The Sabarmati Ashram still echoes with the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. No matter how many times you go there, you will be touched by the ideas of the man who matched kindness with wisdom and had an astute understanding of the common Indian. But few who walk into the Sabarmati Ashram realise just how important the city of Ahmedabad was in sowing the seeds of the people’s movement that Mahatma Gandhi led. It is in his years in Ahmedabad between 1915 and 1930 that he managed to experiment and then transform India’s Freedom Struggle from a small scale, upper class initiative to a mass movement.
To get a sense of how he laid the groundwork of this transformation, you have to head to a little known bungalow in an area called Kochrab just opposite the crowded walled city of Ahmedabad. Within four months of his landing in India from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi set up a ‘Satyagraha Ashram’ here. This was his first base.
Ahmedabad had been a powerful centre for trade and industry since its establishment by Ahmed Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat in 1411. Commerce runs deep here and it has also shaped the city’s psyche. Powerful tradesmen, often referred to as Nagarsheths or Mahajans controlled the fortunes of the city and continued to do so, even after the British took control in the early 19th century. By the early 20th century Ahmedabad also emerged as an important textile centre. Many a fortune was made as old Mahajans became new mill owners and industrialists. Chhotalals, Sarabhais, Hutheesings and Lalbhais...the list is long. These industrialists were quick to support Gandhi when he decided to set base here.
But Gandhi was counting on more than just rich industrialists. He was also counting on the city’s burgeoning middle class, thanks to the jobs created by the mills. Renowned Historian Makrand Mehta who has written over 17 books on the history of Gujarat and its merchants says this was one of the reasons why Gandhi chose Ahmedabad. He could have gone to any city. “ When Gandhi came back from South Africa he had the option of many cities like Bombay, Calcuta, Lucknow, Lahore, Pune. He selected Ahmedabad because of its strong legacy as a great industrial and commercial centre before the British. Another factor was the fact that Ahmedabad’s people believe not only in change but continuing change. It was city based on peaceful evolution and not bloody revolution” This Dr Mehta says sat well with Gandhi’s idea of ‘Satyagraha’ which was focused on non-violent protest. “He knew that when he would start his peaceful political protests against the British he would get support from the Ahmedabadi people.”
By the time Gandhi set base here, Ahmedabad had a strong labour force, rich industrialists and a legacy of always having been managed by locals. The fact that he was a Gujarati also helped. In his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’; Gandhi states that he had a natural predilection for Ahmedabad being a Gujarati himself. He also felt that it would be a great base for him to start his campaigns. He writes “Ahmedabad was an ancient centre of handloom weaving, it was likely to be the most favourable field for the revival of the cottage industry of hand-spinning. There was also the hope that, the city being the capital of Gujarat, monetary help from its wealthy citizens would be more available here than elsewhere.”
The First ‘Satyagraha’ in India
Satyagraha or the idea of non-violent resistance, is a familiar word for anyone who has read about India’s freedom struggle. It is a also a term closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi. The Champaran Satyagraha(1917-1918), the Kheda Satyagraha (1918) and the Salt Satyagraha (1930) saw hundreds of thousands of people participate. But did you know that Mahatma Gandhi’s first ‘satyagraha’ was fought alone.
Soon after returning to India, Gandhi was witness to just how badly Indians were treated in their own land. While travelling to Rajkot en route to Porbandar to meet his relatives, Gandhi saw the harassment 3rd class railway passengers were facing at the hands of the British officers at the Viramgam Customs line - a tariff cordon between British India and the princely state of Kathiawar.
Angry and upset, he wrote a letter to the British authorities, who did nothing. Frustrated Gandhi took his complaint all the way to Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India. This worked and within a few days the customs cordon was removed, Gandhi saw this as the beginning of his 'Satyagraha' in India.
He relates a story of how he started referring to this incident as a 'Satyagraha', in his autobiography. He mentions a conversation between him and a Secretary of the Bombay Government who saw Gandhi’s use of the word Satyagraha as a threat.
Gandhi denied that he was threatening the Government by mentioning Satyagraha. Instead, he explained that he was just educating people about all the legitimate remedies available to address their grievances. He added that a nation should know all the ways and means to freedom. Violence was actually the last resort and ‘Satyagraha’ was in fact “ an absolutely non-violent weapon” .
Kicking up a Storm at Kochrab
The battles Gandhi fought in the initial years weren’t only against the British. They were against mindsets and the exploitation he saw Indians face from Indians.
