AHMEDABAD: M K Gandhi, the young barrister who had becomefamous for fighting for the rights of Indians in racism-riven South Africa, settled in Ahmedabad in February 1915. On May 25 that year, he set up an ashram in Kochrab to further his mission — to fight for Swaraj and to foster the system of community living.
On June 17, 1917, Gandhiji formed a new ashram in Sabarmati with 40-odd members. That institution changed the direction of India’s freedom struggle.
The Sabarmati Ashram became a landmark in the world’s conscience, owing to its association with Gandhiji’s history-shaping campaigns such as the Champaran Satyagraha, the strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad, the Khilafat Movement, the Kheda Satyagraha, the Non-cooperation Movement, and finally, the Dandi March.
To commemorate the centenary year of the Sabarmati Ashram, the National Archives of India and the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation & Memorial Trust have organized an exhibition. From June 29, the ashram has been hosting the exhibition, titled ‘Sabarmati Shatabdi— Ek Karyanjali’.
An eponymous book was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 29. The exhibition will be on view till July 29.
TOI presents some vignettes — from the book and the exhibition — related to the Sabarmati Ashram and Gandhiji’s association with Ahmedabad.
DESH SEVA ASHRAM?
Gandhiji was influenced by his experience of community living in South Africa, Santiniketan in West Bengal, and at the Gurukul Ashram near Haridwar. As mentioned in Volume 13 of “The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi”, the names he considered for the ashram in Ahmedabad included Deshsevashram, Seva Mandir,and Satyagrahashram. But eventually both his ashrams were known by their location — Kochrab and Sabarmati.
Rs 6,000 IS WHAT BAPU WANTED FROM AHMEDABAD
While establishing an ashram in Kochrab, Gandhiji had written a detailed letter to Sheth Mangaldas Girdhardas. In the letter, he had mentioned the names of all 40 inmates ready to shift with him to the new ashram. He said that he would need about 50,000 square feet of land for living quarters and three kitchens for 50-plus residents. He also asked for at least five acres of land for cultivation and a bullock cart or a horse-drawn carriage if the site was far from the railway station. He estimated the expense to be Rs 10 per month per person. “Thus, with an average of 50 inmates, the annual expenditure will come to Rs 6,000. If Ahmedabad is not prepared to do this for a year, I am in a position to provide for the boarding charges,” Gandhiji wrote.
SHIFT FROM KOCHRAB TO SABARMATI
In 1917, two years after the Kochrab Ashram was established, plague broke out in Kochrab village, posing a health risk to ashram inmates, especially children. However, that was not the only reason for moving. As Gandhiji notes, “An ashram without an orchard, a farm or cattle would not be a complete unit. The ashram at Kochrab lacked these.” Gandhiji also found the location between the central jail and the local crematorium appealing — “jail-going was understood to be normal for Satyagrahis”, he noted drily. He also observed that the sites selected for jails have generally clean surroundings! The shift took place on June 17, 1917, when Gandhiji was busy with the Champaran Satyagraha in Bihar.
STRIKING MILL WORKERS BECAME ASHRAM BUILDERS
The Sabarmati Ashram functioned on the principles that coalesced at the Phoenix Settlement—which was founded by Gandhiji near Durban, South Africa, in 1904—but with Indian sensibilities. Those who helped in creating infrastructure included Anasuya Sarabhai, Shankarlal Banker, and Narhari Parikh. Gandhiji in a letter to his nephew, Maganlal Gandhi, wrote that he estimated the cost of construction to be about Rs 20,000 while agreeing on the rough plan for the premises. In 1918, when mill workers went on strike in Ahmedabad, their services were rendered for the ashram in filling the foundation of the weaving school with sand.
ECONOMY OF THE ASHRAM
In a letter dated July 1, 1917, Gandhiji wrote from Motihari in Bihar that he needed Rs 400 per month as recurring expense and Rs 1.18 lakh for buying 55 bigha land for the construction of workshops, living rooms, and kitchens.
As the book of accounts on the display shows, the financial records of the ashram were meticulously maintained. A page indicates that the ashram had received Rs 5,000 as donation from Revashankar, and that Rs 350 was earned from the ashram’s produce. The ashram spent money for maintenance, salaries, postage, and packaging.
On July 15, 1921, Gandhiji wrote to Hermann Kallenbach — one of his closest associates in South Africa — that crops grown at the ashram included cotton, wheat, millets, and various kinds of pulses. Oranges and pomegranates grew at the ashram orchard. Rain being scarce, the primary source of water for irrigation was a well in the compound. By 1928, the ashram had about 100 acres of land with grain and fodder fields, vegetable gardens, and a dairy with 25 cattle.
