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India's plan to revamp Mahatma Gandhi home meets fierce criticism

Activists Warn Of 'Gandhi Theme Park' At Best Or 'second Assassination' At Worst

A schoolgirl poses next to a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given the job of revamping one of India's most revered pilgrimage sites to his trusted architect.   © Reuters

A backlash from activists and historians has greeted the Indian government's plan to give a $166 million makeover to Mahatma Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmedabad, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat.

Also known as the Sabarmati Ashram, the 55-acre site on the banks of the Sabarmati River, is one of India's most revered pilgrimage sites. Launched by Gandhi in 1917, it served as his and wife Kasturba's home between 1917 and 1930. Considered the nucleus of India's Independence movement, it was from the property that Gandhi led his famous 384 km Dandi March against British rule in 1930, before the father of the nation was shot to death in 1948.

Millions flock to the site to pay homage to the Mahatma. Designated as a national monument, the ashram, or spiritual hermitage, comprises a phalanx of buildings, including a museum, a temple, the hut where Gandhi stayed, the ground where he prayed, a place for his spinning wheel and a guesthouse where international guests were put up.

The Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project was initially announced by the central government in 2019 but mostly remained shrouded until this past March, when the Gujarat state government set up a body to oversee it. Last month, with many of the details finally out in the open, over 100 activists and thinkers wrote an open letter opposing the plan.

The project calls for redeveloping 63 heritage structures within and around the core ashram. They would be integrated into one composite area and remodeled to showcase the activities of the original ashram and Gandhi's lifestyle.

Mahatma Gandhi works at his spinning wheel in the Sabarmati Ashram in 1925.   © Getty Images

In addition, a new museum would be created along with an amphitheater, a VIP lounge, shops selling khaddar cotton cloth merchandise and souvenirs. A food court and 200-car parking lot are also planned. An iconic statue of Mahatma Gandhi would be relocated from another part of the city to form the ashram's centerpiece.

The project is to be executed under the direct supervision of Modi and Gujarat State's chief minister. It is to be funded by the Ministry of Culture and completed in 2024, the year India is scheduled to hold its next general elections.

However, critics allege that the revamp would desecrate the ashram while compromising its inherent simplicity and sanctity. In the open letter, activists and thinkers stated that the proposed project can be envisioned at best as a "Gandhi Theme Park" and at worst as the Mahatma's "second assassination." They also expressed their concern over the "frightening aspect" of the government taking control over all Gandhian archives.

"We must collectively oppose any government takeover of Gandhian institutions, while ensuring that the government continues to use public money for the proper maintenance and upkeep of such institutions, in consultation with eminent Gandhians, historians and archivists from India and around the world," the joint statement says.

Sabarmati Ashram, the simple house where Mahatma Gandhi once lived, is made of tiles and bricks.   © Getty Images

Others feel the revamp is an attempt by the government "to appropriate" the Mahatma's legacy. "It is an insult to Gandhi that the place he loved most is being tampered with so thoughtlessly," said Pradeep Bishan, an activist and historian whose grandfather was part of India's freedom movement with Gandhi. "What is the urgency for the ashram to be made into a world-class memorial? Isn't it already world-class?"

Added a member of the Gandhi Ashram Bachao Samiti, an organization that is opposing the revamp: "What is most inspirational about the ashram is its simplicity and the modesty with which Gandhi lived. The makeover is an attempt to wipe out Gandhi's memory from the public consciousness and blatantly commercialize the Gandhian legacy."

Urban planners in Ahmedabad say the project would displace thousands from their homes and workplaces, while the rerouting of roads around the ashram would spoil the layout of a fundamental section of the city.

Around 200 families hold stakes in the land under the ashram. Belonging to the underprivileged sections, they were brought in by Gandhi in 1917 to live on the site and help in its upkeep. They worry they will be left without a place to live and are protesting against any changes. The government has offered them $81,509 each as compensation for vacating their properties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to Sabarmati Ashram in 2014.   © Getty Images

What has irked the critics most is the top-down, backroom nature of how the project was launched. They point out there were no consultations with Gandhian scholars, opposition parties or even Mahatma Gandhi's family.

Expressing his disenchantment with the plan, Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's great-grandson, tweeted: "After how the Central Government has desecrated sacred Jallianwala Baugh [another controversial makeover project in India's northern state of Punjab], it becomes imperative to protect Sabarmati Ashram from their malicious intentions."

Some critics have also objected to the prestigious project being handled by an Ahmedabad-based company -- HCP Design Planning and Management Private -- helmed by architect Bimal Patel. Considered Modi's trusted architect, Patel is currently involved in a slew of other government projects, including the highly contentious Central Vista Project, a redevelopment project in the central administrative area of New Delhi.

The government and developers are convinced, a member of the HCP Design Planning team said, that the ashram needs to be expanded and remodeled to "offer visitors a seamless experience without disturbing the sanctity and ethos of the place."

According to Bishan, the makeover is a political strategy by the current government "to appropriate the Gandhi legacy to burnish its credentials" and counteract some of the flak it has received over its handling of COVID-19 and the pandemic's economic fallout.