Revisiting Sabarmati central jail where Gandhi was first imprisoned in 1922
Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: Five years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi embarked on a long freedom struggle with the 1917 Champaran Satyagraha, this prison in Ahmedabad became the first of the total 10 confinements he was subjected to between 1922 and 1944.Updated: Oct 02, 2019 13:37 IST
What the prisoners are least likely to overlook as the doors of the outside world close behind them and they step into the Sabarmati Central Jail is a cluster of white cottages and the greatness of one of its distinct occupants.
Five years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi embarked on a long freedom struggle with the 1917 Champaran Satyagraha, this prison in Ahmedabad became the first of the total 10 confinements he was subjected to between 1922 and 1944.
Rarely can a prison cell be a source of inspiration. But the place of his shortest imprisonment — 10 days from March 11, 1922 to March 20 as prisoner number 6357— continues to play a key role in reforming a large number of inmates of the biggest jail of Gujarat that currently houses 3,000-odd prisoners.
The Gandhi Yard
Gandhiji was a lone prisoner in the yard comprising eight cells especially built for high-profile prisoners by the British rulers in 1895. Located between the jail’s high walls secured with barded wires and regular barracks in the east end of the campus, a spacious surrounding gave Gandhiji some place to move around and meet daily visitors.
The high compound wall leading to the yard now has paintings with message of peace, unity and harmony — painted by former inmate Narendrasinh Rathod.
According to the jail records, the British had registered his basic details when he was taken there. The jail records identify his caste as Bania, religion as Jain, address as Sabarmati Ashram and profession as farmer. It further mentioned about two body marks – a white mark on the left chest and a brown mole on the collarbone.
“Gandhiji’s cell was never locked. He was allowed to freely move within the yard. He was also allowed visitors at regular intervals. As per the structures of that era, there was neither a toilet nor any electricity connection in the yard’’, says Vibhakar Bhatt, cultural co-ordinator at Sarbarmati Jail. He has been been maintaining the yard.
Located a couple of kilometres from Sabarmati Ashram, the yard shares its compound wall with Sardar Patel Yard. Besides the Iron Man, the Patel yard had some prominent inmates including national poet Javerchand Meghani, Mahadev Desai and Devdas Gandhi, among others at different times.
At some distance is located Kasturba Yard, where Gandhiji’s wife was imprisoned but during different times. The yard used to house women inmates after modernization of the jail. It is now maintained as a heritage property.
According to the Mahatma’s day to day chronology complied by K P Goswami, Gandhiji was arrested after he arrived in Ahmedabad on March 10 after attending a Provincial Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi. He was charged with promoting disaffection against the government through his writings in Young India.
He gave interview to Manchester Guardian from Sabarmati jail on non-cooperation on March 18. On the same day, he was tried by a sessions court at the current Circuit House in Shahi Baug and was sentenced to six years in jail. On March 20, he was shifted to Yerwada jail in Pune by a special train.
For the past three years, the Gandhi Yard serves as a centre to record audio books for Ahmedabad Andh Jan Mandal (Ahmedabad Blind People’s Association).
“When the jail received the project for audio recording books in 2016, our requirement was a peaceful place – both in physical and spiritual terms. There could not have been a better place than the yard which was Gandhi’s temporary stop in his extraordinary journey of life,” say Vibhakar Bhatt.
Convicts of murder, rape and other heinous crimes say that the place surrounded by greenery helps them find some peace and balance besides showing them light at the end of the tunnel amid a depressing period of confinement.
The third cell from the entrance inside the walled-yard was occupied by Gandhiji. Today, the roughly 10x7 sq ft room houses his bust, two photographs, a life size portrait and a charkha. Lighting a diya and playing Bapu’s favourite bhajans on a recorder inside the cell is a daily routine. In the center of the yard, a two-foot national emblem is placed atop a three-layer podium painted in the tricolour.
The calmness found at the yard can be gauged from the fact that the porch opposite the cells used to be, till recently, an examination center for prisoners pursuing different courses from open universities.
A computer, with recording software, and a pair of earphones are put in six rooms adjacent to Gandhiji’s cell. The three steps high porch was renovated in 2011 by painting the walls and fixing tin roofs. Artificial flowers adorn the tin ceiling, giving a celebratory look to the place located inside a high-security prison.
Around 7am every day, a 36-year-old inmate, who has been in the jail for 10 years following his conviction in a suicide abetment case, takes the seat opposite a flat computer screen and begins recording.
“This place is an escape from all negativity. I did not know much about Gandhiji’s life before. But the time spent in jail made me realize how important is to adopt his value system and principles to lead a good life,” he says.
This inmate, a qualified veterinary doctor, generally records English material, including curriculum books and fiction.
A team of five inmates in three years have converted nearly 300 books into audio books.
Experts feel while Gandhi yard building has been well maintained, more dimension can be added by giving it a context. “Instead of just couple of pictures, if we can showcase the situation of India during Gandhi’s time and how he managed to make her free in a bloodless battle, but the fact that as yard is out of public access, it gets less attention,” says Chairman Gujarat Heritage Conservation Committee Chairman, P K Ghosh.