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Sevagram: The peepal tree that he planted, an old telephone booth set up for him by the erstwhile British government, the hand murals of peacocks and trees on the walls of his hut, a flour grinder in the kitchen, and a basket to catch snakes lying still in a quiet corner—everything remains the way it was when Mahatma Gandhi resided at the Gandhi Ashram in Sevagram.

His charkha (spinning wheel), the trademark walking stick, his khadau (wooden sandals), a set of multi-faith scriptures and most of his personal belongings are kept neatly stacked inside the hut which, like in 1936 when it was built, does not yet have an electricity connection.

Sevagram, which was Gandhi’s residence for nearly 10 years, may be a forgotten village in a remote corner of Maharashtra, but it was from here that many ideas which shaped a newly emerging nation were born. From the first draft of the Quit India Movement to the focus on rural economy and new systems of education; from health and sanitation work to the fight against untouchability; and, finally, the path to freedom through Satyagraha—Sevagram is remembered as the ‘laboratory’ where Gandhi conducted most of his social experiments.

Students at the Anand Niketan school, which is run by the Nai Talim Samiti and shares its premises with the ashram. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Students at the Anand Niketan school, which is run by the Nai Talim Samiti and shares its premises with the ashram. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“If Delhi was the rajdhani (capital), Sevagram was the lokdhani (people’s centre)," said Ravindra Rukmani Pandharinath, an author who lives in Sevagram. “Some of the major movements—including the drafting of the Quit India Movement resolution and the focus on village industries—all of it happened right here," he said.

As we mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sevagram’s place in the epoch is monumental. The vision of an Indian republic centered on villages populated with self-contained charkha-wielding men and women may seem anachronistic today. But Gandhi’s ideal society also nudged a newly emerging nation to radically rethink its outlook on a variety of issues, ranging from caste-based discrimination to systems of education—issues which are relevant even today.

Thus, after seven decades of Gandhi’s demise, the young of Sevagram, like those at the school run under the Nai Talim (new education) system, is still looking for ways to rediscover Gandhi in their everyday lives. The older generation, meanwhile, is striving to make Gandhian thought more relevant and appealing to the uninitiated.

Then & now

As one enters the main intersection of Sevagram, a forked road leads to a neat row of trees and a big black stone plaque with an impression of Gandhi with his trademark charkha and the words Punyadham Sevagram engraved in Hindi. Punyadham means a holy site and is often used to describe places of pilgrimage. The long road that leads to Gandhi Ashram is lined by a few related organizations on both sides. This includes an old building of the Sarva Seva Sangh, an umbrella organization that works with Gandhian institutes and the Nai Talim Samiti, an institute that promotes learning and education rooted in Gandhi’s ideas of the real world as the classroom. The gates of most buildings on this road bear the insignia of charkha in white.

The ashram itself, which exists quietly at the end of the road is a quaint place lined with dense trees, comprising of a number of small huts which were used as Gandhi’s residence, an office, Kasturba Gandhi’s hut, a common kitchen and the prayer ground among others.

When Gandhi first arrived in this outpost in the middle of nowhere, he enthusiastically wrote to a friend that the village had “no post office, no store for foodstuffs of quality, no medical comforts and [was] difficult of access in rainy season." And he was proud of this, for he had arrived at a place which had no trappings of luxury or power—the site from which an independent India had to be reimagined. It was here that senior Congress leaders received their mandatory exposure to rural life. Because the roads were dirt tracks, the trip from the railway station had to be made on an old Ford car which was pulled by oxen. It was ironically named as “Oxford".

“In any big movement, certain places emerge as its nucleus, the place from where the spokes of a hub emerge. Sevagram was the nucleus of the independence movement," said Prabhakar Pusadkar, the coordinator of the Anand Niketan school which shares its premises with the Gandhi Ashram. “We feel fortunate that we work in a village with such a legacy but we want others to know about it because the contribution of this place to India’s history is immense," he said.

Pusadkar points out the importance that Sevagram holds in India’s history. When Gandhi embarked on the Dandi March in 1930 from Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, he vowed not to return till India achieved freedom. In 1932, he was imprisoned for a year at the Yerawada Prison in Pune. Soon after his release in May 1933, Gandhi went on a long march and eventually at the invitation of Jamnalal Bajaj came to live in Wardha. However, with his heart set on rural life, Gandhi eventually moved to a nearby village which later on came to be known as Sevagram, which means ‘village of service’. The village is nearly 70 km away from Nagpur, a political nerve centre and next to Wardha, a trading city famous for its cotton produce.

Chances are that if one is visiting Gandhi Ashram, they would run into Ashwini Baghel, who has been working as a guide for over 5 years . Clad in a simple pair of kurti-salwar and slippers, Baghel, 32, adds with a smile that this is a job she really enjoys and she would not leave it for any other. “It is said that Gandhi sought permission from villagers to stay in the village. Our elders used to say he was allowed to stay but the villagers put two conditions—one, that they would continue to practice untouchability and two, that they would not pick human waste," she said.

