Thoughts of the ‘chatur bania’, at Sabarmati ashram

Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram on the Sabarmati river has been witness to a hundred years of change and progression, even if some other political forces want to shape it in their own image.

Written by Leena Misra | Ahmedabad | Published:June 14, 2017 4:44 pm
mahatma gandhi, chatur baniya, chatur baniya gandhi, sabarmati ashram, amit shah, jawaharlal nehru, gandhi caste, gandhi ashram Visitors in front of Hriday Kunj where Mahatma Gandhi lived at Sabarmati Ashram.
(Express Photo by Javed Raja)

A monthly magazine published by the Gujarat Sahitya Academy,  Shabdashrusti, in its May edition published an interview with the well-known Gujarati writer Bhagwatikumar Sharma, who is based in Surat.

The novelist, who was decorated by a Gujarat Sahitya Academy award in the 1980s, was once asked whether he had ever met Mahatma Gandhi. Sharma ji replied in the negative, adding that he believed that he “took good care of his Muslim brethren better than his Hindu ones”.

Sharma ji cited the example of the wedding of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira, with Feroze Gandhi and how Jawaharlal Nehru was against the marriage. How the “case went before Gandhi” who said that if Feroze took his surname, he would agree to the wedding.

“Thus Feroze Khan became Feroze Gandhi and since then we know of the Gandhi dynasty,” Sharma is quoted as saying in the interview.

That’s how a completely fictitious version of the Indira-Feroze love marriage, so far confined to handbills of a Hindutva campaign, was given credence and mainstreamed by a literary organization supported by the Gujarat government — a government which still hasn’t regretted the description of Jesus Christ in its Class IX Hindi language textbook as a “demon.”

This, selfsame government continues to chant ‘Sabka saath, Sabka vikaas’, but even a political leader as big as BJP president Amit Shah would rather identify Mahatma Gandhi not by the history he wrote but by his caste.

Those who like to call Gandhi a ‘chatur baniya’ have never probably walked through the  “My life is My Message” gallery of the Sabarmati Ashram, where a letter Gandhi once wrote to one Chhaganlal, is displayed. The letter is about whether profits should be made on the sale of khadi or not.

In the letter, Gandhi says that the fruits of labour should not be distributed completely free, but should not be used for profit either. “When we are propagating a new thing, how can we take a profit?” Gandhi argues, but settles for giving a five per cent profit to the swadeshi stores, “to satisfy them”.

Another wall in the ashram displays a letter addressed to Gandhiji in the following words : ‘Mahatma Gandhi, jahan ho wahan , Wardha’. Mahatma Gandhi, Wherever he is. Wardha. The letter is marked ‘Express Delivery’ . Other letters call him, “Your Excellency, the Supreme President of the Indian National Congress”, and so on.

As the Sabarmati Ashram turns a century old on June 17, it is worthwhile to look at the stories which emerged from it – including Gandhi’s unpopular decision at the time forcing ashramites to end untouchability.

Come and see young boys and girls listening to music, work on their laptops, study for exams, or take a nap on the stone benches in the airy memorial museum built by Charles Correa. Or eat their lunch from tiny steel boxes, feed the squirrels and mynahs on the river bank, stroll through Hriday Kunj, try their hands at spinning, and even solemnize relationships at the ancient Shiva temple that stands on the river near the Maganlal ni haveli, a 200-year-old structure that once belonged to a high-caste Nagar Brahmin family.

A few yards from the haveli, a few men take a nap on the Sabarmati ashram guest house. The plaque outside says this place once played host to Deenbandhu Andrews (C F Andrews), Badshah Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji. It was here that Kasturba Gandhi ensured Rajaji got his coffee and Nehru his ‘special tea’ in the morning.

It is heartening to see that ‘Manav Sadhna,’ an NGO which rents part of the guest-house, is hosting an “Iftari” for children next week.

The Sabarmati ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in front of me, was the crucible of the independence movement, giving rise to the freedoms that we take for granted in India today – like the freedom of movement, free thinking, free catnapping, and freely watching the river and the world go by.

It has certainly been witness to a century of changes. I can’t help noticing that today, there is even free Wifi.

Leena Mishra is the Resident Editor of the Indian Express edition in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
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