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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.106 Santiago dic. 2020

http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0717-69962020000300060 

Readings

Recasting the Gandhian Urban Legacy in the Indian City: Nature, Alterity, and Activism

Elizabeth Soyka1 

Yunsong Liu2 

Emily Ebersol3 

1 Master of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA. esoyka@umich.edu

2 Master of Urban Design, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA. lyunsong@umich.edu

3 Master of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA. eebersol@umich.edu

Abstract:

Although he became worldly renowned for his non-violent manifestations, Gandhi was also an environmentalist who believed in the coexistence between different species, in a universe where humans, life, and creation are one. This research presents us with a series of initiatives - from care to recycling to activism - in an attempt to recover interspecies coexistence as an alternative to contemporary neoliberal development in India.

Keywords: Coexistence; memorial; alterity; activism; essay

Introduction

“Many of us are striving to produce a blend of all the cultures which seems today to be in clash with one another. No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive” (Gandhi, 1936).

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 1 Situating individuals. A congregation of close-up moments in the city imagining spatial and psychological asymmetries. Four vignettes of binary interpretations are: Container of Collective Memory - Water; One Ambition Projector - Riverfront; Imposed Enclave - Muslim Society, and Intentionality Toward Chaos - Manek Chowk. 

Throughout 2019, the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth extended across the Indian geography. In a time of growing national sociopolitical polarization, Gandhi’s legacy continues to be appropriated, celebrated, and problematized through the scrutinizing of his views on religious pluralism, environmental stewardship, activism, caste, and race. The city of Ahmedabad held special significance as Gandhiji’s karmabhumi, the field of action during the formative years of his political and spiritual leadership. It was on the banks of the Sabarmati River, between the British jail and the crematorium grounds, where he settled the Sabarmati Ashram in 1917. Embracing satyagraha, the practice of holding on to truth and nonviolent resistance, the Ashram served as the strategic center for the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi lived there until 1930, when he departed for the Salt March, never to return.

The announcement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of plans to remake the Sabarmati Ashram into a 32-acre ‘world-class memorial’ is part of a carefully curated project to co-opt Gandhi‘s legacy into a renewed Hindu-nationalist agenda. Calling it a land grab, activists warn that the redevelopment will alter the spirit of the institution, and many fear that the ideals of simplicity and austerity that once defined the Ashram will be forever lost and this site of pilgrimage will turn into yet another tourist resort. By intentionally redefining the principles shaping the formation of secular modern India and its commitment to diversity, the new memorial aims to reshape collective memory in the service of a divisive political agenda of estrangement and exclusion. These official plans and their highly controlled narrative have exacerbated the social reproduction of segregation, further challenging the ability for different groups to coexist during the most divisive time in India‘s history. For the city to remain the karmabhumi Gandhi once envisioned, by embodying comfort with alterity and otherness, implies tacit agreement on the importance of building spaces for exercising dissent and the coexistence of alternate, more just futures.

The legacy of Gandhian activism has left a strong imprint in contemporary Ahmedabad. Gandhi‘s presence in the city from 1915 to 1930 nurtured a movement of peaceful, inclusive transformation in the first half of the twentieth century. From organized labor to social activism, the battle to end untouchability, and the advancement of environmental stewardship, his causes remain highly relevant today as the city has turned into a stage for violent conflict and exclusion. While the Sabarmati Ashram remains a central place for celebrating Gandhi’s pursuit of truth, the prevailing narrative of the Gandhian legacy in Ahmedabad differs from what he would have envisioned. Rather than simply acknowledging the role of top-down processes in the shaping of the modern city under the agenda of economic progress, a careful examination of Gandhi’s disparate traces in the city, but not its monuments, draws attention to how urban conflict and citizens’ struggles actively shape urban space.

In the race to become a global city, the disregard for disenfranchised citizens via eviction, relocation, and ghettoization renders Ahmedabad into a land of confrontation and provides an opportunity for insurgent appropriations. The damning scale and fast pace of the urban erasure have wreaked havoc on the few remaining traces of urban nature and other spaces that cultivated the coexistence of diverse species and lifestyles. The celebrated and photogenic Sabarmati Riverfront Development project has involved the concretization and commodification of the river and removal of 11,360 households (Desai et al, 2018). The continued threat of eviction for slum dwellers is fueled by the promise of a better, more hygienic city where poverty is not on display. Together with these massive forced removals to materialize infrastructure projects, the powerful force of nature and its unpredictable changes, and the creation of ‘special political zones’ (Rajagopal, 2010) as a paradigmatic outcome of religious-political violence,8 Amdavadis agonize with the progressive erasure of urban spaces where they can exercise their citizenship.

