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Why do I lend my support to voices protesting world class renovation of Gandhi Ashram?

By Martin Macwan*

One would not expect an activist working on Dalit rights to join such a protest. Dalits carry unhealed trauma that Gandhi caused to Dr BR Ambedkar and the Dalit cause of effective political representation by using violent means of his own definition in the event of the Poona Pact. This apart, Gandhi’s ideas in general, which changed often, on caste were orthodox. I have nothing to add to the subject after the sharpest critique offered by Dr Ambedkar.
One would wonder, why do I lend my support to the voices of protest to the proposed world class renovation of the Gandhi Ashram. My reasons for doing so are the following:
  1. In spite of grave ideological differences, both Dr Ambedkar and Gandhi, did not lose respect for one another. It was Dr Ambedkar who set aside all the bitterness on the third day after the Poona pact to visit Gandhi on latter’s calling, to solace the old man who was attacked by the orthodox Hindus calleing him the ‘Rakshasa’ for agreeing to the Poona pact.
  2. Sardar Patel and the Congress did everything to ensure that Dr Ambedkar was not voted to the Constituent Assembly. Dr Ambedkar could be elected only due to the support of Muslim League and Jogendra Nath Mandal, the Dalit leader from Bengal, later to become the first Law and Labour Minister of Pakistan. But soon when Dr Ambedkar lost his seat in the Constituent Assembly due to the partition of India, it was Gandhi who put pressure on Sardar and Nehru to ensure a vacant seat for Dr Ambedkar from Mumbai. Gandhi reportedly said to both the Congress leaders that they may not cause any harm to Dr Ambedkar, the learned man on the law and constitution, by not bringing him to the Constituent Assembly but they will certainly cause harm to India. Thus Dr Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly and further as Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee.
  3. Gandhi had just put his foot in the city of Ahmedabad in 1917 when he received a letter from Thakkarbapa with a query whether he would be willing to accept a Dalit family in his Ahmedabad Ashram. With Gandhi’s affirmative reply the first Dalit family, Dudabhai Dafda reached the Ashram with his wife Daniben and daughter Laxmi. Their entry created a storm in the Ashram. Gandhi’s elder sister left the Ashram forever. Maganlal decided to go to Madras to learn leather work. Kaka Kalelkar did not seem convinced. But soon, angered by the entry of Daniben in the Ashram Kitchen, Kasturba approached Gandhi fuming. She said that if the Dalit woman remained in the kitchen, she would walk away to her father’s home, leaving Gandhi alone. Gandhi suggested her to do so if that was her wish. Kasturba stayed on helplessly against the defiant man. But the Ashram was helpless when the neighbouring farmer refused to supply water followed by the milkman. The donations came to an abrupt end, leaving the Ashram with ration that would last them a single day. In 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 a car dropped a money purse worth Rs. 30,000 at the Ashram gate and sped away. The donor wanted less than to reveal his identity. The Ashram continued. 
  4. A few days later Kasturba stared at little Laxmi playing in the dust. Suddenly she walked to the child, lifted her and embraced the child to her bosom. Few days later Dudabhai and Daniben headed back to Mumbai, but on insistence of both Gandhi and Kasturba, left Laxmi with them. Gandhi couple later married Laxmi in the Ashram premises. This was the time when Dr Ambedkar was humiliated more than twice and had to leave Baroda. However it was only 14 years later that both Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar would meet face to face ever in Manibhuvan of Mumbai.
  5. Though Dr Ambedkar had not met Gandhi, nor interacted with him, the famous agitation for drinking water was named as ‘Mahad Satyagraha’ and even Gandhi’s photo adored the stage of the agitation. Both the great minds met for about eight times but the relationship between them remained less than cordial. The anger of Gandhi’s associates can be seen from the words used by them during the Poona Pact for Dr Ambedkar, which is well documented in the second volume of ‘Dairy of Mahadev Desai’, a 20 volume set.
