Ignorant of centenary festivities by Sabarmati Ashram, residents sayDalit families who have been living on Ashram premises since it was set up 100 years ago claim they have been ostracised from celebrations; trust director clarifies Harijan trust is a part of festivities

Downtrodden Dalits found a better life when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi invited them to set up homes at the Sabarmati Ashram almost 100 years ago. Today, when the Ashram is gearing up to celebrate 100 years of its existence, these people who were once like family to the Mahatma are being treated like pariahs again. While the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust has organised a grand fete to mark the centenary on June 17, Dalit families at the Ashram allege the trust is treating them like untouchables by excluding them from all celebrations.Forming a group called `Harijan Ashram Bachao Samiti’, they have listed their grievances and submitted a memorandum to the trustees. The families have also planned to stage a dharna on June 17. The trustees however refute the allegations, claiming that the celebrations are being hosted by Gandhian organisations including the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust.

Shailesh Rathod (41), president of Gandhi Ashram Rehvasi Mandal and convener of Harijan Ashram Bachao Samiti, says, “Gandhiji came here with 99 Dalit families and called this place the Harijan Ashram. My grandfather Ukabhai was one of the families. We are the original ashramvasis but we have not been included in the celebration. We have no clue about the festivities to be held on June 17.“

The memorandum presented by the Dalit families lists nine demands including information about the festivities, inclusion of residents in the activities and maintenance of all houses on the premises.

Explaining this, Rathod says, “Gandhiji first established the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust in 1934.Later, for various reasons, this was split into other trusts after 1951. One of our demands is that one of us should be part of these trusts.“

Ashramvasi Hemant Chauhan (54), who works as a caterer, says, “We submitted a memorandum 10 days ago that the original inmates were being sidelined from this historical event. It is because of our families that Gandhi ashram has preserved its glory. We opposed several development schemes declared by the government that would have damaged this heritage site. Yet, we are being ignored while institutes like Navjivan and Gujarat Vidhyapith are a part of the fête.“

He adds, “The Ashram includes our houses too, not just the memorial. Yet, the trust has been using funds only to give the memorial a facelift while our buildings receive no maintenance.“

More than 200 families live on the Ashram premises, and most of them are Dalits. The families pay rent ranging from Rs 5 to Rs 200 a month for the houses. Most of them have jobs or run small businesses. As per the memorandum, residents demand waiving of rent. “We want the houses to be gifted to us. We also want to be given priority in jobs related to management of the ashram,“ the residents seek in the memorandum. The memorandum also demands a stop against sale of merchandise like kurtas, books, mugs and soaps as “it is against the trust’s Constitution“. “The trust is supposed to take care of the memorial not indulge in commercial activities,“ the memorandum states.

Meanwhile, refuting allegations, memorial trust director Tridip Suh rud terms celebration as a historical one. Admitting he received a memorandum from Ashram residents, he says, “We will address their grievances. The trust’s secretary Amrut Modi and Harijan Ashram Trust’s Jayesh Patel met them. Our trust’s chairperson Ila Bhatt will meet them soon.“

He adds, “No individual is involved in the event. It is being hosted by eight organisations and trusts associated with Gandhiji. Other than the memorial trust, these include Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Vidyapith, Navjivan, and Majur Mahajan Sangh. These families live in houses rented by Harijan Ashram Trust that is part of the celebration.So, there’s no question of ignoring anyone.“ About repairs to houses, Suhrud says, “A committee has been formed to decide how to use government funds.“

While Harijan Ashram trustee Jayesh Patel could not be contacted for comment despite several attempts, secretary Modi confirms they met residents on Saturday. “They have not been sidelined. However, we will talk to them once more to sort out issues.“