Attempts to obliterate Bapu, erase his legacy
For the past two years, frequent reports in the press suggest that the Government of India through the Government of Gujarat is going to redevelop Sabarmati Ashram and build a 'Grand World Class' monument there. There are many, very loud rumours but there is very scant official information; it seems officially they prefer secrecy. During this time, whenever I have visited Sabarmati Ashram, I have met many of the long-term residents of the Ashram precinct. These are descendants of those who lived in the Ashram since Ba and Bapu first established it in 1917 - families who have continued to live there for over a hundred years.
When Bapu left on the Dandi March on 12th March 1930, he vowed not to return to the Ashram till India won freedom and in 1933 he finally decided to disband it but was dissuaded from doing so.
Bapu in his bequest clearly stated that the Sabarmati Ashram has to work for the upliftment and benefit of Harijans. How will the proposed revamp achieve this?
In the wake of the Dandi Kooch and the subsequent nation-wide Namak Satyagraha, the colonial regime unleashed a brutal reprisal to crush the nonviolent revolt. Farmers and satyagrahis bore the brunt of the tyrannical oppression. Their properties were seized by the State along with all their possessions and they were rendered destitute. This anguished Bapu and he decided that he would surrender Sabarmati Ashram to the colonial power as a mark of protest against the brutal methods employed by it. Since he was the instigator of the regime’s 'troubles', he believed he must be punished. When Bapu's associates were informed about his decision there was much consternation and a lot of voices were raised against this. Eventually Thakker Bappa, one of Bapu's very senior associates, convinced him not to take such a drastic step. Bapu relented, and handed over the Ashram to the Harijan Sevak Sangh.
He instructed them to use the Ashram for the upliftment and benefit of Harijans in perpetuity. As he bid farewell to his home of 13 years, he instructed Maganlal Gandhi, who was managing the Ashram, to ensure that all those who were occupying Ashram properties were allowed to do so, as long as they lived according to the ideals of the Ashram, which were practiced when Ba and Bapu lived in the Ashram. Ever since then, families and descendants of the residents have continued to live in these tenements, some for over a hundred years continuously. Now they are faced with the possibility of being evicted, uprooted, displaced.
So, for the past two years, whenever I visit the Ashram, the current occupants of these properties, who feel threatened by the Government's proposal, meet me with a plea to safeguard their Ashram and of course, their residences. I have grown up knowing many of them as belonging to the extended Ashram family. The thought of them being displaced is disturbing, and naturally they are anxious.
Tenants and residents say they have been approached, some say threatened, to accept compensation and move out amicably or face being evicted. But yet the trustees have no official intimation. The whole thing smells bad, rotten and reeks of hidden and ill intentions. Otherwise, why this shroud of secrecy? What is the Government hiding?
Various reports in the press and media suggest that the Government is in a very advanced stage of planning the 'takeover' and revamp of the Ashram. Stories have circulated about the architect being appointed and detailed plans of the redesign of the Ashram keep appearing in the media and are in circulation; many of the reports are conflicting. One says that the Government possesses a photograph of the Ashram as it was in 1947 when India became independent and it intends to restore the Ashram to that state.
The sinister implication of this move is that even the acclaimed and award-winning Sanghrahalaya, designed and built by the eminent architect Charles Correa will also be removed. Why? Because it was commissioned and inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru? Another report claims that a 'grand', 'world class' tourist attraction is planned. Bapu in his bequest clearly stated that the Sabarmati Ashram has to work for the upliftment and benefit of Harijans. How will the proposed revamp achieve this? There are Harijan families living in the Ashram precinct, they too face eviction because of the 'proposed' revamp. How does that benefit them? The colonial government forcefully seized homes of farmers and Satyagrahis causing much distress to Bapu. Why is an Indian government acting like the authoritarian and tyrannical colonial administration?
Sabarmati Ashram and Sevagram Ashram at Wardha are the visual symbols of the man's simplicity, his frugal existence, his transperancy.
All this and much more about the plans and intentions of the Government are unofficially known, but nothing has been officially said. One thing is certain that it is a 'P. M.'s Project' and like all the other 'P.M.'s Projects' it is going to be steam-rolled through, and shoved down our throats. His men in Gujarat are driving the bulldozer. The present residents have given me many details, but when I talk to the trustees of the several trusts associated with the Sabarmati Ashram, who are custodians and caretakers of the Ashram, they keep reiterating that they have no 'official' information or intimation from the Government, even now. Tenants and residents say they have been approached, some say threatened, to accept compensation and move out amicably or face being evicted. But yet the trustees have no official intimation. The whole thing smells bad, rotten and reeks of hidden and ill intentions. Otherwise, why this shroud of secrecy? What is the Government hiding?
This is the background of what is happening to the Sabarmati Ashram. Soon it may be irrevocably lost!
Bapu said, 'My life is my message', that is his legacy. In today's times it is very difficult to imagine the simplicity, frugality and openness of that man. His was a truly transparent life, there was no public man and a hidden, private person. In present times it is difficult to imagine, let alone believe that such a person ever lived. Sabarmati Ashram and Sevagram Ashram at Wardha are the visual symbols of the man's simplicity, his frugal existence, his transperancy.
It is only those who have never understood Bapu and are not bothered about understanding him, let alone emulating him, who feel that it needs to be made 'grand'. Their intention is not to preserve or conserve the Ashram or make it more attractive; their intention is to obliterate it and the legacy it enshrines.
On visits to Sabarmati Ashram, at Hridaykunj, I have often heard children ask their parents, “Such a great man lived in such a small and simple hut? He sat and worked in such an open place.” It is when they see Hridaykunj at Sabarmati Ashram and Bapu Kutir at Sevagram that Bapu becomes believable to the present generation. When these are lost, Bapu will become a myth. Mythology is so convenient to live with and tweak as required.
Sabarmati Ashram today enshrines the ideals of Bapu's life and legacy. It is sparce, it is simple and it is starkly frugal Those who understand Bapu's ideals and life know that this is his true legacy and the Sabarmati Ashram portrays them truly. It is only those who have never understood Bapu and are not bothered about understanding him, let alone emulating him, who feel that it needs to be made 'grand'. Their intention is not to preserve or conserve the Ashram or make it more attractive; their intention is to obliterate it and the legacy it enshrines. To convert a shrine of our independence movement and the life of the couple who lived there into a tourist plaza, an amusement park. That is their real intention. The question now is not about saving Sabarmati Ashram, it is about saving the legacy of Bapu and Ba.
(The writer is a peace activist who heads the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation which is involved in advocating and spreading Gandhian values)