Personally for me, Gandhi’s personal struggle against untouchability within his Ashram has been inspirational. Thakkarbapa (Amrutlal Thakkar) worked amongst the Dalits and Adivasis even before Gandhi had returned from South Africa. But as Dr Ambedkar acknowledged, it was Gandhi who brought the question of untouchability in the central agenda of the Independence struggle. There were not many who supported Gandhi on the issue, just as it is today. Gandhi had made a shirt for Dudabhai from the Khadi that he had spun himself.
Vibrant Gujarat is witnessing two simultaneous developments as India has entered its 75th anniversary to celebrate its Independence: The World Class Renovation of Gandhi Ashram and the little changing living conditions of the poor.
Barely two months ago, in response to the credible scientific apprehension that the third wave of Coronavirus would impact especially the malnourished children the most, Navsarjan Trust and Janvikas undertook a pilot programme to provide nutritious food to 5,000 children for a month. According to the government’s own data the number of malnourished children have more than doubled between 2019 and 2020 in Gujarat.
But these data may be as controversial as Covid, if not less. My colleagues heard from the health workers how the Anand district collector took the health workers to task for reporting higher number of malnourished children which ranked the district as second in the State. The health workers from other districts have confided in us too that they have been instructed from above to report only few malnourished children from their areas.
Tragically, the unusually high presence of malnourished children coincides in Anand district, the home town of late Madhavsinh Solanki, sworn in as Gujarat chief minister for four times, and the presence of Amul, the largest milk daily of Asia and the champion of White Revolution. These raise the questions on both, the model of development and the desired effects of the political leadership on the lives of the poor.
The question of poor becomes relevant in the context of the famous and controversial visit of Donal Trump, the US President at Gandhi Ashram under the program, ‘Namaste Trump’. On the occasion of presenting mementos to the visiting Presidential couple, one of the Trustees of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust, Kartikeya Sarabhai, reminded the epic message of Gandhi to the journalists: When there is a doubt in the mind while taking a decision, think how your decision shall impact the life of the poorest man. Politicians across parties perhaps have little to think as they have been thinking all the time about this; hence, at the end, it is the citizens who have to carry the moral burden on their heads to think.
During height of Covid, when the malnourished children required the nutritious food the most, the Gujarat government stopped the programme of daily food distribution to these children. The children in some areas were given sukhdi, a wheat based sweet, once a month. The sweet was less than chewable for the weak teeth of the malnourished children. Some ingenious minds in rural areas took the children along to get their share, gift children a toffee from the local shop, and the food meant for children found its way to the bellies of their cows and buffaloes.
Amul produces best of the nutritious food for the malnourished children for India as well as other countries through reputed international organizations such as UNICEF. Unfortunately, our ground reports indicate that the best of these products find their way to the bellies of the cattle. In the absence of facility that can store such food packets at a required temperature, it turns un-edible and smells foul by the time it reaches the children. The cattle owner stands ready to purchase these packets from the parents of the children outside the facility for a price of Rs 10 per pack.
The number of poor in India is believed to have risen from 26.5 crore to 40 crore due to Covid. In the global hunger index, India measures poorly ranking 97th in the list of 107 countries in 2020 whereas our neighbours Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Pakistan seem to be doing better as they rank 64th, 73rd, 75th, 78th and 88th respectively.
Our greatest worry: How many children die of hunger in India?
On August 21, 2020, a five-year-old girl Sonia Kumari died simply because along with her 10 other family members she had no food for past four days. Her family of eight brothers and sisters and her parents live in the Uttar Pradesh village at a distance of 7 km from Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world. Her 45-year-old father, Pappu Singh is unable to earn due to tuberculosis and her 40 year old mother Shiladevi is ready to do any work to sustain the family.
In spite of the government policy to distribute ration to families who have no ration cards, this family as well as others did not get any ration from the shop. Their home has no electricity due to unpaid bill of Rs 7,000. They have no money to buy the medicines for Pappu Singh. In the Dalit dominated village with 5000 families, about 2000 families have no ration cards. The government admits to the problem, though the numbers vary. The records show that they have been able to distribute ration cards to 1,918 families out of 3,698 families. 
