Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Tearing Hurry

It’s the turn of the Sabarmati Ashram now, Central Vista has been done and dusted in pursuit of world class. What is history in its pursuit?

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By Vikram Kilpady

The art of saying things without hurting people’s egos is one of nuance, as could be seen, recently, in an economist’s reference to certain ever-growing facial hair. The fact that it took a master show-off to make it popular is another matter. Such is politics, he could add, to make more hahas and social media gold with one’s Midas quote-tweet touch, thus topping an already resounding wisecrack!

The word referred to above, if you haven’t guessed it already, is pogonotrophy. Suffice it to say it is something about beards. The economist was speaking of the continuous slide in quarterly economic data that is dipping deeper into the red, but people who should have been tearing their hair out over trying to stem the decline were busy elsewhere. Others who could have helped stop the blight were talking of not consuming tear-inducing vegetables, whose prices were shooting along steadily into the stratosphere.

Now, history has been recast in New Delhi with bulldozers and the like busy tearing up the trees, greenery and the rest as part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Plan. To make room for offices, a greater Parliament building and a new PM’s residence. Abjuring the labours of Sobha Singh and his fellow contractors, the Parliament will be built now by the Tatas, the ones who make everything from salt to software.

The greater attempt to imprint a different government, a different regime that sees things “differently”, on plain old Lutyens’ Delhi is on without checks or balances as successive pleas in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court fell by the wayside and invited costs upon the august petitioners, now raised via crowdfunding.

Such are the times that their plea was not even on protecting what was left behind by the planners of independent India, forget Edwin Lutyens’ creation of a capital for an erstwhile empire. Their plea was on the wisdom of continuing the lightning-speed pace of erasing the Central Vista’s historic relevance in the time span of the coronavirus pandemic. And the security and well-being of the workmen who, like the slaves who built the pyramids of Egypt, had just tophats and masks for safety in the middle of the health crisis, then raging in the capital.

The emasculation of the private and public healthcare systems when the oxygen ran out in Delhi is still fresh in memory, only to be drowned out by no data in Parliament. A plain answer to a starred, pointed question. No data—not on migrants, not on oxygen deaths and not on the deaths of Dalits while cleaning sewage lines choked with excreta. Nada.

Everything stood still and withered during the pandemic. But the redevelopment of the Central Vista didn’t. Brick by brick, branch by branch, trees and avenues have been erased from collective memory into gigantic holes for more concrete to be poured into. 

Like No Data, Development is another central mantra of this government. But Development is assumed to be in lifting places and people from despondent, pitiable conditions to better times. But Development is now so intensive, so souped up on acid and whatever else, that it has to be called Re-Development. Poor Vikas with bulging muscles and red, red eyes.

Just like the now battered and re­fashioned Central Vista, another monument to the making of modern India is being obliterated to make way for a larger project. The Sabarmati Ashram. The ashram of the man who is called the Father of the Nation, not the nation’s father, is going to be fiddled with by a party that has the distinct DNA of his assassin. So easy it is for the Development folk to tear apart lime and mortar and raise a Louvre-like edifice for a man whose everyday items make for its prospective prime exhibits. His worn-out chappals, hand-wound watch and wire-frame glasses will possibly be resting in centrally-air conditioned hallways. Perhaps the grand museum for the simple man is taking a leaf from Sarojini Naidu’s comment that it cost a fortune to keep the Mahatma poor.

Many guarantees have been given to the Ashram trustees that the simplicity of the area will not be impinged upon, but the promise, no, almost the threat, of making things “world class” is indeed ominous. Remember the demolition of the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industry in Pragati Maidan to make way for “world class” convention centres? The profusion of “world class” facilities in Gujarat has ensured that a massive convention centre has been built near the Gandhinagar railway station, a location where very few trains halt. It could well be meant for the Bullet Train (that never rolled): another “world class” proposition.

And then there is the charkha. The anachronistic image of Chinese President Xi Jinping with his wife turning the charkha on their first visit to India in the early days of the Narendra Modi government is not some­thing to be forgotten easily. No one less than the prime minister himself was at hand, pointing out key details in the memorable house. Just like the Summit in Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram near Chennai where they posed next to Krishna’s Butterball, apt for people good at snatching things.

The Sabarmati Ashram stays silent all the while though the waterfront is said to be foul-smelling after its redevelopment. It makes media headlines only as a prop for VIP photo-ops.

The ideology of the man who gives the Sabarmati Ashram its reason for existence has long been forgotten by even the offshoots of the Mahatma’s own party, floundering as they are between 20-odd leaders and their machinations and a reluctant scion, self-avowedly unable to take everyone on board the boat ride, let’s say, on the River Sabarmati.

Mahatma Gandhi fought tooth and nail for India’s Independence and for his vision of development. His idea of village swaraj had its critics too, like Dr BR Ambedkar, who saw the village as the Janus-faced end and beginning of caste and its vice-like continuance.

But some 180-190 km away, the Shanghai-made statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, all 182 metres of it, is looking away from the Sabarmati Ashram, looking away from the Central Vista. Nuance can hurt.

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