About 11km from the humming city of Nellore lies Pallepadu village, which is home to the Pinakini Satyagraha Ashram. Blissful silence and a calming breeze welcome you as you navigate a dirt road to reach the ashram.
Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated the ashram, known as the Sabarmati of the south, in 1921. Gandhi was planning to spread his message of non-violence to the south when he met two social workers, Digumarthi Hanumantha Rao and Chaturvedula Venkata Krishnaiah, who were interested in his mission. The Indian National Congress contributed ?10,000 and 22 acres were bought on the banks of the Pennar river to build the ashram. Rao and Krishnaiah were the co-founders. During its early years, several illustrious people, including many freedom fighters, visited and stayed at the ashram. Many programmes for khadi production, eradication of untouchability, education and equality were started.
Soon, as the ashram gained popularity, the need for additional accommodation arose.
That is when Ghorkhodu Rustomjee Jiwanji stepped in. Better known as Parsee Rustomjee, the businessman from South Africa, who was also Gandhi’s friend, contributed a 5,000 sq ft building to the ashram that was named Rustomjee Bhavan.
As it became popular, the ashram attracted unwanted attention. In 1923, a gang of bandits attacked the ashram when most inmates were away on work and took away precious ornaments. The women offered stiff resistance under the leadership of Rao’s wife, Buchhi
Krishnamma. Though they were severely injured, they did not inform the police. However, the police got the news and caught the bandits. Krishnamma was called as witness to the court to identify the ornaments. She had a look at the ornaments, but said she could not confirm that they belonged to the ashram. Hearing this, the bandits had a change of heart and confessed to their crime.
The ashram had established itself as a cultural force in the region, but, after the death of Rao in 1925, internal squabbles surfaced and many inmates left to join other ashrams. During the salt satyagraha in 1930, police attacked the ashram and destroyed flags and furniture. This signalled the end of the ashram’s golden period.
In 1952, Krishnamma tried to revive the ashram and established training centres for the villagers. But soon the activities stopped and the ashram was leased out to the Andhra Pradesh Grama Swarajya Samiti.
During the 1980s, philosopher Sivaram started an experimental school for the poor at the defunct ashram and was joined by British educationist Eleanor Watts. They ran the Srujana Education Trust from 1983 to 1989.
In 2005, the ashram was handed over to the Nellore branch of the Indian Red Cross Society. The society collected funds and rebuilt the dilapidated building. “It was rebuilt to give it the original look,” says Dr A.V. Sub- rahmanyam, the secretary of the society. An eco-friendly guest house was built with the help of volunteers from the Wardha Ashram. On November 7, a peace rally from Nellore city to the ashram, called Vande Gandhiyam, was organised and about 1,300 people participated. Among them were singer Ghazal Srinivas, MP Mekapati Rajamohan Reddy and District Collector N. Srikant. •
President Pranab Mukherjee, who was minister in the Indira years, reveals the man behind the Emergency in his new book, The Dramatic Decade (Rupa Publications). And says Indira Gandhi did not know that there were Constitutional provisions to impose internal emergency.
Lessons from Father
I was a restless child, forever up to mischief an5 with a penchant for avoiding studies as much as I could. I would rather play away my day with the neighbourhood boys than go to school. This is not to say that I did not get thrashed for this indiscipline, both by my mother and the schoolmaster, but at that time I thought it well worth to endure the thrashing to pursue my deep interest in having a good time!
It could be said that between 1940 and 19451 did not go to school, preferring instead a life of playing games, climbing trees or running along with the grazing herds of cows. In 1946, however, I was enrolled at the Kirnahar Shib Chandra High English School in Class V. A well-known school in the area, it was about two- and-a-half kilometres away from home, which meant travelling five kilometres every day on foot—and that too barefoot, as was commonplace in those days. Much of the journey entailed walking over a raised path with ditches on either side. During the rains, when the entire area was several feet deep in water, I would take off my shirt and shorts and wade through the water wearing a gamchha (towel), changing back into my presentable, school-worthy attire once I reached higher ground. In 1973, when I was a minister, I got that road paved.
