The Mahatma Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati has always attracted universal reverence in India and outside. It has received and welcomed a wide range of individuals, many of whom come here as pilgrims.
The Ashram is not a project, or Gandhiji’s home, or a tourist spot. It is where our history of achieving freedom for millions with non-violent means was made. It is where we experimented with a future way of living. The Ashram is not a mere memorial of objects and artefacts but a place that inspired satyagraha and carved pathways — inner and outer — to peace. It is our common and shared responsibility to protect, preserve and promote. All of us. Including our government.
What we have to preserve is the sanctity of the Ashram. We have to preserve the simplicity, logic and spirit of Gandhiji’s ideas and values. And we have to do so with consensus, and in full collaboration with each other. I insist that any change to the Ashram, or the proposal to redevelop it, is made with consensus and any process for this change is collaborative.
So far, all have been open, welcoming, and cooperative in discussing ideas and plans. The suggestions and protest letters about the redevelopment plan are most valuable and welcome. I have faith that we will all continue this open and peaceful process to achieve a consensus.
And, therefore, there is hardly any possibility of the governmentalisation of the Ashram, we believe. We will continue our efforts to protest, protect, and promote this Ashram with peaceful means.
Non-violence, to me, has never been a lack of action or timid acceptance, it has been a force of its own that is connected with wider day-to-day political, social, and economic struggles for the freedom of the poor and women workers. Gandhi Ashrams will not work for the betterment of India’s society nor its citizens if they are not more and more aligned to the Gandhi way.
This is not to take Gandhi too literally. Let us conceive of Gandhi as a way of thinking about our society, economy and politics. The Gandhi way is self-reliance at the local level, and full employment at the household level. It is a way towards sustainability and near-zero carbon footprint. It implies local ownership of the means of production. It calls for a broad-based and inclusive social and economic democracy. The Gandhi way is to build peace at home, in the neighbourhood and in the world. And in this, Dalits, minorities, Adivasis have a leading role to play. Women and workers will be the engines.
As a society, we seem to be rushing towards mass suicide, with investments that lead to no jobs, and infrastructure that pollutes air, food and water faster than we can clean or preserve them. If the majority turns on minority communities, cultures or ideas, in the end we will leave no one alive.
Unless the ashrams take the economy and the citizens to self-reliance, to full and meaningful employment, to sustainability, and to local cooperative control of the means of production, they will not deliver what they promise — widespread long-term prosperity and samullas for every Indian.
The Ashram is not made of the four walls that protect Gandhiji’s artefacts and archives — needless to say they are priceless to us all — but of an endless set of doors that open us to the Gandhi way. Let me give a personal example. What touches me at the Ashram is the recurring memory of my grandfather, Dr Manidhar Prasad Vyas, from Desai ni Pole, Khadia, Ahmedabad, joining the Salt March and being hit by police sticks that broke his teeth, weakened the bones in his limbs for the rest of his life, and transformed him from a successful medical doctor into a lifelong satyagrahi.
Gandhiji would have been puzzled by his people caring for the Ashram precincts but not moving ahead to the peaceful, Gandhian constructive way of building a mutually nurturing society.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 23, 2021 under the title ‘Open doors, not walls’. The writer is Sewa founder and chairperson of Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust