On 30th January I was in Ahmedabad, a city that was central to Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work. It was here that he established the most celebrated of his ashrams, on the banks of the Sabarmati River; here that he revised and refined his moral and political philosophy; here that he conceived and planned the Rowlatt Satyagraha, the Non Co-Operation Movement, and the Salt March.
Ahmedabad was once Gandhi’s city; yet in recent decades Ahmedabad has wilfully, deliberately, turned its back on the legacy of its greatest resident. Gandhi lived and died for Hindu-Muslim harmony; yet the city that he once called home has become a laboratory for the articulation of majoritarian prejudice. Nowhere else in India has the power of Hindutva been so explicitly and nakedly displayed. Ever since 2002, the Muslims of Ahmedabad have been increasingly marginalized, politically and economically; as well as victimized, socially and culturally. In where and how they are permitted to live or work, in what they are allowed (and not allowed) to do, the Muslims of the city have been made to feel that they are second-class citizens.
Since 2002, Ahmedabad has become a laboratory for Hindutva in other respects as well. It is here that the cult of the Supreme Leader was first forged; with a single man said to represent the state of Gujarat and the culture of Gujarat, as he is now said to represent the Union of India and Indian nationhood itself. It was also in Ahmedabad (and Gujarat more generally) that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah first sought to systematically tame and control the press, the universities, and civil society organizations, in preparation for what they would seek to do at an all-India level after May 2014.
I have myself known (and loved) Ahmedabad for more than four decades now. I first visited the city in February 1979; and have gone back many times since. Before 2002, the intellectual culture of the city was as argumentative and freewheeling as that of my home town, Bangalore; but after 2002 the space for debate and dissent has steadily shrunk. Some remarkable writers, activists, lawyers and social workers continue to live in Ahmedabad; however, these individuals face far greater hurdles and constraints in their work than they would in (for example) Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, or Kochi.
In October 2018 I had an intimate first-hand experience of this closing of the Gujarati mind, when the ruling party made it impossible for me to take up a Professorship (ironically, in Gandhian studies) in Ahmedabad. Fifteen months later, I was, however, able to visit the city for a talk on 30th January. I spoke on what Gandhi would have made of India today.
The talk I delivered in Ahmedabad is up online. I won’t rehearse its arguments here; rather I shall write of what I saw in the city before and after my lecture. I reached on the 29th afternoon; and for the rest of the day had engaging conversations with those who represent the shrinking (but never extinct) traditions of free and independent thought in Gujarat. The next morning I went on my own to the Sabarmati Ashram; walking around a place I have grown to love greatly over the years, especially for its austerity and tranquility—attributes it might lose once an aggressive plan for its ‘modernization’ is put into effect by the present regime.
On the early evening of the 30th, I was taken by my hosts to the Nehru Bridge, to join a human chain of those commemorating the martyrdom of the Mahatma, murdered by a Hindu fundamentalist on this day seventy-two years previously. We stood together on the bridge: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian; men, women, children; lawyers, trade unionists, teachers, workers. At around 5:17 pm we sang the National Anthem.
This was moving enough; and more uplifting things were to come. After my lecture, I was taken for a public meeting at the locality of Rakhial, home to people displaced by the ‘development’ of the Sabarmati waterfront. These mostly Muslim oustees had stoically rebuilt their lives; now, in the aftermath of the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the threat of a National Register of Citizens, they feared a further round of victimization. So they had organized themselves to resist this galloping majoritarianism, non-violently. Every evening, they heard speeches, sung songs and recited poems on liberty, freedom, justice and—above all—inter-faith harmony. On the main podium was displayed a portrait of Gandhi.
These daily meetings in Rakhial were now in their third week. Every day, the attendance was growing; and the crowd becoming more diverse. The local residents were, of course, the bulwark; working-class Muslim men and their wives and children. Middle-class Hindu professionals from the other side of the river were also coming to show their solidarity; as were students and professors from the city’s most prestigious educational institutions.
Two weeks before my visit to Ahmedabad, on the day of the Uttarayan festival, some students of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth—an institution founded by Gandhi—had flown kites with slogans against the CAA emblazoned on them. This innovative (and absolutely peaceful) act of protest had been suppressed by the police, who had been permitted by the trustees of the Vidyapeeth to enter the campus and intimidate students. This outrageous over-reaction provoked a satirical comment on social media which read: ‘Section 144 in the air? Modi hai tho mumkin hai!’
The timidity of the trustees of the Gandhian institutions in Ahmedabad is in striking contrast to the courage of the man they claim to be following. On the other hand, the protests in Rakhial are admirably reinvigorating the spirit of Hindu-Muslim solidarity that had for so long been largely absent in Gandhi’s own city. The human chain on Nehru Bridge on 30th January was conducted in that spirit as well. The Gandhians of Gujarat may abandon him; the politicians of Gujarat may betray him; but in the minds and hearts of many ordinary Amdavadis, the Mahatma lives on.
STANDING WITH GANDHI IN AHMEDABAD
(first published in Hindustan Times, 9th February 2020)