On July 22, another legacy of India’s history met with an unfortunate end, and soon, every evidence of its existence will be erased. On Saturday, the Sarva Seva Sangh (SSS), a well-known Gandhian institute that serves as the central office of its various branches all over India, was sealed by the Uttar Pradesh Administration. In an unexpected move, the district officials of Varanasi arrived at the centre around 7 in the morning with over 500 police men with guns, including Rapid Action Force. With the help of some 200 laborers, the police forcibly entered each house in the 12.5 acre campus and removed its residents’ belongings. Thousands of books published by the Sarvodaya publications have been thrown out by the police that now remain lying in the open air wet in the rain. People evicted, with whatever things they could carry, have moved out to their acquaintances.
The said Gandhian institute in Varanasi housed and ran the Kasturba Balvadi School, leaving over 100 poor school children aged 3 to 12 suddenly facing a threat to their education. The SSS conducts a kindergarten school giving free education for the poor children around. When the children arrived for the morning classes on July 22, they found their class room locked by the police.
The Varanasi unit has about 50 members, mostly elderly Gandhians who pay a membership fee and are associated with the Sangh’s work. Some of them taught at its school. The Sangh’s employees too were left jobless and homeless when the police asked them to immediately vacate the premises, where they had lived and worked for 10 to 30 years.
Saturday’s police action came after the railways pasted demolition notices on all the Sangh’s offices on June 27, days after the local administration declared that the land belonged to the railways. The Northern Railways served a notice to the people living in the Sarva Sewa Sangh and alleged that they had encroached upon the land of Northern Railways, adjacent to GT Road, at the northern end of Kashi railway station here.
“All encroachers are informed that in the series of District Magistrate, Varanasi’s, letter dated June 26, the process of demolition of illegal constructions made by Sarva Sewa Sangh on the land of Northern Railways will begin. Therefore, all the encroachers are informed to vacate the railway land immediately,” said the notice.
It is further essential to note that the Special Leave Petition moved by the Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh against the judgment of the Allahabad High Court, refusing any relief to the petitioners, was dismissed by the Supreme Court on July 17, 2023. Both the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court had refused to intervene and directed the Sangh to approach the district court. The district court was supposed to hear the matter on July 21, but the same was postponed to July 28. As provided by a local activist to SabrangIndia, the petitioners waited till 5 pm on July 21 in the court, but the judge did not come. The activist alleges that since the petitioners wanted to urge for urgent hearing of the case, and owning to the pressure that judge must have gotten from the government, the judge chose to not come and postpone the hearing. Unsurprisingly, the railway administration acted before the hearing while the matter remains sub-judice.
“The government wants to erase every symbol of Gandhi”- Residents of the institute
The Sangh has vehemently denied the charges of any encroachment of the railway land, rather stating that the government wants to demolish all the Sangh’s ten buildings on the ground that the institute stands on 14 acres of encroached-on railway land. They further allege a ploy by the Narendra Modi government to “erase every symbol of Gandhi”, as reported by The Telegraph.
The Sangh further provides that it has all the necessary documents to prove that the land was bought from the railways in 1960 through the efforts of Vinoba Bhave, and with the involvement of then President Rajendra Prasad.
Vallabhacharya Pandey, a Gadhian and national convenor of Asha Trust, termed it unfortunate that the government tries to destroy the 63-year-old national heritage that was the workplace of Vinoba and Jay Prakash Narayan, MattersIndia reported. He further said that even if the government destroys the property, it will never be able to destroy Gandhi, Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan from the hearts of Indians.
“The school (a registered one) was meant for rag-pickers and the children of boatmen, to whom we imparted non-formal education. This included basic knowledge of science, the arts, music, and life,” Arvind Singh Kushwaha, secretary of the Varanasi unit of the Sangh, headquartered in Sewagram, Maharashtra, told The Telegraph.
It is essential to note that among the employees who are now left homeless and jobless were subeditors, clerks, supervisors, caretakers, guards, and cooks who worked in the Sangh’s offices that included a publication division and a library. “The employees too belonged to poor families; so, we had given them quarters here,” Kushwaha further said.
Elaborating on their future plans, Kushwaha stated that” The school management plans to file a case asking the government to take care of the children’s education. The employees will file a separate case arguing they cannot be rendered jobless all of a sudden.”
Meera Chaudhary, who taught at the Kasturba Balvadi School, said: “These 100-odd children’s future is a matter of great concern. We can’t let them go back to their past lives.”
She added: “We had divided them into junior, middle and senior levels according to their age and taught them almost everything that could make them better human beings.”
The children, if they wanted, could later join a board-affiliated school and take board exams, The Telegraph provided.
