A 'world class renovation' of the Indian mind before 'world class' renovation of Gandhi Ashram

In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the Gujarat CM and Trustees of Gandhi Ashram, Martin Macwan movingly compares Mahatma Gandhi and his Gujarat with today's 'vibrant Gujarat'

Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Gandhi led the Dandi march on 12 March 1930 from here. (Photo courtesy: Asia Society)
Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Gandhi led the Dandi march on 12 March 1930 from here. (Photo courtesy: Asia Society)

Martin Macwan

Mahatma Gandhi had just put his feet in the city of Ahmedabad in 1917 when he received a letter from Thakkar Bapa asking if he would be willing to temporarily host a Dalit family in his ashram. Following Gandhi’s affirmative reply, Dudabhai Dafda arrived at the ashram with his wife Daniben and their daughter Laxmi. His was the first Dalit family to be hosted by the ashram.

It caused a furore. Gandhi’s elder sister left the ashram, never to return. Maganlal decided to move to Madras. Kaka Kalelkar was sceptical. Angered at the entry of Daniben into the kitchen, Kasturba threatened to move to her father’s home, leaving Gandhi alone. Gandhi asked her to do so if that was her wish. A stunned Kasturba went into a sulk but stayed back.

Neighbouring farmers however refused to supply vegetables. They were followed by milkmen. Donations came to an abrupt halt. The ashram was soon left with ration that would last for just one more day.

At the evening prayer meeting, Gandhi proposed to shift the ashram to the scavenger colony opposite the ashram but would not ask the Dalit family to leave. It was at that moment, when the existence of the ashram itself was threatened, that a mysterious car dropped a purse worth Rs. 30,000 at the ashram gate and sped away. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief

A few days later, Kasturba watched little Laxmi playing in the dust outside. Suddenly she walked up to the child, lifted her and embraced the child to her bosom. Some weeks later Dudabhai and Daniben headed back to Mumbai, but at the insistence of both Gandhi and Kasturba, the couple left Laxmi behind in the ashram. Years later, Gandhiji and Kasturba would get Laxmi married in the ashram premises.

Gandhi’s struggle against untouchability within the ashram itself has been inspirational. Thakkar Bapa (Amritlal Thakkar) worked amongst the Dalits and Adivasis even before Gandhiji had returned from South Africa. But as Dr Ambedkar acknowledged, it was Gandhi who brought the question of untouchability to the central agenda of the Independence struggle.

There were not many who supported Gandhi on the issue at that time, just as he continues to be opposed, even hated by many even today, 74 years after his assassination.

In 2021 ‘Glorious Gujarat’ is watching the state government take over Gandhi Ashram for a ‘World Class Renovation’ at a cost of Rs 1,250 crore. But the lives and living conditions of the poor, Dalits and Adivasis in Gujarat and elsewhere remain unchanged. Would Gandhi have approved of the extravagant face-lift being planned for the ashram while the poor continue to lead miserable lives?

Gujarat Government’s own data acknowledge that the number of malnourished children in the state has more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. But these data are as disputed and controversial as the number of Covid deaths in the state. My colleagues have been told by health workers how the Anand District Collector took them to task for reporting high number of malnourished children in the district. Health workers from other districts too have confided that they were instructed to keep the numbers down.

The unusually high number of malnourished children in Anand is tragic and ironical because Anand is the home of late Madhavsinh Solanki, who was chief minister of the state four times; also because Anand is where Amul, the largest milk dairy of Asia, is.

During the peak of the pandemic, when malnourished children required nutritious food the most, Gujarat Government stopped daily food distribution to these children. Children in some areas were given Sukhdi, a wheat based sweet, once a month. Malnourished children found it difficult to chew Sukhdi with their weak teeth. This prompted some ingenious minds in rural areas to buy and gift the children toffees from local shops while the ‘nutrition ration’ meant for children were fed to the cattle.

Strangely, Amul produces nutritious food for distribution among malnourished children across the world by international organisations like UNICEF. But in the absence of cold storage facilities in Gujarat, they quickly turned stale and started smelling by the time they reached children. Cattle owners readily bought these packets from parents @ Rs. 10 per pack, to feed their cattle.

The simple office space of Gandhi. He sat on
the floor, worked on a low table and met all
dignitaries in this sparsely furnished room
The simple office space of Gandhi. He sat on the floor, worked on a low table and met all dignitaries in this sparsely furnished room

Dear PM and CM, institutions are not limited to buildings and gardens. The Mahatma would have been upset to see controversial personalities and politicians enjoying easy access to what was once his room at the ashram. Ordinary Indians have to satisfy themselves by peeping into the room from outside through a meshed net of wire.

This comes as no surprise because Gujarat Government goes to extraordinary lengths to cover up slums and poorer localities with green nets when dignitaries from Japan, China or the USA visit the ashram. Of late, a wall has too has been erected.

But did Gandhi hide the poverty of India? Did he not go to England to meet the British Premier in his loincloth,despite being ridiculed as the ‘half-naked-fakir’? Did he not visit and highlight the living conditions of textile workers in England?

For Gandhi, every penny was important. In Noakhali, he would sit on the ground in the dark, in the light of a solitary lantern, and speak to people on the importance of freedom. At the end of his speech, people would donate what little they could spare, usually some coins. They would throw the coins near the lantern and take their leave. It was the responsibility of Manu and Abha to gather the coins, count them and keep an account.

On one such evening, just before retiring for the day Gandhi had an unusual question for the young women. Did the donations received that day match what they were reporting? The girls were hurt. How dare he doubt their honesty?