Aadhaar card has been considered mandatory for the ration cards as per the local dictates and the families are expected to pay Rs 300 for the aadhaar cards. The field survey report of the local voluntary organizations informs that there are 191 holders of the ‘Ayushyman Bharat Cards’ in the village, and most of these card holders are non-Dalit and not poor. 
Four days before the aggrieved family had no food, their food was offered Parle G biscuits, a biscuit each of the members, and water. The family was much better off when the mid-day meal program was on in the school but the Covid took away that protection from the family. The children then had meals in the school and they managed to get some food for the family too.
This is the living condition of the poor today, something Gandhi witnessed for the Indigo farmers in Bihar then. The family of Sonia Kumari belongs to that group in whose majority the former deputy chief minister of Gujarat finds the security of the Indian Constitution. Now there is no Gandhi so whom do we expect to visit families such as this and ask them how do they survive? 
The local member of Parliament and his supporters did visit the family to hand them over the ration card and the grains after the death of the child, in spite of knowing that it is not the single family in the concerned village that struggles to survive. We can find such incidents of hunger death in other States as well.
The Navsarjan Trust has little or no money. It raised some donations to help 1,000 widow headed families for 10 months during Covid with rations. But this is less than a drop in the ocean. What the poor need is some grains, but unfortunately the government programmes which are never less than Rs 1,000 crore are unable to help the people. With elections nearing, these figures of the proposed government programmes tend to shoot up much beyond for people to remember or even comprehend.
Chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust is honourable Elaben Bhatt. The title of her important report, ‘Shram Shakti’ reads: "We are Poor but we are Many." Unfortunately, the government is looking out for majority not of the poor but of the particular ideological mindset, be it in the name of Gandhi or Godse.
There are six public trusts that are affected by the concerned renovation process. Two of these trusts carry the names Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust and Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh. Does the government recognize the word ‘Harijan’ as usable in Gujarat? As a matter of honour, with a firm resolve to create a world class monument of Gandhi in the land of Gujarat for the love of his ideas, would the people of Gujarat be ready to adopt ‘Harijan’ as their surname? Gandhi was a passionate man and he practiced what he preached, whether it was a programme related to his goat or the ayurvedic medicines. He wrote publicly that he wishes to be reborn in the womb of a scavenger woman.
The Gujarat government is hell-bent to remove the word ‘Dalit’. Would its ministers be willing to adopt ‘Harijan’ as their surname to make a statement that they hold Gandhi’s ideals close to their heart? Gandhi belonged to the world for his words and deeds and not because of the buildings he dwelled into. There were times earlier when I visited Gandhi Ashram early in the morning and sat silently near the Hrudaykunj. I notified the trustee of the presence of used condoms in the place where Gandhi held his daily prayers.
Institutions are beyond and not limited to buildings and posh gardens. Tragically, it is only the controversial figures that have free and easy access to the room of Gandhi in the Ashram. For the common people, whom he belonged, have to satisfy themselves by simply peeping in the room from the meshed door. This is not unusual for the government which ensures to cover the poor localities residing in the opposite direction of the Dandi Bridge with a green net when the dignitaries from the Japan, China or the USA visit the Ashram. Lately, even a wall was erected.
Did Gandhi hide the poverty of India? Did not he go to England to meet the British Premier in his loin clothes even though he was referred to as ‘Half-Naked-Fakir’? Did not he visit and highlight the living conditions of textile workers in England?
For Gandhi, every penny was important. The people who did not want Gandhi’s presence in Noakhali had dared to scatter the glass pieces from the broken liquor bottles on the walkways. Gandhi bled from some of these glass pieces. But he was passionate to create an atmosphere of communal harmony in the country.
He walked on these ways in the darkness of the jungle aided by Manu and Abha, his young girl associates. He sat on the dusty ground and talked to people on the importance of freedom. At the end of his speech people offered meagre donations and pennies and threw them near the lantern which lighted the atmosphere. At the end of the meeting, it was the duty of Manu and Abha to collect all the coins and report the accounts to Gandhi.
