The Naamghar, located on a leafy lane of the Sabaibandha locality in Upper Assam’s Jorhat town, is smaller than most. That it’s special — historical even — is a little-known tale, an episode often forgotten. But those who know, know.
On April 18, 1934, the Naamghar (one of the many worship halls that dot Assam) became the site of an epochal moment in Indian history, when its doors were thrown open to Harijans by Mahatma Gandhi. By his side was the freedom fighter whose family owned the small Naamghar: a Brahmin named Krishna Nath Sharma. Their landmark move that day meant Krishna Nath Sharma and his family were ostracised for nearly a decade.
“It’s a story well-known in Jorhat, through it might not be in Assam. How sweepers, jamadaars and the like were invited to eat and pray inside the Naamghar — a move that upset so many. The Sharma family was orthodox Brahmin and Jorhat was — and still is — a Brahmin-dominated town,” says Dr Debobrat Sarma, Principal of Jorhat College. “What Krishna Nath Sharma did was brave. He was a courageous man.”
Sharma, a former lawyer, is today remembered as Assam’s Mahatma Gandhi, a man who immersed himself in the freedom struggle and the Gandhian way of life: whether it was his contribution in fighting Opium addiction, his promotion of Khadi, his work with the Harijans or his crucial role in organising the first and only session of the Indian National Congress in Assam’s Pandu in 1926.
“In the years leading up to Independence, our house was always full of people, full of activity,” remembers 80-year-old Apurba Sharma, his son who now lives in Guwahati.
Though Apurba was born in 1940, he heard of the many stories of how his family was ostracised after the April 1934 incident. “If my parents were called for weddings, guests would leave immediately on seeing them. If my mother went to a temple, other women would leave once they saw her,” says Apurba.
However, his father and his mother, Swarnalata Devi, steadfastly worked towards spreading Gandhian philosophy, despite all odds.
In the early 1930s, after the Civil Disobedience Movement, Gandhi took up an anti-untouchability campaign across India. “Gandhi’s campaign formally began on the 7th of November 1933, when, at a village near Wardha named Selu, he opened a temple to ‘untouchables’” writes Ramachandra Guha in his book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. When Sharma heard of Gandhi’s tour, he immediately invited him to ceremonially ‘open’ out his Naamghar in Assam.
“My grandmother told me that thousands had gathered to see Gandhi on his trip to Jorhat in 1934,” recalls Sharma’s granddaughter, Rajalakshmi Sharma Goswami, who is a writer based in Jorhat. “But many people were unhappy too, which was evident when the crowd thinned during the ceremonial opening of the shrine. Prasad was distributed to everyone assembled there.”
From the day, a black and white photograph of Gandhi, Sharma and the crowd in front of the Naamghar is kept framed in the Guwahati house of his son, Apurba. “One of my uncles had a Kodak camera. That is the only reason we have this today — otherwise it would have been forgotten,” he says.
While there is not even a physical sign that commemorates the small Naamghar’s landmark past, Apurba’s home is full of newspaper articles, diary entries and old letters documenting those times — the life his father led and the major role Gandhi played in it.
According to a newspaper clipping, Gandhi had summed up events of the day in Sharma’s Naamghar thus: “The unique private temple entry movement of Krishnanath Sharma will lead the rest of India to remove social evils, distinction between man and man. Untouchability is a great sin and a curse to the Hindu Samaj. Valiant soldiers like Krishnanath Sharma never care to face any odds. I am sure this movement will come out successful, give ample fruits to enjoy full rights and privileges, freedom of the children of the soil.”
Avinibesh Sharma who runs Vintage Assam, a website dedicated to digitising facets of Assam’s history, says: “Another temple in Dohabora Chuk in Jorhat also opened its doors to the ‘Harijans’ during that same trip Mahatma Gandhi made in April 1934. But Krishna Nath Sharma’s Naamghar was considered more crucial because he was an upper-caste Hindu. That was a huge statement he was making. And he had to bear the brunt.”
In his lifetime, Gandhi made four trips to Assam—1921, 1926, 1934 and in 1946. “Each time he would stay in homes of different people involved in the freedom movement: Tarun Ram Phukan in Guwahati, Jyotiprasad Agarwala in Tezpur, and of course, Krishna Nath Sharma’s in Jorhat,” says Sharma, adding that Gandhi’s last visit to Assam was in 1946, when he set up the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram.
It was then that he stayed in a small hut in the Sarania Hills of Guwahati — the site where the famous Gandhi Mandap memorial and one of the tallest ceremonial Tricolours in India (unfurled in a grand ceremony on October 2, 2018) are located today.
But away from such fanfare — quieter spots, like the Naamghar in Jorhat — continue to carry forward the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, proving time and again the far-reaching, all-encompassing, almost magical reach he had.