Baghel talks with a confidence of a professional story teller and goes on to say that Gandhi is known to have then said that the villagers could chose a way of life they wanted but he would not change his beliefs.

Baghel, who originally belongs to Wardha, but has lived in Sevagram after her marriage, rues however that while visitors do come by, particularly for the ashram, the place is more of a pit stop. “Say if I meet 10 people in a day, only 3 of them I feel are really interested in knowing more about Gandhi or understanding his philosophy. For the rest, it is just another tourist spot which is kind of sad because for people like us, Gandhi is a way of life," she adds.

The ashram is being run by the Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan trust and it focuses on sustainable living and employs the locals on its agricultural land, cow shelter, khadi outlet among others.

“Gandhiji worked in a number of nearby villages but our work is limited now. We want to involve more locals but political affiliation and caste discrimination still continues to be big hurdle," said T R N Prabhu, president of the Pratishtan.

The locals also feel the ashram has not done enough to engage with them and remains as an island of its own. “All the focus goes to the ashram, people visit but they return from there. The village has an acute drainage and pollution problem which leads to diseases. If Gandhi was alive, he would have paid attention to us," said Rajiv Shambharkhar, 52, a professional qawwali singer whose home is at the end of the main road of the village.

Gandhi & today’s youth

One of the lasting legacies of Gandhi in Sevagram is Nai Talim, an alternative form of education which at its heart promotes learning outside the classroom. Though it has a curriculum like any other school, it is the vocational training, as well as community learning, that sets the school apart. The Marathi-medium school is affiliated to the Maharashtra State Board and has 275 students currently enrolled.

It is a Monday morning at the school, bustling with activity. At the entrance of the one of the classrooms hangs a blackboard with a timetable assigning responsibilities to students for the coming week. They range from cooking, cleaning and gardening duties. Additionally, students also learn skills such as stitching, embroidery, bicycle repair, music, and dance.

“We are taught cooking which none of the boys in my neighbourhood from other schools learn. I often help my mother in the kitchen," said Pratik Tripathi, a class eight student from the school. He smiled and added that he is good at cooking vegetables and makes a great cup of tea.

“It is not a different curriculum but a different form of pedagogy which makes it more challenging," said Sushama Sharma, Principal, Anand Niketan. “We link knowledge with productive work and talk about social issues through crafts. For instance, each student learns embroidery and we tell the boys that no role is gender specific. Everyone joins in cleaning and students learn that no one should be discriminated on the basis of community or caste," she said.

The seed of Nai Talim was sown in Gandhi’s mind during his stay in South Africa. Upon his return to India, Gandhi started experimenting with ways to improve India’s education system. In 1937, he presided a conference in Sevagram where he stressed that education should be centered around productive work, promoting the use of craft, and using mother tongue as the medium of education.

“In one line, Nai Talim is learning for life, from life and throughout life. Gandhiji at one point himself said that this was ‘my best gift to the country’," said Pradeep Dasgupta, an executive trustee of the Nai Talim Samiti.

A 15-minute drive from the school is the Institute of Gandhian Studies in Wardha town where a group of 40 college going students from 18 districts of Maharashtra are attending a residential camp on Gandhian thought. The students hold a diverse set of views on Gandhi. “Growing up in school we would only be told information about Gandhi’s life and not what his philosophies were or why they mattered," said Pranjali Deshmukh, a second-year Commerce student from Akola. Another student, Balwant Ghorpade from Nanded, said experience has taught him the value of Gandhi’s ideas. “My college is in Nanded town, far from my village Nimgaon. I often face discrimination when I seek rooms on rent as landlords probe me about my caste. If we were truly following in Gandhi’s footsteps, these evils would have been long eradicated," he said.

Focus on rural India

In Wardha, nearly 8 km from Sevagram, a group of young women are busy making fresh block prints and dyeing clothes. Most of these women are from nearby villages and are working in the premises of Magan Sangrahalaya, which was Gandhi’s residence before he shifted to Sevagram.

Magan Sangrahalaya gets its name from Maganlal Gandhi, Mahatma’s nephew, who is credited with doing a lot of work in rural areas near Wardha and promoting the rural industries. Vibha Gupta, chairperson of the Magan Sangrahalaya Samiti, is a regular face on the premises and is always keen to take visitors around.

“On the 150th anniversary of Gandhi, focus should be back on rural India. Imagine if even half of our villages decide one day that they will not work, India will come to a standstill. Our villages and villagers have been ignored for too long and if we are looking at sustainable development, we can no longer ignore them," said Gupta while walking around the dyeing centres in the backyard of the museum.

“This region is part of Vidarbha which has faced severe rural distress. Most of the households we visit have a story to tell about suicides and farm crisis. If we do not wake up to the problem now, then when will we? This is exactly what Gandhi spoke about all his life," she said.

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