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‘Panels’ in praise of PM Modi at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram

THE ASIAN AGE. | ANAND K SAHAY
Published : Aug 14, 2017, 2:07 am IST
Updated : Aug 14, 2017, 2:07 am IST

The photo-feature on the Mahatma’s life and work continues outside the rooms, spilling over on to the verandah, not far from the Modi panels.

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi spinning a charkha at the Sabarmati Ashram. (Photo: PTI)
 A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi spinning a charkha at the Sabarmati Ashram. (Photo: PTI)

As we take another step toward the 70th anniversary of our independence, and right after the distinctly “Gandhian” means employed unsuccessfully by the BJP on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Quit India Movement to win all the three Rajya Sabha seats from Gujarat, it is necessary to record the silent move of the Modi government a month ago to gatecrash Sabarmati Ashram, the Mahatma’s sanctum sanctorum, in order to gild the PM’s image.

If storming the electoral turf on the Ganga at Varanasi was done in public glare with energy and a rampaging will three years ago, Narendra Modi, now in the avatara of the Prime Minister, chose to insinuate himself into Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, with practically no one noticing.

On a recent visit, this writer was shocked — and offended — on seeing at the famous ashram expensive looking panels singing paeans to Mr Modi in the guise of lavishing praise on his government’s trademark programmes which, experts believe, have fetched little by way of positive result for the country (in contrast with political dividend for his party and him personally) and, in short, constitute high-decibel propaganda. 

Professionally mounted rare photographs on Gandhi’s life with appropriate annotations in a series of rooms lead to an open verandah where the Modi panels stood. These were apt to give the impression to the uninitiated that the work being done by Mr Modi is a natural extension of the Mahatma’s experiments with truth, which the old photos endeavour to depict. 

The photo-feature on the Mahatma’s life and work continues outside the rooms, spilling over on to the verandah, not far from the Modi panels. 

Indeed, the visuals on the Dandi March, the event that signalled breaking the salt law and infused momentum into the freedom movement at a difficult moment, are in the piazza, not in the rooms.

Seen in a critical spirit, this won’t cut ice. But a large number of viewers, from the questions they asked of guides, appeared to be simple folk from different parts of the country likely to accept what they see, and what they are told. at face value.

Schoolgirl guides were posted in groups to explain the panels to enquiring visitors in the ashram museum block. They seemed to have been taught to give set, tutored, answers to easily anticipated questions. That made them parrot the official Modi propaganda.

Enquiries revealed that the media in Ahmedabad had not reported this invidious attempt of the government to encroach upon the Sabarmati Ashram which has been in its present location since 1917, although the institution was founded two years prior at a place nearby called Kochrab and had to be moved on account of the spread of plague in that village. 

The Prime Minister was at Sabarmati in early July when a function was held to mark the centenary of the founding of Gandhi’s ashram. Whether the installation of panels to highlight the Modi regime’s programmes pre-dated his visit or followed it needs to be ascertained from the Sabarmati management.

The more fundamental question, of course, is who authorised the invasion of Gandhi’s sanctum by the government’s propaganda machinery a hundred years after the world-famous institution was founded. And what were the circumstances in which the decision was taken? 

It is evident that the government converting an iconic national institution into a site of official propaganda may well have been intended to devalue the Sabarmati Ashram in the long run and dilute its appeal. In ideological terms, Mahatma Gandhi is anathema to the RSS, from which Mr. Modi has risen, and to followers of the Hindutva ideology more broadly. It is they who assassinated him.

Journalist friends in Ahmedabad, when asked about how the BJP, the ruling party in Gujarat, views Gandhi now that it is in government, point to the example of the so-called “Mahatma Mandir” in Gandhinagar, the state capital very near Ahmedabad. This Mandir is lavishly appointed. Tourist-guides conduct group tours. On display are facets of Gandhiji’s life. What’s missing is the real story of his death. The name of Nathuram Godse is wholly absent. Welcome to BJP’s Gandhi!

Maybe, it is this underlying spirit which informs the recent decision to mix the flavour of Gandhi’s memory enshrined at Sabarmati with other, more mundane, things like governmental popaganda. 

There may also be the Prime Minister’s evident need to gain some legitimacy through Gandhi, and seek to broaden his appeal among those who do not hark back to the PM’s ideological family. So far, the most important marker in Mr Modi’s biography is the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. But after transitioning to national leader, the emperor needs new clothes.   

It’s worthwhile asking if Mr Modi could ever have qualified to be an inmate of Sabarmati Ashram. Eligibility rules were stringent, and enjoined on everyone daily physical labour and spartan living, not to mention celibacy. Changing your clothes to suit the occasion and to wear coats that cost lakhs of rupees was a disqualification. But Mr Modi managed to muscle his way in, anyway.

Tags: quit india movement, narendra modi, mahatma gandhi