As a response, three counter-acts propose alternate ways to imagine the many possible Gandhian memorials in the city. In rehearsing the celebration of nature and women, alterity and activism, we reclaim the agency of the architect as a cultural agent of change not driven by power, but through collective imagination.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 2 Ahmedabad: a stage for action, mapping actors, organizers, contestation, and stories in the city. 

Counter-Act 1: Urban Nature

Urban life in Ahmedabad is representative of the civic Indian duty to nurture all forms of life. In the choreography of everyday life, the city follows the Gandhian environmentalist ideology by respecting this relationship not as a duality of humanity vs. nature, but as a universe in which all humans, life, and creation are one (Parekh, 1989:72). In this traditional Indian worldview, the coexistence of all species allows for a more just, non-violent approach towards the concepts of progress and development (Young India, 1924).

As globalization set to recolonize and transform India’s decentralized, people-centered economies into a source for profit by modernization, extraction and commodification of basic resources, this once non-violent approach to progress fell victim to the increasing hierarchical split between humanity and nature. This reductionist ideology perceived nature in terms of its inputs towards capital accumulation, simplifying the interrelated, multispecies relationships that make up the ecosystem into a single pool of extractable resources. This precisely calibrated system fueled the transformation of Ahmedabad into a post-industrial city in which hegemonic urban imaginaries turned Amdavadis’ modest lifestyles into a unifying narrative that values capital attraction and profit over the needs of the earth (Desai, 2008).

This change in values is evident in the city’s treatment of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. The Sabarmati Ashram - the grounds from which Gandhi cultivated his greatest ideologies - has been subjugated by the concretized Sabarmati Riverfront Development project, which has drastically segregated the Ashram’s connection to nature by force of modern progress. By fostering a society where the destruction of the natural environment is the norm, Western ideals of progress have rendered invisible the intricate network of interspecies relationships that create the ecological balance to sustain all life on Earth. Yet, the erasure of nature is not the only violent trace of human domination. Ahmedabad is a mostly segregated urban center, stratifying its citizens along their religious, national, gender, caste and other forms of social hierarchies. Despite his efforts to break down the caste system, build a common ground between religions and humanity, and fight poverty in hopes of a more harmonious coexistence of all Amdavadis, Gandhi was unable to bend the dominant social system.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 3 Urban life in Ahmedabad exudes sacredness. Architecture is built around nature; animals stroll through the city’s streets as people do. 

Prakriti as the Feminine Principle

Throughout history, the Indian city celebrated the coexistence of humans and nature by fostering an environment in which the disparate relationships between species could flourish. This interconnectedness is fundamental in Indian ecology, which celebrates life in all of its diversity through the feminine principle of Prakriti - the source of all life, nature. Prakriti enacts an ecological transition to perceive nature as not a passive, manipulatable resource but one which celebrates the earth for its wealth of regenerative, life-giving capacities (Shiva, 2016). It cultivates a holistic approach to sustainability that empowers women, nature, and non-human beings to redefine stereotypes and to liberate themselves from the violent, oppressive paradigm of Western modernization.

Gandhi’s legacy manifests itself within this creative and diverse. It is based on embracing women’s role in sustaining life, on breaking down cultural perceptions of poverty, and in celebrating the myriad of multispecies relationships that play major roles in contributing to a healthy ecosystem. His legacy is devoted to becoming with other species by mode of tentacular thinking, where the potentials of multispecies entanglements play an active role in cultivating a collective knowing of how to improve (Haraway, 2016).

Paryavaran Mitra

According to the traditional Hindu caste system, the Dalits are the ones expected to deal with cleaning the city’s waste. Devoid of opportunities to escape multigenerational poverty, they populate the many informal settlements, excluded from their rights to the city. In opening the doors of the Sabarmati Ashram to Dalit families, Gandhi sought to fight the caste system by example. Today, together with the descendants of the 200 original families that moved in with Gandhi, the surroundings of the Ashram are home to the largest informal settlement in the city: Ramapir no Tekra.

Despite their lower-caste status, the women of Ramapir no Tekra lead an ecological movement for prosperity and renewal of the earth’s fertility. The unsung heroes of Ahmedabad, Paryavaran Mitra, collect and sort 50 % of the entire city’s recyclable waste.9 They have taken responsibility into their hands to clean their city, aware of the detrimental effects that poor waste management has on their territory.

