The grounds beneath freedom’s feet
Madhavankutty Pillai | 10 Aug, 2017
AT THE PROTEST venue of Azad Maidan in Mumbai, there are three meetings: one of the Congress party, near it of an association of teachers and opposite these two, in what has to be the largest, of a union of anganwadi workers. It is a small space and all three have speeches or sloganeering happening, drowning each other out. On the side are a crop of other protestors, a few stray people sitting on the ground with banners or placards. They are mostly silent and largely ignored. At the end of this line is Bapurao Gund.
He is seated crosslegged on a plastic advertising sheet gesticulating at you because he has seen you taking pictures with the camera phone. You are drawn to him because he has ensured it. Gund has a walrus moustache, but that is not it. On his head he has what could be a tall chef’s hat which is painted a loud yellow with Shivaji rising out of it with a sun behind. Jutting out of his neck, along with a chain of white sea shells, is an upturned frisbee or a bucket lid painted red with ‘Maratha’ written on it. His white shirt is scrawled with slogans of many hues. Only his brown trousers are as the manufacturer willed it.
Gund came here five days ago. Twelve days ago, he started from his village in Pune. Why did it take him seven days to reach Mumbai? It is a little under 200 km and a bus should have taken about five hours at the most. It took seven days because Gund walked. And he didn’t just walk. He claims, and it is necessary to add that it is a claim, he walked backwards. “This is the second time I am here at Azad Maidan. I walked backwards to Delhi once. I walked backwards to Tuljapur once to ask the Tuljapur Bhavani to give the government some good sense,” he says.
What does he want from the government? Maratha reservations, and in the absence of it, the same privileges to every caste and religion. That would have been fine but it doesn’t end there. Gund has eight more demands and they are somewhat unrelated. From improving conditions of policemen to the security of women. What is he? “I am a social worker,” he says. He sleeps on the road outside the venue at night and during the day this is home for the time being until he begins walking backwards to whichever new destination comes to his mind.
Could Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1931 gave one of the largest addresses at Azad Maidan that the freedom movement ever saw at the time, have imagined Gund? Of course, yes. Gandhi, after all, perfected the art of the self as spectacle for political ends; the archetype for all Indian agitators to come. At the Azad Maidan protest site, some are fasting unto death and Gandhi can claim credit for that too. Gund, despite his wayward approach, is a whisper of what Gandhi sparked in the Indian political DNA.
The recently published book, Gandhi In Bombay by Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta, talks about that 1931 meeting in Azad Maidan. It was the second time he was speaking there that year. One was on August 29th just before he left for the Round Table Conference in London and the second, the one which saw massive crowds, was immediately on his return in December. The book says, ‘Within a few hours of his arrival on 28 December, Gandhi addressed a mass meeting at Azad Maidan’, it was ‘the biggest that any public speaker in Bombay had ever dreamt of’. Gandhi concluded by saying: “What I have to tell you now is that, if there is to be a fight, be prepared for every sacrifice, but take a pledge that you will not do harm to others. I will do all that lies within the power of a human being to prevent another fiery ordeal, but if I find that there is no other way out, I will not hesitate to call upon you to go through it, whatever the magnitude of sufferings may be. May God give us the strength to suffer and sacrifice in the cause of freedom.”
Gandhi In Bombay traces the Mahatma’s relationship to the city ever since he comes from South Africa in 1916 to go on to lead the Indian national movement. It speaks of all the meetings he had in the city and it is striking that initially they are mostly at halls, markets or small venues, but Azad Maidan, with its sprawl, starts becoming a regular feature from the 1930s onwards. Usha Thakkar, who is also president of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sanghralaya, Mumbai, says this was probably because the momentum changed and the freedom struggle began to be a mass movement. “It is very important for us to know how Gandhi turned these open spaces into places of important meetings,” she says.
