Restoring the past in Sabarmati Ashram

Print edition : December 20, 2019

At Hriday Kunj, Gandhi’s house at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Gandhi, Mirabehn and others at the Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi left the ashram in 1930 but continued to visit it. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A girls’ hostel that is part of the Sabarmati Ashram and is located alongside a small colony of homes that belong to descendants of the first generation of ashram workers. The hostel is looked after well but theirs homes are neglected. Photo: Anupama Katakam

A group of residents of Rangshala and Vanatshala colonies, which will be affected if the ashram redevelopment project goes through. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Homes of freedom fighters, which are heritage buildings. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Dimant Badhia in front of the Imam Manzil Khadi Vanat Ane Vechan Kendra, a khadi-weaving unit started during the time of his great-grandfather, Ramjibhai Gopal Badhia. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Weavers at the Imam Manzil Khadi Vanat Ane Vechan Kendra, which is opposite the Sabarmati Ashram’s main gate. Photo: Anupama Katakam

A board giving a brief history of Ramjibhai and weaving at the ashram. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Letters Gandhi wrote to Ramjibhai Gopal Badhia. Photo: Anupama Katakam

The latest project to redevelop the Sabarmati Ashram is facing some resistance, especially from direct descendants of its original inhabitants, and questions are being raised about Narendra Modi’s interest in the plan.

AMONG the several Gandhi heritage sites in the country, it is the Sabarmati Ashram that is the most significant. This was the first ashram that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi established when he returned from South Africa in 1915. It was from the Sabarmati Ashram that Gandhi began the 384-kilometre Dandi March. It was within its premises that he experimented with farming, animal husbandry and weaving. Home to Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, for almost 13 years, the ashram in its early years was the nucleus of India’s freedom struggle. It was so dear to Gandhi that in 1930, as the movement towards Independence gained momentum, he left it vowing he would not return until India was free from British rule.

As the country celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the spotlight turns on this historical and iconic site. The main trust of the Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat government have proposed that to keep the legacy of the father of the nation alive, the ashram needs to become a 35-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) integrated and holistic campus. For this to happen, a busy and popular part of Ahmedabad’s new city would need an extensive redesign and overhaul. Obviously, the proposal has met with resistance from many people in Ahmedabad.

Soon after paying tribute to the Mahatma on his birth anniversary on October 2, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly gave an in-principle nod to a Rs.247-crore ashram revitalisation project. A draft plan for the restoration of the original ashram was put forward by the well-known architect firm HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited (HCP).

Given the enormity and controversial nature of this project, government officials are unwilling to confirm or provide any details. Elabehn Bhatt, chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, says a proposal has been made but as yet there have been no discussions with the government on it. Frontline sourced a copy of the design and found that a comprehensive plan is definitely in place. The question is whether it can be executed. A local resident says: “Only this government can pull off a project on this scale.”

Modi made an attempt to redevelop the ashram in 2003-04 when he was Gujarat Chief Minister, but because of mismanagement and differences between and within the trusts that run the ashram and a general reluctance on their part, the attempt failed. The sesquicentennial celebrations have given him an opportunity to appropriate Gandhi the way he did Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel with the Statue of Unity. Therefore, while the project may seem legitimate because of the miserable condition the ashram is in, there is reason to wonder why it is being pushed, says a political observer.

Urban planners in Ahmedabad say the project will cause the displacement of lakhs of people from their homes and workplaces, and the rerouting of the arterial Ashram Road (which is part of the plan) will change the layout of a fundamental section of the city. A few Gandhians, trustees and urban planners, however, believe that the effort will be worth it and that it is important that the Sabarmati Ashram is restored in its entirety. The State government says the ashram attracts up to seven lakh tourists a year and this should be capitalised upon. The idea is to restore it to its pre-Independence appearance, which would make it an interesting and historical tourist destination.

This will be the fourth attempt at reviving the Sabarmati Ashram. In 1966, a plan by the architect B.V. Doshi was considered but shelved. In 2003-04, the architect Charles Correa conceived another plan, but that did not move either. In 2007, the architecture school of Ahmedabad’s CEPT University designed an area development plan, but that too remained on the drawing board. The latest entrant is Bimal Patel, who runs HCP and was asked to come up with a contemporary plan. Incidentally, he was recently commissioned to restore the Parliament area and Lutyens’ Delhi.