Go to Kochrab even today, and you will find the old colonial bungalow that acted as Gandhiji’s first ashram in India in 1915. Owned by a friend, Barrister Jivanlal Desai- this was home to Gandhiji and 25 others who had decided to follow his lead. Life was austere here and time was spent in service. Surprisingly for Gandhi, he also learnt here that mindsets were difficult to change.
The peace at the Kochrab ashram was shattered in the September of 1915 when Gandhiji decided to bring in a destitute family of ‘untouchables’ to the safe environs of the ashram. All hell broke loose.
The family of three Dudabai, his wife Daniben and their little daughter Lakshmi (whom Gandhi saw as his own daughter) were traumatised.
Even though they were accepted in the Ashram, they weren’t welcomed and most Ashram residents treated them with indifference. Much worse was the treatment meted out by outsiders who harassed and even assaulted the family, especially when they tried to draw water from the local well. The rich merchants who had been so liberal with their donations to Gandhi’s cause till now, also withdrew.
So dire was the situation that the Ashram was left with funds only for one month’s expenses. There was a time Gandhi even decided to move with his fellow ashram mates to the Harijan quarters (where the lower castes lived), once the funds ran out.
This was a wake up call for Gandhiji and also perhaps one that strengthened his resolve to fight even harder against the social ills within India
Thankfully a crisis was averted and help came unexpectedly, from unknown quarters. An anonymous person Gandhi refers to as ‘Sheth’ in his writings, came to the Ashram one day and donated Rs. 13000. According to noted Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud the ‘Sheth’ was none other than Ambalal Sarabhai the owner of Calico Mills and one of the biggest mill owners in the city. Ambalal Sarabhai had already been impressed with Gandhi's stand on addressing caste inequalities, something Ambalal himself felt deeply about. The money he provided was sufficient to take care of expenses for a year.
Gandhiji’s next battle was ironically against the very men who had supported him.
The Ahmedabad Mill Workers Strike
In 1918 the mill workers of Ahmedabad were protesting for better wages and Gandhi was approached by Anasuya Sarabhai, Ambalal Sarabhai’s sister for help.
A renowned Gandhian in her own right later, Anasuya Sarabhai had decided to take up the cause of the city’s mill workers even though this meant taking up cudgels against her own brother and family friends. Gandhi didn’t compromise on his principles even when facing friends and organised a Satyagraha with the mill workers. Unfortunately this Satyagraha which may well have been his most difficult is one of his least known movements since it was fought against locals rather than the British.
The mill workers of Ahmedabad worked under difficult conditions, sometimes being forced to do continuous 36 hour shifts. In 1917 a deadly plague had spread to Ahmedabad. This created a panic and sent prices of basic commodities soaring. Many workers started leaving the city for their villages. To prevent this exodus, mill owners decided to pay a temporary ‘plague allowance’ ranging from 20% to 70% of their wages. While the plague itself had subsided by January 1918, prices had continued to soar. The price of many commodities had by now doubled and essentials like salt and kerosene were in short supply.
The mill workers now wanted a permanent raise and an improvement of working conditions. Gandhiji and Anusuya Sarabhai supported them. But the stand-off continued. Mill workers wanted a 50% pay raise while the mill workers were willing to offer only 20%. After Gandhi's intervention the mill workers were ready to come down to a 35% increase. The mill owners meanwhile, refused to budge.The impasse led to a mill lockout on the 22nd of February 1918. The protests and deadlock went on for a few weeks. This was tough for the workers and Gandhi decided to go on an indefinite fast in solidarity with the mill workers on the 15th of March. This caused great consternation and worry amongst the people around him as well as the mill owners. They finally agreed to the 35% pay raise after an arbitration and Gandhi broke his fast on the 18th of March 1918.
Although it was resolved relatively quickly, this Satyagraha was in many senses tougher because Gandhi was pitted against his friends and supporters. It is also a testimony to the greatness of the man, that they continued to support him after. This Satyagraha also led to the establishment of the first union of textile workers in Ahmedabad, the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association) which was led by Anusuya for the next decades.
The deadly plague of 1917 also put the Kochrab Ashrams residents at risk, especially the children. Given that Gandhi was also looking at expanding the work at the ashram, it was decided that a new ashram would be set up, further north, on the banks of the Sabarmati
It was at the Sabarmati Ashram that Gandhi spent the longest time - between the years 1917 and 1930. It was also from here that he started his famous satyagrahas of Kheda, Bardoli and the Dandi March. While the story is well known from here on, most people miss the brief interlude - the early years that shaped the Mahatma’s work.