Keeping Alive Gandhi’s Legacy

On the foothills of the Himalayas, Kausani ashram educates girls following Gandhian principles.

One can hardly mention India without thinking of Gandhi. The country’s most famous and vocal freedom fighter is everywhere, his recognizable portrait –the gentle smile, the inimitable spectacles ubiquitous on the walls of every institution across the country. Gandhi and his principles have unquestionably marked the largest democracy, its destiny and its social and political landscape.

Even if India has taken a path that brought it far away from Gandhi’s ideals of austerity and non violence, the father of the nation’s values and principles still infuse the country. For social workers, activists, and for all those who strive for change, Gandhi’s work and life remains significant, and across India, many initiatives remain rooted and animated by the man’s actions.

The state of Uttarakhand, on the foothills of the Himalayas, a verdant region that has somehow persevered against exploitative industrialization and urbanization, is one of the places where this particular spirit has been kept alive. It was Sarla Ben, one of the disciples of Gandhi, who after visiting the region, decided to stay back and work for the local communities following Gandhi’s ideal. Sarla Ben is often referred to as the English daughter of Gandhi. Born Katherine Mary Heilman, she left her homeland on 4th June, 1934, abandoning family, friends and her former identity, with the urge to get involved in the Indian independence movement alongside Gandhi. She travelled across the country supporting political prisoners and courageously contributing to the cause. Twice imprisoned, she was never daunted and bravely bore the cost of the fight.

In 1946, she visited Uttarakhand along with Gandhi. Both of them were seduced by the verdant landscapes of the region and by the peaceful life in the villages on the foothills of the Himalayas. Sarla Ben decided to settle and to act locally towards the fulfillment of Gandhi’s envisioning of the future nation. She founded an ashram in the hill station of Kasauni with the desire to provide education to the girls of the region with special attention to the most underprivileged ones. The ashram was named “Kasturba Mahila Utthan Mandal”, as a homage to Gandhi’s wife and started in a small four room house built on the land donated by a local civil servant.

It is now become commonly admitted that educating girls greatly benefits society at large, but in the late 1940’s, in a country like India, where giving birth to a girl is still considered a burden, the idea was somewhat revolutionary. Against all odds, the project has lived up and the ashram has developed and expanded. It now hosts 250 students, ranging from 7 years old to undergraduates. If the institution was previously reserved for the weaker sections of society, it has recently opened up to girls beyond any distinction of class and caste. Yet it still reserves attention to dalit and lower class pupils, providing them with free schooling and accommodation within the ashrams. Girls from more well-to do backgrounds contribute according to their family’s financial situation. Hence, the ashram succeeds in preserving an egalitarian spirit.

By emphasizing the importance of manual work and self-reliance, the institution keeps alive the Gandhian principles of ‘Nai talim’, the Gandhian doctrine that looks at education as a holistic process, in which children have to be initiated into both intellectual and manual work. ‘Nai talim’ was a pillar of Gandhi’s envisioned social system. For him “the principal idea (of Nai Talim) is to impart the whole education of the body, mind and soul through the handicraft that is taught to the children”.

In the last decades, India has chosen to open up to globalization and free market economy, taking a further step in leaving behind Gandhi’s legacy, who advocated for economic self-dependence and stressed the importance of the village as the basic economic unit. Gandhi’s vision of the nation was certainly idealistic, and one can hardly tell if India would have done better following its principles rather than the Nehruvian idea of development.

While that divide remains the site of a never ending debate, Kasauni’s ashram is the manifestation of a set of ideas and a culture that helped shaped the nation state of India and later fell from favor.  That it persists and thrives makes it a window opening not just into an idealistic past but also into an alternative future, should we ever choose to avail of it. History, after all, has a tendency of moving around in spirals.

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