HCP’s plan for the restoration of the ashram essentially reclaims 32 acres of land between three points: the Dandi Bridge, the Collector’s/Regional Transport Office and the Subash Bridge. The main ashram and 63 significant Gandhi establishments—including a college, the Environment Sanitation Institute, a school, a gaushala, former homes of well-known Gandhians and the offices of the Sabarmati Ashram trusts—are located largely within this perimeter. At present, the ashram institutions and historical homes are scattered in the Ashram Road area, making it appear as if the ashram is just on a sliver of land on the riverfront. Documents and maps from the ashram prove that large tracts of land in the area belong to it. It is not clear how Ashram Road was planned, but it cuts through sections of ashram land and has led to the carving up of the ashram.

Discrimination and displacement

An informed source who has worked on the new plan says if the campus is created it will enable historians to document Gandhi’s life’s work, allow research and study on subjects that Gandhi believed in such as community living and, of course, allow people to view and explore the area in which the Mahatma spent a significant amount of time, which would be an exceptional experience.

The restoration concept may seem like a good idea, especially if the intent is to uphold the legacy of the Mahatma. However, a critical aspect appears to be missing from the project: it does not take into consideration a community of 200 families who are direct descendants of the original inhabitants of the Sabarmati Ashram. They live in tiny colonies scattered around Ashram Road. Rangshala and Vanatshala colonies are situated exactly opposite the ashram’s main gate. Before the road cut through the erstwhile ashram, their homes were located close to Gandhi’s house (Hriday Kunj) as their forefathers were part of the commune-living experiment Gandhi had initiated. These colonies will be the most affected if the project goes through. The beleaguered community has filed an official protest with the Gujarat Governor.

Shailesh Rathod, a leader of the anti-project movement and a resident of Rangshala, says the project relocates the residents of his colony to a nearby area, which he believes has a nullah (drainage canal) running beneath it and is, therefore, uninhabitable. The biggest grouse they have against the project is that they were not included in any discussions. He says that while the land the colonies are on has been included in the land acquisition plan of the project, the community has been excluded from it. He says they have seen the drawings and know what is going to happen. Some people have been “told” they will have to leave. However, few have been given official notices as yet, he says.

Rathod says: “Gandhiji asked our great-grandfathers to work with him in the ashram. We are from Dalit communities. We know he believed in our uplift. It is unfortunate that even though the main trust is called the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, there is not a single Dalit trustee in this organisation.” He says it gets huge grants from across the world for the restoration of buildings. Yet, never once have the trusts asked them whether they needed help. Rathod says none of the families has members working in the ashram or trusts.

Frontline spoke to several residents and found that many feel a sense of betrayal, not just because of the new proposal but because they feel they have been neglected even though their forefathers worked for the Mahatma and, they believe, made critical contributions to creating the Sabarmati Ashram. “The trusts take rent. That is all they do. Both my great-grandfather and grandfather worked in the ashram. I grew up in this area. Yet, we do not get work, and they do not include us in anything. Now we fear we will be thrown out because this government is very anti-Dalit,” says Kantibhai Mangal Rathore, a resident of Rangshala and a retired government employee. “Four generations have lived in this house. How can we live anywhere else? Even though we don’t work there, we feel we belong to the ashram,” he says.

Dimant Badhia, owner of the Imam Manzil Khadi Vanat Ane Vechan Kendra, a khadi-weaving unit near the ashram, says they understand that the ashram needs to be restored but the community should have a role to play in the plan. “We are after all stakeholders and descendants of men who helped Mahatma Gandhi build this ashram. Trustees and the ashram management say we are making unreasonable demands and are stalling development. We have made no demand. All we want is to know where we stand. Politicians who have no link to or understanding of Gandhi are involved in the project. I don’t trust them.” Badhia’s weaving unit is located in the house of Imam Saheb Abdul Kadar Bavaveer, an associate of Gandhi who accompanied him from South Africa. “I look after the legacy of Imam Saheb, who started this weaving unit. How can they overlook these contributions?”