Arbitrary arrests followed, arrested charged with abetment and unlawful assmebly
In addition to evicting those who were on a 63-day satyagraha to protest against the attempt to demolish the premises, the police also arrested eight of them. As per media reports, the police had arrested Ram Dhiraj, aged 70, head of the Sangh’s Varanasi unit. Additionally, Chandan Pal, aged 78, who is head of the Sangh in Sewagam and had come from Kolkata to participate in the satyagraha was also arrested along with four other Sangh members. The four arrested were: Ram Dheeraj, SSS’s state president, Arvind Anjum, editor cum publisher of Sarvodaya Prakashan, Nandlal Master, coordinator of Lok Samiti, Jeetendra Yadav and Ishwar Chand, a veteran Gandhian activist.
Those arrested have been charged with abetment of an unspecified offence and unlawful assembly. As provided by the Telegraph, all those arrested have been remanded in 14 days’ jail custody.
An anonymous Sangh member also told the Telegraph that “Initially, the police picked up eight Sangh members because they were on a dharna at the institute gate and were interrupting the police. Later, four were released and two others picked up because the police considered them potential troublemakers. The local intelligence unit is looking for two or three more members of the Sangh to arrest them so that we don’t file court cases regarding the schoolchildren and the employees.”
The Sangh member further said that “After their medical examination, the police had asked all of them on Saturday night to go home but they replied that the only place they would like to go back to was the Sangh compound, where they lived. Finally, the police sent them to jail.”
Sushil Kumar, aged 70, a Gandhian from Bihar who was associated with Jayaprakash Narayan and has been camping in Varanasi to join the Sangh’s protests against the demolition plan, said Varanasi had witnessed a march by citizens on Sunday against the government action.
“Over 100 people marched from Shastri Ghat to Ambedkar’s statue and handed a memorandum to the local administration, asking it to return the property to the Sangh and act against the officials who have been lying to the court, saying there was no valid (land) sale deed,” Kumar told The Telegraph.
Ram Dhiraj, head of the Sangh in Varanasi, told the Telegraph that “The railways has forged documents to dislodge us from here and hand over the land to the (central government’s) Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which is run these days by RSS members.”
CPI MP Viswam writes to PM Modi seeking stay on the demolition of Sarva Sewa Sangh
As provided by The Statesman, CPI Rajya Sabha MP, Binoy Viswam, addressed a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the decision by the Varanasi administration to demolish the Sarva Sewa Sangh, urging him to stand in solidarity with the people of Varanasi and stop the bulldozing of the Sangh. It is important to note that the Sangh members had previously purported that Prime Minister Modi, the local MP, had during a Varanasi visit early this month ignored a plea from the Sangh for a meeting to present its case.
In the said letter addressed to PM Modi, MP Viswam stated, “I write this letter to convey distressing developments from your own Lok Sabha constituency which you have not taken note of. The Varanasi administration is demolishing the campus of the Sarva Sewa Sangh in Varanasi and several followers of Mahatma Gandhi, leaders of political parties, academicians and civil society activists were arrested for protesting this move. The administration wishes to demolish the seven decades old campus which houses a publishing house, a library, a free preschool, a Khadi Bhandar and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi to build a guest house in its place.”
The MP further stated in the letter that the Sarva Sewa Sangh was founded back in 1948 by luminaries like Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Kaka Kalelkar and Jayaprakash Narayan to unite “all constructive workers engaged in different fields in the country to achieve Swaraj based on the philosophy of Sarvodaya”, as dreamt by Gandhi.
He further reminded PM Modi about his statement that “the Gandhian ideals of peace and harmony reverberate globally and give strength to millions” while unveiling a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Hiroshima. Regarding this, MP Viswam said, “Looking at the destruction of an organization which is committed to spreading the same Gandhian ideals, it seems that you remember Gandhi ji only on foreign trips while dismantling his work and thoughts at home,” as per the Statesman.
A long legal battle- eviction even as case remains sub-judice
The demolition drive is based on a notice given by the Railways saying that SSS stands on railway land encroached by the Gandhians. A legal battle has been going on for the past few months on the ownership of the land.
In June, the Northern Railways had pasted a notice on the premises asking the Society to vacate the 12.9-acre plot as the structures were to be demolished. The demolition was initially scheduled to take place on June 30, 2023, but was delayed as the society approached the Allahabad High Court and pursuantly Supreme Court, but got no relief from both the courts.
During both the hearings, the Railway officials vehemently argued that the 12.9-acre plot near Rajghat belonged to them, while the Sangh claimed that it was purchased by the Society from the Union of India by means of three registered sale deeds in 1960, 1961 and 1970.
