What Modi’s Plan for Gandhi’s Old Home Reveals About India’s Future

In the winter of 2src2src, workers in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, spent days dressing up the city for the arrival of President Donald Trump. Fully grown palms seemed to sprout overnight on the banks of the Sabarmati River. A six-foot-high wall rose along a road not far from the airport, blocking

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In the winter of 2src2src, workers in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, spent days dressing up the city for the arrival of President Donald Trump. Fully grown palms seemed to sprout overnight on the banks of the Sabarmati River. A six-foot-high wall rose along a road not far from the airport, blocking a slum from view. A billboard touted the meeting between Trump and the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi: “Two Dynamic Personalities: One Momentous Occasion.” As Trump and his wife stepped off Air Force One, the Prime Minister embraced the President, then the leaders departed for a rally at a new cricket stadium, where more than a hundred thousand people were waiting for them. But first Modi wanted to take his guests on an important detour.

Ahmedabad is Modi’s power base: he settled there in his late teens and rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a fascist-inspired paramilitary organization, and its political ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), both dedicated to Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2srcsrc2, when anti-Muslim pogroms tore across the region, killing upward of a thousand people.

But, before Ahmedabad was Modi’s headquarters, it was Mahatma Gandhi’s. From 1915 to 193src, Gandhi made Ahmedabad the base for his nonviolent campaign for Indian independence. The Sabarmati Ashram, the intentional community he founded there, in 1917, is perhaps the best place in India to get a sense of Gandhi’s political and moral philosophy. In recent years, Modi has made a particular point of parading world leaders—Xi Jinping, Benjamin Netanyahu, Boris Johnson—through the ashram, where they could sit together on the veranda of Gandhi’s cottage draped in garlands made of homespun yarn.

Unlike most tourist spots in India, the Sabarmati Ashram has no tickets, no lines, no guards, no metal detectors, no hassle. Inside the compound, the road noise recedes as one strolls on sandy pathways past a multi-faith prayer ground and a sensitively designed museum opened in the nineteen-sixties. Gandhi’s house is the site’s spiritual center. Visitors shuffle off their shoes to pay homage to his memory in his room, furnished with little more than a mat, pillow, and writing desk.

The Trumps visited for about fifteen minutes, just long enough to hang a garland around a portrait of the Mahatma and admire a charkha, or spinning wheel, of the kind that Gandhi used to produce his own yarn as part of a boycott of British textiles. Modi ushered over an ashram guide to demonstrate. She held a wad of cotton in one hand and turned the wheel with the other, pulling the fibre in a steadily lengthening thread. “It’s not going to break?” Trump marvelled to the guide. “No, no,” she explained. “The more you spin, the stronger it will get.”

If it’s hard to imagine Trump making common cause with Gandhi, it’s even more perplexing to see Gandhi embraced by Modi, whose entire political project seems defiantly at odds with Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and religious tolerance. Hindu nationalists, emboldened by Modi’s politics, have even erected shrines to Gandhi’s assassin, the Hindutva militant Nathuram Godse. Yet Modi has regularly invoked Gandhi to promote his own campaigns, and pushed for the construction of “the biggest high tech museum in the world,” dedicated to Gandhi’s life, in Gujarat’s planned capital, Gandhinagar.

In the run-up to India’s recent election, Modi officially inaugurated a whopping hundred-and-forty-million-dollar project to redevelop Gandhi’s ashram and transform it into a “world-class destination.” The undertaking throws into relief the struggles over memorialization being waged in many countries, from efforts to censor the teaching of slavery and civil rights in American schools to the removal of statues of imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold II in places like Cape Town and Antwerp. (A statue of Gandhi himself was removed from the University of Ghana, in 2src18, in part because of his racist views about Black South Africans.) While “decolonizing” initiatives in Europe and North America have generally been led by the political left, in India Hindu nationalists such as Modi have adopted similar rhetoric about Mughals and about Muslims in general—branding them as foreign invaders no different from the British. The Modi government has not hesitated to implement projects that edit India’s history to align with Hindutva ideals. At stake in the ashram revamp is more than how this particular site will look; it’s whether Modi will succeed in draining Gandhi’s legacy of its political substance by funnelling it into his own. What vision of post-colonial India will prevail—inclusive secular democracy, or bigoted Hindu-first autocracy? Gandhi vs. Modi: two dynamic personalities, one momentous site.

In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered floral tributes at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram, in Ahmedabad.

My Bengali grandparents came of age as enthusiastic followers of Gandhi’s independence movement; a family photo from 194src captures my grandfather as a young economist talking earnestly to the Mahatma at an institute dedicated to rural development. Partly because Gandhi and his ideas travelled the length and breadth of India, it was only when I first visited the ashram myself, in 2src18, that I came to appreciate the extent to which his political philosophy was embedded in a specific place. On my annual trips since, as a visiting professor at Ahmedabad University, it often strikes me that the history of Ahmedabad mirrors that of modern India.

The city was founded, in 1411, by Ahmed Shah I, the Muslim sultan of Gujarat, and when Gandhi settled there, in 1915, a booming textile industry was transforming the town into a thriving metropolis that became known as the Manchester of India. With financial support from textile tycoons, the Sabarmati Ashram, at its height, spread across more than a hundred acres, with three hundred or so residents living by the principles of nonviolence, manual labor, and the rejection of the caste-based exclusion of “untouchables.” In 193src, Gandhi set off from the ashram on the Salt March, a spectacular action of civil disobedience in protest of a British monopoly on salt. Vowing not to return to the site until India was independent, he later transferred the land to a trust that he’d established to promote uplift for Dalits, a historically marginalized population that continues to face discrimination. After Gandhi’s death, the ashram was divided across several further trusts dedicated to Gandhian pursuits. The approximately five-acre parcel that visitors see today was set aside to be managed by the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (S.A.P.M.T.).