Once there were sheds that used to be horse stables at Azad Maidan under the British; over time, these were taken over by political parties and government offices
FIVE KILOMETRES AWAY is what is now called the August Kranti Maidan. At a little over five acres, it is not much compared to Azad Maidan which is about 40 acres. A long time ago there used to be a water body here and it was known as Gowalia Tank. Then it was filled and it became Gowalia Tank Maidan. Then on August 7th and 8th, 1942, the All India Congress Committee held its session here to launch the Quit India Movement and Gandhi etched the following words into India’s history in a speech: “Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die’. We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.”
In Thakkar’s book, she describes the dangerous enthusiasm of the crowds that day: ‘The gathering was attended by prominent national leaders and notable people from Bombay and was held in a specially erected pandal on the Gowalia Tank Maidan opposite the Goculdas Tejpal House where the INC was established in 1885…On 7 August, about 10,000 people attended the meeting, including about 250 members of the AICC from different provinces. About 3,000 volunteers of the Bombay National Guards, the Bombay Seva Dal, and the People’s Volunteer Brigade, including 500 desh sevikas, were there to keep order. Besides the aforementioned, there were about 5,000 people who heard the proceedings from outside the pandal with the help of loudspeakers that were specially installed for them. The CID report mentions that on 8 August the proceedings with Abdul Kalam Azad (A.I.C.C. president) commenced at about 2.30 pm. About 10,000 people were in the pandal and about the same number of people had collected outside it. Those who had assembled were excited to see their favourite leaders, especially Gandhi, amidst them. Gandhi was taken to the A.I.C.C. by the front gate of the pandal. Bhawanji Khimji recalled that a huge crowd hemmed in on him and the situation became critical. About half a dozen hefty Sikhs linked their arms and, forming a human fence around Gandhi, rescued him from the melee and conducted him inside.’
After the Congress was banned and its leaders including Gandhi arrested, the maidan saw large spontaneous protests. It was here that on the morning of August 9th the same year, Aruna Asaf Ali, 33 years old then, ignored the warning of the police for crowds to disperse and ‘quickly scrambled up to the dais, announced to the people the arrest of the leaders, and pulled the cord to hoist the national flag’. Later there was firing in which eight died and more than 150 were wounded.
Now the memorial to that moment, a pink lotus on the crest of a white marble column, is enclosed in a wooden scaffolding. Three men in brown uniforms are washing it in preparation for August 9th. Every anniversary, people come to commemorate it, and this is when it returns to memory once again. In the abutting lawn, a sweeper in a T-shirt and black trousers with ends bunched up to the knee brooms dead leaves to the side. There are iron railings all around. August Kranti is now many maidans—compartments fenced off in the arbitrariness of time and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is its owner. Next to the memorial is a mini school playground, and then a garden for walking. At the opposite end, across a thoroughfare that cuts the space vertically, is a children’s play area and next to that another larger playground. Iron railings marking each of them out.
In the middle of Walkers Garden, at 11.30 in the morning, a man in formal dark grey trousers and pale yellow full- sleeve shirt is doing something that looks like a cross between exercise and exorcism. He swings into stretching exercises, opens his palms and dips his fingers into it and sprinkles nothing into air. He walks a little to the back and looking at the sky, draws horizontal lines on it with his forefinger. On the benches, people sit or sleep. Teenage lovers hold hands next to bags with plastic water bottles peeking out from side pockets. A man paints broad ribbons of white to the stems of trees. A mentally disabled girl with her father in tow paces on the walking path to her own erratic rhythm. All history ends in humdrum.
August Kranti is now many maidans, compartments fenced off in the arbitrariness of time and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which is its owner
Outside the protest site at Azad Maidan, a few steps away, is a food plaza. And adjoining that, in a glass case, a green model of what looks like an AK-47, and on top of it is a helmet. This is the Amar Jawan Memorial. It was vandalised in 2012 during a protest by a Muslim educational institute that went out of hand. The memorial is built for two sepoys of the 1857 mutiny. They were found to be conspiring and blown up by cannons as a warning to others. The warning worked, Mumbai was unaffected by the flames that burned the rest of the land. The memorial is a recent one that came up in 2009, easy to miss entirely because of the cars parked right next to it. It is one of those things that is only remembered when damaged.