On one such day after reaching to their residence very late in the evening and just before retiring for the day, Gandhi had an unusual question for the young women: Is the donation received today is the same amount which you are reporting? The girls were startled and hurt. How dare their honesty be doubted?
Gandhi explained. It was dark and dusty. Is it possible that we may have left some pennies in the dust? The girls were speechless. He asked them to take the lantern and walk back in the jungle to the place of the meeting, and of course with the flour filter, the Atta Chalni. Frozen to fear and dead, the two young women walked to the jungle in the thick of the darkness and sat on the ground to filter all the dust and did manage to retrieve some penny coins.
For the government, it is no big deal to utilize an amount of Rs 1,250 crore for Ashram renovation. But the poor women who were dear to Gandhi, lost all their petty savings which they struggled hard to hide and save in the mattresses, away from the lustful eyes of their drunkard husbands, to secure food for their children were whisked away by your de-monetization programme in a flicker of a second. 
I will salute the Gujarat chief minister if he is able to give account of how many women lost such petty savings. My own mother saved her petty savings in such mattresses. Of course, you must be aware of the public discussions about how the political parties managed to protect their crores of rupees before the demonetization programme struck at the stroke of the midnight.
Gandhi’s first and major epic struggle in his Ashram was against untouchability. I find no trace of this in the landscape maps of proposed renovation that has been publicized in the newspapers. The government is too nervous about the Navsarjan’s study ‘Understanding Untouchability’, which brought before the public the status of such practices in public life of Gujarat, the model State.
Martin Macwan
Even in 1997 when the Navsarjan Trust filed the first ever petition before the High Court of Gujarat on the question of continuing manual scavenging practices in Gujarat, the Gujarat government filed an affidavit denying continuation of such practices on the ground that ‘since it had declared a ban on such practices thrice, the same does not exist’. The High Court did appoint a commission of inquiry and the a humiliating picture of manual scavenging practices in Gujarat was presented before the Court by three human right defenders and lawyers, including late Harubhai Mehta and Girishbhai Patel.
The Navsarjan Trust has photographs in about 1,500 villages of the toilets constructed under the ‘Swachh Bharat mission’ to bear a witness to the conditions in which they are. But for the government, all our activities are ‘anti-national’, just as the activities of Gandhi were for the British government.
Gandhi struggled with the issue of scavenging and the toilets. It is worth reading: the living conditions of the scavengers that he had described in around 1911 in the slums of Mumbai. Thakkarbapa resigned from the Government job of 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 the toilets in the jail. The British were unsure that they could allocate a caste-based work to a man who did not belong to a scavenger caste. This storm further intensified when Gandhi and others too in other jails joined Mama Fadke and went on fast.
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 with all the doors of the house open and festoons tied to welcome him, he could not find a single soul in the house. They had all climbed on roofs of their homes to especially protect the Gandhians form the pollution that their shadow may caste on them. Gandhi failed to convince Dalits to to come down except for an old man who sat in a far off corner. Dalits told Gandhi that after his departure they apprehended bad consequences if they intermingled with him by none other than his 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 since he canned the children, the latter refused to venture near the school. It was Mama Fadke who took upon the challenge himself, and on realization that the Dalit children could not come to the school, leaving behind their younger siblings, welcomed the siblings too in the class. Often, these young babies urinated and even defecated in the class, and unlike some of the teachers of today who ask students of the class to go and purchase tobacco for them, Mama Fadke himself cleaned the urine and filth.
During the first Congress session that he attended, Gandhi took the broom in his hand to clean the toilets. As can be found in his writings, Gandhi devoted a lot of time to work on issues such as how to construct a pit toilet and how to maintain the same or plant a fruit tree once the compost was ready, in his Ashram.
The Navsarjan Trust ,under the aegis of Untouchability Free India (Abhadchhet Mukt Bharat) and (certainly not either Congress Mukt Bharat or BJP Mukt Bharat) banner, submitted a one line memorandum to the Government in Gujarat in 2017 requesting the chief minister to declare only one single village of Gujarat free of untouchability after hoisting the national flag on the Independence day. But the Government was unsure about its own development impact on the ground and it failed to show even a single village where there was no untouchability.
