Mahendra Vyas, 73, remembers the communal riots of 1969 that forced several Muslim residents of Satyagraha Ashram to move out to minority-dominated areas. “A pregnant Muslim girl and her mother stayed back because of the girl’s fragile health. Some rioters came looking for them, but I kept them in my house for 18 days without anyone knowing,” says Vyas.
In July, Vyas, whose house is barely 200 metres from the place now famous as Sabarmati Ashram — once a part of the original Satyagraha Ashram — moved out, taking a compensation of Rs 60 lakh and with that, memories of a lifetime.
Now, as part of the Rs 1,200 crore Gandhi Ashram Redevelopment project — which proposes to reclaim the area that was the Satyagraha ashram of the 1950s and turn it into a “world-class” memorial — those living in tenements on the premises will move out and be owners of new properties under a settlement plan worked out by the Gujarat government. So far, 80 of the 263 families have taken the compensation amount. Nearly Rs 300 crore has been allocated for building a satellite campus to build homes for ashramwasis — as generations of those living in the tenements are called — who don’t want the compensation but want to live close to the ashram.
The present-day ashramwasis are descendants of the people who were brought to the Harijan Ashram that Mahatma Gandhi established on the banks of the Sabarmati river in 1917, to do various tasks and help run the ashram.
The homes in the ashram, originally plastered with lime and with tiled roofs, and categorised as chh ordi (a cluster of six houses or rooms), saat ordi and dus ordi, turned into colonies such as Shikshak Niwas, Jamna Kutir, Laal Bungalow and Thakor Vaas, among others.
Born the year the Mahatma was assassinated, Vyas remembers a childhood spent in the company of people who worked on one of the most audacious projects — a non-violent battle against a colonial power.
“In the ashram, we had to spin and weave our own khadi and grow vegetables in the front yard. During my younger days, there were 10 community toilets in the ashram colony where we would queue up. And there was a water tap near Hriday Kunj where we would get water for household use. To wash utensils and clothes, women used to go on the banks of Sabarmati river,” says Vyas, who has now bought a flat for Rs 71 lakh in Gota, an Ahmedabad suburb where his son runs a dairy parlour.
Amrut Modi, 88, Secretary of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT), one of the six trusts that manages the land here, has been living in the ashram since 1955. Originally an employee of the then State of Saurashtra, Modi was drawn to the ashram after attending a seven-day workshop by social reformer and Gandhian Dada Dharmadhikari.
Modi, who is working on a book on the ashram and its history, says, “Initially, there were no houses on the ashram premises. Close associates of Gandhi like Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Mahadev Desai, Narhari Parikh etc. used to stay in tents. One of the first buildings to come up here was Udyog Bhavan, which Gandhi got built and where activities related to khadi were carried out.”
“After that, around 1919, work on the ashram tenements began, for which Gandhi got funds from his old friend Pranjivan Mehta, a Rangoon-based jeweller. The work went on for around three years,” he says, adding that the construction was done under the supervision of Gandhi’s nephew Maganlal Gandhi.
During Gandhi’s days at the Sabarmati Ashram, there were around 450 people from 14 different regions of the country — besides four families from Nepal — living there.
Vyas says the average height of the original houses was around 12-15 feet. With ownership of the tenements with the respective trusts, the ashramwasis pay a nominal rent and seek permission from the trust to carry out maintenance and other repair work. Over time, the kuchcha roads inside the premises were laid with concrete.
Like Vyas’s family, the Parmars, originally from Gujarvadi village in Surendranagar, too, are packing up and will soon relocate to Chandkheda, another Ahmedabad suburb.
Bhikhabhai Parmar, 55, has got a cheque of Rs 40 lakh as compensation and will get the remaining Rs 20 lakh at the time of handing over the ashram house to the Ahmedabad collectorate. Bhikhabhai’s wife Savitaben says, “We are sad to leave. We spent all our youth here. But the government has a project, so we have agreed to move.”