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Sarva Sewa Sangh building to be demolished following takeover, Gandhians protest

By Rosamma Thomas* 

Mahatma Gandhi had plans for an independent India, and called a meeting at Wardha in Maharashtra on February 2, 1948 of workers who planned to collaborate for the achievement of Swaraj (self-rule) through the philosophy of Sarvodaya (universal uplift). After Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, prominent Gandhians Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Kishorlal Mashruwala, JC Kumarappa, Kaka Kalelkar, and Jayaprakash Narayan, along with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, met at Sewagram to form the Sarva Sewa Sangh to carry forward Gandhi’s mission of Swaraj through Sarvodaya.
The Sarva Sewa Sangh would determine, at that meeting, to steer clear of party politics and strive to achieve social order based on truth and non-violence. It would strive to eliminate distinctions of class and caste and work towards democracy, not political alone but social, marked by equality and collaboration and partnership between individuals. Purity, of both means and end, was to be its motto.
Sarva Sewa Sangh has a network across the country, and works from its headquarters in Sewagram, with offices at Varanasi and other parts of the country – but the 12.89 acres of the Sangh in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, adjoining the Krishnamurthy Foundation School, is currently the site of a land dispute.
On May 15, 2023, the Varanasi divisional commissioner and other government officials barged into and took over the premises. News reports indicated that the government planned to hand over the property to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which falls under the Union Ministry of Culture. 
Officials said the Gandhi Vidya Sansthan, which operated out of this site, was government property. By November 2023, the 30-year lease period on the property would elapse, and the area leased to the Gandhi Vidya Sansthan within the premises would, in the normal course, have reverted to the Sarva Sewa Sangh.
By early June, Gandhians gathered in peaceful protest against the forcible acquisition of the land. Government officials claimed they were acting on a complaint that the Sarva Sewa Sangh’s name has been mentioned on a khatauni (land record document) for land that actually belonged to the Indian Railways. 
Demolition order
The complaint, filed by a certain Moinuddin and villagers, had been acted on with surprising alacrity, even though the original complainant could not be traced and the details of which villagers had made the complaint were unclear.
Members of the Sarva Sewa Sangh said Moinudden himself, whether he existed or not, never appeared in any hearings in court of this matter.
Sarva Sewa Sangh has documentary evidence of the sale of the land – the Indian Railways, who earlier owned the land, accepted a sum of Rs 35,000 in a few installments between 1960 and 1970 for this piece of land – the sale deed and the challans showing the payment made are all carefully preserved.
What is noteworthy here is that HCP Design Planning and Management Pvt Ltd, the same firm that designed the Central Vista in New Delhi and riverfront projects in other cities of India, has “developed” portions of the ghats of Varanasi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is Member of Parliament from Varanasi, and massive Smart City plans have been developed for this constituency. Encroachment of a portion of the premises had occurred a while ago, on the pretext of construction of the new Kashi Railway Station.
By alleging that the land was fraudulently acquired, the Northern Railways were maligning Acharya Vinoba Bhave
On June 14, 2023, Sarva Sewa Sangh filed a case under Section 340 of the Criminal Procedure Code, showing grave discrepancies in the complaint filed by the Northern Railways alleging land-grab on the part of Sarva Sewa Sangh. 
Ram Dhiraj, local coordinator of activities of the Sangh at Varanasi, in a press release, explained that by alleging that the land was fraudulently acquired, the Northern Railways were maligning Acharya Vinoba Bhave, former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s first President Rajendra Prasad and other historical figures who were among the founding members of the Sarva Sewa Sangh, active in the acquisition of this land.
Arvind Anjum, who manages the premises, explained that the complaint of Moinuddin and villagers was made in January 2023; the Northern Railways later took up the matter too, and summons were served to the Sarva Sewa Sangh. 
The summons did not mention the provision of law under which the matter had been filed; the petitioner and the signatory in the initial application were different people; when a true and certified copy of the complaint was sought in court on June 7, 2023, what they were served appeared to have several last-minute additions and showed discrepancies – the date of the initial application was first shown as April 10, 2023, and became April 11, 2023 when the copy was sought in court.
The matter filed by the Sarva Sewa Sangh has been clubbed with the complaint from the Northern Railways, and no date of hearing has yet been assigned.
Update: Meanwhile, on June 27, the district magistrate, Varanasi, ordered the demolition of the Sarva Seva Sangh building, calling it "illegal encroachment" on a land belonging to the Indian Railways. The order says, the demolition will take place on June 30, asking the building to be vacated by 9 am on that day.
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*Freelance journalist. Photo credit: Ravi Batra

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