Haribhai Kuberbhai Chavda (59) recalls how his grandfather Govabhai moved from Than in Morbi to Sabarmati Ashram, then known as Satyagraha Ashram, in Ahmedabad in 1918, on a call from Mahatma Gandhi to make “ahimsa chappals” or sandals made from leather procured without hurting animals.
“In those days, it was simple. If someone like Gandhi wanted someone to join him, they would give up everything and do that without questioning. Gandhi called some five families. There was a gaushala with lot of cows. When the cows died, their skins would be used to make the leather. Our family was the only one involved in preparing and tanning the hide, while the other families used the hide to make shoes or other leather products. This was one-of-its-kind leather then,” says Chavda.
According to Haribhai, his father Kuberbhai joined his grandfather in the ahimsa chappal trade. But in 1952, after Gandhi’s assassination, the new arm of the ashram precincts — The Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, took over the operations and management of the Ashram’s Gaushala (cowshed) and activities that relied on the cowshed.
Haribhai shares the copy of a payslip given to Kuberbhai on a Ashram Gaushala’ letterhead, dated June 30, 1952, showing his salary as Rs 25 for the month. Haribhai who now works as a security guard with the Gujarat Tourism department, and his three sons who are drivers and a mechanics support the family of 14.
Ganeshbhai Somabhai Rathod, 56, says his grandfather Pemabhai moved to the Ashram from Dholka, on Gandhi’s insistence. By 1969, they along with the other families, stopped making the ahimsa chappals. He says, “They (Ashram Gaushala) told us that they cannot pay us anymore as they did not have the money.” Ganeshbhai’s father, Somabhai continued making the ahimsa chappals but selling them became a task without a single-point of demand and supply coordination, as had been the case until then. “By the time I was 12 years old, I was assisting my father in business. Income was sparse and I could study only till Class 5.”
His two sons — Naresh (27) and Rushik (32) — have switched to making souvenir charkhas, including the traditional ‘Mahatma’ box charkha. Naresh says, “We are the only ones to still make them. Of the five families, we managed to continue with Gandhi and his symbolism, till date. People make big promises but it is all lip-service. No one lives by his ideals anymore. It is an irony that the court rooms have Gandhi’s photo while they try to evict us, families whom Gandhi brought in himself.”
Amrabhai Hirabhai Rathod, as claimed by his deceased son’s widow, Parvatiben (70), was the only one on the trust’s permanent payroll, while the other four families were engaged with the trust until 1969 on a contract basis. “They were supposed to pay a gratuity of Rs 2,500 in 1968. But they never did,” says Parvatiben. She lives with her two sons — Dinesh (45) and Harish (40) — both of them autorickshaw mechanics.
Babubhai Thosar, who moved to the Ashram around 1934, also was involved in making ahimsa chappals. Of his five sons, four who are alive have moved out of the ashram precincts. Babubhai’s wife Parvatiben (80) says, “My grandson, Sonu, supports us (she and his mother) with his job as a videographer. My other sons live in Ghatlodia and they visit us at times.”
Galabben, 70, widow of Bechharbhai Ranchhodbhai, lives alone and survives on her widow pension of Rs 1,000 per month after her husband died in 1995. Sometimes, her sons provide financial support during their visits, she says. While her two sons and three daughters have moved out, she continues to live on the Ashram premises. She says her discordant relationship with her daughter-in-laws prevents her from moving in with her sons — one living in Vadodara and one in Ahmedabad. For few years after 1969, when the trust stopped supporting ahimsa chappal manufacturing, Bechharbhai tried to make them at home and sell on the streets. But subsequently he had to give it up and engage in casual labour work.
After several generations of the family who were born and brought up here and continued to stay here, the families say they’ve nowhere to go if evicted. “Our ancestors left their native places and we have nothing left there — no where to stay or no extended family to seek help from,” say Ganeshbhai and Haribhai.
The Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust presently chaired by Rajkot-based Devendrakumar Desai, whose land they occupy, first tried to evict the families from the premises in 1978 but a small cause court in Ahmedabad ruled in favour of the families. In 1998, the Gaushala Trust approached the city civil court, seeking the families’ eviction, challenging the earlier order of the small cause court. After pendency of more than 20 years, on March 1, 2019, the city civil court passed an order asking the families to vacate the premises. The families and legal heirs challenged the order in the Gujarat High Court the same month, represented by advocate Sunil Chhabaria, and were granted relief on August 29.
As stated in the sessions court order, the reason Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust called for eviction of these families was that “earlier non-violence sandals were made by the craftsmen under the governance and observance of the trust for which they were paid remuneration. They were permitted to carry out their work on the premises provided to the families. Since then, the work stopped and the premises handed over to the present residents’ predecessors, the current residents must (be) vacate(d).”