Within the Azad Maidan’s grounds are 22 cricket pitches along with clubs. This was where the first test in India was played in 1933. And it was here that Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli, playing a school tournament, notched up a partnership of 664 runs in 1988. At one end is Bombay Gymkhana, once reserved for the British, and now for the elite rich of the city; continuing a tradition of keeping the ordinary citizen out from land that belongs to him. On the maidan’s periphery are also offices of political parties, ramshackle municipal gymkhanas, associations of the media, a training academy for IAS aspirants and more.
When he was a Research Fellow with the thinktank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Gautam Kirtane did a survey of all the interests that were connected to Azad Maidan. His original idea had been to do a study of how to rehabilitate August Kranti Maidan in whose vicinity he had been a resident. “I saw that it was wasted potential considering its association with the freedom movement, but more than that as a public space it was poorly utilised. It was compartmentalised into seven sections. I spent a lot of time just observing the user profile within those seven sections. There was potential by just spatial reorganisation to make this a far more vibrant space,” he says. He proposed a study on August Kranti to ORF and was given a go-ahead. Azad Maidan was later added to it because that too was a highly neglected open space with connections to the freedom movement.
AUGUST KRANTI MAIDAN, Kirtane found, wasn’t difficult to analyse. It had changed a lot but despite the compartmentalisation, it was still open ground with nothing built on it and could be redesigned without much restructuring. The study led to a report published last year called India@70: An Appeal For the Creative Makeover of August Kranti Maidan and Azad Maidan By The Art And Science of Placemaking. Its recommendation was to make August Kranti into two open compartments instead of the seven closed ones. One would be a generic open verdant space for walking and jogging on the periphery, and sitting on the lawn. The other would be a play area for children. It would be fenceless. “Keep it large and contiguous, have visual connectivity. Today, it is so cramped and the walking spaces are very ordinary,” he says.
But when it came to Azad Maidan, it was a different story. “Azad Maidan is a very complicated animal. It has so much baggage. All our work begins with identifying stakeholders and the nature of their stake. It can be a positive stake or a negative stake. If there is a drug den with a drug lord, he is also a stake holder, be it negative. With Azad Maidan we realised that it has got these 22 cricket pitches. Sassanian Sports Club is over 140 years old and doesn’t have water supply. This is Collector’s land. Because it is not BMC, they don’t clean it. It is open-defecation central. Everytime the ball goes to the boundary the fielder has to figure whether the ball will be clean when it comes back. And this is where cricket was born in India,” adds Kirtane.
Once there were sheds that used to be horse stables here under the British; over time, these were taken over by political parties and government offices. “It was my responsibility to understand the stakes. I realised who is the biggest stakeholder. It is the citizen. There are around 5 to 6 million daily footfalls in the Central Business District that Azad Maidan falls under,” says Kirtane.
The solution that Kirtane’s report had for Azad Maidan was to create something world class which would be better for all stakeholders. It included a big public gymkhana that would amalgamate all the sporting activities happening there and be a recreation facility open to all. There would be a museum for cricket, an Azadi Plaza with a memorial and museum of the 1857 War of Independence, green parks, a huge media center and an office complex for political parties. The protest area was to be increased significantly. “Today it is a small congested space, it is hideous. Completely sealed in. You come from the hinterland of Maharashtra, the four of you protest to the four of you. There is nobody listening, nobody who is coming, nobody can see you from the outside, nobody realises your cause. That is cruelty,” says Kirtane.
Kirtane worked for two years on the study and its report was submitted to the government. Since August Kranti belongs to the BMC, they met with the then municipal commissioner who was keen on implementing the makeover. He got the process moving, but then there was a change of guard and it got stalled. Azad Maidan’s makeover requires immense resources and coordination. Kirtane believes that it will only happen if the Chief Minster takes personal interest in it and that has not happened. And so these two maidans continue as they are, witness to some of the greatest moments of India’s modern history and fraying from within in the present.