Vikram Vaniya has never lived anywhere but on the premises of the Gandhi ashram, on the banks of the Sabarmati in Gujarat. The 49-year-old was born in the two-room tenement his ancestors moved into about 90 years ago, when his great-grandfather, Hamirbhai, relocated to Sabarmati, where M.K. Gandhi envisioned a community of all faiths and castes based on the principles of non-violence, dignity of labour and self-sufficiency.
Though the ashram is his home, Vaniya is not a “Gandhian”. He works as an assistant at a pharma firm in Aslali, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, earning ₹9,000 a month. The link to the land and the ashram is more sentimental.
He’s among the 263 families, descendants of the ashram’s original inhabitants, who are now being resettled. They are being offered apartments or compensation of ₹65 lakh each to vacate the ashram premises so that it can be redeveloped over the next three years. Those who wish to retain the ashram in their address may get smaller tenements the government is planning to build nearby, outside the redeveloped area.
Over the years, the ashram, synonymous with Gandhi, has developed into a regular locality, with the usual commercial sprawl. The core of it, home to seven structures—including Hridaykunj, where Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, lived for 12 years—offices of the custodian trusts, and the families—has folded into a five-acre area. Many of the current residents of the ashram work outside it, as housekeepers, plumbers, electricians—regular folks with regular jobs and lives. They are stoic, aware that though they are not being forced to move, they do not have much choice. There is little cheer, more helplessness.
“I was initially reluctant but when we went to see the flat, I liked it. It has a huge hall, big kitchen, four bedrooms. It is good, yes, but I have been living in Gandhi ashram for 25 years. We will miss it, but, well, we will get used to it,” says Vaniya’s wife, Hansaben, 43. They have been allotted a 240 sq. yard apartment in a Gujarat Housing Board complex in Shastrinagar, 6-7km from the ashram. The family will get ownership documents; “it will give us security,” says Hansaben.
The over ₹1,200 crore Sabarmati Ashram redevelopment project, funded by the Union government and being implemented by the Ahmedabad municipal corporation, is expected to redevelop a 55-acre area around the ashram, retaining the heritage structures. It has been described by critics as a “second assassination” and a “government takeover of Gandhian institutions”. In August, more than 130 people, including Rajmohan Gandhi, a historian and Gandhi’s grandson, author Ramachandra Guha, musician T.M. Krishna and Tushar Gandhi, Gandhi’s great-grandson, signed a statement saying the proposed plan “severely compromises and trivialises the importance of the present-day Ashram”.
Their concerns follow the criticism of the recent renovation of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab—the renovated site of the massacre of peaceful protesters has been described as resembling “a theme park”. The apprehension is that this approach may be replicated.
However, the six trusts that manage the ashram—and hold the leases to the homes—are on board with the redevelopment. Elaben Bhatt, chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT), says: “We will not let any attempt to disrupt the frugality, simplicity and ethos of the ashram…. The government has assured us nothing of this sort is on the anvil.” The founder of SEWA, an organisation of women working in the informal sector, she is also the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a university set up by Gandhi in Ahmedabad in 1920.
Apart from SAPMT, the custodian trusts are Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, Gujarat Khadi Gramodyog Mandal and Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti. Most of their work now centres on educational activities as well as on archiving and preserving history. Khadi weaving is done in Imam Manzil, which still uses wooden looms, and there are small units producing paper, soap, looms and oil. Most of these products are sold through shops in the ashram area.
The core, gated area is what draws the tourists, including VIPs, to Gandhi’s legacy. For it’s home to Hridaykunj; Vinoba-Mira kutir, the hut used at different times by Vinoba Bhave and Miraben, or Madeleine Slade, a Britisher who joined the freedom movement; Magan Niwas, where Gandhi’s nephew and disciple, Maganlal Gandhi, lived; Nandini, the guest house; Udyog Mandir, where Khadi technology evolved; Somnath Chhaatralaya, a students’ hostel; and a museum, library and exhibition area developed by the architect Charles Correa in 1963.
