At the Delhi Colony Where Gandhi Once Lived, Perceptions of His Legacy Are Mixed

While his room in Valmiki Sadan has been kept as it was 75 years ago, the surroundings have changed drastically.

This year on January 30 will be exactly 75 years to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of those against his message of non-violence and fierce defence of a syncretic India. In a series of articles and videos, The Wire takes stock of Gandhi’s murder, and delves deeper into the forces and ideas behind independent India’s first act of terror. Recent years have seen another attempt to kill Gandhi, his ideas, spirit and message. We hope to help unpack where India stands today and its future, through the lens of how the Father of the Nation’s legacy is being treated.

New Delhi: For 214 days between April 1, 1946 and June 10, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi stayed at the Maharishi Valmiki Mandir at Mandir Marg, which was then known as Reading Road, in New Delhi. He wanted to teach the children of the adjoining Valmiki Colony which was largely inhabited by Dalits, most of whom were working as sweepers in nearby colonies.

When Gandhi lived here, the number of students grew from around 30 to 75 as people residing in nearby areas like Gole Market, Irwin Road and even Paharganj began sending their children to him. Ironically, Gandhi had to move out of the complex for security reasons. He was shifted to Birla House, where he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse less than eight months later.

Today, a visit to the temple and the complex, now known as Valmiki Sadan, reveals how some things have moved the way Gandhi would have liked while others have changed for the worse. Likewise, while his room has been kept as it was 75 years ago, the surroundings have changed drastically. Also, just the way Gandhi received both bouquets and brickbats for all his actions, so is it now – he is both revered and detested at the complex.

For one, the slum which stood in the complex is long gone. Now as one turns into the complex towards the temple, one is immediately greeted by two grounds on both sides of the driveway. They are full of children from the colony as well as nearby areas playing cricket or other sports. Then there are residents – men and women both – of the Vikas Sadan flats, which is a colony of New Delhi Municipal Council employees, who can be seen in the area.

These government flats were constructed in 1964 and were allotted to mostly residents of the slum which existed earlier. A large number of cars now stand parked outside this colony, indicating a certain level of economic prosperity. As people bask in the winter sun, the setting appears ideal. There is a sense of goodwill and good cheer all around. One is left wondering how Bapu would have felt seeing all this.

But this is how things appear at the surface. On scratching the surface a bit, the real story emerges.

Room where Gandhi stayed, taught Valmiki children is now a museum

The head of the Rashtriya Valmiki Mandir Evam Ashram, Krishan Vidhyarti, who is also the temple priest, said Gandhi was once asked why he chose to stay in this temple: “Gandhiji said I respect all religions. Here I have come to the place of Maharishi Valmiki who introduced the world to Lord Ram. Also the way Ram went to the seer to seek guidance, so do I want to take his guidance to realise the dream of the country’s freedom and to understand and eradicate the caste based shortcomings that exist. I also want to stay with the Valmikis to partake in their lives and sorrows.”

On whether India has been able to address caste-based discrimination after Gandhi, Vidhyarti, who himself belongs to the Valmiki sub-caste and has resided in the complex all his life, said: “Gandhiji was quite disturbed by caste-based system of that time. He believed that all people were equal and so why the discrimination. People of one particular community were ousted from Hinduism like untouchables, their lifestyle was changed and so was their economic, social and educational status – making them writhe in pain as they sat at the bottom of the social ladder. So Gandhiji said I will live with them and share their grief and difficulties.”

“This temple has existed for long before Gandhiji came. The room in which he stayed was earlier used for the accommodation of Valmiki saints and seers. Also, a school used to be run in the same room for educating Valmiki children. When Gandhiji asked if he could stay here, the elders and leaders of the organisation gave their assent. He made no changes to the room and because he wanted to experience the place as it existed,” he said.

Krishan Vidhyarti. Photo: Zeeshan Kaskar

The room is now maintained as a museum. On the one side is Gandhi’s bed, while in the front is his spinning wheel on which he used to weave yarn for 30-40 minutes a day. The walls are lined with Gandhi’s pictures with several prominent leaders of the time – Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajgopalachari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan ‘Frontier Gandhi’, and Lady and Lord Mountbatten.

There is also a picture of Gandhi teaching children in the room. “Gandhi taught the children about behavioural practices too – about the need to keep the nails clean, wash the hands after ablution. He also taught English to the older children,” recalled Vidhyarti, who spent his childhood in the complex and whose father and uncle studied from Gandhi.

`Violence against Dalits shows Gandhi is forgotten’

On how far the country has moved in eradicating caste-based shortcomings in the 75 years after Gandhi and how he views regular reports of caste-based violence against Dalits, Vidhyarti said, “Gandhiji wanted the social disparities to go. But it seems that now Gandhi is no longer someone who is remembered – he has become a mere object to be only recalled on January 30 and October 2.”

Vidhyarti also explained why the Dalit community hails Dr B.R. Ambedkar as a greater leader than Gandhi. “Gandhiji was a complete life into himself. He was a barrister who gave up wearing too many clothes because he wanted others to have them and he wanted to experience the life of those who led a life of poverty and hardship. But while he could change his own thought process, he could not make others change. Also, people of the Dalit community got education and jobs due to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who worked through his life to get this community the respect it deserved. So, he is the ‘yug purush’ who changed this community.”

Anger against Gandhi

In the playing grounds nearby, a group of retired government employees too believe that it was Ambedkar, and not Gandhi, who really worked for the community. “What did Gandhi do but coin the word ‘Harijan’ for us? Everyone from Gandhi to all the governments that came have only used us,” said an agitated bespectacled former NDMC employee, who did not wish to be identified.

