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How an engineer and 2 high-flyers became Gandhi’s men

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‘Thakkar Bapa’, Indulal Yajnik and Shankarlal Banker were already active in public life when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Ahmedabad.

There is an apt word in Gujarati for Mahatma Gandhi: Lok Sangrahak or ‘aggregator of people’. He was a magnet for talented people. Many Gujarati associates flocked to him for the simple reason that Ahmedabad was his base from 1915 to 1930 and made notable contributions.

But almost all of them, with few exceptions like Sardar Patel, have faded from collective memory.

Contrary to general perception, the atmosphere in Gujarat and Bombay (then part of Bombay Presidency) was already politically charged when Gandhi arrived in 1915. The Swadeshi Movement, Lokmanya Tilak, the so-called ‘bomb making’ formula of radical revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh, institutions like Servants of India Society and Depressed Classes Mission of India had already fired up the restless youth. This was the fertile pool of talent that a newcomer Gandhi attracted.

Also read: The two family members of Mahatma Gandhi who dared to disagree with him

Gandhi had no previous exposure to Indian political realities. Why did the youth join Gandhi? Because Gandhi offered three new approaches: a unique non-violence mantra, a pro-poor approach and a much wider scale than conventional politics.

One such person who was drawn to Gandhi was Amritlal Thakkar (1869-1951), fondly known as Thakkar Bapa. He commanded respect for his work among Dalits and tribals even before he met Gandhi. He was the man who wrote a letter to Gandhi and requested him to include a Dalit family in his ashram. Gandhi readily accepted Thakkar Bapa’s proposal because he too wanted to work toward removal of untouchability. The decision created quite a storm inside and outside the ashram.

By that time, Thakkar Bapa was a well-known name among social workers. Born in Gandhi’s birth year, Thakkar Bapa was an engineer by training. Convinced that the service of the nation lies in serving its people, he took the plunge a year before Gandhi’s arrival in India. He joined the Servants of India Society and immersed himself in various relief and service activities across the country. He met Gandhi when he visited the Society.

They were drawn to each other because of their shared mission to fight the evil of untouchability. Both of them believed in bringing about a change of heart among upper caste Hindus rather than imposing equality by law.

Also read: You don’t know Gandhi if you don’t know about his 3 Gujarati comrades

When All India Anti-Untouchability League (renamed later as Harijan Sevak Sangh) was established in 1932 under G.D. Birla’s patronage and presidentship, Thakkar Bapa was appointed its secretary. He had already formed the Bhil Seva Mandal, an organisation for Bhil tribals, a decade back. Harijan Sevak Sangh was accused of having a patronising attitude toward Dalit leaders, including Babasaheb Ambedkar. Yet Gandhi’s work in this direction was ably supported and carried forward by few associates like Thakkar Bapa.

Compared to a rooted leader like Thakkar Bapa, the Shankarlal Banker-Indulal Yajnik duo was among the high-flyers.

Indulal Yagnik | Urvish Kothari

Shankarlal Banker (1889- 1985) was the person who was charged and imprisoned along with Gandhi in the famous sedition case of 1922. His friend Indulal Yajnik (1892-1972) was a man of mercurial temperament with radical reformist tendencies. He started a monthly magazine in Gujarati with the help of Shankarlal and Gujarati lawyer-writer Kanaiyalal Munshi on the lines of Modern Review. It was named Navjivan (new life), inspired by Dante’s La Vita Nuova. Shankarlal was also running an English weekly called Young India.

After Gandhi’s arrival and plunge into public life, Shankarlal and Indulal handed over both the publications to Gandhi in 1919. Thereon, both the publications became the messengers of the freedom movement.

Shankarlal remained the publisher while the flamboyant Indulal quit over a disagreement with Gandhi on the issue of Khilafat Movement. Indulal kept oscillating between Gandhi-Congress and Left, having a brief stint in Bollywood when he made silent films. But the bonding and mutual affection between Gandhi and Indulal remained intact, and was acknowledged frequently by both. Gandhi considered Indulal an exemplary worker with unreal ambition that caused heartbreaks. (Indulal became a fakir (austere) leader of the Mahagujarat Movement between 1956 and 1960.)

Also read: Aruna Asaf Ali, a fiercely independent freedom fighter who defied Mahatma Gandhi

Shankarlal, on the other hand, played a prominent role in Gandhi’s activities in Ahmedabad. He participated in the mill workers’ strike, the Kheda Satyagraha and the protests against the Rowlatt Act. He had active involvement in khadi and spinning organisations, and was the secretary of the Bharatiya Charkha Sangh.

Thakkar Bapa, Indulal Yajnik and Shankarlal Banker – all three were active in public life before Gandhi’s arrival in Ahmedabad, but they all saw themselves as Gandhi’s men.

(Gandhi’s Gujarati comrades: On the occasion of 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, ThePrint brings you a three-part series on his forgotten colleagues from Gujarat. Click here to read part one, and part two)

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  1. Read an article 50 years ago — Amritlal young spiritualist — locked himself in a house – tried to do penance…. Gandhiji got curious about the young man — went to his place – saw the house was full of dust cob-webs, etc…… & spoke to the young man — penance need not be on sitting posture alone — first let us clean the house, open the windows….etc… were words of wisdom that changed the course of his life – later became Thakkar Baba….. Often in public space – such vital anecdotes go missing…. & only highlights of later life get more focus – that too as if one is preparing for a competitive exam …………………… Pl recheck the anecdote recalled from old memory & try to bring it out …………………

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