As per the records, in 1917, Gandhi asked a few Dalit families to help set up weaving and leather units in the ashram. They came mainly from Surendranagar district. Over the years, as the ashram lands got carved up, many people stopped working in the ashram and found employment elsewhere. At present, the 200 ramshackle homes seem like an eyesore as the historical buildings around them are being given a facelift. The irony is that even these homes have a bit of history to them.

The Sabarmati Ashram was first established in the Kochrab area of Ahmedabad in 1915. It was relocated to the present premises on the Sabarmati riverfront in 1917. At the time, it occupied 120 acres. As Ahmedabad began expanding, the ashram’s land was reduced to 32 acres, and what is now known as the Sabarmati Ashram was reduced to a 3.5-acre strip of land on the riverfront.

Literature from the museum says that the present location was chosen because Gandhi was looking for a barren site on which he could experiment with livelihood techniques. The spot he chose was the mythological ashram site of the rishi Dadhichi, who had donated his bones for a righteous war. The area was also located between the Sabarmati jail and a crematorium, as Gandhi believed a satyagrahi would invariably go to either place. Initially christened the Harijan Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram reflected the movement towards passive resistance the Mahatma launched. He wanted it to serve as an institution that would carry on the search for truth and be a platform to bring together workers committed to non-violence. The ashram has been credited with being home to the ideology that set India free.

Documents at the ashram say that along with Harijan uplift and creating khadi, it was here that Gandhi began writing his autobiography. In 1920, Gandhi founded the Gujarat Vidyapith university. In 1922, Gandhi was arrested from the ashram for sedition. When the struggle for Independence intensified, historians say, Gandhi moved out of the ashram in order to reach out to villagers and others in the country. Gandhi left the Sabarmati Ashram in 1930 but continued to visit it. His last visit was in 1936.

A historian says after Gandhi’s time the ashram was looked after by the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust. In 1960, after the death of the reformer Parikshit Lal Majumdar, who looked after the ashram, the trust split into seven trusts, six of which exist today: the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust also known as the Sabarmati Ashram, the Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust managed by the National Dairy Development Board, the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, the Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, the Gujarat Khadi Gramodyog Manch and the Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti. It is believed that the deterioration of the larger ashram began once the main trust was diluted. Interestingly, none of the trusts has any of Gandhi’s descendants on their boards. Dimant Badhia alleges that the trusts began leasing and selling land that belonged to them and that led to rapid development and urbanisation in the area.

The other side of the argument

Those in favour of the project, and this includes a few Gandhians who want to remain unnamed, say the ashram urgently requires improvement and so it does not matter that the push for the project has come from Modi. They believe the work of Gandhi is getting lost in today’s technology-driven world. There is still a draw towards Gandhism, but the infrastructure to support research and study is lacking. In fact, some believe in the current climate of intolerance it is critical to resurrect the Mahatma’s teachings.

Elabehn Bhatt told Frontline that plans to revamp the ashram and create a campus would only happen with government partnership as the land was not private. She says she has not received notifications or a time frame for the project, but it is in the pipeline. It has helped that in recent years the trusts that have historically had a fraught relationship are united in the goal of restoring Gandhi’s treasured ashram. “We have been meeting, so I believe something positive will emerge,” she says.

She says they have categorically told the State government that in order to retain the sanctity and dignity of the premises it should not be a “touristy” site. “We would like people to visit, to understand Gandhi’s teachings, get solace and peace while here.” With regard to the issue of displacement, Elabehn Bhatt says, the trust will not allow people to lose their homes and livelihoods.

Jayesh Patel, a trustee of the Environment Sanitation Institute (an ashram institute), says the affected residents will be given homes with ownership titles, which is far better than their current situation. Patel is a resident of the area and says an integrated campus will enhance Gandhi’s teachings. He says: “Gandhi is a space not just a human being. If we do not follow his teachings while implementing the project, there is no point in doing it.”

Badhia and others have no faith in Patel or in the other trusts. For one, Patel is the son-in-law of former Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, who has been accused in several land-grab scams. “The project is a real estate opportunity, and for Modi it is an opportunity to exploit the Gandhi brand. In the 12 years Modi was Chief Minister, he never visited the ashram. Every other Chief Minister would come to pay homage when they took office. Modi did not. Where has this sudden need to work on the ashram come from?” asks Badhia.

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