Ahmedabad’s textile mill owners and workers both rallied around Gandhi on his return from South Africa

Both textile mill owners and workers rallied round the Mahatma on his return from South Africa, due to his ability to be fair to all and Ahmadavadis’ cosmopolitan and syncretic culture

Ahmedabad’s textile mill owners and workers both rallied around Gandhi on his return from South Africa

Makrand Mehta

OI raise funds from the rich but use them for the poor: Mahatma Gandhi

On his return to Ahmedabad after successful experiments with satyagraha in South Africa in 1915, Gandhi rediscovered and strove to revive Ahmedabad’s business culture based on peace, cooperation and the spirit of tolerance.

In his autobiography Gandhi has written: “I had a predilection for Ahmedabad. Being a Gujrati, I thought I should be able to render the greatest service to the country through the Gujrati language. And then as Ahmedabad was an ancient centre of handloom weaving, it was likely to be the most favourable field for the revival of the cottage industry of hand spinning. There was also the hope that, the city being the capital of Gujrat, monetary help from its merchants, industrialists and rich people would be more available than elsewhere.”

As newspapers of the period and other contemporary accounts reveal, Gandhi effectively utilised Ahmedabad’s pluralistic traditions of coexistence and enhanced it by his disruptive-innovative actions such as the mass political agitation against the British imperial rule and programmes for the removal of inequality and untouchability.

In terms of a theory of urbanisation, Ahmedabad symbolised the concept of POET: P=Population, O=Organisation, E= Ecology and T= Technology.

In spite of the British colonialism, Ahmedabad had earned the epithet of being the ‘Manchester’ of India. It contained rich capitalists, industrial workers and middle-class reformers and members of the professional groups. In 1915, the city’s population was 2,16,727. There were 51 cotton textile mills owned by Jains, Vaishnava banias, Patidars, nagar Brahmans and a few Zorostrian Parsis.

Although divided in terms of caste and community, as a class, the mill owners cautiously safeguarded their self-interest and shunned politics. However, they willingly supported Gandhi’s social and economic welfare programmes including his campaign for khadi and Swadeshi, and at a later phase, after resistance, untouchability.

For instance, the Jain and the Vaishnava mill owners including the members of his own caste, Mangaldas Girdhardas, who had continually supported Gandhi’s Kocharab and Sabarmati ashrams, had stopped donations after Gandhi invited a harijan (untouchable) family to live in his ashram in 1916.

Gandhi responded by saying: “I collect funds from the capitalists, but work for the poor, the untouchables and those who live by means of their labour.” He also said: “I am a true Hindu but what about the problem of untouchability?”

The fact is that it was Ambalal Sarabhai, a great industrialist and philanthropist who had saved Gandhi Ashram by giving handsome donation “in my hands”.

In the moving words of Gandhi: “The car drew up near our quarters and the horn was blown. The children came with the news. The sheth did not come in. I went out to see him. He placed in my hands currency notes to the value of Rs 13,000 and drove away. I had never expected this help, and what a novel way of rendering it!”

The point is that Gandhi’s simple and austere life had inspired all sorts of Ahmedabadis including those who held substantial capital and other resources.

This, together with his ability to integrate the various strands of his personality with the traditional Indian cultural norms, and his identification with the teeming millions whom he called ‘daridranarayana’ enabled him to bring together merchants and

their mercantile mahajans, industrialists and middle class intellectuals and social reformers, men and women, under the common umbrella.

The history of Ahmedabad from 1915 till 1947 shows how the capitalists, captains of trade and industry and middle class intellectuals worked for a common cause — eradication of mass illiteracy, inequality, untouchability and dire poverty and unemployment.

For instance, during the period of famine and plague in 1916-17, industrialists Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Vallabhbhai Patel, Dadasaheb Mavalankar, Indulal Yagnik, Dr. Sumant Mehta, Shardaben Mehta, Sarabhai, Ansuyaben and Shankarlal Banker had joined hands to save the lives of the people of Ahmedabad and the surrounding towns and rural areas.

Such a ‘co-operative’ movement was very much in the spirit which Ahmedabad had evolved since medieval period. For instance, the Gujrat Vernacular Society, a premier organisation of social and educational reform, was organised in 1848 on the basis of the cooperation between the city’s capitalists and middle-class reformers. Realising its importance, Gandhi had become its life member on April 14, 1916. This enabled him to extend his social base. He emphasised social work and service rather than reform which had served as an institutional base in the nineteenth century.

Gandhi also extended the scope of industrial management. By the time he launched the textile workers’ strike in 1918, he had established excellent working relations with the citiy’s mill owners. It’s significant that during the strike period, Gandhi discussed the mill-owners’ viewpoint at Ambalal Sarabhai’s bungalow and the workers’ viewpoint at his sister Ansuyaben’s residence.

Gandhi’s deliberations and negotiations should be viewed not in isolation, but in the context of the arbitration principle which Ahmedabad had already evolved through its institutions of mahajan and nagarsheth.

In this context, the letter, which Gandhi wrote to the Bombay Chronicle on March 27, 1918, is quite revealing. It shows Gandhi’s unique style of functioning during the strike. He wrote to the newspaper and concluded by saying:

“I cannot conclude this letter without mentioning two names of whom India has every reason to be proud. The mill-owners were represented by Mr. Ambalal Sarabhai who is a gentleman in every sense of the term. He is a man of great culture and equally great abilities. He adds to these qualities a resolute will. The mill hands were represented by his sister, Ansuyaben. She possesses a heart of gold. She is full of pity for the poor. The mill-hands adore her. Her word is a law with them. I have not known a struggle fought with so little bitterness and such courtesy on either side. The happy result is principally due to the connections with it of Mr. Ambalal Sarabhai and Ansuyaben.”

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