During the previous several decades, as scholars interested in the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi, we have had the privilege to work in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad — the most important repository of the correspondence to and from Gandhi — and to walk around the hallowed ground of the Ashram, the residence of the Mahatma and his wife Kasturba, from 1917 until he departed from there on the historical Salt March to Dandi in 1930.
We have wondered what direction the Ashram could take in the 21st century. Over the years we have imagined, in particular, what the Sabarmati Ashram might become and how it could play its role in spreading the message of Gandhi, how it could be ensured that the most effective use is made of this unique world-significant location. Of course, it has a large role to play as one of India’s most historical sites, as a museum and as a pilgrimage place that inspires the quest for truth and teaches the observant visitor about the value of nonviolence and simplicity in a period of threatening environmental collapse and very present economic inequality. For these reasons, the lessons taught by Gandhi, and embodied in the Ashram, are just as important now as ever before.
The ethos of the Ashram is conducive to the higher-level ways of thinking and being that Gandhi modelled. So powerful are the present simplicity and orderliness of the surroundings that they cannot but affect the thoughtful visitor. In the late 1970s, the revolutionary thinker Ivan Illich, talking of Gandhi’s hut at Sevagram, noted, “This hut of Gandhi demonstrates to the world how the dignity of the common man can be brought up. It is also a symbol of happiness which we can derive from practising the principle of simplicity, service and truthfulness.” Of course, he could just as easily have been talking about Hriday Kunj, the basic but inspiring home of Gandhi and Kasturba at the Ashram. But such happiness requires time, a slower than usual pace, and quiet reflection — something impossible among huge crowds.
It seems to us that there are two possible ways to make sure that the Ashram remains relevant into the future. One of them seems obvious, but we feel would create more loss than gain. If the press reports of the proposal to redevelop the precinct are accurate, the Ashram could become a mass tourist hub, with a large car park, food court, shops, a VIP lounge, that could reclaim the “visual wholesomeness, tranquillity and uncluttered environment of 1949,” while becoming a “world-class” tourist destination. This would generate money for the state and, perhaps, make the Mahatma known to a far greater number of people.
One must ask, however, whether there is not a higher purpose in preserving the Ashram in its striking simplicity and as a relatively hard-to-access place without food outlets on the grounds, and without lounges for “important” visitors (what would Gandhi say about this!).
A potential Disneyesque Gandhi theme park (and what would Gandhi say if he could re-visit Dandi?) may be popular among those wanting to take a selfie and tick a bucket-list box. However, there may be another approach, one that allows the Ashram to become (or, indeed, remain) something harder to envisage but where one can feel the Gandhian ethos. It was here that Gandhi conducted his experiments to observe and infer ethical action, where communal living and dining meant that caste divisions were done away with, where ashramites learned that they could take on the might of an empire.
Would the proposed makeover not end up obliterating Gandhi’s ideas and message? Would one still be able to feel Gandhi’s spirit? The loss would be intangible, but huge. When Gandhi was asked why he did not visit America, he expressed the fear that people would come to see him out of idle curiosity: “Let’s see this animal in the Indian zoo”. He wanted those who had an interest in him to really understand what he was trying to do and invited them to come to the Ashram and make a detailed study of his teachings.
Instead of a tourist hub where Gandhi could become a mere tourist attraction, here is a chance for India to ensure that the Ashram where the Mahatma walked and worked, and where one can still feel his spirit in the gardens, homes, and prayer ground, remains a living, breathing means for the world to understand Gandhi and his message.
Of course, as scholars of Gandhi, we may have a narrow perspective. In addition to attracting true seekers, could the Ashram also be positioned so that it ensures that its outstanding collection of Gandhiana is shared by scholars and peace workers in a way that helps to promote first-class Gandhi scholarship and considered Gandhian praxis, and possibly to help create a worldwide community of like-minded Gandhi inspirees? While the Gandhi Heritage Portal of Gandhi-related documents and information is provided electronically by the Ashram, could the Ashram be the site of an international Gandhi research hub in India? It could become the most important place in the world for scholars and seekers to come and work, to meet other scholars and seekers, to share information and discuss ideas. It could foster greater contact among Gandhi experts and ensure that Gandhi scholarship is carried out at the highest level and that an understanding of a Gandhian ethos is not lost. Could it be a place where Gandhi scholars and sincere seekers from around the world come and work with the best of local scholars and activists who could inspire each other?
Having access to documents, whether in hard copy or digital form, is not the same as having a group of like-minded people working in one place. And if the place had a Gandhian atmosphere (such as the Ashram could provide, but simple academic libraries and archives, no matter how good they are, cannot) it would be a wonderfully unique atmosphere and, through the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram, India could serve the entire world as a beacon for the seeker of truth and nonviolence.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2021 under the title ‘Gandhi Ashram of the future’. Weber is author of On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi’s March to Dandi, DiSalvo of The Man Before the Mahatma: M.K.Gandhi Attorney at Law, and Dalton of Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action