Written by Alex Michael Binoy
IN 1942, Mahatma Gandhi was under “house arrest” for 21 months in Aga Khan Palace, which has become a monument of national importance. But the palace was more than just a prison for Gandhi. It held a special place in his heart following two tragedies that happened while he was imprisoned there — the death of his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his secretary Mahadev Desai.
“This emotional connection of Gandhiji makes the palace significant in his life,” said Neelam Mahajan, a local guide of the Aga Khan Palace.
According to Mahajan, to understand the importance of the Aga Khan Palace, one must go back to 8 August, 1942. The India Congress committee had just launched the Quit India Movement, and Gandhiji addressed a huge gathering raising the slogan — ‘Do or Die’. The very next day, as Gandhiji finished his morning prayers, the police commissioner came with a warrant and arrested him as well as Kasturba Gandhi, Desai and also many other freedom fighters like Sarojini Naidu and Mirabehn.
“After the arrests, the freedom fighters were brought to Pune by a train. Some were kept in Yerwada Jail, some were confined to the court in Ahmednagar. On 10 August, 1942, Gandhiji along with his wife, secretary and some other freedom fighters were brought to the Aga Khan Palace and kept under house arrest for 21 months,”, said Mahajan.
Now, 76 years later, the palace itself is a memorial of Gandhi’s life. Each hall is filled with photos and items that Gandhiji and Kasturba Gandhi had used over the course of their life. One particular room depicts the principles Gandhi followed — Truth and non-violence with the help of statues of Lord Ram and Buddha and various paintings by renowned artists like SM Pandit, MR Acharekar, depicting Gandhi’s life and his philosophies and constructive work.
In the garden outside the palace, the samadhis of Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai are present, next to the memorial of Gandhi, where his ashes are kept. “In 1992, a freedom fighter named Jehangir Patel donated some of Gandhiji’s ashes after which the followers of Aga Khan in Pune donated to build the memorial. It was then inaugurated by the former governor of Maharashtra, C Subramaniam”, said Mahajan.
A room, which used to be the massage and steam bathroom of the then Aga Khan, has now been turned into a library. “There are various books on several topics, including non-violence and independence. Anyone can come in and read,” said Mahajan.
The palace was built in 1892 by Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III and had been later donated to India by Aga Khan IV in 1969. Before the palace was taken over by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the palace used to be a residential school from 1953 to 1972. And before that, it was used as a mess for Air Force officers during the World War 2.
Speaking about the difficulties faced for the maintenance of the palace, Mahajan said, “The Gandhi Smarak Nidhi took over the palace from the school, which ran the place and in 1980, the Gandhi society got registered. From then, the Gandhi society had been the caretaker of the place with the help of Maharashtra government for the physical maintenance. But we faced a lot of issues due to low availability of funds. That changed when the ex tourism minister Jagmohan visited the palace in 1 May 2003. He saw the bad condition the place was in and declared it a national heritage. After that, under the centrally protected monuments act, the palace was taken over by the central government.”