Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Roads Taken Again: Into the Villages of Gandhiji

(Gandhiji's bust at Aslali village. The Siva temple behind)

(Marble plaque at Aslali Panchayat Building, which was a Dharamsala in 1930)

(Old Civil Court at Borsad. It is here VB Patel and Gandhiji were trialed)

(Balcony at JD Patel School, from where Gandhiji addressed the people at Borsad)

(the Ginning mill at Amod, where Gandhiji stayed for the night)

(behind the ginning mill at Amod)

Between Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and Dandi near Navsar, South Gujarat there is distance of approximately 380 kilometers. A trip by road through Ahmedabad-Bomaby Highway would take around five hours, if the traffic conditions permit.

In 1930 there was no highway. Through there was a main road, rail was the main mode of conveyance. Gandhiji could have taken the main road and reached Dandi in a few days time. But he preferred to visit most of the backward villages located on the either side of the present highway.

Gandhiji’s idea was different. Dandi March for him was not just about breaking the Salt Law imposed by the British Government. It was not just another theatrical and symbolic act of moving the populace towards a greater cause either. In his usual style Gandhiji was trying to understand his country, by visiting the villages, interviewing people, living with them, understanding their problems, proposing solutions, exhorting them to the struggle for complete independence and above all propagating his ideas about non-violence, non-cooperation and poorna swaraj.

Impromptu speeches filled with facts and figures, nuances of laws, lessons on hygiene and removal of untouchability and instillation of political awareness- that was Gandhiji’s style of functioning in these villages. He asked for resignations from the important villagers who held official positions in the British Government. He did not bully them to resign from their respective posts. Instead, he asked them to volunteer themselves for the cause of independence.

Gandhiji is reported to have said the villagers that India had 300 districts (in 1930) and there are 300 district collectors. Using local officials, these 300 people could control the lives of millions of people in India. If, he said, the Indian millions decide to disobey the directives of the officials, the Government would not have done much to stop them. India at that time did not have enough jails to accommodate all these non-violent law breakers and resisters.

The memory of apartheid was strong in Gandhiji. In 1893, despite having a first class ticket, he was thrown out of a railway carriage in South Africa. He found the Indian laborers and businessmen were pushed and pulled around by the South African whites, even if they had the British citizenship by law. Gandhiji wanted to put an end to this apartheid. His experiments with non-violent resistance started then and there. Back in India in 1915, after extensively traveling around the country, he realized how Indian populace was a directionless and scattered one because of the untouchability practiced by them. During Dandi March, he told the villagers that they treated their fellow human beings as untouchables the same way the British Government treated them. It was time for change.

Gandhiji was a corporate thinker, a pragmatist and was aware of the results of his action. For alleviating the poor and the ignorant, he needed data. Hence, during the Dandi March, he asked the village elders to furnish him with a complete data and the demographic profile of the villages. This profiling included education, use of khadi, untouchability, number wells, health, number of cattle, source of income, drinking habits etc. Everyday, Gandhiji analyzed the data with his super brain and super sensitivity and suggested solutions.

So Gandhiji took 25 days to reach Dandi. In 1983, the Australian scholar, Thomas Weber took the same route and extensively documented the then situation and his book ‘On the Salt March: The Historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s March to Dandi’ still remains the most authentic record on Dandi March. In 2005, Gandhiji’s grandson Tussar Gandhi, with 78 volunteers struck the same road as a part of the 75 anniversary of Dandi March and it was flagged off by none other than the Congress President, Mrs.Sonia Gandhi.

Dandi gets national and international attention once in a while when politicians want a unified symbol of nationalism for gaining political ends. The government had declared a heritage road along the same route Gandhiji had taken, immediately after his death in 1948. Thomas Weber notes that many villagers complained of the authorities bringing rubbles for building the road and leaving it there for ages. It was the story of 1983. Each village thought that they were left out of glory because they did not have enough political clout to have the road going through their place. But Weber told them that they were not alone. Throughout his journey, he found the proposed Heritage Road still lying as heap of rubble and barrels of asphalt, grass and weed overpowering them.

Today, I and Anubhav Nath listen to a lot of talk about the impending inauguration of Heritage Road. This is road is going to connect all the 40 villages Gandhiji had visited and with an enhanced tourism due to this would bring economic and cultural prosperity to all these villages. Each village that we visit tells us the same story. And we do see the work in progress. They say it would take three years. After that Dandi Route is going to be a great tourist destination.

We would find the chances of it bleak as our trip takes off from Ahmedabad in an Innova Car.

Considering the complexion of a changed context and time, it was not advisable for us to hit the road and spend all 25 days walking. It would not have yielded much to our research as we are not sociologists or politicians. What we wanted was the awareness and we chose five main villages that Gandhiji had visited, namely Aslali, Borsad, Amod, Mangroli and Navsari.

On the pleasant morning of 4th November we took the vehicle arranged by the Ahmedabad based young artist, Hindol Brahmabhatt. Raju Bhai is the driver. He is young and cheerful.

Aslali Village is around fifty kilometers from Ahmedabad. At the Panchayat office we meet the village Sarpanch, Janak Bhai Rathore. Surprisingly, he is a very young man in his late twenties. Parthesh Vyas is a clerk in the office. They together tell us about Aslali.

The village has, according to the census data in 1991, a population of 6162. The unofficial records say that it is 15000. The main source of income is agriculture and labor. There are many factories around here and also many people commute to the nearest Ahmedabad for work. Aslali is a village which still struggles to come out of its backwardness.

The Panchayat office was a dharmasala during Gandhiji’s visit. He stayed for the night here. Though a very few people remember the worth of the place, a fading plaque written in Gujarati is supposed to remind the people of a great man’s visit to their village. We are taken to the nearest primary school. Between the road and the school there is small ditch full of weeds and on its banks, on a raised platform we see a bust of Gandhiji with a dried up garland around the neck. As in the case of many public busts and statues of Gandhiji in India, this one too is covered with dust and bird droppings.