This is where Gandhi moved in 1917, with “forty souls, men, women and children”, from the Kochrab ashram in Ahmedabad’s Paldi area, after a plague outbreak—“the ground, which had been a waste, was infested with snakes and it was no small risk to live with little children under such conditions,” wrote Gandhi in The Story Of My Experiments With Truth (1925; he wrote the autobiography at the Sabarmati Ashram).
Over the years, through the work of residents and contributions of donors, the ashram grew into a place that practised spinning, weaving, farming and a life of self-sufficiency. Gandhi and his family lived there till 1930. It was from this ashram that he began the Dandi March, to protest taxes on salt and repressive British laws, in 1930.
“Let me explain to you what exactly is happening. We are not redeveloping the Gandhi ashram, we are restoring the ashram and its heritage and legacy. Restoring is the word,” asserts K. Kailashnathan, who heads the executive council of the Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project and is chief principal secretary to the Gujarat chief minister.
“Not one brick of Hridaykunj, the museum, or any heritage building that existed during the Mahatma’s time is being touched,” he says. When Kailashnathan speaks, it is often assumed to be the position of the Prime Minister’s office.
“You would know that visitors generally go to Hridaykunj, the museum and one or two other places. Few know that there are 47 places or more there associated with Gandhi’s heritage,” he says. “We are not redeveloping but restoring the ashram to its original form to connect all these in a seamless experience for the visitor. We have categorically conveyed to all the trusts that there is no sarkari-karan happening at all.”
Kailashnathan points to the yellow concrete block that is Gujarat Tourism’s Toran Hotel, opposite the ashram, and the commercial enterprises on Ashram Road, which divides some properties of the ashram from the key area. “Buildings like these are not congruent with the overall ethos and ecosystem. They will go.”
He continues, “All the buildings built before 1950 will remain, while the activities of the various trusts that came up subsequently will be outside the heritage area and they will continue as autonomous bodies.”
A former vice-chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith and one of the SAPMT trustees, Sudarshan Iyenger, says there are 63 buildings that date back to the 1930s. “We have been categorically told this will not be touched.” Speaking for all the trusts, SAPMT explains in a statement that the ashram was originally spread over more than 120 acres but has shrunk to “hardly a few acres now” . The “heavily-trafficked public” road on which it now stands also has “incongruent places” like the marketing office of a camel semen bank, hotels and car showrooms, their statement says.
ONE LAST CELEBRATION
Dhimant Badhiya, the Imam Manzil’s caretaker, says some 97 families have accepted compensation and 23 of them, flats. The 50 or more who want to retain the ashram address will get the smaller tenements planned outside the premises.
In October 2019, after plans for the redevelopment were first announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the ashram, the residents held a protest. “We launched a major protest two years ago when the Prime Minister announced the plan to redevelop Sabarmati Ashram. Where were the national-level Gandhians then?” rues Badhiya.
The 2,500 people living on the ashram premises are from Dalit, OBC (Other Backward Classes), Muslim, Brahmin and Sikh communities. Their ancestors settled here, hoping to live Gandhi’s dream of a place where all would be equal, and taking up jobs ranging from farming to animal husbandry, or running the ashram. Today, “only a handful of Dalits have jobs in the activities run by these trusts, most others are working outside,” says Badhiya. “There is not a single Dalit among the trustees of the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust.”
Mehul Makwana, 40, who repairs air-conditioners, fridges and TVs for a living, is a fourth-generation ashramvasi and a Dalit. His homemaker wife, Parvatiben, says: “There is nothing firm about his earnings. Some days, he gets work for ₹100, sometimes ₹500. There are days when there is no work.” Makwana, Parvatiben and their two daughters will be moving into an apartment allotted by the government.
“We live in this two-room place, and the new one is quite big. Of course, it is not a great situation to leave Gandhi ashram but we have accepted it in view of the larger picture,” Parvatiben says.
They still hope to have one last celebration in the historic ashram. “Many of us want to celebrate Diwali at the ashram since this has always been our home,” Badhiya says. “Then we will start thinking about the move.”
Darshan Desai is editor, Development News Network, Gujarat.