhand of their human worth and self image (maan maryada) by the British government.

January is the time the traditional Uttarayani fair is held in the town of Bageshwar on banks of the Sarayu. On January 10, Kumaon Parishad workers appeared in Bageshwar chanting “Gandhiji ki jai” and “Vande Mataram”, wearing khadi caps brought in from the conference in the plains. As locals gathered around them, they crossed the bazaar and lectured in various corners about their movement against both the Rowlatt act and the sarkari registration.

“We shall not be coolies even if they cut us up into a thousand pieces!” Badridutt Pande and Hargovind Pant told the locals. “It is an illegal system and even the courts in the plains have ruled against it.”

‘Tear up the registers’

They urged people to follow Gandhi’s way and refuse to go when challaned or to pay bardainsh. “When we were surrounded by all kinds of food shortages, the British were sending our food grains to the war front,” said Chiranjilal, referring to the recently concluded World War. “Our men gave their lives for the Crown in an alien war, and all we got in return was this awful Rowlatt Act and kulli begar register! Let our village heads tear up these registers and throw them into the river!”

The people, numbering some 10,000 by now heartily supported the Parishad leaders’ call by chanting. “We shall not send our people as kullis.” The hated registers were then torn and thrown into the river. The crowds cupped the waters of the river in their palms and swore to stick to the path of peaceful non cooperation.

The district magistrate, Dywill, was taken by surprise. No one had expected the people in the far-off central Himalayan region to rise up and challenge the Register and the system of begar. He wanted to come to the site, but was advised against it as no kullis were available to take him to the area, nor mules. He was also warned not to try sending in police men with fire arms. The local people were highly charged and all he had were 21 police officials, 25 policemen and 500 shells at his command.

Badridutt Pande

Agitation spreads

As the villages came to know of the Bageshwar incident at the Uttarayani mela, they began to defy the system as well. Of the leaders, Badridutt Pande, was charged with spreading disaffection through the media. In January 1920, curfew was slapped on several towns where the movement was leading to public demonstrations against the Register and kulli begar. This was done by imposing Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings, even of small crowds.

Despite this, by 1921, when school children began to come out on the streets wearing Gandhi caps, the district magistrate wrote to the all-powerful Commisioner Ramsay that he could no longer control the situation. In 1922, the governing council for the region formally announced an end to the kulli begar system.

There is a lesson in this successful pre-digital media uprising for us in the 21st century. Governments acting with highhandedness will usually treat the small group of intellectuals, teachers, writers, singers, freelance reporters as being disconnected from the streets. But they forget that art is always on the side of the common people. With the rise in the numbers of the educated young on our streets carrying the legacy of ideas picked up from books and the free media, our millennials know that they have a right to emerge into the civilised world as full citizens. They are by now an unstoppable force. Remember, at one of his early rallies abroad, Prime Minister Modi told a crowd of young Americans, May the Force be with you. History has its little jokes.