By embedding the recycling processes within the fabric of the city, these women co-develop an environmental healing process, gaining power in designing the future urban contract between nature, the city, and all of its diverse species. To accommodate an operation of this scale in the tight-knit Ramapir no Tekra community, new typologies and extended networks are deployed to strengthen these women’s harmonious coexistence with nature (Figure 4).

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 4 The extended recycling network integrates Ramapir no Tekra into the greater urban fabric of the city. 

The Prosperity of Waste

In observing Ramapir no Tekra through the lens of Prakriti, this informal settlement serves as an urban ground of possibility and prosperity. Drawing the distinction between poverty as subsistence living versus as material dispossession (Bahro, 1984), these women celebrate the abundance of life that nature has provided to the community. The wealth of creativity and knowledge shared by the Paryavaran Mitra enables the community’s non-human species to thrive. By focusing on the resources that they already have, the Paryavaran Mitra unite their collective knowledge with traditional Indian customs to generate new life.

While the existing recycling network relies entirely on Paryavaran Mitra to clean the city, this counter-act proposes an extension of this network within Ramapir no Tekra, with the initiative that these same measures may be implemented throughout the city in the future. The process gives more agency to all beings to take an active responsibility in healing urban life regardless of age, gender, or species. As a result, a diverse team of characters see their collected plastic not as disposable waste, but as a plentiful material capable of regenerating itself into a sustainable resource (Figure 5). Waste turns into recycled plastic bricks dispersed through the city, giving green spaces back to it, producing jobs for women, and bringing the lifecycle of plastic into a full circle.

Figure 5 Paryavaran Mitra’s participation in a regenerative mode of construction (by the authors) contrasted with their current working conditions. More information in their website, accessed in July 2020: <http://paryavaranmitra.info>. 

The women, nature, and non-human beings of Ahmedabad push the boundaries of a tolerant coexistence by building a world in which all species respect the interconnectedness and diversity of life in all its forms. Not only do they work towards creating a deeper understanding of each other’s differences, but they actively embrace these differences to value the wealth of alternative ways of knowing and of being in the world.

To generate multi-species diversity within the city, the Gandhi Memorial rethinks who all the spaces are for, how they will relate to the city, and what they need to sustain diversity among species. In designing for urban natures, the memorial introduces new life to the city. By first learning to respect multi-species differences, this counter-act gives the city the spaces it needs to not only welcome new life, but to generate a healthier environment to sustain life for all beings.

Counter-Act 2: Alterity and the Commemoration of Polyphony

Estrangement of a Unilateral Account

The story of Sabarmati Ashram is self-fulfilling. It delivers a utopian and highly curated image of an India that was and that one would have wished for. In the production, reproduction, and mediation of that imagery, the Gandhian legacy is reinforced through rehearsal and repetition to develop a perfected narrative of triumphant nation-making. In reaction to the ideological exercise and self-contained account captured at the Ashram, the city offers two ever-unfolding stories that complement and juxtapose each other, one of conflict and confrontation, and one of citizenhood and collaboration. This dialectical narrative challenges the prevalent, authoritative voice, fields unsolicited accounts, and equips the inaudible with a megaphone. With it, the city itself is the medium to amplify and diversify how we register Gandhi’s legacy under today’s sociopolitical, cultural, and religious conflicts. The interplay of moments, places, and lives insinuates, iterates, accentuates, and compounds the disparate stories of the many who once helped build the Ashram and its dream of an inclusive society, but who today remain invisible.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 6 Revival from an abandoned site for the new Gandhi Memorial Recycling Center. Once plastics have been collected and sorted, they come here to get transformed into plastic bricks for sustainable future construction. 

The notion of karmabhumi under the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s perceived-conceived-lived triad (Lefebvre and Nicholson-Smith, 2009) offers a productive perspective to scrutinize alterity in relation to the incongruity among the top-down ‘representations of space,’10 divergent and capricious urban conditions, and projected memorial ‘social practice.’11 Contemporary representations of space in Ahmedabad cling to rapid urbanization to attain global status (Desai, 2008) and impose ideological and spatial barriers only surmountable to restricted groups of people. The neglect of the right to the city for a majority of the population through political and socio-spatial tactics incarcerates the Gandhian philosophy of reunion, where hearts come together to enable collective action. Spread across the city in the spaces of the quotidian, these dwindling moments enable the serendipitous encounter of citizens with each other and their congregation before dispersal. By shifting focus from the polyphony of monuments and memorials - which impose a unifying reading of the past - these alternate city fragments of the everyday can be seen as a shriek for conversation and the reenactment of Gandhi in Amdavadi’s public life. In them, citizens’ voices may yet be too weak to be heard and their intentions too unconscious to be registered as commemorative, but their actions embody a quest for the celebration of otherness.

