Sabarmati Ashram. (Mint)
Sabarmati Ashram. (Mint)

Inconvenient truth: How Gujarat forgot Gandhi

  • Ahmedabad’s memories of Gandhi are marked by a blind memorializing, while choosing to forget the tension that defined the relationship
  • Despite Gandhi’s project of collective non-violence, Ahmedabad regularly turns against itself in an orgy of violence

AHMEDABAD: He left, never to return. This turning away from the city of Ahmedabad was definitive. His last day in Ahmedabad was on 2 November, 1936.

On 31 October that year, he had presided over the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, a body that formally came into existence in 1905. It had required strenuous persuasion for Gandhi to assent to be the president of the parishad’s 12th session. In 1925, he had resolutely declined to accept the same responsibility. Neither the literary figures nor the wealthy merchant capitalists who had gathered at the Parishad were oblivious to the fact that, in 1917, Gandhi had been frustrated in his attempt to be chosen as the president of the Parishad. The literary classes of Gujarat had preferred an officer of the Baroda State, Hargovinddas Kantawala, to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. By 1936, the Parishad was somewhat, just somewhat, embarrassed by its earlier choice. One way to deal with embarrassment is forgetting, or as French writer Milan Kundera would say: laughter and forgetting. This episode is not mentioned in the history of Gujarati Literature, where the period from 1915 until independence is called the Gandhi Yug—the age of Gandhi.

That troublesome anecdote also informs Ahmedabad’s own relationship with Gandhi. Its memories of the man are marked by a blind memorializing, while, at the same time, choosing to forget the tension that defined the relationship.

Lessons in Ahimsa

Sometime between 25th and 30th September of 1928, in the presence of Gandhi, and at his instance, a doctor administered a quietus by means of a poison injection to a terminally-ill calf at the Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad. Gandhi, borrowing a line from the eighteenth century Gujarati poet Pritam, wrote a confession in the Navajivan titled Pavak Ni Jwala which Pyarelal translated in Young India as Fiery Ordeal. Gandhi described the condition of the calf. It had been maimed and lay in agony for days. The surgeon who treated it declared that the condition was past any hope. Whatever care, nursing, and treatment could be provided was given to the calf. The suffering was so great, Gandhi narrated, that it could not even be turned to its side without excruciating pain. “In these circumstances, I felt that humanity demanded that the agony should be ended by ending life itself." The term “humanity" seeks to render two terms far more significant than their English rendering. In the Gujarati original, he had used “dharma" and “ahimsa". This confession and his insistence that his act should be perceived as pure ahimsa perturbed many. He received many angry and hurt letters which poured upon him “the lava of their unmeasured and acrimonious criticism".

Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.
Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.

One of Gandhi’s lifelong endeavours was to establish ahimsa as a principle that ought to govern personal life as well as political mobilization. Ahmedabad with its deep and abiding Jain heritage was usually perceptive to the demands that Gandhi’s notions of dharma as rightful conduct was making from the city. His own vegetarianism, his sparse personal life resonated with these ethos. And yet, during his own lifetime, and certainly thereafter, the project of collective non-violence seems to have become ever more recessive within the rubric of inter-community relationships. The city, with unnerving regularity, turns against itself in an orgy of violence, making the cleavages between religious communities and castes deeper and increasingly insurmountable. And yet, at the time of such crises, the city does turn to Gandhi (although not to his institutions) to find a balm to heal its gashing wounds.

If Gandhi’s experiment with ahimsa remains incomplete, his experiment with making the ashram a space where all communities and castes could live together as equal, while doing bodily work, was challenged at the very inception. What Ahmedabad would like to forget is that when the first Dalit family of Dudabhai, Danibehn and their (soon to be Kasturba and Gandhi’s) little daughter Lakshmi came to live in the Satyagraha Ashram at Kochrab, the neighbours of the ashram community, several members of the ashram, and the merchant-capitalists of Ahmedabad turned their backs on Gandhi, leading to a financial crisis. Gandhi had seriously considered shifting the nascent ashram to the scavenger’s quarters.

The fact that a crisis was averted back then is also a mark of Ahmedabad’s character. Ambalal Sarabhai gifted 13,000 and averted the crisis. And this gift was meant to remain undisclosed, since neither Gandhi nor Ambalal Sarabhai—both fastidious keepers of account books—record this in their respective accounts.

We also quite often forget to reflect upon the significance of the site where Gandhi chose to shift his ashram. He, of course, spoke of its proximity to the prison and the ashrams of the ancient sages. What we do not wish to be reminded of, though it’s impossible not to notice, is that the ashram lands are contiguous with crematoriums. He and the ashram inhabited, symbolically, one of the most “impure" of spaces, and turned it into a space for creativity, ethical action, and experiments in selfhood and collective equality.

Remnants of Gandhi’s touch

Another landmark and symbolic decision was Gandhi’s intervention in the textile labour strike of 1918 and his sudden, coercive fast was to have a long-lasting impact on the nature of the capital-labour relationship—not only in Ahmedabad but in Gujarat. It led to the creation of Majoor Mahajan Mandal, a permanent body that sought to advance the cause of labour through a process of dialogue, arbitration, and conciliation. If this made possible long periods of a relatively strifeless relationship between labour and capital, it also closed a possibility. Gujarat, one of the highly industrialized states in the country, has only a marginal presence of the Left—both as a strain of politics and as an intellectual/ideological orientation.

The 4-km wall in the neighbourhood of Juhapura that divides Hindu and Muslim areas.
The 4-km wall in the neighbourhood of Juhapura that divides Hindu and Muslim areas.

