Veteran Gandhian Elaben Bhatt wants to save Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram from conversion into gaudy showpiece

Magsaysay award recipient Elaben Bhatt of SEWA will try to ensure that all the heritage buildings of Gandhiji’s 104-year-old Satyagraha Ashram retain their original form

Octogenarian Gandhian Elaben Bhatt
Octogenarian Gandhian Elaben Bhatt

Nachiketa Desai

Octogenarian Gandhian Elaben Bhatt wants to restore the lost glory of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram and make it a centre of inspiration for the world as an alternative to consumerist culture.

Elaben Bhatt, who is the chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT), wants Satyagraha Ashram founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917 to once again become the laboratory that conducts ‘Experiments with Truth’ and spreads the message of ‘Hind Swaraj’, a federation of democratic and self-reliant village republics.

The 89-year-old founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Elaben Bhatt and other members of the SAPMT were caught unawares about what Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘dream’ project aimed at: ‘redeveloping’ Gandhiji’s 104-year-old Satyagraha Ashram premises into a ‘world-class’ tourist destination at a cost of Rs 1200 crore.

The custodians of the heritage cottage Hriday Kunj, in which Ba and Bapu lived from 1917 to 1930 and the residential quarters of Miraben and Vinoba as also of his close associates Mahadev Desai, Kakasaheb Kalelkar and Kishorelal Mashruwala, had only heard that the PM had a dream of making the Sabarmati Ashram precinct a world class tourist site.

This vague idea about the prime minister's dream project gave rise to wide range of speculations because of the experience of intervention by the central government in the historic Jallianwala Baugh massacre site where all the tell-tale signs of the bullets fired by the sepoys of General Dyer at a peaceful gathering of men, women and children were obliterated and covered by tiles and plaster.

The Gujarat government was compelled to share the details of PM’s dream project with Elaben Bhatt and other members of the Sabarmati Ashram Memorial Preservation Trust only after over 150 eminent citizens including Gandhiji’s scholar grandsons Rajmohan Gandhi and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, historian Ramchandra Guha, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s author niece Nayantara Sahgal and filmmaker Anand Patwardhan raised an alarm through a signature campaign that the most authentic monument of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s freedom struggle would be lost to “vanity and commercialisation” if the PM’s plan was implemented.

The government had already begun the process of evicting the occupants of the residential buildings located within the precincts of the 110 acres of the Sabarmati Ashram by offering Rs 60 lakh or four-bed-room apartment to each of the families as displacement compensation.

The government has sealed and put a padlock on the houses vacated by the occupants after receiving the displacement compensation amount or the possession of the alternative apartment. None of the five trusts which own the vacated buildings have been informed by the government’s action.

“The government’s first communication to us was in the form of a request to send a concept note on the redevelopment plan of the Sabarmati Ashram after K Kailashnathan, chairman of the executive council of the Gandhi Ashram memorial precinct redevelopment project and its chief architect Bimal Patel made a power-point presentation before us,” said Elaben.

“I see nothing wrong in families vacating the houses they had been occupying for the last four to five generations provided they are doing so of their free will and on getting a substantial amount as displacement compensation,” she said in an interview to National Herald.

The government also sought to allay fears of Gandhians and other eminent citizens that the redevelopment project would spoil the aesthetics and serenity of the ashram by obliterating the designs of the heritage buildings.

“The government has requested me to oversee the restoration and preservation of all heritage buildings in the Ashram precincts. I have given my consent to this,” said Elaben.

But, she said, mere restoration and preservation of the physical structures of the heritage buildings, is not enough to rekindle the light of Gandhian thoughts and way of life.

“I shall put in all my efforts to see that all the constructive programmes advocated by Gandhiji are taken up by the Sabarmati Ashram in right earnest once again,” she averred.

The Sabarmati Ashram had been engaged in Gandhiji’s constructive programmes – Khadi, removal of untouchability and atrocities on Harijans, education of Harijan boys and Girls, manufacturing of hand-made paper, tannery to process hides from animals which have died of natural death, Goseva – breeding and raising cows.

To engage in such diverse activities, five separate organisations were formed – Sabarmati Harijan Ashram, Sabarmati Ashram Goshala, Gujarat Khadi Gramodyog Mandal and Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh.

Elaben said she is happy that all these organisations have agreed to work in tandem to serve the poorest of the poor – like Gandhiji said, “Unto the last”.

All these years, all the five organisations worked as independent autonomous bodies and there was no communication amongst them. “For the first time, all the five trusts that own the land and buildings in the Sabarmati Ashram precinct have started communicating with each other with an open mind and there is a complete rapport among them,” she said.

She is hopeful that with combined effort all the five organisations will be able to convert the Sabarmati Ashram into a power house that would set example for other individuals and organisations to spread the message of ‘Hind Swaraj’ based on non-violence, secularism and decentralized economy and polity and meaningful education.

After all the heritage buildings of the Ashram are restored to its original form, young men and women who are committed to Gandhian values and way of life will be invited to live in them to engage in various constructive programmes.

“Mere restoration and preservation of heritage buildings will not revive the vibrant life of the Sabarmati Ashram that once inspired millions of people to serve the country”, said Elaben.

“I have succeeded in persuading the government to stop using the phrase ‘world class’ tourist destination for Sabarmati Ashram. The Ashram has been attracting tourists from all across the country and the world only because of its simplicity and not any pomp and show,” she said.

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