The Sabarmati Ashram situated on the banks of river Sabarmati was home to Mahatma Gandhi from 1917 to 1930 and served as one of the main centres of the Indian freedom struggle. It was from here on March 12, 1930 that Gandhiji launched the famous Dandi march. He vowed that he would not return to the Ashram until India won independence. India did win independence and was declared a free nation on 15 August 1947, but before he could return to the ashram, he was assassinated in January 1948.
India is a home to many buildings of stark political and symbolic importance. We have the Red Fort, the Ashoka Pillar, the Parliament Building, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, all grand buildings, symbols of our political power and pride. However, one building stands apart and tallest amongst these – the Sabarmati Ashram– house to Father of our nation during the crucial years of the freedom struggle. Just a simple structure with red tiled roof, few windows and a large front verandah on the river bank, not a grand palace not a fortress, the Sabarmati Ashram was a small house of a very big man. Not only a shelter and a political space where all the strategies and movements to counter the mighty British rule was planned during the freedom struggle but it was also a place where the Mahatma dreamt of a pure India liberated from the evils of untouchability, inequality and societal divides. At a time when the world was witnessing violent warfare and armed revolutions, Bapu started a mass movement for freedom from the British colonial rule through non-violent means, termed as Satyagrah and ultimately got freedom for India.
The reason the Sabarmati Ashram is so very important is because of the person who lived in it and the role the ashram played in the nation’s life during his residency. The greatest leader the world has seen till date and probably will ever see lived a very humble life. For example when leaders of pre-independence India visited the Mahatma at the Ashram, they sat on the ground with their legs crossed rather than at an oval conference table with high chairs. The humble lifestyle of the Mahatma showed a model way of life for a young country striving for independence. Satya and Ahimsa were his ideals. He wished to free the country of firstly the ills that plagued the Indian society specially the practice of untouchability that had deep roots in the Indian psyche and secondly the strong notions of inequality which governed the society.
The world sees the Ashram as a representative of the historical significance and non-violent means of mass scale civil agitation against the oppressive British rule where the political movement of Satyagrah was waged, which made India a role model for others to follow. It serves as a source of inspiration and guidance, and stands as a monument to Gandhi’s life mission and a testimony to others who have fought a similar struggle. Over the years, the Ashram has become home to the ideology that set India free and has inspired nations and people in their own battles against oppressive forces.
Today the Ashram lives on but what it sees around is a nation caught in a complex labyrinth of social evils, economic disparities and vested political interests that have succeeded in pushing the ideals of the Mahatma on the backseat. Not only Gujarat but the whole country suddenly finds itself in a situation of strange unrest with rise in social and economic inequalities, caste hierarchy, all kinds of violence instilling insecurity in the minds of people and increasing religious divide disrupting the very social fabric of India. Suddenly India looks like it is on a path of baffling and unstoppable social chaos.
The very dalits whom Gandhiji wanted to be treated as equal human beings became lesser mortals with caste equations ruling both the societal and political spheres. With the dalits of Una village in Gujarat being flogged in public and the ruling dispensation unable to give them their rights or security, the dalits are pushed to the margins more than ever. The practice of untouchability is still very common in Gujarat. In rural areas, Dalits are often not allowed to engage in cultural and social activities with the rest of the community, including entering temples, taking part in religious programs, eating with the rest of the community during village ceremonies and using the same wells. They hardly have equal opportunities for upward mobility and hence remain economically backward. Last August, as the Dalit Asmita Yatra made its way from Ahmedabad to Una, amidst shouts of “Inquilab zindabad,” they demanded land, and their rights to be recognized. One saw a different kind of Inquilab in a free India, free of the British but still in the shackles of caste oppression.
On the other hand a socially and economically powerful community, the upper caste Patidar community demanding reservation quota through their numerous agitations for the last two years, gives rise to a thoroughly new speculation of reservation, caste system, and vote bank politics that will impact the coming State assembly elections.
Gujarat, also the birthplace of the Mahatma, has seen the abuse of religion for political ends which has resulted in the worst carnage against a religious minority post-independence. In the past several riots have rocked the State with communal violence involving massacre, arson and looting on a large-scale resulting in sharp Hindu –Muslim polarization. While the Mahatma had “ahimsa”, i.e. non-violence as a tool against the powerful British, violence often became an electoral incentive if past studies and reports are to be relied on. Following the ideals of the Mahatma often seems to be impossible and only lip service given the domination of electoral arithmetic in the political economy of the country.
The Ashram lives on today. The isolated house has had a city grown around it. The waters of the river polluted, clouds of smoke in the air, ugly blocks of concrete growing all around like an infection, somehow quite rightfully illustrating our mindless, chaotic, struggles in the contemporary times. The Ashram sees the development around it but fails to feel the growth. Fails to understand why the inequality in India still persists and more so than ever, why there are violent incidents and restrictions on human beings. However, it still preserves the dream that India will eventually live up to and is waiting to see the country free of all kinds of senseless and insensitive oppressions on its own people.
In times of turbulence or unrest when not so often the civil society raises its voice against the atrocities by holding protests and sitting on dharnas outside the Sabarmati Ashram, the world gets a glimpse of the reminiscences of Gandhi’s freedom struggle in the form of demonstrations, protests, marches and boycotts which formed the core of the political satyagrah movement for freedom in India. But it is only a look alike of the yester times—there is hardly the fire, the will or the respect for the very cause of these collective actions. The conscience seems to have become slightly dormant, the inner voice seems to be fading and the will to dream is slowly losing its life. But the Ashram reminds us to be hopeful and optimistic. It tells us to not thwart the vision of the Mahatma even in the face of immense adversity. The Ashram embodies the true memory of Gandhi, his pure truth and his utmost humility as his way of life. The Ashram still personifies the ideals of truth and humility of a man who once lived there and lived for a nation and died for a nation. A man who wanted these high ideals to be held high always by a nation so great as India.
The Ashram tells us about one man’s dedication, determination and ideals but also reminds us of the road we still need to traverse in order to realise Gandhiji’s dream of an India free from injustice.
On its 100th birthday, the Ashram had a wish–“We need Gandhiji more than ever”. It muses “How long will I have to wait to see his dreams fulfilled, an India with equality and equal opportunities for all?”