It was in high school that I first began taking some interest in studies, routinely ranking first or second in class. Around twenty-two or twenty- three of us from my school took the matriculation examination—the final school exam—at the end of Class X. We were the first batch from my school to take this particular schoolleaving exam. In 1952, after the school final exam, I enrolled at Vidyasagar
College in Suri and stayed in the hostel all through my college years from 1952 to 1956. Our college enjoyed a great reputation, known to be generally ahead of a number of other colleges under C alcutta University at the time. After graduating from college in 1956,1 went on to Calcutta and did my postgraduation—both in modern history and political science—from the university. Having enrolled as a ‘private’ student, my education took me longer than it does most regular students (private students had to put in an extra year). In 1960, after I had got my first postgraduate degree, I enrolled in law college and, three years later, obtained a law degree, too.
My father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee, was a staunch nationalist and a dedicated Congress worker. After the Lahore session in 1929, when the Congress pledged to observe 26 January as Independence Day, we would raise the Congress flag at home every year on this day. If my father was home, he would unfurl the flag and read the Independence pledge; if he was away, my mother took his place, though she sometimes allowed my older brother the privilege (and if he, too, was away, I was given the responsibility). Having joined the Congress in 1920, my father remained an active member till 1966.
Father had a great talent for organizing people. Our home stood thirty miles south of the Ajay River, and twenty-five miles north of the Mayurakshi River. The large area between these two rivers was assigned to my father by the party. He was out all day, travelling on foot or by bullock cart, explaining to people the various facets of the national agitation for Independence. He travelled from village to village, sharing meals with the locals and preaching the Congress ideology. Rabindranath Tagore once jokingly remarked to my father that he (Father) was compensating for the behaviour of our forefathers who disdained the poor, calling them low caste and keeping them at a distance.
Father participated in virtually all agitations launched by the Congress before Independence and courted arrest innumerable times. I recall an amusing incident from those times, one that my mother recounted for many years after. A police party turned up one day to confiscate all our possessions. We had been warned in advance, so we had shifted all our cat-
tie and grain to the houses of various people in the village. Father’s papers also had been similarly removed and given to neighbours for safekeeping. Not finding much to-confiscate, a sub-inspector in the police party asked me, ‘You used to have cows at home, I’ve seen them. Where have they gone now?’ Straight-faced, I replied, ‘Cows? We ate them.’ The sub-inspector was astounded. ‘What are you saying? You are Hindus and you ate your cows?’ I, all of eight years old then, said, ‘Actually, Father has been in jail for a longtime. So we sold the cows for some money to feed ourselves.’
Even when a large number of Congress workers and leaders in West Bengal were swept away by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s fervour and became his followers, my father was among the handful of people who remained steadfast in their loyalty to Mahatma Gandhi. He, along with a few others, was charged with the responsibility of running the Birbhum District Congress. While he held party posts at the district level and was also a member of the West Bengal legislative council, he had
First strike: It was Pranab Mukherjee who gave Bangla Congress founder Ajoy Mukherjee the idea to form a united front against the Congress in the 1960s
Unite and win
My active political career started in the mid-1960s, when I joined Ajoy Mukherjee’s Bangla Congress….
The Bangla Congress was formally launched on 1 May 1966. While in the process of setting up this party, Ajoy babu had called a meeting of Congress workers at Shyam Square, Calcutta (5-6 February). I attended that meeting, though I was not a Congress regular then. I told Ajoy babu: ‘Look, I’ve studied politics. If there is any writing- related work you would like me to do
Not finding much to confiscate, a subinspector in the police party asked me, ‘You used to have cows at home, I’ve seen them. Where have they gone now?’ Straight-faced,
I replied, ‘Cows? We ate them.1
little enthusiasm for working in the government and preferred to work at the grass-roots level or at the level of the party organization.
Father taught us the value of self- respect, maintaining that it was enormously important. Many years later, in 1978, when the Congress split under Indira Gandhi, he told me: ‘I hope you will not do anything that will make me ashamed of you. It is when you stand by a person in his or her hour of crisis that you reveal your own humanity. Don’t do anything which will dishonour your forefathers’ memory.’His meaning was clear, and I didn’t, then or later, waver from my loyalty to Indira Gandhi. ★★★
for the party, I will.’ Ajoy babu replied: ‘Okay, come to the office.’
It was on 8 June 1966, when on a tour of the state with Ajoy babu, that I first mooted the idea of a ‘United Front’ to him: ‘Ajoy da, if we want to defeat the Congress, we have to unite all parties… If we fight the elections on a common platform, we could defeat the Congress.’ Ajoy babu then began efforts in that direction.
The first United Front government, led by Ajoy Mukherjee and Jyoti Basu, was formed in West Bengal in 1967.