In 1936 my Grandfather wrote from the newly established Sevagram Ashram to Henry Polak, his former senior editor when he was still in South Africa publishing the Indian Opinion newspaper two decades earlier. By that time my father Manilal Gandhi and mother Sushila Gandhi were managing the publication, which they would continue to do for another two decades.
This vital piece of Gandhian history was recently published in Times of India. Gandhi writes his letter from Sevagram Ashram, shortly after establishing his latest and final headquarters that would remain until his death in 1948.
“I am trying to become a villager,” he (Gandhi) wrote on 6 July 1936 to Henry Polak, his friend and associate of South African days. “The place where I am writing this (letter) has a population of 600 – no roads, no post-office, no shop.”
The move to Sevagram Ashram was the culmination of a chain of events which even Gandhi’s closest colleagues had not anticipated; it also contained a message which is no less relevant today than it was in Gandhi’s lifetime.
Before setting out on the Dandi March in March 1930, Gandhi had declared that this was going to be his last battle, that he would not return to his ashram until Swaraj was won. After release from jail in 1933… he decided to dissolve the (Sabarmati) ashram, and offered the land and the buildings to the government. The government did not accept the offer. Gandhi then decided to turn over the ashram properties to the Harijan Sevak Sangh. It was at this time that Jamnalal Bajaj reiterated the offer he had made to the Mahatma 18 years earlier to find the land, buildings and funds for the ashram if he agreed to come to Wardha.
The formation of the All-India Village Industries Association offered an opportunity which Jamnalal seized with both hands. He offered to house it in Wardha and to donate for it his large garden-house, with its 20-acre orchard. Gandhi accepted the offer. The Association was established in December 1934.
From the beginning of 1935, Wardha became the centre of Gandhi’s activities. The fact that he had recently shed direct responsibility for Congress work meant that he would tour less, and spend more time at Wardha. There was enough to engage him in Wardha. The constructive work which Vinoba Bhave and Jamnalal Bajaj had been nurturing for a decade received fresh impetus.
Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) went to Sindi to stay in a one-roomed cottage. She could not make much headway with the problem of sanitation, but she argued that Sindi was really a suburb of Wardha. If the idea was to understand and solve the problems of the villages, a better sample had to be chosen… Her choice finally fell on Segaon (as Sevagram was known earlier), a village four miles to the east of Wardha, which seemed to be “the least unsatisfactory.” Its greatest asset was that it had an orchard and a farm belonging to Jamnalal Bajaj…
Gandhi’s proposal to move to Segaon raised a storm. Practically everyone was opposed to it. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel considered the proposal preposterous…
There was nothing to recommend Segaon. It was not even connected by road with Wardha; it did not have a post-office; it was infested with snakes; it was situated in a low-lying area, inaccessible during the rains, and its stagnant pools of water made it seriously malarial. There were even stories of robberies and murders in the neighbourhood. These disqualifications notwithstanding, Gandhi’s resolve to settle in Segaon was unshaken.
On the morning of 30 April 1936, he walked from Wardha to Segaon to select a site for his cottage on the way he met Roodmal, Jamnalal Bajaj’s manager for agricultural operations. Gandhi told him that he was gong to Segaon. “Mahatmaji, you have taken away Maganwadi (the cottage in Wardha) from Jamnalal. Now you will also snatch Segaon from him,” Roodmal remarked. “What else do you expect from a man like me?” Gandhi quipped.
He spent the night in Segaon in an improvised shelter under the trees; the evening prayers were held in the village. The Mahatma’s speech in Hindi was translated into Marathi: “I have come to you village to serve you…. I thought I should complete the work which Mirahehn may not be able to do… However, I would not want to inflict myself on those who view me with suspicion or fear. The fear arises from my dedication to fight against untouchability… I can only try to persuade you to shed you ideas.”
By the end of 1936, Kasturba, Manu Gandhi, Dr Khan Saheb (the Congress leader of the North West Frontier Province) and Tukdoji Maharaj, a melodious singer of devotional songs, were lodged in Gandhi’s one-room cottage. The quiet and privacy he had dreamt of in a village seemed to elude him. “This has become,” he wrote to Mirabehn on 20 July 1936, “a confused household instead of a hermitage it was expected to be. Such has been my fate! I must find my hermitage from within.” Early in 1937, Gandhi was persuaded to shift into a smaller cottage, which Mirabehn had originally built for herself. It came to be known as Bapu Kutir, and has been preserved to this day, as it was in Gandhi’s lifetime.
