The Permanent Settlement Act in 1793 brought a change in the socio-economic structure of India. With the change came, what may be called, a wave of agricultural industrialisation through the introduction of agro-industries such as sugar mills, jute mills, Indigo and opium manufacturing units and saltpetre production. Many erstwhile rulers who were forced into the permanent settlement like Darbhanga started investing in industrial ventures.
In the period of Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh (1879-1898) this investment in the industrial sector was taken up at global level with huge investments in South Africa, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, etc. Darbhanga had quite hefty financial investments in South Africa and a huge mass of indentured labourers working in Africa, West Indies, Fiji, etc. The indentured labourers were from Bihar, Bengal, and a few other states. Since labourers were also from Tirhut, the domain of Maharaja Darbhanga, he was naturally concerned about their welfare and safety.
Meanwhile, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had shifted to South Africa from the United Kingdom after completing his studies in Law. He took up the case of Indians with the government there and started a movement. In this context, Gandhi wrote to late Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh on 10th July, 1897 from Natal, South Africa  in which he writes,
“I beg to draw your attention to a copy sent to you of the Indian Petition to Mr Chamberlain regarding the anti-Indian Bills… It will not improve the Indian, unless we stop this unfair arrangement… we have but to request you to redouble your efforts on our behalf and we may yet hope to get justice.”
The reply to this letter was sent on 12th August 1897 . The Maharaja replied,
“Thank Mr Gandhi for all his… papers. Say that I feel deeply obliged to him for his letters and the papers he has been sending to me from time to time. Ask him to let me know what step he wishes to take for the redress of the grievances of the Indians in Natal and assure him that it will always be a most pleasant duty to me to cooperate with him in his laudable endeavours to the best of my ability.”
This was the first acquaintance of Gandhi with Darbhanga. None of the two would know that Gandhi would have a close relationship to the proceeding two Maharajas of Darbhanga too.
Almost two decades after the letter to Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh, Gandhi had his second encounter with the successive Maharaja, Maharaja Rameshwar Singh. An incident that happened on the occasion of the foundation laying ceremony of the Hindu University at Benares, brought Gandhi close to the Maharaja. On 4th February, 1916, the Foundation of Banaras Hindu University was laid by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge in the morning. The function was attended by more than 200 ruling chiefs and several hundred zamindars and it was presided by Maharaja of Darbhanga, Rameshwara Singh. In the evening, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a co-founder of the University, organized a conference chaired by Maharaja Rameshwara Singh and attended by a very distinguished crowd of ruling chiefs, zamindars, students and eminent citizens.
Mahatma Gandhi addressed this gathering and in his speech, he began to ask the zamindars and ruling chiefs to give up their wealth for public cause and contribute more and more towards the welfare of the people. He said that the ornaments and costly clothes of theirs’ mock the wretched condition of the masses. Some of the ruling chiefs felt bad to hear all this. Gandhiji was obstructed in his speech by Mrs Annie Besant for his humiliating remarks against the Maharajas but the Chairperson of the meeting, Maharaja Sir Rameshwara Singh allowed him to complete his speech and put forth his views under democratic norms. This incident is reported in almost every newspaper from the period and is even noted in the Gandhi archives .
Thereafter, Gandhiji visited Bihar in 1917 at the request of Pandit Shukla to emancipate the farmers of Champaran. He had to start his Champaran Andolan or protest against the British Indigo planters who were causing great harm to the local farmers by making them cultivate Indigo at throwaway price forcefully. The officers at the district level planned to cause physical harm to Gandhiji and sought permission from the then lieutenant-governor of Bihar-Orissa, Sir Edward Albert Gait. As per the convention, the Governor asked the Maharaja of Darbhanga for his opinion. The Maharaja replied,
“I am just free from fever but feel very weak and exhausted, and therefore, any opinion I give must be taken with necessary reservation on account of the state of my health and because I have not seen any paper on the subject, Mr. Gandhi, with all his faults, appears, so far as I have heard about him, honest and well-meaning and he would not do anything illegal if he can help it. I would, therefore, advise that in the first instance effort should be made to bring home to him the dangers of the course he and his lieutenants are pursuing and I hope that this will have the desired effect. It must be remembered that any drastic action taken against Mr. Gandhi would give the matter undue publicity and the Congress people would take it as a handle to start a widespread agitation in the matter. If Gandhi does not listen to reason and seems obdurate, then proceedings may be taken against him and his lieutenants. ”
Gandhi had consultations with Maharaja Rameshwar Singh regarding the issues pertaining to the problems the ryots were facing due to the policies of the planters .
The Maharaja of Darbhanga had supported the Congress many a time in its early days and he was also connected with Gandhi from his South African days . However, until the earthquake in 1934, Gandhi never visited Darbhanga and the decade from 1930 was a very crucial one for the Congress party in Bihar.
Gandhi met the Maharaja of Darbhanga at his residence in Patna before moving to the Tirhut region. On arrival at Darbhanga, Gandhi was received by Raja Bahadur Visheshwar Singh and Mr Danby . Special arrangements had to be made keeping in view the anger that had ensued after Gandhi’s comments. Some people had even raised black flags for Gandhi .
The above issue of Bombay Chronicle dated 22nd March 1934, gives a detailed account of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit programme at Patna on 21st March, 1934. It says he visited the Maharaja of Darbhanga at his Patna residence and discussed with him the relief programme . Incidentally, the senior Maharani of Darbhanga, Raj Lakshmi ji also wrote in her diary while at Darbhanga, on 30th March 1934, the Mahatma came to see her in the camp Rambagh and asked her about the earthquake and her wellbeing. He also asked her “Maharani, kuch karti bhi ho ya sirf yoon hi aaraam (Maharani, do you spend your days idle or do any work too?).” She gave a very apt reply, “Mithila mein hum striyan bachpan se hi charkha chalana seekh leti hoon, tab hi to hamare kapade aur janeyu purush pahante hain (Mahatmaji, we women in Mithila learn to spin the charkha early as we have to produce our own cloth and thread used to make the sacred thread for our menfolk). ”
Another interesting incident happened in 1940. (Letter no.364. Mahatma Gandhi writes to Lord Linlithgow from Sevagram, Wardha, on June 7, 1940, in reply to a letter from Lord Linlithgow written to Mahatma Gandhi on 26th May 1940)
While speaking to the village representatives at Hansdih, on March 21st, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi said “The Maharaja of Darbhanga is a very big zamindar. Should he and his wife be killed? I am very friendly with him. He respects me like a father because his late father was a good friend of mine. ”
In “The Leader” a daily newspaper, on the 20th of November 1946, Maharaja Dr Sir Vijaya Anand of Vizianagram writes that he along with Maharajadhiraj Darbhanga went to meet Gandhi to discuss the future of zamindars where the Mahatma, reportedly, was not in favour of the abolition of zamindari . The stand of Gandhi regarding zamindars has always been a subject of ambiguity. In a message to Maharaja Kameshwar Singh, Gandhi advised him to be a servant to his people .
The relationship between Gandhi and the Maharajas of Darbhanga was very complex. They were close and knew each other too well. But the politics since the second decade of the twentieth century began to change. Religion, language, and caste became important as electoral politics threw up a new breed of leadership from the nascent but very ambitious middle class. We have just discussed some of the issues but the whole case of politics at the state and national level during the Gandhian period and after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 shall be discussed in our next part of the present series.