Communal Multifariousness

The alterity project is a so-called polyphonic (Bakhtin, 2008) account of the geography of mundanity within Ahmedabad, catalyzing the tension between the official and unofficial accounts of Gandhi’s legacy. Alterity approaches the formulation of Gandhi’s memorial by delineating the banal, everyday moments where people have heartened his words and whispered back. Turning everyday city life into a living memorial simultaneously reflects and situates citizens’ agency in dialogue with ever-changing urban conditions. Building, on the assertion of Dolores Hayden (1995) that place makes memories cohere in complex ways, the rapid transformation of the city in recent years complicates citizens’ experiences of the urban landscape “intertwining the sense of place and the politics of space.” These conversational moments, taciturn or loquacious, are identifiable in both spatial and social realms, denoting both visible and latent political structures. Drawing on the promise of citizens’ initiation, this act aims to restructure the present narratology of urban segregation and confrontation (Spodek, 2012) by seeding ‘wander thirst’ (Gould, 1929) beyond the established demarcation lines inscribed in the city’s grounds. This entails designing to celebrate alterity, challenging and distorting current spatial conventions and programming expectations for what a memorial aims to be.

The deviation from the conventional is nothing rebellious, but the manifestation of an individual’s unpreparedness for untamed urban transformation. Otherness needs an indiscriminate account of imagination, similar to the Rousseauist account of Foucault (1980): “In the dream of there no longer exist any zones of darkness, zones established by the privileges of royal power or prerogative of some corporation (...).” Situational and improvisational, this act focuses on impending and ongoing moments of alterity, where an individual speaks to the entire society and one’s fantasy is projected in the context of collective imagination (Figure 7). This reading of the Gandhian legacy in Ahmedabad is a continuum whose spatiality lies not in geographical proximity, but emotional and programmatic fluidity, shifting temporality, kindred appreciation for interaction, and dynamic exchange and communication.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 7 Geography of Mundanity, acts of alterity. City operates as happenstance, at the intersection of reality and hallucination, while mimicking everyday civic episodes. The storytelling invites the flow of time yet evades its passing. The multiplicity of moments goes beyond empowerment of non-linear narrative insomuch as it unfolds devoid of temporal limit and transcends rationalism. Lenses in the still frames bear the imprint of Ahmedabad’s destitute and austere present to accentuate the emancipation from reality and fleeing from the doomed oppression. 

Counter-Act 3: The Activist City

“The city is ultimately shaped by both the action of dominant interest and by grassroots struggles, by both urban planning and urban social movements” (Desai, 2008).

To reimagine Gandhian activism and its locality, one must look beyond the site of the Sabarmati Ashram to open up the larger city of Ahmedabad to activist agendas. With a government actively working to prohibit activist efforts, community organizing has become nearly impossible in Ahmedabad.

Negotiating Legality and Legitimacy of Informality

In 2005, thousands of slum dwellers living along the Sabarmati River marched to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) protesting for rahethan adhikar, or housing rights of the slum dwellers that would be directly affected by the Sabarmati Riverfront Development project. The group came to be known as the Sabarmati Nagrik Adhikar Manch (Sabarmati Citizens’ Rights Forum). With over 30,000 families impacted by the development project, the ‘Manch’ would be their voice to protect jhupdawaslo, the idea that slum dwellers can transcend caste and religious identities to unite around our shared marginalization in the city. Through protest practices and claim-making around informal housing, the Manch expanded its support within slum communities and became more visible to the state (Figure 8). Citizen-led organizations like the Manch have shaped the city into a field of action throughout history by addressing the modernization of the city and how it affects its most vulnerable populations.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 8 “The Manch” a pamphlet of activist efforts and dissent of the slum grassroots organization called the Sabarmati Nagrik Adhikar Manch. 