Gandhi patiently explained that it was dark and it was quite possible that they might have missed picking up some of the coins. The girls were speechless. He asked them to take the lantern and walk back to the meeting venue and carry with them a flour filter (Atta Chalni) to filter the dust and see if some coins had been left behind. Frozen with fear, the two young women nevertheless walked back in darkness and sat filtering the dust till they did manage to retrieve some coins. For the Gujarat Government, Rs 1250 Crores for a ‘world class renovation’ of the Sabarmati Ashram is clearly not a big deal. But is the money being utilised for the poor? Could they have been spent better?

Gandhi’s first and major struggle in his own ashram, an epic struggle, was against untouchability. I find no trace of this in the landscape maps of the proposed renovation that the state government has advertised in newspapers.

Your government is of course far too nervous about Navsarjan’s study ‘Understanding Untouchability’, which brought before the public the continued practice of untouchability in the public life of Gandhi’s Gujarat, the ‘model and vibrant’ state.

In 1997 when Navsarjan Trust filed the first such petition before the honourable High Court of Gujarat on the question of manual scavenging in Gujarat, the state Government filed an affidavit stating ‘since the government had declared a ban on such practices thrice, the same does not exist’.

The Honourable High Court did appoint a commission of inquiry and a humbling and humiliating picture of manual scavenging practices in Gujarat was presented before the court by three human right defenders and lawyers including late Shri Harubhai Mehta and Girishbhai Patel.

Navsarjan Trust has photographs of the toilets constructed under the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ from 1500 villages showing the conditions in which they are. But for the Gujarat Government, all our activities are ‘anti-national’ just as the activities of Gandhi were for the British Government. Gandhi, you may recall, struggled with the issue of scavenging and toilets. It is worth reading the living conditions of the scavengers that he had described around 1911 in the slums of Mumbai. Thakkar Bapa resigned his Government job as an engineer, unable to bear the sight of living and working conditions of the scavengers in Maharashtra.

How can we not remember other such stalwarts as Parikshit Lal Majumdar and Mama Fadke? Mama Fadke had gone on fast in Ratnagiri jail until he was given the job of cleaning toilets in the Jail. The British officials were unsure of allocating a caste-based work to a man who did not belong to the ‘scavenger caste’. This storm further intensified when Gandhi and others in other jails joined Mama Fadke and went on fast demanding they too be allowed the ‘privilege’.

During the first Congress session that he attended, Gandhi took a broom with him to clean the toilets, if you remember. But despite his pioneering work, Gandhi had an unusual experience when he visited the Dalit Colony of Godhra in 1930. He found the area the cleanest in the entire town. But though all the doors of the houses in the Dalit Colony were open and the area decorated with colourful festoons put up to welcome him, there was not a single soul in the houses. They had all climbed on their roof tops to protect visitors from the pollution that their shadow might cast on them. Even Gandhi failed to convince the Dalits to come down. Dalits told him that after his departure they apprehended retribution by Gandhi’s own followers.

Gandhi promoted a school for Dalit children in Godhra but the school could not find a teacher who was ready to teach Dalit children. A Muslim teacher accepted the job but the children still did not venture near the school. It was Mama Fadke who realised that Dalit children could not attend the school and leave their younger siblings at home. Mama Fadke encouraged them to bring the toddlers too into the class. The toddlers would often soil the classroom, urinate and defecate there. Mama Fadke himself cleaned the class unlike some of the school teachers today who send children to get tobacco for them.

Navsarjan Trust under the aegis of ‘Untouchability-Free-India’ (AbhadchhetMukt-Bharat) did submit a one-line memorandum to the Government in Gujarat in 2017 requesting it to declare a single village in Gujarat ‘abhadchhet-mukt’ (free-of-untouchability). But the Government was unable to do so with even one such village.

We do not require ‘world class renovation’ of Gandhi Ashram. Rather we need ‘world class cleansing’ of the Indian mind of caste prejudices.

How many Gujarat schools today do not segregate water pots on the basis of caste? In how many schools are the children served mid-day meals while seated in a single row, unsegregated? As chief minister, how many villages have you visited to console and commiserate with Dalit and Tribal families who have suffered from caste violence? Your colleagues have mastered the art and craft of having meals at Dalit homes with fanfare and publicity. But not a single Dalit is invited to your homes for a meal. Does the renovation plan have space for exhibiting these glaring realities?

‘Harijan Sevak Sangh’ was launched to assuage the battered Dalit emotions post the Poona pact. Dr. Ambedkar asked why the Trust did not have a single Dalit Trustee? Gandhi had replied that he considered untouchability a sin of the non-Dalits and hence it was their penance. But then, what have been the activities of the Harijan Sevak Sangh? Who cleans the toilets at the Gandhi Ashram even today?

After the departure of Gandhi from the Ashram, his values departed too. What has remained behind is land, the property, Khadi and replicas of the three monkeys. It is difficult to oppose renovation of the physical space. But can Gandhi Ashram even think of hosting inter-caste marriages or inter-caste dining?

While the ‘World Class Renovation’ will upset very few people, I am reminded of the great poet Uma Shankar Joshi’s words: ‘Bhukhya Janono Jathragni Jagshe; Khanderoni Bhashmkani n ladhshe’ (When fire from the belly of the hungry will rise, flames will consume even the ashes of ruins’)

(Edited excerpts from the open letter addressed to the Prime Minister of India and the Gujarat chief minister on September 6. Reproduced from Counterview. net)

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Published: 02 Oct 2021, 12:00 AM