Narendra Modi’s shadow on Sabarmati Ashram and Gandhi ‘Kutir’ 

Modi placards are all over Sabarmati Ashram. Is it an effort to send the message that the work being done by Modi is a natural extension of the Mahatma’s experiments with truth?

Narendra Modi’s shadow on Sabarmati Ashram and Gandhi ‘Kutir’ 

Rajiv Shah

In sharp contrast to Ahmedabad’s humble, approachable and unassuming Gandhi Ashram on the banks of Sabarmati, about 30 kilometres away Narendra Modi, as Gujarat Chief Minister, set up in Gandhinagar a high-profile, elitist, and a virtually inaccessible museum on Gandhiji, which he decided to call Dandi Kutir.

Part of the sprawling Mahatma Mandir, where he has been interacting with India’s top tycoons every alternative year since 2011 through Vibrant Gujarat global summits, this so-called Kutir is anything but a cottage, symbolising, if at all, Modi’s “vision” of the Mahatma.

Officially projected as “India’s largest and only museum built on the life and teachings” of Gandhiji, unlike Sabarmati Ashram, where anybody can visit to learn from Gandhi’s humble life, this so-called cottage can be seen only through a guided tour which, if the official sources are to be believed, would begin only as and when a batch of 50 people are collected at an interval of 30 minutes, all of them forming part of the group put at the disposal of a tour guide.

Unapproachable by any public transport, there have been cases when individuals, visiting the elite Kutir, had to return without gaining access to the museum after waiting for a couple of hours. Again, unlike Sabarmati Ashram, where the entry is free, this high-profile “cottage” charges ₹10 per visitor from Indians and ₹200 from foreigners.

Keen visitors to Ahmedabad have lately noticed that, after he became Prime Minister, there have been efforts to “Modi-fy” the Sabarmati Ashram as well. An ashram insider ruefully points to how a plate saying Jawaharlal Nehru planted a now-grown up tree, originally put on the main gate of the ashram, has been pushed to the corner, so that no one could see it any more. This insider further takes objection to a Modi propaganda placard put up on the entrance of the museum block of the Gandhi Ashram—a huge Modi’s Swacchata Abhiyan poster

As for Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati, it has done all it can to make its space available to the man on the street. No doubt, it has used high technology, but that too for making people directly access, through internet, all that Gandhiji stood for.

In all about 25 lakh pages of life and work of Gandhiji and all those who came in contact with him have been digitised in a portal. A project initiated by well-known Gandhi expert Tridip Suhrud, who worked as director of the Gandhi Ashram till last year, with this portal, any researcher or common Gandhi observer sitting anywhere in the world can access works by and on Gandhi.

The Dandi Kutir, on the other hand, is located in a 41-metre high conical dome, claimed to be symbolising a salt heap, seeking to represent Salt Satyagraha at Dandi. The closed-door museum in a 10,700 sq metres cement-concrete structure, ironically, stands in sharp contrast to the historic Dandi Bridge, off Sabarmati Ashram, from where the Mahatma began his Dandi march.

Even if the Dandi Bridge is neglected and uncared for, the Dandi Kutir, proclaims an official rather loudly, is where “high technology” has been used to allow visitors to enter “in the shoes (sic!) of the Mahatma to learn and experience the dilemmas, struggles and sacrifices he faced…”

In sharp contrast to Ahmedabad’s humble, approachable and unassuming Gandhi Ashram on the banks of Sabarmati, about 30 kilometres away Narendra Modi, as Gujarat Chief Minister, set up in Gandhinagar a high-profile, elitist, and a virtually inaccessible museum on Gandhiji, which he decided to call Dandi Kutir. This so-called Kutir is anything but a cottage, symbolising, if at all, Modi’s “vision” of the Mahatma

And what were these “dilemmas, struggles and sacrifices”? The website introducing the Dandi Kutir and its official Facebook page say that the museum showcases Satyagraha, Sarvodaya and Swaraj—forgetting, perhaps deliberately, that the Mahatma used Satya and Ahimsa, or truth and non-violence, as the fundamental principles for an all-pervasive fight against a massive British empire, Hindu-Muslim divide, and the caste-ridden Indian society.

One is left wondering: What does Modi, whose dubious role in 2002 riots is too well known, have in common with Ahimsa? As for his views on caste, in his now withdrawn book Karmayog, a collection of his speeches delivered to Gujarat babus, Modi is on record having said manual scavengers experienced “spiritual satisfaction” while doing the cleaning job! That the Kutir displays nothing to emphasise on Gandhi’s emphasis on ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhav’ is not surprising. In fact, this reflects Modi’s mindset, which remains intact to this date.

During an informal chat with a group of local scribes in Gandhinagar, Modi, firmly in the chief minister’s saddle after taking over reins of power in October 2001, when Gujarat riots hadn’t yet taken place, a discussion ensued on Hindu-Muslim relations. Modi seemed unimpressed when a question was asked to him as to what did he have to say about communal segregation in Ahmedabad, and wasn’t it dangerous that Hindus and Muslims didn’t have any interaction, especially after post-Babri 1993 riots, as they didn’t know each other, which bred an atmosphere of suspicion?

He replied, “What’s so unusual about it? Don’t Catholics and Protestants live separately in Northern Ireland? They have separate life styles and values. Community living is an international phenomenon, and one should recognise it as such.”

Seventeen years later, this segregation—contrary to all that Gandhi stood for—has only further solidified. If it was confined to Ahmedabad till the 2002 riots, it has geographically spread to rural Gujarat.

A case in point is the North Gujarat village of Sardarpura, where 33 persons were killed in 2002. It has left deep scars that haven’t yet been healed. If all Muslims living in the village were forced to flee, a small section, the relatively better off, has returned. The poor still live in a separate ghetto of riot victims, which has emerged post-riots, tens of kilometres away. Things are no different with many other parts of rural Gujarat, where the riots had broken out. Following indiscriminate lynching incidents, this poison of segregation is invading across India.

Modi-fying Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram

Meanwhile, keen visitors to Ahmedabad have lately noticed that, after he became Prime Minister, there have been efforts to “Modi-fy” the Sabarmati Ashram as well. An ashram insider ruefully points to how a plate saying Jawaharlal Nehru planted a now-grown up tree, originally put on the main gate of the ashram, has been pushed to the corner, so that no one could see it any more.

This insider, always in a simple khadi kurta pyjama, further takes objection to a Modi propaganda placard put up on the entrance of the museum block of the Gandhi Ashram—a huge Modi’s Swacchata Abhiyan poster.

On further inquiry, he takes one around to the Ashram’s expensive looking panels singing paeans to Modi in the guise of lavishing praise on his government’s trademark programmes which, according to him, have fetched little by way of positive result for the country.

The professionally-mounted rare photographs on Gandhi’s life with appropriate annotations in a series of rooms leads one to an open verandah, where Modi panels are displayed. There is reason to wonder: Who allowed this? Is it an effort to send the message that the work being done by Modi is a natural extension of the Mahatma’s experiments with truth?

The writer is a senior journalist

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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