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From the ground up

A day before the Quit India Movement's launch anniversary and a week before Independence Day, we look at the past and present of open spaces that played a key role in three seminal grassroots movements.

mumbai Updated: Aug 07, 2011 01:37 IST
Prachi Pinglay

Today, Azad Maidan is Mumbai's most important arena for protest. Earlier this year, Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement attracted crowds to this space. More recently, thousands of mill workers demonstrated here, demanding housing.

But before the government effectively made this ground the sole legitimate space for protest in the 1990s, several grounds were important places for meetings and demonstrations, such as August Kranti Maidan, Nare Park and Nardulla Tank maidan (see below). “They were more than just open spaces,” said Priyamvada Sawant, a history professor at HR College. “When strangers gathered for a common cause, it gave rise to camaraderie.

One wonders how many historic movements would have gained momentum without these spaces.” Some veteran activists say the government is stifling dissent by restricting their use.

The fighters
Bhaskar Sawant
Chairman and founder of Maidan Bachao Samiti

Along with the local people, we have led several protests to save grounds such as Gandhi Maidan at Kurla. We must ensure that people know about the historical relevance of these places. It is important to preserve grounds just as they are so that they can be used for large gatherings and sports. We should not lay paver blocks in the middle of them.

Hawabibi Choonawala
History lecturer at Jai Hind College

These grounds and open spaces were among the many reasons why different social movements flourished in the city. They allowed civilians to respond to the calls of leaders and assemble for meetings. But now protests and meetings are restricted to Azad Maidan. Moreover, we don't have any charismatic leaders who can motivate people to come out in large numbers.

Besides the grounds mentioned below, Dadar's Shivaji Park, Worli's Jamboree Maidan and Kurla's Gandhi Maidan, among others, were important.

Independence movement
Several meetings and rallies of the nationalist movement took place in Mumbai, beginning with the first Indian National Congress session in 1885. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi addressed several rallies in maidans in the city.

Vasant Pradhan, 87
President Mani Bhavan
I was outside the August Kranti Maidan when the Quit India movement was launched. During the freedom struggle, many leaders addressed meetings at Chowpatty and Shivaji Park. When the police fired tear gas, citizens poured water to douse the effect and help protestors. Over the past fifty years, the spirit of social movements has gradually declined and the electric atmosphere is missing.


Samyukta Maharashtra
This agitation intensified in 1956 to demand the creation of a Marathi-speaking state with Bombay as its capital. During the five-year struggle, its leaders held many meetings in Mumbai. Before Maharashtra achieved statehood on May 1, 1960, 105 people lost their lives in different police firing incidents.

Mrinal Gore, 83
Veteran socialist leader
When the police started firing at Flora Fountain, I escaped and was on the run for the next eight months. My friend Ahilya Rangnekar was arrested. We used to attend meetings called by Comrade Dange and Acharya Atre at various places in Mumbai. People responded spontaneously. Now the common man is too bogged down by his daily routine to care about these historical events.

Labour movement
Mumbai was one of the hubs for the country's communist movement, from the 1960s to the 1980s, when a long mill workers' strike led to the closing down of the textile industry, which had been key to the city's economic progress. People used to gather at several parks and grounds to protest.

KL Bajaj, 77
Central committee member of theCPI (M) and trade unionist
Central Mumbai was the hotbed of socialist and communist activities. During the mill workers' agitation, leaders and workers used to be at these grounds day and night. But eventually, the government managed to shrink these spaces. In the absence of places to meet, assemble and rally, it becomes impossible to garner support for any civic movement.

August Kranti
Near Grant Road Station
Milestone: The Quit India Movement was launched here on August 8, 1942.
Historical significance: The Indian National Congress had its first session on 28 September, 1885, at this ground. In 1942, Mahatma Gandhi walked from Mani Bhavan to the maidan, then known as the Gowalia Tank Maidan, to launch the Quit India Movement. At its peak, people flooded the ground to protest against British rule.

Chandrakant Sangle, 32, trader who lives nearby
We have been going regularly to the ground for years now. As
college students we used to study under street lights in the park. In the evening my friends and I used to play football and cricket. The elderly like to sit in the garden because of the comfortable benches and lush greenery.

Hutatma chowk
Flora Fountain, Churchgate
Milestone: On November 21, 1955, the police opened fire on protestors.
historical significance: After Maharashtra won statehood in 1960, a monument was erected in the memory of 105 martyrs who died during the struggle. The place, earlier known as Flora Fountain, was renamed Hutatma Chowk. Over the years several other protest movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan have gathered here.

Hiren Sardesai, 35, finance professional who works nearby
Earlier, gatherings and protests were allowed but since the early 1990s they have been banned. Though political protests are important, it becomes very hard for common people to navigate roads when protestors take them over in busy office areas such as Fort, Bombay Stock Exchange and the high court.

Nare park Parel
Milestone: Veteran communist leader SA Dange held several public meetings here.
historical significance: Nare Park, now on the proposed heritage list, was built by a local school trust. The park was surrounded by textile mills and it became a central space for labour activities. Now, with a five star hotel and other showrooms coming up in the vicinity, the memories of a vibrant workers' movement are fading.

Swapnil Kanherkar, 17, student who studies close by
This park is a favourite place for students of Maharshi Dayanand College of Arts, Science, Commerce to hang out in. I never knew about its history. In the evening, we play cricket and football. However, during festivals, the ground gets extremely crowded — locals build pandals during Ganeshotsav and Navratri.

Girgaum chowpatty
Charni Road
Milestone: In 1930, to support Gandhi's Salt Satyagraha, freedom fighters Kamala Chattopadhyay and Avantika Gokhale led women to the beach to make salt from sea water.
historical significance: The sea front was the most preferred public meeting place for the Congress during the freedom movement. Even after Independence, political parties used the venue for their rallies, speeches and meetings. Several leaders such as Pandit Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Lokmanya Tilak addressed large gatherings here.

Hetal Avlani, 32, fashion designer who stays opposite the beach
Chowpatty is a picnic spot now. As the sun sets, tourists and locals come here to enjoy the evening. The two gardens near the beach and the adjoining Marine Drive are very popular. However, the chaos, traffic jams and pollution during Ganesh Festival have become a nuisance over the past few years.

Nardulla Tank Maidan
Prabhadevi
Milestone: Acharya Atre and SM Joshi addressed a rally for the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement in 1957 which was attended by many.
historical significance: The maidan initially was a water tank built by a a local by the name Nardulla during the 1824 drought. It became the centre point along with Shivaji Park, Dadar, for the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement when senior leaders such as Acharya Atre addressed several rallies here.

Nitin Patil, 37, real estate agent who lives opposite the ground
The ground is covered with grass during the monsoon. During the other seasons, we play cricket here. A number of spiritual leaders used to hold their programmes here. However, they have reduced that now. On the auspicious day of Angaraki Chaturthi, devotees
visiting Siddhivinayak temple, queue up in this maidan.

Kamgar Maidan Parel
Milestones: Mill workers gathered at this maidan in the 1980s to protest.
historical significance:Some of the most important strikes were launched from this ground during the mill workers' agitation for pay hikes, bonus and other benefits. Now nestled between residential buildings on three sides and KEM hospital on the fourth, the ground occasionally hosts political and cultural events. The ground is also used by spiritual
leaders for their programmes.

Sunil Salvi, 55, chartered accountant who lives nearby I have seen some very energetic and volatile workers' meetings in the early eighties, but now we use the ground for sports activities. Political parties hold cultural activities at the venue occassionally. Children from nearby schools have their sports competitions here and our children play football or cricket.