Between Gandhiji’s bust and the primary school there is a Siva temple, where, the myths say that Gandhiji had given an impromptu speech. Weber observes that the villages make many stories about the number of speeches Gandhiji had given in different locations at the same village whereas the diary entries of the marchers and Gandhiji’s correspondences of the time tell that the speeches were mainly given under trees, which are either located at the village square or schools.

The school is neat with a lot of trees in the campus. Small little kids scramble around the campus and some of them sweeping their classroom. We wonder whether it is a Gandhian ideal being exercised or the children and forced to do the labor, which is otherwise supposed to be done by a salary earning employee.

The school has around 348 boys and 357 girls. All the teachers seem to be very proud of their village and their school. They show the Gandhi Hall, which is built years back, from where Gandhiji had given a speech to the villagers.

Aslali is a lesson for us. We realize that the story wouldn’t be much different in other villages. There is a talk about the upcoming Heritage Road. Many expect the property prices would go up with the road.

When we reach Borsad it is around 12.30 pm. We ask for directions and someone leads us to an old building, which was the old civil court in Borsad. This humble building still carries the marks of ravaging time. Presence of a huge banyan tree makes the place eternally cool. This building had witnessed the trial of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel and Mahatma Gandhi. Now it houses a Forest Office, part of a court and an adjacent hut like structure houses a Home Guard unit.

Borsad is historically important as it is one of the villages where the British patrons started a high school. Currently called JD Patel School, this century old school has beautiful buildings and a campus laden with trees. Started off as EMHS (Edward Memorial High School), now it is run by JD Patel Trust. JD Patel was a lawyer and a farmer from this area and he did a lot of work towards Indian Independence. The first Chairman of the Trust was Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.

In his visit to Borsad, Gandhiji stayed in this school. He addressed the crowd, which flooded the campus, from the first floor classroom with a balcony. This part of the school now houses the girls’ wing. We ask what they have done with Gandhiji’s ‘room’. The school chairman who accompanies us tells that a classroom is conducted from there. There are talks of converting this building into a heritage building. At the same time there was a proposal from the government to take over the building, demolish and make a new structure as a ‘heritage museum.’ Such thoughts occur only in the minds of Indian administrators. With a lot of guts the village and the trust resisted the government move. Now they have convinced the government to keep the building itself as a heritage building. And they too expect that everything would fall in place once the Heritage Road is completed.

JD Patel School is now a rich and prosperous establishment with a lot of NRI support coming in. The former students of this school who are doing well these days both in India and abroad send in donations in cash and kind (computers etc) and the trust has puts its energies to develop the school, college, libraries and advanced education centers. The campus is almost 30 acres big and it is surrounded by the Borsad village.

Amod is predominantly a Muslim village. When we reach there it is already 4 pm. From Weber’s book we had already made an impression about this village. Amod was a village, which had a lot of cotton fields around and a well known ginning mill marked hub of the village.

We expect something big. At the village square people direct us with the typical Indian way of showing directions, ‘over there’. ‘Over there’ we find a row of ruined tile roofed buildings, which from nowhere give an impression of a factory. From the rooms that open to the street and are saved from collapsing, some shops that sell knick-knacks are run. We enquire about the famous ginning mill where Gandhiji stayed and ‘threatened’ people for their apartheid practices.

Sabir Bhai is a young Muslim. He comes out of his flour mill (after a quarter of a century I see again something like that) and confirms us that it was the same building that once housed the ginning mill.

Through a rusted iron gate we go inside the campus. There is an open ground. Books say that Gandhiji stayed in an open space behind the ginning mill. Yes, it is the open ground. Some boys come around us with a mischievous smiles lingering on their lips. We ask them whether they know the importance of their place. They grin and leave us to our task. People now come behind this building to urinate or to fee their cattle in the thickets at the other end of the ground.

Next destination is Mangroli. We reach Bharoch (Broach in history books) by 6 pm. It is already dark and we are already on the high way that leads us to Surat and Navsari. We are asked to take a left turn off from the highway. A 23 odd kilometers into the village we drive and reach a nowhere. We are almost lost. And some villagers tell us that we are in a wrong Mangroli. There is another Mangroli next to Sajod Village, where Gandhiji had visited.

Like monkeys we eat peanuts to calm us down. Anubhav Nath, by this time, has developed this habit of reciting ‘Vaishnav Janato’ at unexpected moments. Started off as a playful recital, by the second day of our trip Anubhav has become quite serious about his chanting. We try to decipher the meaning of the lines. The last lines would not yield to our interpretative abilities. Later this too would be explained to us by Akshay Bhai Naik, a friend and the head of Applied Arts Department at the BA Mehta Kala Mahavidyala, Amalsad, who joined us at Dandi on the next day.

We pass Mangroli and Sajod. It is really late and we don’t want to disturb the villagers at night. They might leave their Gandhian principles behind and handle us for intruding. We observe things, move around a bit and head for Navsari.

Navsari is a rich town, famous for diamond trade. Akshay Bhai has already booked a very good hotel for us. We were really looking forward to the hotel room as the previous night at ‘Royal Night’ in Ahmedabad was not really ‘royal’.

Physical fatigue melts away when good friends join in with warm hugs and pleasant news. In Navsari Akshay Bhai and Somu Desai join us, yes with warm hugs and stories.

Tomorrow is a big day for us. To our friends’ surprise Anubhav chants Vaishnav Janato again. And we all join in with hotel room furniture as our accompanying instruments.

Sleep walks along the fifth floor corridor, comes into the room stealthily and pins us down to the fluffy beds.

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