Gandhi ji’s minimalist Sevagram to give way to a ₹266 crore project 

The very people who refused to acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi’s role in India’s freedom struggle and lusted for his blood are, now, unabashedly trying to cash in on his political brand value

Gandhi ji’s minimalist Sevagram to give way to a ₹266 crore project 
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Chandarakant Naidu

The Message or the Messenger? That is the dilemma of Sevagram.

The small township, 8 km off Wardha near Nagpur in Maharashtra, pressed the pause button on time after hosting Mahatma Gandhi for 11 years during the mid-1930s and 1940s.

It could keep up the serenity and sanctity of the Gandhian legacy without any laboured effort because the population around the town was tuned to Gandhian thought. Sevagram now faces the challenge of guarding his legacy against forces trying to turn the place into a jazzy tourist attraction.

A ₹266-crore project has been drawn up by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Maharashtra government to spruce up the stretch across the main Ashram and build concrete cottages to tap tourist traffic. In the process, the simple boundary of the Ashram has been covered with barbed fencing, the kind of which one often sees around key defence installations.

Even during the Independence struggle, with the World War clouds looming large, the Ashram inmates never felt the need for such fencing around this shrine of peace. Sevagram Ashram, which had all along refused to accept government help, seems to have buckled under pressure to allow the project.

People associated with the Ashram had demanded that all new construction should be at least a couple of km away from the Ashram. But the government has steamrolled the objections

Everything that Gandhi stood for seemed encapsulated in a radius of five kilometres at Sevagram

The six acres that industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj offered to Bapu to set up India’s major socio-political laboratory nurtured many Gandhian ideas that sounded crazy to many of his contemporaries.

But, these very ideas, about being rooted to rustic realities with stern self-control gave Gandhi ji the moral strength to square up to the might of the British Empire. Everything that Gandhi stood for seemed encapsulated in a radius of five kilometres.

His message about austerity, egalitarianism, removal of caste bias and untouchability, his education plan with which he sought to promote functional schools under Nai Talim scheme, his communication skill, his idea of an office-cum-residence that inspired and drew inspiration from the milieu are witnessing a slow erosion.

While former President Zakir Hussain was among the early teachers in the Nai Talim schools, successive governments have failed to fully endorse or implement Gandhi’s ideas for development.

The mad race for material gains that Gandhi resisted through his days in Sevagram has crossed the Ashram threshold. A few historical structures that stood across the road to house a museum and other utilities have given way to the new tourist cottages that mock history with synthetic austerity

As a frequent visitor to Sevagram, I have often wondered if others carry the same sense of guilt as I do. I have always felt there is an element of Gandhi in all of us which wakes up when we are in Sevagram and goes off to sleep once we leave the place.

However, during the latest visit some weeks back, I found several fellow travellers on the same page. They bore the same sense of guilt and the same appreciation of the Mahatma’s evolution through non-violence and self-denial. However, the damage caused through the past three years after my previous trip seems irreversible.

The celebrations of Gandhis’ 150th birth anniversary began early in Wardha. The Sevagram Gandhians offered pride of place to Kasturba, who was six months senior to Mohandas. Sevagram Collective, a group of various organisations involved in spreading Bapu’s message, joined hands with some other organisations to hold a media conclave to assess new conflicts over Gandhi’s relevance after the ideological upheaval in the nation.

The very people who refused to acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi’s role in winning India her freedom and lusted for his blood, are now unabashedly trying to cash in on his political brand value. They swear by Gandhi day in and day out and draw political traction from the controversies created around him.

The renaming of Shegaon to Sevagram was necessitated by the volume of mail that Gandhi received in sacks. Since there was another village with the same name Shegaon, the mail would often get directed there. The post office that was witness to the communications between Gandhi and the rest of the world, lies in gross neglect

Sevagram was Mahatma Gandhi’s blueprint for a greener India

Gandhi’s battle for a greener India began when he chose to come to Wardha in 1934 two years before moving to Shegaon, that was to be renamed as Sevagram. He agreed to shift his base here at the suggestion of Bajaj and Madeleine Slade, who was so influenced by his thoughts that she settled down in Wardha. Gandhi gave her a new name, Meera Ben.

Gandhi had set stiff stipulations for the construction of Sevagram Ashram. He told Meera Ben that his cottage should cost no more than ₹100 during those times to construct. The entire construction material was to be acquired from within a radius of 12 miles. His conditions were met.

The main structure erected for Gandhi is made of just mud, part-finished wood and country tiles. Minimal annual upkeep with cow-dung and white lime have helped the structure withstand the elements for 72 years.

Famous American architect Joseph Stein, who had designed the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and Express Towers in Mumbai, on a visit to Sevagram, is said to have cried for long on seeing the cement-free structures of the Ashram. He said the cottages appeared to be asking him several questions for which he had no answer. There were very few rooms with stone flooring.

Gandhi was able to host many Indian and overseas visitors in the ashram with the bare necessary infrastructure.

With the government’s decision to hold elections to provincial assemblies in 1937, it became necessary to be in regular communication with Gandhi. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, had to persuade Gandhi to install a hotline telephone at the Ashram.

Two noted Indian architects, BV Doshi and Achyut Kanvinde, were also amazed by the minimalism of the structures that were functionally so complete.

The renaming of Shegaon to Sevagram was necessitated by the volume of mail that Gandhi received in sacks. Since there was another village with the same name Shegaon, the mail would often get directed there. The post office that was witness to the communications between Gandhi and the rest of the world, lies in gross neglect.

Though a new post office building came up years ago, Gandhi’s followers could not overlook the historic importance of the old structure. The “development” of the new area across the road on the Ashram campus will bring a large parking and toilet complex adjacent to the post-office building.

Protests by Gandhian organisations have forced the government to build a wall near the post office. The conservationists have no objection to tourism being encouraged. Their demand was to keep all the new construction at least a couple of km away from the Ashram. But the government has steamrolled the objections.

The mad race for material gains that Gandhi resisted through his days in Sevagram has crossed the Ashram threshold. A few historical structures that stood across the road to house a museum and other utilities have given way to the new tourist cottages that mock history with synthetic austerity.

The writer is a senior journalist

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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