Sabarmati Ashram redevelopment

Un-Gandhian makeover: Proposal to redevelop Sabarmati Ashram invites criticism

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Sabarmati Ashram. Every year, approximately seven lakh people visit the ashram. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The ashram’s land was reduced to 32 acres as Ahmedabad expanded, and what is now known as the Sabarmati Ashram was reduced to a 3.5-acre strip of land on the riverfront.

Hriday Kunj inside the ashram, a 2017 picture. Critics of the proposed plan say it “severely compromises and trivialises the sanctity and importance of the present-day ashram, mainly Hriday Kunj.” Photo: VIJAY SONEJI

Ela Bhatt, chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust. She stated that the project would consider every protest and suggestion and take them in the spirit of protecting the Mahatma’s legacy. Photo: Vijay Soneji

The Gujarat government’s Rs.1,200 crore project to redevelop Sabarmati Ashram comes in for criticism from Gandhians and eminent personalities as ‘Disneyfication’.

When Mahatma Gandhi decided to establish an ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in 1917, historians say, he intended it to serve as a place to launch the freedom movement and introduce efforts in attaining self-sufficiency. The Sabarmati Ashram has since retained the fundamental ethos of Gandhism, but changes over the years have made the historical space appear jaded and in desperate need of revival. However, the several trusts that manage the ashram are bogged down in bureaucratic and political issues, giving the precincts an air of neglect.

Taking advantage of the situation, the Gujarat government stepped in and announced that Sabarmati Ashram would be restored to its original form. In August, the government announced that it would spend Rs.1,200 crore on a Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project and that work to reclaim encroached land as part of the project would begin immediately.

However, the proposal has not been well received by everyone. Critics say the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using this as an opportunity to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi’s name as it did Sardar Patel’s.

Sagar Rabari, a farm rights activist and member of the Aam Aadmi Party, said: “It is ironic and frightening that this government which has very little regard for non-violence, is clearly communal and is steered by the hand that killed Gandhi, is now trying to protect the Mahatma’s legacy. This is a sophisticated way of wiping out his legacy.”

Several intellectuals and Gandhians have stated that under the pretext of the physical restoration plan, this regime will dilute or, worse still, destroy the Mahatma’s ideology. According to them, at stake, particularly, is valuable historical material, which must never get into the hands of a right-wing government. While, many agree that the ashram could do with an uplift, they say it needs to be done keeping the sanctity of Gandhi’s philosophy in mind.

Statement by eminent personalities

On August 4, as many as 130 academics, activists, writers and historians from across the country issued a statement on what they call the “Disneyfication” of the historical landmark which should be respected as a serious centre for thought, prayer and academic pursuit. The fear is that the Sabarmati project would, much like the revamped Jallianwala Bagh memorial that came in for criticism, look like a “theme park” that disrespects the history of the place. In the case of Sabarmati Ashram, it is understood that while integrating the land and structures into a composite campus, the government has plans to create a new museum, food courts, a parking area, interactive activities and souvenir shops.

The concern stemmed from a government announcement that this would be “the most significant memorial to Gandhi in the world” and that it would offer a seamless and “total Gandhian experience”, including allowing visitors to experience khadi weaving and papermaking. Every year, approximately seven lakh people visit the ashram. The State government has stated on several occasions that this must be capitalised upon.

Titled “Prevent Government takeover of Gandhian Institutions”, the statement, initiated by Prakash N. Shah, Gujarat Sahitya Parishad president, has been signed by eminent personalities such as Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson and historian; Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court; Nayantara Sehgal, writer; and Aruna Roy and G.N. Devy, rights activists.

The statement says: “Reports say that the project will be under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister. This is in keeping with the present government’s strategy to appropriate and commercialise all Gandhian institutions in the country. The worst example of this can be seen in Sevagram [in Maharashtra, which was Gandhi’s ashram and residence from 1936-1948], but the most frightening aspect is government control over all Gandhian archives. As Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by elements whose ideology still inspires some of those in power in India, this danger cannot be overlooked.

“The charisma of Gandhi along with the authenticity and simplicity of the place has been enough…. The proposed plan at best envisions a ‘Gandhi theme park’ and at worst ‘a second assassination’. The proposed plan severely compromises and trivialises the sanctity and importance of the present-day ashram, mainly Hriday Kunj, surrounding buildings and the museum. Hriday Kunj, other historical buildings, and present museums, even if they remain untouched, will no longer be central but pushed into a corner by the new museum, amphitheatre, food courts, shops, etc.”

G.N. Devy, the Gujarat-based activist and writer, told Frontline: “There is no need to make Gandhi world class. He is already world class. If there has to be changes, it has to be in consonance with the spirit that Gandhi created. This includes simplicity and bareness. When [the architect] Charles Correa designed a museum on the premises, he kept in mind this spirit and built a simple structure, which they want to demolish. Moreover, any change in Gandhi’s ashram that is carried out by a dispensation so close to the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is not a good idea.”