As was stated in the lower court’s order, it was also argued that no charge or rent was recovered from the now deceased occupants and neither was any rent or charge recovered from the present occupants as a result of which, the trust issued notices in 1978 to vacate the premises. Devendrakumar Desai, chairman of the Gaushala Trust, refused to comment on the matter citing that he was “unaware of the case”. Several other officials also opted not to comment as the matter was subjudice.
Some members who are involved with the Trust, on condition of anonymity, said that the families’ claim of being called as long ago as in 1918 or by Gandhi himself, are unfounded. “Let them show documented proof (that they came to the Ashram). The making of ahimsa chappals started only from 1941 and Gandhiji left the ashram by 1930. So there is no question of Gandhiji himself calling these families,” one of them said. One member also said that the families, despite not being involved in the occupation anymore, continue to avail of free accommodation. By 1969, the families stopped making the ahimsa chappals.
The petition challenging the eviction before the HC, argued that the Gaushala Trust could not have inducted the deceased members of the premises, since the right, title and occupation of the said premises were available with the deceased or their legal heirs, even prior to the formation and registration of the Gaushala Trust.
“We challenged the lower court’s order largely on the ground of the Limitation Act, 1963, which defines the law with respect to the specified time period within which one can exercise one’s rights. Under Section 65 of this Act, the statutory period of limitation that is allowed for the possession of immovable property is 12 years… that is, under the Limitation Act, there are provisions wherein claim to a property can be made within a specific period. One can’t come after 100 years, asking that the property be handed over to them,” said Chhabaria. The High Court cited the Limitation Act and the fact that the trial court passed the order ex parte (without hearing the affected persons) to stay the order.
The Sabarmati Ashram precincts, which was earlier called the Satyagraha Ashram, had 120 acres and 28 gunthas of land till 1951, that cover Ahmedabad and Kheda districts. Later it was divided into five trusts — The Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT) which has the Hriday Kunj the museum and is popularly known as the Sabarmati Ashram, The Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust which is managed by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and has land opposite the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad where the five families stay, and in Bidaj village of Kheda, The Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, and the Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti.
Ganeshbhai’s family shares a letter purportedly written by Gandhi in Gujarati to the then Harijan Sevak Sangh chief, Ghanshyamdas Birla, dated September 30, 1933, (as is also archived in English in the Maharashtra culture government website) that says, “As you are aware, the Satyagraha Ashram grounds with the buildings in Sabarmati were abandoned on the 1st of August last by the Ashram people. I had expected that the Government would, in view of my letter addressed to them, take charge of this abandoned property, but they did not do so. It then became a question with me as to what was my duty in the circumstances. I felt that it was wrong altogether to allow the valuable buildings to waste. I consulted friends and co-workers and came to the conclusion that the best use to make of the Ashram was to dedicate it once for all for the service of the Harijans. I placed my suggestion before the trustees of the Ashram and Ashramites who are away. They have, I am happy to say, wholeheartedly approved of it… Under the new proposal, the trustees divest themselves entirely of the property.”
The letter goes on to say how this procedure was permissible under the Trust deed, “…service of the Harijans being one of the objects of the trust”, and the proposal was wholly in keeping with the letter and spirit of the constitution of the Ashram and the trust.
To the question on who should the property be transferred to, it was unanimously concluded that it go to the Akhil Bharat Harijan Sevak Sangh for all-India use.
According to the letter, “The objects of the Trust are: (i) to settle on the Ashram ground approved Harijan families subject to regulations to be framed; (ii) to open a hostel for Harijan boys and girls with liberty to take non-Harijans; (iii) to conduct a technological department for teaching the art of skinning carcasses, tanning the hide so obtained, curing it and manufacturing leather so prepared into shoes, sandals and other articles of daily use; and lastly to use the premises as offices for the Central Board or the Gujarat provincial organisation or both, and such other allied uses that the committee, referred to in the following paragraph, may think proper”.
The letter notes , “…Some Harijan families, as you are aware, are already living there. It has long been a dream of the members of the ashram to establish a colony of Harijan families, but beyond having a few of them we were not able to make further progress. Experiments in tanning were also conducted there. Manufacture of sandals was going on up to the time of disbandment…The property contains 100 acres… the site is none too large for the fulfilment of the objects mentioned, but it is large enough for the response that may be reasonably expected for some time to come. I hope that the society will have no objection to accept the offer of the trustees and to take over the responsibility implied in the acceptance.”
While Gandhi’s dream of total upliftment of the “untouchables” is yet to be attained, the families say they are now struggling to make ends meet.