Meanwhile, the city swelled around it. The population of Ahmedabad tripled between 1921 and 1951, and tripled again between 1951 and 1981. The local mill owners, heavily influenced by Gandhi, shaped mid-century Ahmedabad into a poster town of post-colonial progress, sponsoring an array of cultural and educational institutions and making it a hub of modern architecture and design. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, however, though the population continued to surge, both the textile industry and the ethos of communal harmony had collapsed. Modi, who became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2srcsrc1, is credited with reviving the state’s economy, but the 2srcsrc2 riots hastened a process of religious segregation that has made Ahmedabad, now one of India’s ten largest cities, also one of its most ghettoized. The medieval portion of the city, surrounded with high walls and jammed with ornate mosques and tombs, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2src17, to much fanfare. But a year later the state government floated a proposal to replace the name “Ahmedabad,” which honors the city’s Muslim founder, with the Sanskritized “Karnavati.”

Today a busy road separates the memorial area from the rest of the ashram grounds, which now contain things like a papermaking facility, a bovine sperm bank, and a mass of residential housing. The renovation project seeks to unite as much of the original site as possible and restore structures dating to Gandhi’s time; this means moving the road and relocating the hundreds if not thousands of people who had been living there. Soon after the project was announced, in 2src21, more than a hundred prominent public figures promptly denounced the effort as “at best . . . a ‘Gandhi theme park’ and at worst ‘a second assassination.’ ”

Officials involved in the project herald the ashram redevelopment as a restoration, but acts of restoration can also be acts of erasure. The residents of the site are estimated to number between a thousand and two thousand. Many of them were described to me as “squatters,” because they don’t appear to have legal claims to the land. There are also more than a hundred Dalit families descended from the ashram’s original inhabitants. As such, “by any understanding of natural law, they have rights,” the Mahatma’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi told me. In March, 2src21, some descendants wrote a letter to government officials and trustees pleading to be allowed to remain, noting that they “still follow the Gandhian tenets of spinning, weaving and wearing Khadi [hand-loomed cloth], cleanliness, women’s education, the abolition of untouchability, and communal harmony,” and “breathe life into the heritage” of the ashram. Those residents told me that the government didn’t respond.

The caretakers of the Gandhian trusts have their own understanding of what it means to honor Gandhi’s legacy. The chairman of the S.A.P.M.T., Kartikeya Sarabhai, like many of the site’s residents, has lineal ties to the ashram himself. The Sarabhais have been called the Rockefellers of Ahmedabad: Kartikeya’s grandfather was one of the ashram’s crucial funders, and the family’s members have been major civic (and national) institution-builders. Sarabhai has dedicated his own career to environmental sustainability, a cause Gandhi cherished.

He welcomes the opportunity to restore the ashram to its original state, he says, removing “inappropriate” buildings, ejecting unrelated businesses, and relocating the residents. The big challenge, as he sees it, is to insure that it doesn’t become some “Disneyland on Gandhi.” “We want the aesthetic to match the ethos of the ashram,” Sarabhai insists.

This is easier said than done. Though Gandhi himself had firmly instructed followers not to raise a statue to him, encouraging them instead to spend their money on public works, one patron wished to donate a huge bronze statue of Gandhi to be placed right outside his house. (There is already one small statue of Gandhi in the ashram.) Someone else envisioned a stainless-steel charkha so large it could be seen from the air. (A charkha was installed in a public park near the ashram instead.)

Sarabhai described another proposal: “From the river, this water fountain comes up which has Gandhi’s head in it,” traced by lasers. A hologram “can, of course, dazzle a visitor because of the technology,” Sarabhai went on. The government has enthusiastically embraced such gimmicks in places like the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Prime Ministers’ Museum, in Delhi. “But we don’t want technology to dazzle,” he said.

Sarabhai understands that to conserve the ashram’s aesthetic austerity is, in one sense, to conserve Gandhi’s political and social ethos. Yet, in the world beyond the ashram, the Ahmedabad of the mill-owning élite has been supplanted by a new generation of plutocrats. The Gujarati Ambanis and Adanis, the families of India’s two richest men, have made billions—thanks, in part, to lucrative government deals during both Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat and later as Prime Minister—and revel in extravagant displays of Bollywood bling. Their rise to prominence over the old oligarchy mirrors Modi’s own, as the son of a tea seller, in contrast to his chief political opponent, Rahul Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), who is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Indian Prime Ministers.

Perhaps the only feature of Modi’s reputation as consistent as his anti-Muslim agenda is his self-aggrandizing ambition. “I mean, who in his right mind would have a vision that the Olympics should be held in Ahmedabad?” Sarabhai asked bemusedly, of a supposed 2src36 bid. “To even think that way is audacious—but he does.” For decades, ashram trustees have mused about restoring the site; Modi’s ability to push his plan forward exemplifies his government’s capacity to get big projects done where predecessors have foundered. (This is a point that Modi has not hesitated to emphasize, even claiming, absurdly, that neglect by previous governments meant that the world paid no attention to Gandhi until Richard Attenborough’s 1982 bio-pic.)

Bimal Patel, the Ahmedabad-based architect responsible for the ashram redevelopment, makes a case for the potential of the current government to improve public space. Patel, a fit, silver-haired man with shirtsleeves folded crisply at the elbow, grew up in Ahmedabad in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when the city, like India itself, seemed to be pulled in two directions. On one side, he said, were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “big dreams” of nuclear power and space exploration; on the other were shortages of food and building materials. Patel studied architecture in Ahmedabad, then earned a doctorate in urban planning at Berkeley, and returned to India in 199src, on the cusp of the economy’s liberalization after decades of protectionism. “Once again, people were thinking big and dreaming,” he told me.

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