Trustees’ response

In response to the statement and the outrage in the media, the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT) issued a media release, saying: “The trustees of the SAPMT have noted and share many of the concerns expressed by several citizens regarding the future of the Sabarmati Ashram and its precincts. ...The trustees are committed to ensuring that the ethos and values, which this space has communicated to the world for all these years, is to be protected and enhanced. By this we mean that the ashram should always remain a message to the world which reminds all of us of Gandhiji’s call for attention to the last person, his ideas of simplicity, economy and frugality in all matters and his respect for nature and for each one of our fellow human beings.”

Ela Bhatt, SAPMT’s chairperson, who is the founder of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) and a highly respected Gandhian, reacted to the concerns with an effective opinion piece in a local English daily. Ela Bhatt said that the project would consider every protest and suggestion and take them in the spirit of protecting the Mahatma’s legacy. According to her, protecting the Mahatma’s legacy goes beyond the physical precincts of the Sabarmati Ashram and towards adopting the Gandhian way of nurturing and building an equal society.

The article says: “The ashram is not a project, or Gandhiji’s home, or a tourist spot. It is where our history of achieving freedom for millions with non-violent means was made. It is where we experimented with a future way of living. The ashram is not a mere memorial of objects and artefacts but a place that inspired satyagraha and carved pathways—inner and outer—to peace. It is our common and shared responsibility to protect, preserve and promote. All of us. Including our government.”

Writing in a national daily, Gandhian scholars Thomas Weber, Charles DiSalvo and Dennis Dalton said: “Having had the privilege to work in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram it is the most important repository of the correspondence to and from Gandhi.”

According to them, the “potential Disneyesque Gandhi theme park may be popular among those wanting to take a selfie and tick a bucket-list box. However, there may be another approach, one that allows the ashram to become (or, indeed, remain) something harder to envisage but where one can feel the Gandhian ethos…. When Gandhi was asked why he did not visit America, he expressed the fear that people would come to see him out of idle curiosity: ‘Let’s see this animal in the Indian zoo.’ He wanted those who had an interest in him to really understand what he was trying to do and invited them to come to the ashram and make a detailed study of his teachings.”

Reviving Sabarmati

The redevelopment project was cleverly floated in 2019, during the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. For the BJP and its government, this was an enormous opportunity to latch on to the Gandhi brand; however, the plans remained in the pipeline because of the pandemic. According to a resident of the ashram who did not want to be named, as soon as they got a chance, the project was unplugged.

K. Kailashnathan, Chief Principal Secretary to the Gujarat Chief Minister and officer in charge of the Sabarmati project, told the media that residents who had lived in the premises for three generations and descendants of those who had served the Mahatma were being relocated first. Initially, the families resisted the move, but the government has assured them that they would be given permanent housing, and so the process is moving smoothly.

The bigger plan is to reclaim close to 100 acres (an acre is 0.4 hectare), which is about the original land area of the ashram. This would involve a major upheaval in the city’s planning as one of its arterial roads, called Ashram Road, cuts through the ashram land. Architects and urban planners behind the restoration say that both sides of the ashram must be “reunited”. As Ahmedabad expanded, 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.

Kailashnathan told the media that there would not be any “sarkari” influence on the ashram and that the aim was to keep the fundamental buildings and atmosphere intact. He also indicated that all six trusts that control the ashram, which had been placing major roadblocks in the project’s progress, had come on board and were willing to work with the government. Ela Bhatt confirmed this.

Bimal Patel, who leads HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited, has been given the tender for the project. He was in charge of the massive Sabarmati Riverfront project and the more recent Central Vista in New Delhi. Bimal Patel has categorically stated that they were not working on the architecture but just on restoring the original grounds. “It is a very bold design as it will realign a central zone in the city,” said a local architect, who was involved in a few projects in the ashram.

Frontline had seen a part of HCP’s plan in 2019 (“Restoring the past in Sabarmati Ashram”, Frontline, December 20, 2019). However, the architect said that some parts may have changed. New plans are not yet in the public domain.

The restoration project

According to the 2019 plan, the restoration programme was to reclaim 32 acres of land lying 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 trusts—are located in this area.

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, as Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi tried to initiate the project via Charles Correa, who had built a simple museum on the property in the 1980s. In 2007, Ahmedabad’s CEPT University designed a plan, but that too remained on the drawing board.

The beauty of the Sabarmati Ashram is in its serenity and humbleness. It was Mahatma Gandhi’s home for many years and a place that he loved so much that he said he would not return until the country gained independence. Gandhians were in shock when Modi brought Chinese premier Xi Jinping to the ashram in September 2014. It was not the visit by an international dignitary but the fanfare, loud music and lack of thought behind how the visit was conducted that annoyed the ashram residents. If that was a sign of things to come, Sabarmati Ashram is on its way to becoming yet another of Modi’s amusement parks, say critics. The 182-metre-tall (597 feet) Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue and park stands testimony to this.

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