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Lucrative commercial move? Plan to demolish top Gandhian institute: Protest intensifies

By Rosamma Thomas* 
“Those who walk in Hitler’s path will die Hitler’s death!” “Sarwa Seva Sangh is the legacy of Vinobha Bhave, JP Narayan, not Modi’s inheritance!” Those were some of the slogans raised on June 30, 2023, the day the Varanasi district magistrate had ordered the demolition of buildings within the compound of the Sarwa Seva Sangh near the banks of the Ganga.
The district magistrate’s order has now been challenged in the Allahabad High Court, and the court has ordered status quo until July 3, when this matter will come up for hearing.
What is unique about this case is that a certain complainant called Moinuddin apparently took the matter to police, alleging that the land belonged to the Railways but was illegally occupied. Moinuddin himself has never been present for any of the hearings in court, and there is no address or other relevant contact details available for him. Along with Moinuddin, there are also “other villagers” mentioned – but which village is not clear.
Vinobha Bhave had gathered funds through donations to buy this land in Varanasi; the land was acquired from the Railways, and the payment was made in instalments over several years between 1960 and 1970.
Sarwa Seva Sangh was formed to propagate the ideals of Gandhi. In February 1948, Gandhi had planned a meeting at Sewagram to discuss plans for post-independence India. After Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, his followers including then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru met at Sewagram and decided to start the Sarwa Seva Sangh.Northern Railways, before laying claim to the land, had encroached on a portion of it and dumped large construction material. The Sarwa Seva Sangh had been assured of a rent for the use of the premises, but that promise was not kept. Now, Railway authorities have issued orders terming the staff and volunteers of the Sarwa Seva Sangh “encroachers”. As one Gandhian asked, could such encroachment have gone unnoticed for 63 years?
A large group of farmers, leaders of various opposition parties, followers of Gandhi, academics and activists arrived at Sarwa Seva Sangh on June 30 to protest the demolition order. The verdict of the Allahabad High Court is now keenly awaited.

A conspiracy: NAPM 

India's top civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), calling for resistance against what it called ‘Gujarat to Varanasi model of demolition’, has said that it is "disgraceful" on the part of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh to seek to "arbitrarily occupy and destroy two of the most reputed Gandhian institutions of the country, Gandhi Vidya Sansthan and Sarva Seva Sangh".
Stating that it is meant to "infiltrate the Gandhian Institute of Studies, established by Jayaprakash Narayan on the land given to it by the Sarva Sewa Sangh" in 1960s by the Indian Railways, NAPM said, the Sarva Seva Sangh, situated in Varanasi, the constituency of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was "set-up by Vinoba Bhave."
Pointing out that "the anathema for Gandhi is well-known among the RSS cadres", NAPM said, "But if BJP-RSS think that by demolishing concrete buildings of Gandhian institutions, it can erase the legacy of Gandhi in this country and the world, then it is obviously mistaken."
Asserting that the Varanasi administration and the Indian Railways "hatched a conspiracy to take over this land in a questionable way by demolishing the two campuses which are situated on the banks of river Ganga, a lucrative spot for any potential commercial venture", NAPM called it "The ‘Gujarat model of development’on full display in the PM’s constituency."
Claiming that this being done as part of the authorities exploring "commercial exploitation of Ganga", NAPM said, "At a time when the BJP/RSS's divisive politics is hell-bent on tearing apart the social fabric of our country, as can be seen in Manipur presently, the relevance of Gandhi's humanitarian and pluralistic ideology is even more significant."
"Having persecuted Muslims and Dalits in countless ways, this government is now not even sparing Gandhi", NAPM said, adding, "The BJP is crossing all limits and people are not going to tolerate the bulldozer politics of the autocratic BJP for very long, which can only result in violence and social strife."
Predicting that in the end, it is not the hate of BJP-RSS, but the inclusive ideologies of our freedom fighters like Gandhi that will survive", NAPM offered its support to "the ongoing struggle to save Sarva Seva Sangh and Gandhian Institute of Studies campuses, as its ideological commitment to values of peace, communal harmony and democracy."
It called upon, "not just Gandhians, but all democracy-loving people across the country to expose the Government’s hypocrisy on ‘patriotism’ and resist this authoritarian move, which is a gross insult to one of the foremost leaders of our independence movement", even as appealing the High Court to "intervene immediately, based on petitions filed and stay this unjust demolition and occupation of some of the finest, decades-old Gandhian institutions."
---
*Freelance journalist

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