Gandhi and Gujarat: At home and in self-imposed exile
At 6.30 am, on March 12, 1930 MK Gandhi, accompanied by co-marchers, left the Sabarmati ashram for Dandi, a coastal village in Gujarat. He did not ever return to live in the ashram that he had created and nurtured since 1917. It is evident that the self-imposed exile applied not only to the ashram but also increasingly to the city of Ahmedabad and Gujarat itself.
In the remaining 18 years of his life, Gandhi was to spend some 301 days in Gujarat. His last visit to Ahmedabad was on November 2, 1936. His exile from Ahmedabad is reminiscent of a tap (penance).
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If we understand this obvious turning away from Gujarat on the part of Gandhi, we might be able to capture something of the relationship that Gujarat has shared with him. The day he left the ashram, an unprecedented crowd gathered to bid him and the marchers a farewell. Gandhi wrote; “Thousands of Ahmedabad citizens, both men and women, kept vigil on the night of the 11th. Thousands flocked to the Ashram… I can never forget the scene. For me, this was the form in which God’s blessings descended on me.” But, ever suspicious of adoring crowds, Gandhi was quick to realise that perhaps this was the extent of self-sacrifice for many. “But I am not a man to be easily taken in by appearances... Many had come out just because others had done so. For many others, this coming out for the festival was the beginning and the end of their self-sacrifice.”
The capacity for self-sacrifice is what Gandhi wanted from us. This was not, in each instance, bodily sacrifice or enduring long periods of incarceration. In some ways it was more fundamental. He wanted us — a society dominated by merchant-capitalists — to be free from avarice. Not just pure greed but even the need to be possessive. The ashramic ideals of aparigraha (non-possession) and asteya (non-stealing) stood in contrast to the ethos of mercantile culture. The fact that Ahmedabad bears testimony to the trusteeship of a few wealthy who selflessly helped create some of the finest institutions of higher learning should not lead to a mistaken belief that Gujarati culture is any less suspicious of Gandhi’s attitude to money and inheritance.
The second form of unease with Gandhi came from his conviction that untouchability was a sin. About 25 men and women became the first inhabitants of the Satyagraha ashram at Kochrab. Gandhi and his ashram were soon “put on the anvil”, as he put it, with the first “untouchable” family of Dudabhai, Danibehn and their daughter Lakshmi, who joined the ashram community. The internal rumblings in the ashram did not stop, nor did the opposition from the citizens from Ahmedabad.
In 1917, the ashram shifted further away from the city to the banks of river Sabarmati. A plague in Kocharb was the immediate reason for the hasty move to a barren piece of land. Gandhi spoke of the proximity of the site to the prison and ashram of the ancient sage Dadhichi. What he chose not to disclose was that the site was situated in close proximity to a smashan, a crematorium. Gandhi could not but have grasped what it meant for a Hindu to live in the proximity of a smashan.
It was not just a constant reminder of mortality and the precariousness of human existence, but it was also a reminder of what it meant to live as an outcaste, outside the pale of city and civitas. It also signifies the liminal position that Gandhi and his followers had come to occupy in the caste hierarchy of Ahmedabad. Gandhi and his companions, even during the Dandi march, were often regarded as outcastes.
Notwithstanding its liminality, the ashram soon became the centre of the city’s political economy with Gandhi’s arbitration and subsequent fast in the dispute involving the mill owners and mill hands of Ahmedabad. This mode of arbitration was to become the bedrock for industrialisation of Gujarat. It also contributed to the deep unease with the left politics in the political culture of Gujarat.
The Hindu-Muslim unity was a striving that was to remain incomplete in Gandhi’s life. The one aspect where contemporary Gujarat has moved furthest away from him is on the communal question. The regularity with which we have turned against ourselves in a macabre orgy of violence and pragmatically and remorselessly moved ahead fundamentally violates all that Gandhi strove for.
One aspect of Gujarat that perturbed Gandhi — despite or perhaps because of his proximity to it — was the feudal culture. Rajkot was home for Gandhi. His only fast against a princely state for its breach of trust was against the State of Rajkot that his father had served as a Diwan. Before leaving Rajkot in June 1939, Gandhi said: “Rajkot seemed to have robbed me of my youth. I never knew that I was old. Now I am weighed down by the knowledge of decrepitude. I never knew what it was to lose hope. But it seems to have been cremated in Rajkot. My ahimsa has been put to a test such as it has never been subjected before.”
What he said of Rajkot was said to us all, Gujaratis then and now.