Until Gandhi intervened in 1917, farmers were forced to grow indigo and cash crops instead of food crops

I’ve recently been travelling in India. It is a vast country of 1.2 billion people – the world’s largest democracy – and the complexity of languages, religions and races that this brings can only start to be comprehended once you’ve been there. I was lucky enough to be staying in Delhi as the elections – expected to be the longest and most expensive in the country’s history – started, and there was a great vibe in the city, which is where the government and parliament are both located. Indians are very political so there were people reading the newspapers or watching the latest news reports virtually everywhere. For the second part of my trip I travelled to Bangalore, where the traffic jams (standard on Indian roads) are ‘something else’. This is due to the exceptional growth in population (adding 0.5 million per year), which has been fuelled by Bangalore’s IT boom (the city is referred to as ‘the Silicon Valley of India’) but there is also a significant biotech and pharma presence.

During my time there I mentioned to one of my hosts that the topic of Chemistry World’s themed issue this year (to be published in July) would be ‘Chemistry and art’ and that we had commissioned, among many interesting articles, a feature on the chemistry of colour. He said: ‘Did you know that colours and the production of dyes, in particular of indigo, was one of the factors that sparked the Indian independence movement?’ And he proceeded to tell me the story. Apparently, in a region called Champaran, in the north east of the country, poor farmers were forced to grow indigo and other ‘cash crops’ instead of food crops and then to sell their crops to the planters at a fixed price. This meant that they were on the verge of starvation, lived in extreme poverty and were suppressed by militias run by the landlords, many of whom were British. Taxes were being levied, and raised continuously, a factor that resulted in the situation growing progressively worse until in 1914 (and then again in 1916) the farmers revolted against the conditions imposed on them. In 1917, one of these peasants persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to visit the region. Gandhi proposed non-violent mass civil disobedience and insisted that protestors did not allude to or try to propagate the concept of independence. This revolt was not about political freedom, but against tyranny amidst what now was a humanitarian disaster.

Eventually, Gandhi was arrested by police on the charge of creating unrest and was ordered to leave the region. Hundreds of thousands of people protested and he was released, leading to further strikes against the landlords. In the end all parties agreed to sign an agreement granting more compensation and control over farming for the farmers of the region, suspending revenue collection until the famine ended, releasing all prisoners and returning confiscated property. 

Of course India did not become independent until 1947 but there you have it: indigo played a role in the early years of the movement and of Gandhi becoming the leader of Indian nationalism. I hope this whets your appetite for the July issue on chemistry and art.