Gandhi Bhawan stuck in a limbo
Times of India
By Saikat Ray
KOLKATA: The spotlight might be on Indira Bhawan in Salt Lake right now, but the fate of another historic property at Beliaghata where Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast for 73 hours in September 1947 hangs in balance.
There had been massive public outcry last November when the United Bank of India put Hyderi Manzil or Gandhi Bhawan - shown as mortgaged property in bank records - on auction through a public notice. The UBI hasn't withdrawn the notice, but it hasn't gone ahead with the auction procedure either. Bank chairman Bhaskar Sen refused to throw light on the status of the heritage site that is still with the UBI on paper.
The notice and the studied silence of the bank are intriguing. According to some, the bank was not aware of the historic significance of the property that it took over after its owner (late Samarendra Ghosh) failed to pay off the debt. He had mortgaged 31 cottahs to the UBI some 50 years ago. As a part of procedure, the bank put Gandhi Bhawan on auction like all other mortgaged property, oblivious of the heritage dimension that the address 150B Beliaghata Main Road invokes.
More worrying is the effort by a section of UBI authorities to distinguish between the building and the open space that comes under the same address. The bank has tried to play down the auction threat to Gandhi Bhawan, saying it was the adjacent maidan that they wanted to sell off and not the building. They have even expressed their doubt over Gandhiji's association with the maidan - a suggestion which has been rubbished by historians and experts.
The bank's view became known when municipal commissioner Arnab Roy took up the matter with UBI chairman Bhaskar Sen at the civic headquarters recently after chief minister Mamata Banerjee wanted the problem sorted out. Sen reportedly told the municipal commissioner that they had issued a notice for selling a 16-cottah plot adjacent to Gandhi Bhawan. However, considering the historic value of the maidan where Gandhiji used to hold prayer meets to ward off riot threats during his stay at Gandhi Bhawan, Roy advised the bank chairman to preserve the maidan. The municipal commissioner also suggested an alternative idea - to hand over the property (Gandhi Maidan) to the civic body - and offered a compensation package in lieu.
Though Sen gave no assurance to the municipal commissioner, mayor Sovan Chatterjee told TOI that under no circumstances would the civic body allow the UBI authorities to auction any plot, be it the Gandhi Bhawan or the maidan. "We cannot allow the Gandhi Maidan to be auctioned," he said.
Veteran historian Barun De said there can be no doubt about the historical significance of the entire premises. "This is the building and the ground where Gandhiji had lived, fasted and held prayer meetings. It is steeped in history and needs to be preserved for posterity," said De.
Former Bengal governor and Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi termed the suggestion "absurd". "There should be no dispute or controversy regarding Hyderi Manzil, which is now called Gandhi Bhawan. It is well-documented that Gandhiji had stayed there during his post-riot fast in Kolkata in 1947. The adjacent land is very much a part of the historic premises. It is historically just as significant as the building itself," said Gandhi, who has authored a book on Gandhiji's relationship with the state - 'A frank friendship - Gandhi and Bengal'. The book has a detailed account of Gandhiji's fast at Hyderi Manzil.
Political scientist and former Presidency College principal Amal Mukhopadhyay said there were numerous books on Mahatma Gandhi which document his Beliaghata fast in detail. "Not only did the great man fast in that house, he had also invited Suhrawardy to stay with him there. Pandit Nehru visited him at the building during the fast. There are photographs to prove this. The historical significance and Gandhiji's association with the building is unquestionable. In fact, Gandhiji was there at Hyderi Manzil on the midnight of August 15, 1947 when India got independence," said Mukhopadhyay.
Jatin Chandra Das, a member of the trust that runs Gandhi Bhawan, made it clear that 150/B Suresh Chandra Banerjee Road, which had been mentioned in a newspaper announcement for auction last November, houses Gandhi Bhawan and not just the maidan. Das, a 78-year-old freedom fighter who witnessed Gandhiji's fast at the building, believes the maidan, too, was historic.
"Gandhiji held prayer meetings at the venue during his 25-day stay at Beliaghata. He came to the Hyderi Manzil on August 12, 1947 and stayed there till September 6. From September 1, he started an indefinite fast to stop a communal riot. After 73 hours, Gandhiji withdrew it on requests made by prominent leaders such as Sarat Chandra Bose, Prafulla Ghosh, Suhrawardy and Hem Chandra Naskar. He left Beliaghata on September 6," Das recalled.
State Pradesh Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya, too, is upset about the bank's auction plans. "I have taken up the matter with the UBI chairman and asked him not to take any hasty step on the sensitive issue," Bhattacharya said.
When the Purba Kolkata Gandhi Smarak Samiti, a trust which runs Gandhi Bhawan and its adjacent Gandhi Maidan, came to know about the 'auction plan' in November, it took up the matter with chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The latter in turn asked the mayor to take up the matter with the bank authorities in April.