Though the name of Ahmedabad and his Sabarmati Ashram is often associated with the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi, after 1930, the leader hardly visited the Gujarat capital or stayed in the state for long. In the remaining 18 years of his life, Gandhi was to spend just about 301 days in Gujarat.
Though he had created and nurtured the ashram in Ahmedabad for 13 years since 1917, before leaving it in 1930, most of his politically productive years were spent outside the state and this was more by design than by chance.
Like many great men, he was often at odds with his immediate society and its cultural ethos, many of them being of a fundamental nature that related to his life’s philosophy and principles.
At 6.30 am, on March 12, 1930 MK Gandhi, accompanied by co-marchers, left the ashram for Dandi, a coastal village in Gujarat. He did not ever return to live in the ashram.
His last visit to Ahmedabad was on November 2, 1936.
While leaving the ashram, 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 his fellow men, which he feared was not there beyond the perfunctory show of strength testified by overwhelming attendance. Moreover, more than mere physical presence of multitudes, Gandhi wanted men of strong principles as the driving force– not just those sold on selfish gains. Living in a society dominated by merchant-capitalists as he was, he wanted people 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 in Gujarat. The Gujarati culture was no less suspicious of Gandhi’s attitude to money and inheritance.
The second flashpoint that mounted him against the Gujarati society was 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 a barren land on the banks of river Sabarmati, driven primarily because of a bout of plague in Kocharb. Gandhi spoke of the proximity of the site to the prison and ashram of the ancient sage Dadhichi. But another subtle reason for him for the shift was because the site was situated in close proximity to a smashan, a crematorium. It 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.
The Hindu-Muslim unity was a striving that was to remain incomplete in Gandhi’s life. The regularity with which we have turned against ourselves in a macabre orgy of violence and remorselessly moved ahead fundamentally violates all that Gandhi strove for. This failure too was pronounced in his immediate society for which he detested some of the cultural foundations that seemed wrong to him.
One aspect of Gujarat that perturbed Gandhi was the feudal culture. Rajkot was home for Gandhi. 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 to before.”
What he said of Rajkot was said to all Gujaratis then and now.