His friends joined in saying that little has been done for them all these years. “Look at us. Where are we now? But for the fact that Babasaheb Ambedkar got reservation for us in jobs we would have been even more miserable.”

They said that discrimination against Dalits still very much exists. “It exists in the manner we are treated. Our parents all owned houses here and our families have all been residing her for the last 80-100 years. But this land was taken by the government and though we were allotted accommodation, it is now being gradually taken away and people from outside are being settled here in these apartments which came up about 60 years ago.”

Also, these former government employees said the pension scheme was changed in 2004 and people joining after that are not entitled to a pension. “What will our children do? They will not get any pension.”

Moreover, these former employees said now vacancies are deliberately not filled in government jobs and private contractors are being engaged. “There is no reservation in private jobs and so by not filling vacancies they are gradually ensuring that no one gets appointed through the quota.”

As for social discrimination, these ex-employees lamented that they were not even allowed to catch a glimpse of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he had come to the Valmiki Temple for the inauguration of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. “They had put up screens outside our houses and we were not even allowed to step out. Barring a couple of children and a handful of residents, no one was allowed to participate. Most children were brought from outside and some of our residents were handed brooms to sweep. This is what they think of us,” said one of the residents of Valmiki Sadan.

`Gandhi was misunderstood, his path is the one we are moving on’

Well known scholar and former MP Udit Raj, who is now with the Congress, believes that Gandhi’s contribution to the welfare of the Dalits has largely gone unnoticed and not been propagated adequately. “Gandhiji played a major role in upliftment of Dalits. If he had not been there, Dr. Ambedkar would not have been there in the Constituent Assembly and he would also not have become a minister,” he argued.

On the criticism of Gandhi over some issues, he said, “take the word `Harijan’ – he meant Hari’s people, people of God. It was not meant to refer to them in the way ‘dasis’ (women who commit themselves to the deity) live in temples. Nevertheless the word was objected to and was taken off usage.”

“Secondly, Gandhi said there should be no untouchability and discrimination. He did not speak of abolition of the caste system. He is also criticised for this. But those who criticise him need to look within and ask if they have annihilated caste among themselves. Mainly the discourse is about differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar. So was Ambedkar followed? There is severe sub-casteism within Dalits. They are all mired in their cause. They are all fighting against each other. So theoretically while this criticism may be right, practically it does not stand.”

“Okay, if Gandhi was wrong and Ambedkar was right, then people should have followed the path of Ambedkar. But among the Dalits, they only marry within their sub-castes, they like to stay in such groups and in elections, they vote on the basis of such sub-castes. While I agree with Ambedkar that the caste-system should have been abolished, practically we are all moving on the path of Gandhi.”

At the Valmiki Sadan. Photo: Zeeshan Kaskar

According to the Indian National Congress website, Gandhi and Ambedkar “differed on the issue of untouchability because of their different experiences of the same. Gandhiji was born in a congenial environment. He was looking at untouchability from the religious and spiritual point of view. Ambedkar, on the other hand, had to bear the unbearable pain of caste and humiliation. He was distinctly saying that Hinduism, which believes in untouchability, is unjust.”

It added that Gandhi, a staunch Hindu, was a supporter of the caste system but yet considered untouchability a sin, while Ambedkar “wanted such freedom that was free from the caste system”.

The paper added that after Satyagraha began in 1930 to demand entry of Dalits into the Kalaram Temple in Nashik, there were attacks on the community members. Taking serious note of this, the British government organised a Round Table Conference. Both Ambedkar and Gandhi were invited to it.

Here the British Government declared independent constituencies for Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Anglo-Indians. It identified 71 constituencies in which only Dalits would have had right to vote. Gandhi did not approve of this as he considered it a ploy of the British to divide Hindus. He then began a fast-unto-death against the move at Yerwada Jail in Pune on September 20, 1932.

Due to the fast, the report said, “The pressure on Ambedkar increased. He became a villain and was threatened.” It added that Babasaheb was compelled to go and meet Gandhi in Yerwada Jail. The two agreed to a proposal for reserved seats instead of independent constituencies. This was called the Poona Pact. It was signed on September 24, 1932, with 148 reserved seats for untouchables. However, this “created bitterness in the minds of Ambedkar’s followers” as many felt Babasaheb was forced into this pact.

As noted author Arundhati Roy wrote in her book, The Doctor And The Saint, later Ambedkar wrote about the episode saying, “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act . . . [I]t was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed under the Prime Minister’s Award and agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act. How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?”

`Gandhi supported Ambedkar all along, his work was not well advertised’

“…when it came to appointment of the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution or of appointment to the Cabinet, Gandhi everywhere supported Ambedkar,” Raj said.

On how most Dalits believe that barring Dr Ambedkar, no one worked for them, not even Gandhi, Raj said: “That is indeed the case. But it is the fault of the Congress that it could not adequately communicate to the people either its own work or these decisions taken by Gandhi for them. The party brought NREGA, and started reservation in education and promotions, and in allotment of filling stations and even kerosene depots, ration shops, fertiliser outlets. It also gave land to the landless under the Constitution. And it is under this Constitution that BJP is taking many of those rights away. This, however, needs to be communicated properly to the people.”

Meanwhile, the young appear to be forgetting Gandhi. At Vikas Sadan, while some of the teenagers were able to recall his name and some could even recall that he stood up for non-violence, most were unable to recall who he was. A group of young children, pleading ignorance, said: “Uncle hame nahin pata Gandhiji kaun hain. Aap 7th Class say bade walon say poochho, unhay pata hoga (We do not know who Gandhi was. You please ask those higher than in Class 7, they might know).”