Gandhi also personally established a university in the city—the Gujarat Vidyapith. The university was not only a centre for training in Satyagraha and constructive work, but it also housed one of the first major centres for Indology—for the study of comparative religions, languages and literature, and archaeology. The university was meant to create “swaraj in ideas". The university and the ashram, together, created a distinct intellectual and philosophical tradition. The significance of this tradition— now frayed and barely remembered—in a city that prefers the “applied" nature of knowledge should not be underestimated. The city today has one of the finest ecologies of higher education and high science institutions in the country (with the IIM, the National Institute of Design, CEPT University, Isro, the Physical Research Laboratory, and the Institute of Plasma Research) but only a feeble social science imagination.

The frailty of this intellectual discourse in contemporary times has a direct relationship with the decline of the ashram/vidyapith imagination. That intellectual tradition had shown deep vitality, engaging with religious traditions, with political economy, with notions of equality and equability, with both collective and personal freedom, with literature and innovations in appropriate technology. This tradition today is not even a historical memory, and institutions that he established don’t bear the burden of this legacy. Ritualized invocations of the man, or his favourite bhajans, or disciplined and disciplinary acts of spinning bereft of the music of the spinning wheel, can hardly substitute for a rigorous engagement with the world of ideas.

Gandhi described himself, not always but often enough, as a weaver and a farmer. He meant this literally, not metaphorically or allegorically. The world of his material engagement was vast. He worked with leather (something that he learned from the Trappist monks), with wood and carpentry, with dyes, with brick and sand and clay. He designed and built homes and fabricated charkhas; knew how to run the treadle of a printing press; he was an expert on waste—both human and bovine. The city of Ahmedabad has embraced this “bricolage" by creating two of the country’s finest institutions of design and architecture in the NID and the CEPT.

Gandhi shaped, or at least sought to shape the modern Gujarati aesthetic. In 1928, Gandhi tasked the Gujarat Vidyapith under the leadership of Kakasaheb Kalelkar—a native speaker of Marathi—to prepare a Jodani Kosha, a dictionary of orthography. By creating and adopting—somewhat unilaterally—rules of grammar and orthography, Gandhi hoped to save Gujarati from anarchy and disfigurement.

In the 12th session of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad in 1936, Gandhi spoke of the “miserable affair" that our literature and arts were, and spoke of Dean Farrar’s Life of Christ (a 474-page prose work) as an example of ideal “poetry" that he could confidently place in the hands of his peasant neighbours. Gandhi probably brought up Life of Christ to remind Ahmedabad and also his Gujarat Vidyapith of one of the most hurtful experiences that he had. In 1926, as he dwelled within the ashram writing his autobiography (The Story of My Experiments in Truth) in Gujarati, Gandhi had accepted the request of the students of the Gujarat Vidyapith to teach them the Bible, more specifically the New Testament, every Saturday. But as soon as Gandhi began teaching, he was taken to task for disrespecting “our literature"; of being Christian in secret; and of attempting to convert the students to Christianity. The lectures could not take place despite Gandhi’s public response refuting the charges against him. This one singular act robbed the Gujarati intellectual tradition of his reading of the Bible, comparable in importance to his lectures on the Gita, which he gave during the same year.

A city for the public

One of the great gifts of Gandhi to the city was the imagination of the public sphere. The primary imperative for such a space is that it has to be a space of equality. The public sphere, by its very nature, has to be an equal space, an ethical space, a just space. And Gandhi would add two more imperatives—it has to be a virtuous space and a non-violent space.

But the public sphere is not just a well-defined, bounded space, with or without structures. Public sphere is also an imagination, a possibility, and an aspiration. Thus any space, literally any space, including a prison, could become a public sphere. Public sphere is composed of individuals as political subjects, and it is this human subjectivity that informs the nature of the public sphere. Hence, cultivation of a public sphere is, in essence, a cultivation of our subjectivities. Gandhi’s Ashrams were founded in the belief and hope that it is possible to create and foster human subjectivity that recognizes the fundamental equality of all human beings and, possibly, all life forms. The public sphere, if it wishes to be equal, has to be non-rapacious, non-injurious, and opposed to the vivisection of humans and other life forms.

What we hold dear in the city, the institutions that we are proud of, are all creations of an idea of trusteeship that is fundamental to the creation of the public sphere, as public institutions are fundamental to any idea of citizenship. The CEPT, the NID, the Ahmedabad Education Society, the L D Institute of Indology, the IIM, ATIRA and even Sabarmati Ashram and the Gujarat Vidyapith are creations of an idea and practice of trusteeship that is unique to this city, as no other city in modern India has created such a diverse range of institutions based on the simple commitment of public institutions.

In a year which marks the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth, many of the institutions that he established are also celebrating—or will do soon—their centenaries. Between ritualized remembrance and memorialization, these institutions search—not vigorously—for a new purpose. They perhaps know that khadi—the livery of freedom—has also become an instrument of exclusion and insult; that self-volition is subject to subsidy. Ahmedabad remains a city which has a great capacity to laugh and forget, perhaps best illustrated by autorickshaw drivers who faithfully take a young legal scholar, wanting to visit Bapu’s ashram, to Asaram Bapu’s ashram.

The concept of an ashram, with all its limitations and quirks (do not forget that Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai called it a menagerie), was one of modern India’s greatest experiments in fostering equality. In principle and in practice, it excluded no one; recognized no boundaries of caste, religion, and gender; all residents eschewed private wealth and personal inheritance; and each person performed bodily labour. Gandhi’s ashram was a microcosm of the public sphere he desired. Yet, the ashram and related institutions had a calling that was different from that of the city, and this autonomy was crucial to fulfilling its purpose without being mired in the everydayness of the industrial city.

Tridip Suhrud is a Gandhian scholar. He recently published a critical edition of Gandhi’s autobiography.

To mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Mint is running a year-long series on the life, times and relevance of Gandhi in the great Indian dream.