In the call for urban growth and prosperity, the city of Ahmedabad has experienced large evictions and displacement, mainly impacting its poor citizens. The city’s informal communities make up a diverse range of experience as it relates to legitimacy and resettlement. By delegitimizing informal areas and labeling them as illegal settlement, the government has framed informality in the city as space that can be claimed for development (Desai, 2008). Legality and legitimacy of informality is crucial for understanding how slum dwellers and other actors are able to organize and protest around slum resettlement. Grassroot struggles around housing and displacement created a space for building solidarities among the citizen population. However, these spaces are undoubtedly fragile and depend heavily on the existence of public commons. As a result of ongoing modernizations, the city has swiftly destroyed any potential space for organizing.

Kaaryakarta Ruins

Today, the city has become a ruin of activism. A once vibrant, active space for spearheading change movements, often led by Gandhi and his passive political resistance, now exists as an anti-activist city, no longer serving Amdavadis’ right to organize. Over recent years, the AMC has made steps in improving the conditions in the city. With much emphasis placed on infrastructure and housing upgrades, public spaces have been neglected as an essential piece of urban infrastructure. To further distance citizens from their rights to the city, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) gives states the right to prohibit the assembly of four or more people in public space when unrest is anticipated, defined as ‘unlawful assembly.’ Section 146 defines ‘rioting’ as the offense every member of an unlawful assembly commits. These laws, paired with the lack of formal gathering space in the city, make activism and community organizing nearly impossible.

Activists in Ahmedabad have lost hope. Mudita Vidrohi, a Gandhian activist working on environment justice projects that address agriculture, land, water, and other natural resources, believes that there is no space left for activists in the city of Ahmedabad.12 Without space to organize, citizens are forced into complicity and silence. There is no way to negotiate illegality, informality, and legitimacy of the most vulnerable populations in the city. Citizen organizations like the Manch lack access to information and representation in decision-making processes that affect the future of the city. Yet, the city still remains a site of constant urban conflict.

A Search for Activist Space

This counter-act reimagines Gandhian activism by activating familiar scenes throughout the city - bus stops, cricket fields, playgrounds - and pairing them with activist spaces, curating an underground network of secret routes and safe spaces that accommodate community organizing (Figure 9). By hiding activist space within legitimized, legal spaces, citizens of Ahmedabad, particularly those in slum areas, can organize confidentially and safely without threats of evictions or arrestment. When applied to the urban environment, these unlikely insertions of uses can unsettle existing perceptions of urban life and space. This invisible network offers citizens new possibilities, rather than solutions, allowing Amdavadis to claim their ‘right to the city’ to freely project alternative futures for themselves.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 9 Cards to reimagine activism in everyday spaces. 

The in(di)visible constellation reclaims the city as a field of action, providing both public space for the average citizen to engage, as well as hidden spaces for those organizing. Portraying how the city has become the backdrop for social activism in the past, and the shapes of urban conflict today, this counter-act anticipates the tactics for citizen contestation in the future, revealing the invisible stories and histories of Ahmedabad, a place where urban development and the search for a better life are in a state of constant conflict and negotiation. This is an architecture of struggle, resilience, and secrecy to combat a government invested in curtailing the rights to civic assembly and promoting systemic hate and discrimination.

Source: © Soyka, Liu & Ebersol

Figure 10 Figurative drawing locating points for activist intervention in the city. 

Counter-Conclusion

While Gandhian icons are still prevalent throughout the city today, the true value of Gandhi’s legacy has fallen idle to the vivacity and exuberance of the Indian city. In memorializing Gandhi today, a new imaginary that engages multiple temporal and urban scales exists, offering a hopeful promise of what the city’s future holds. The memorial serves not as a static object to remember the past, but as a milieu where Amdavadis can take an active responsibility in carrying Gandhi’s legacy into the future. This environment cultivates a collective agency for all genders, religions, castes, species, and ways of otherness to reimagine what a prosperous and harmonious society can be.

Three counter-acts rest on the inquiry into the vocabularies of commemoration and communal imperatives in a time of political polarization and totalizing discourses. Each of them blends temporal, political and socio-environmental concerns, challenging the dichotomy that has been unsettling our cognition of Ahmedabad. Defying segregation and the homogenization of urban life, the counter-acts call for the celebration of nature, alterity, and activism; as much imagination as rational anticipation.

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Elizabeth Soyka

Master of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA, 2019-2021. Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, Clemson University, USA, 2015-2019.

Yunsong Liu

Master of Urban Design, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA, 2019-2020. Bachelor of Architecture, Tsinghua University School of Architecture, cnCN 2013-2018.

Emily Ebersol

Master of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, USA, 2019-2021. Bachelor of Science in Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, USA, 2015-2019.

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