A brief recent timeline:
- On May 15, 2023, the Varanasi District Commissioner Kaushal Raj Sharma sent an SDM with the police to inform that the Gandhi Vidya Sansthan is being given to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, which works as a centre for research in the field of the arts.
- The petitioners filed a writ petition in the Allahabad High Court. On May 16, the matter was disposed of by the Allahabad HC, which directed the Varanasi DM to verify the land records of the Sarv Seva Sangh. The court also asked the Sangh to move a civil court to decide the title of the land. Notably, the petitioners also filed a case before the Civil Judge, Varanasi seeking declaration of title and permanent injunction amongst other reliefs, in respect of the very same properties.
- On June 26, 2023, the District Magistrate held that the petitioners have completely failed to prove their ownership over the properties as the genuineness of the concerned sale deeds could not be confirmed by authentic evidence.
- On July 3, 2023, the aforementioned decision of the DM was challenged before a division bench of the High Court. The said bench of the High Court had declined to grant any relief to the petitioners by observing that their suit is pending in a Civil Court. They further stated that if they are aggrieved by the demolition notice which has been issued against them in the meantime by the Railway Authorities, they can move injunction application in the pending suit.
- On the same day, the petitioners moved to the Supreme Court through filing an SLP assailing the legality of the judgment given by the divisive bench of the High Court.
The decision of the Supreme Court:
Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the Sangh, had argued that the petitioners had acquired the properties through registered sale deeds several decades earlier, rendering the view taken by the District Magistrate on title as unwarranted.
It was also argued by Adv Bhushan that the District Magistrate had no authority to decide on the title of any property. Further, Bhushan submitted that the Railways had issued the demolition notice immediately after the adverse declaration of the DM, deprived the petitioners from availing legal remedies.
On the other hand, the Railways argued that the petitioners have failed to produce any of the registered sale deeds on the basis of which they claim title over the concerned land. It was also provided by the respondents that the civil suit is pending without any progress in the Court, and that challenged the High Court’s direction directing the District Magistrate to determine the ownership of the property has been raised.
The bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Hrishikesh Roy and Pankaj Mithal, dismissed the SLP filed by the petitioners. The bench stated that the issues to be looked into in the said case can only be through a suit, which is already been filed. In view of this, the bench dismissed the case.
The full order can be read here:
Background of the Institute:
According to the website of the Sarva Seva Sangh, it was started after a meeting in Sevagram, Wardha in March, 1948. The meeting was attended by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad. It was also attended by prominent leaders Vinobaji, Kishorilalji Mashruwala, J C Kumarappa, Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Shrikrishnadasji Jaju, Aryanayakam Couple, Jayaprakash Narayan. “…Sarva Seva Sangh came into existence in April, 1948 after merging five constructive organisations e.g., Akhil Bharat Charkha Sangh, Akhil Bharat Gram Udyod Sangh, Akhil Bharat Go Seva Sangh, Hindustani Talimi Sangh & Mahrogi Sava Mandal,” says the website.
On the property concerned, there is a publication house – Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan – a preschool where children from the socio-economically weaker sections are taught without any fees, a guest house, a library with hundreds of books, a meeting hall, a Gandhi Arogya Kendra (a naturopathy centre), a youth training centre, a khadi bhandaar and a statue of the Mahatma Gandhi.
Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, the publishing wing of Sarva Seva Sangh, was established in 1955 during Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement. As per the organisations’ website, Bhave recognised the need for the publication of Sarvodaya Literature to spread Mahatma Gandhi’s message while he was travelling in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“Varanasi was considered an ideal place for publication for this purpose. Late Shri Jamnalal Jain came to Varanasi from Wardha in 1955. Thus Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan came into existence,” the website says.
It adds: “It was 1958-59, a piece of Railway land behind Kashi Railways station and near river Ganges and GT Road came into the notice of Radhakrishna Bajaj. This piece of land was purchased from Railways in 1960-61 and 70. Late Lal Bahadur Shastri was closely associated with Sarva Seva Sangh, played in key role in it. Later on the building was constructed.”
Ganga and Varuna, in Rajghat on the northern end of Varanasi city, was founded in 1960 by Jay Prakash Narayan with the help of President Rajendra Prasad, Vinoba Bhave, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jagjivan Ram to propagate Gandhian teachings. Shastri, the then Railway minister, arranged for the sale of Railway property to this institute. Ramdheeraj, the president of Sarva Seva Sangh, Rajghat, Varanasi, told ABP Live that that the said was established in 1960 to “understand the sociological impact of the movement”.