We do not require the renovation of the Gandhi Ashram. Rather we need to renovate the Indian mindset which has become repulsive with caste prejudices. But to do that we need a little place for both Gandhi and Ambedkar in our heart.
How many Gujarat school do we find today which do not segregate water pots on the basis of caste? In how many schools the children are served mid-day meal while they are seated in a single row, unsegregated? Post-Independence what have been the government programmes for abolition of untouchability? It is natural that we may not remember history beyond a point but can you at least list the programmes that the government has undertaken? How many villages has the chief minister visited to give solace to the Dalit and Tribal families who have suffered from gruesome caste violence? 
His colleagues have mastered the craft of organizing a meal at Dalit homes with much publicity though there has not been a single program yet to invite a Dalit in your home for a meal. Does the Ashram renovation plan have a space for exhibiting these glaring caste realities, on which Gandhi struggled throughout his life?
The Harijan Sevak Sangh was launched to assuage the battered Dalit emotions post Poona pact. Dr Ambedkar had a direct question for Gandhi: Why the Dalit welfare trust does not have a single Dalit trustee? Gandhi replied that he considered untouchability a sin of the non-Dalits and hence it was their penance. True. But then, what have been the activities of the Harijan Sevak Sangh? Who cleans the toilets in the Gandhi Ashram today which is visited by hundreds of visitors each day?
Gandhi had envisioned the setting up of Gujarat Vidyapeeth to train cadres for Indian Independence. Late Naranbhai Rathod was one of the trustees of one of these associated trustw. I had the honour of working and witnessing the passionate old man in cases of gruesome caste violence incidents. During his stay at the Vidyapeeth, it was learnt later, that the cook did not cook food for him but rather ordered it from outside. With frozen tears in his eyes Naranbhai fell silent and I found myself helpless. Have not the students at Vidyapeeth in the past raised the issue of caste discrimination? Have there been public discussions on this?
After 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 the renovation of the physical space. But can Gandhi Ashram even host inter-caste marriages or inter-caste dining?
The Gandhi couple had organized Laxmi’s wedding in the Ashram. The wedding of Dakshiyani Velayudhan, the first Dalit woman graduate and that too in science stream and one of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly of India, too was organized at the Vardha Ashram by the Gandhi couple. Gandhi had allowed Dakshiyani to eat non-vegetarian food in the Ashram with a request to cook the same in her own room. A study reveals that 45 percent of the people belonging to the communities considered vegetarian do consume non-vegetarian food. Is it possible to remove the ideological fanaticism of vegetarianism from the kitchen of Gandhi Ashram and its associate institutions?
Gandhi spent most part of his life in the prison. Kasturba died in Yeravda prison of Poona. Gandhi too did not have a good death. What else do we need the man to memorize for in his name? When journalist Nachiketa Desai sat on protest in Gandhi Ashram , two of the trustees organized for him to sit on the foot path outside the Gandhi Ashram. True, they even organized a mat for him to sit upon. On which ideological moorings of Gandhi do we continue to take pride?
I want to write more but let me end here. Let the physical place be renovated. The programme of world class renovation will cause heartburning to very few people. Many more will be happy at the mere sight of availability of a mammoth sum of Rs 1,250 crore for the project. Great poet Uma Shankar Joshi wrote in the midst of the Indian Independent struggle:
Bhukhya janono jathragni jagshe; 
bhashmkani n ladhshe’ 
(When the fire in the belly of the hungry will rise, 
There shall be no remnant left of the burnt ashes of the ruins.)
Can these words ever come true in Gandhi’s Gujarat?
*Founder, Navsarjan Trust and Dalit Shakti Kendra, trustee, Janvikas, Gujarat. This article is based on an open letter "Why do I protest the world class renovation of Gandhi Ashram?" Martin Macwan wrote on September 6 to Prime Minister Narendrabhai Modi, former Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, and trustees of the six trusts associated with Gandhi and the Gandhi Ashram



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