NOT GAU RAKSHA BUT GAU SEVA
In Volume 50 of “The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi”, it is revealed that the Sabarmati Ashram inmates had tried to live without milk and ghee for a prolonged period. It was later decided to include the items in the diet as “the health of the children as well as the adults suffered under this regimen.” Thus, it was resolved to keep cattle at the ashram. Gandhiji writes, “The Ashram believes in gauraksha (cow protection) as a religious duty. But the word gauraksha savours of pride. Man is incompetent to ‘protect’ animals, being himself in need of protection from God who is the Protector of all life. The word gauraksha was therefore replaced by gauseva (cow service).”
GANDHIJI’S FREEDOM RIDE
In February 1928, Gandhiji had taken part in an executive meeting at the Gujarat Vidyapith. After the meeting, the car belonging to Ranchhodlal Sheth was to drop him at the Sabarmati Ashram. However, the car did not arrive on schedule and Gandhiji had some appointments at the ashram. Without waiting further, Gandhiji borrowed the bicycle of Amrutlal Shelat, a Vidyapith student, and reached the ashram in time for engagements. Interestingly, the bicycle was made by Freedom Cycle Company. Amrut Modi, a trustee of the Sabarmati Ashram, got the bicycle from Narandas Gandhi in Rajkot and the trust restored it over 14 months.
Gandhiji used to receive hundreds of letters from across the globe and he would make it a point to answer most of them. Many were not about his work. In one such letter displayed at the exhibition, Bhagwaddas Brahmachari, the priest at the Rajadhiraj temple at Bakri Pol, Ahmedabad, asked Gandhiji about the exact meaning of the English term ‘vegetarian.’ “Do those identifying selves as vegetarians consume fish, eggs and milk?” the priest wrote. “Also, do they consume prohibited garlic and onion? So, what would describe them the best? Niramishahari or Satvikahari, as shakahari is a very limited word.” In reply, Gandhiji wrote that foreign countries had the VEM — vegetables, eggs and milk — diet for vegetarians. He did not consider consuming chilli ‘satvik’ and thus suggested ‘annahari’ as an option. “As per my thinking, whatever we are eating apart from meat is ‘anna’ (food). I know it is not all-inclusive but I have found it best among the possible options,” Gandhiji wrote.
ASHRAM HANDED OVER TO HARIJAN SEVAK SANGH
On March 12, 1930, Gandhiji and his associates left the Sabarmati Ashram on the Dandi March, vowing not to return until India attained Swaraj. The population of the ashram dwindled considerably by 1932. When the government seized the property, Gandhiji asked it to forfeit the ashram. The government did not oblige so Gandhiji decided to dedicate the ashram to Harijan service. On July 22, 1933, exactly 16 years after its establishment, the ashram was formally disbanded. The ashram inmates first stayed at the residence of Anasuya Sarabhai and then joined different ashrams inspired by Gandhian thought.
BAPU BRIGADE: STARS BEHIND THE STALWARTS
Apart from luminaries of the Indian freedom struggle and stalwarts such as Vinoba Bhave, Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Imam Bawazeer, Mahadev Desai, Dadasaheb Mavalankar, the ashram also attracted Indians and foreigners who were enamored by Gandhiji’s movement and mission.
Maganlal Gandhi: Gandhiji’s nephew had designed and supervised the construction of the Sabarmati Ashram. Following Gandhiji since his South Africa days, he efficiently managed all the ashram activities. Gandhiji was grooming him to be his heir. When Maganlal died in 1928, Gandhiji had famously remarked, “I have been widowed.”Maganlal’s residence at the ashram, the Magan Nivas, has been converted into the Charkha Museum. That is fitting because Maganlal had introduced innovations to the spinning wheel.
Esther Faering: A member of the Danish Missionary Society, she arrived in India in 1916 and had visited the ashram in 1917. When the missionary society did not approve of her correspondence and contact with Gandhiji, she resigned from the mission in 1919 and became an inmate of the ashram. Her correspondence with Gandhiji took the form of a book,”My Dear Child”, published in 1956.
Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn): The daughter of a British admiral, she was attracted to Gandhiji after exchanging a series of letters. She joined the ashram and worked as his secretary. She learned Urdu, spun khadi, and adopted a vegetarian diet. After Gandhiji’s death, she set up ashrams in Haridwar and Tehri. She left India in 1959.
Pandit Narayan Khare: A student of Pandit Vishnu Digambar, he was the teacher of music at the Sabarmati Ashram and had also joined the Dandi March. He is credited with compiling various prayers and songs that eventually constituted the ‘Ashram Bhajanavali.’
Reginald Reynolds: An Englishman and a member of British Society of Friends, he stayed at the ashram in 1929 and 1930. He also looked after the publication Young India for a while and helped Gandhiji during Round Table Conferences. Before beginning the Dandi March, Gandhiji sent ’11 Points’ of demands to the viceroy through Reynolds.