Marking Sabarmati's centenary
How Sabarmati Ashram evolved to become a guiding light of India’s freedom struggle, is a story that deserves to be known and shared.
Born in 1869, Gandhi had left the shores of India for London, in 1888. Minor interludes notwithstanding, he mostly stayed away, primarily in South Africa, to eventually return to India in January 1915. He was forty-five then, and had spent more than twenty-five years overseas. Rightly so, Gopal Krishan Gokhale, had advised Gandhi to desist from taking questions on India before acquainting himself with his own country. Gandhi had followed Gokhale to India. From Cape Town, Gandhi came to London in transit, where he fell ill, and had to extend his stay. His relatives and colleagues from Phoenix settlement, his advance party to India, had already arrived and were put up at Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan, in Bengal.
Tagore agreed to bear their expenses. Gandhi and Kasturba arrived in Shantiniketan on February 17 1915, and were accorded a warm public reception. Gandhi set about introducing changes in the everyday routine of Shantiniketan, allowed by Tagore, who conveniently removed himself from the scene. The servants and kitchen staff too withdrew from the manual task. But these changes could not sustain. The austerity introduced by Gandhi left little time for the inmates to pursue literary and extracurricular interests. Gandhi soon realised that Shantiniketan could not become another Phoenix.
The death of Gokhale in 1915 forced Gandhi to move out of Shantiniketan. Gokhale had wanted Gandhi to join his 'Servants of India Society'. He was supportive of Gandhi's idea of a community living on the pattern of Phoenix. However, with Gokhale gone, Gandhi could no longer expect to receive funds from the 'Servants of India Society'. Gandhi was not quite appreciative of the work being done by the Society, and felt that he would become "a disturbing factor" if he took its membership.
He, thereafter, withdrew his application to join the Society. Honouring Gokhale's desire, Gandhi did of course set about touring India immediately. After his Calcutta and Burma visit, he participated in the Kumbh Mela organized at Haridwar, where the Phoenix party had been requested to assist the organisers. Their past experience ensured that the work of scavenging became the party's special function. But Haridwar left Gandhi unimpressed. His experience there helped him decide where he should live and what he should do. He realised the necessity of establishing a permanent settlement which gave a practical vent to his ideas.
The first site of Ashram was Kochrab, founded on May 25, 1915. Jivanlal Desai, a barrister in Ahmedabad offered to let his bungalow to Gandhi's party of 35. An important issue was to settle the name of the ashram. Among the names suggested were Seva Ashram, Seva Mandir and Tapovan. Gandhi initially liked 'Seva Ashram' but then thought otherwise. Taking on the name of Tapovan would make them all 'Tapasvees'. He finally settled on 'Satyagraha Ashram' for it aptly conveyed his goal and method of service.
To regulate the conduct of ashram, Gandhi decided to formulate rules. This was promptly printed and circulated. At Kochrab, there were no servants and members were expected to follow a strict regime of vegetarian food, manual labour, social service, celibacy and prayer. At Gandhi's behest, the ashram inmates took vows which amounted to a demanding code of asceticism. Far from being an expression of Hindu orthodoxy, they challenged the basic tenets of caste ideology. No caste distinctions were to be tolerated.
The issue that generated great controversy was the admittance of an untouchable family into the ashram. Gandhi took in a Gujarati Dhed family at Kochrab, posing a direct challenge to Hindu orthodoxy. This issue afforded Gandhi an opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of satyagraha. When supporters who had provided monetary assistance withdrew in protest, Gandhi threatened to shift the ashram to where the untouchables lived. The financial situation of the ashram improved unexpectedly when Gandhi received a donation from a wealthy textile magnet, Ambalal Sarabhai, who subsequently became his friend and a generous supporter.
Plague broke out around Kochrab, and Gandhi found himself unable to ensure the well-being of the children. With the assistance of a merchant, an alternative site was found, approximately three miles from Kochrab, on the banks of Sabarmati. As jail going was an expected outcome of satyagraha, Gandhi thought that the choice of site in the vicinity of the jail was most appropriate. The area, was comparatively cleaner and the open grounds provided place for construction of simple buildings by the party, which now numbered 40.
The responsibility of setting up and constructing the new ashram fell on Maganlal, Gandhi's nephew, who played a vital role in managing the ashram. The early phase of Sabarmati ashram is reminiscent of hardships associated with the establishment of Phoenix and Tolstoy farm. Simple structures of mud, bricks, tiles and wood painted with coal tar were erected, including a school building, a dining hall, kitchen, library and a room in which handlooms were installed. Initially Gandhi lived in the room with the looms but later shifted to Hridya Kunj, adjacent to the river bank.
In 1926, Gandhi decided to retire from public life for one year to attend to the affairs of the ashram. It was the longest period he would stay at Sabarmati. He decided to register the ashram as a trust and transfer the management to a committee, significantly reducing Maganlal Gandhi's workload. Unfortunately, Maganlal died in April 1928. His death was a crushing blow to Gandhi which also brought down the standards within the ashram.
There was high incidence of rule violation in the ashram. Vows pertaining to observances such as non-stealing, non-possession and control of palate were frequently broken. Gandhi insisted that all members of the ashram, young and old, married and unmarried, observe 'brahmacharya'. This aroused great controversy. Gandhi failed to foresee that many of his followers were either unprepared or unsuited for the arduous discipline and observing absolute vows. Violation of the vows of the 'brahmacharya' was a common problem.
The only alternative to avoiding a public scandal was to arrange marriage for offenders. Chhaganlal Gandhi, his cousin was once found guilty of petty larcenies. Once Kasturba, it was learnt, had retained a number of cash gifts over the years for her personal use, which under the rules of the ashram amounted to theft. Another incident was the seduction of a widow by a young man in the ashram. Gandhi decided to reveal these incidents to public.
Workers of Sabarmati had taken part in campaigns such as Champaran, Ahmedabad Mill Strike and Kheda. During the Dandi March, 78 men from the ashram were given the opportunity to prove their worth towards the cause of swaraj. On March 12 1930, they formed a column inside the ashram and began their walk towards Dandi. The twenty-four day march was a triumph for Gandhi's grassroots activism. About the ashram contribution, Gandhi wrote to one of the women ashramite, "How fortunate you are. You got beaten and also awarded jail sentence. All of you at the ashram have brought glory to womanhood."
The population of ashram considerably diminished by 1932; though the ultimate closure was primarily due to internal problems. In July 1932, Gandhi claimed that the government was planning to take possession of Sabarmati since the ashram had refused to pay revenues.
In a letter to the government he suggested that the home secretary take possession of the land and buildings. But the government did not respond to his offer. After consulting his close colleagues and worthy benefactors, he decided that the ashram be converted permanently into a colony for Harijans. Sabarmati never really regained its dynamism and nor was its role as an ashram revived. Several Harijan families came to live there along with a number of non-Harijans.
Today, the Ashram stands as a monument to Gandhi's life mission. To commemorate the centenary, the National Archives of India is mounting an exhibition of rare archival material and photographs connected with the life of ashramites. The month long exhibition will be open to the public of Ahmedabad from June 30.
(Raghvendra Singh is Director-General, National Archives of India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)