In the first few weeks Gandhi seemed to savour the solitude of Sevagram. “All round is open and beautiful. Fresh breeze blowing throughout the day. It is quite cool. Perfect walks all over.”
Life in Sevagram was, however, no picnic for those who joined him there. He had moved in when the monsoon had already broken. Those who came to meet him had to pick their way along muddy tracks. And soon, everyone seemed to be falling ill. Gandhi himself had a virulent attack of malaria.
“My malaria has quickened by resolve to study the problem of making Segaon malaria-proof. All round me the fields are water-logged…
“If I had listened to my friends’ advice to postpone settling in Segaon till after the rains, I would have missed the rich experience I have gained during the heavy rains for the past two months.”
There was no road from Wardha to Sevagram. Gandhi was not enthusiastic about a road connection with Wardha; he wanted the national leaders who came to see him to understand the problems of those who lived in villages. Jamnalal Bajaj had improvised a curious vehicle — which he called “Oxford” — for journeys between Wardha and Sevagram; it consisted of the back portion of an old Ford motor car, pulled by a pair of oxen. This was the vehicle which was used by Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari and others.
Gandhi had wanted to settle in a “typical” Indian village. Sevagram, however, turned out to be an uncommonly backward village, and almost impervious to progressive impulses from outside. Some of the psychological resistance he encountered in Sevagram may have been due to adverse political influences from his political opponents in nearby Nagpur. But the real bane of this village was the strangle-hold of untouchability on its inhabitants… Gandhi used every weapon in his non-violent armoury to make a dent on this tyrannical system. He engaged Govind, a Harijan boy, to cook for him. He refused to have his hair cut by the village barber so long as he denied his services to Harijans. Despite high-caste opposition, he caused a private well in Sevagram, owned by Jamnalal, to be opened to Harijans. He argued patiently with the leaders of orthodoxy, who professed to revere him, but were reluctant to shake off their prejudices. “Everything is permissible,” said a village headman to Gandhi, “to a Mahatma like you, but not to fellows like us.”
To Gandhi, untouchability was not merely a religious issue, a question of the interpretation of scriptures; it had a direct bearing on the village economy. The occupation of the bhangi, the scavenger, as the most despised; he was kept at arms’ length even my many Harijans who had their own social hierarchy of ritual purity, This irrational prejudice made it difficult to improve sanitation, and fight disease in the village; it also operated against the use of human and animal excreta as manure.
Gandhi’s preoccupation with these problems jarred on some of his colleagues. They wondered why he should fritter way his energies on such seeming trivialities, when momentous political issues were crying for his attention.
“But is there no better way?” Nehru asked (Gandhi). “Must you do all these things yourself?” “Who else is there to do it?” Gandhi replied.
“Why am I in Sevagram?” Gandhi asked in an article in December 1936, and answered: “Because I believe that my message will have a better chance of penetrating the masses of India, and, may be, through them, the world.”
How Sevagram got its name
When Gandhi moved to this tiny village near Wardha, it was known as Segaon. However, the letters meant to be delivered here were mistakenly delivered to Shegaon, the spiritual place located in Buldhana district. To clear the confusion, Gandhi wrote to the authorities on behalf of the villagers to have the village name changed. In March 1940, the name of Segaon was changed to Sevagram.
Eligibility criteria for satyagrahis
Being a satyagrahi was a matter of pride for every Indian. But Mahatma Gandhi wanted only the most serious and deserving candidates to be able to participate in agitations. During his stay at Sevagram, Gandhi laid down stipulations for satyagrahis, says a report from April 21, 1941. “Permission to offer satyagraha will not hereafter be granted to newcomers who are able to spin just ordinarily and have worn khaddar recently. They will have to go to villages and do constructive work and those who work for a fixed period and produce details of work done in the villages week by week will be allowed to offer satyagraha.”
Visit the official website of Sevagram Ashram