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In the footsteps of Rajaji...

Seventy five years of dedicated and sustained humanitarian service in the harsh environs of a drought prone rural area points to the grit and greatness of Tiruchengode Gandhi Ashram. The ashram, inseperably linked with the sweat and toil of Rajaji, stands a testimony to his undaunted service and unbounded love to the Pudupalayam villagers. Even to this day, it remains a reminder of Gandhiji's clarion call for Sathyagraha and Sarvodaya which gave a spiritual thrust to regain India's independence.

Rajaji intuitively understood the potential and challenge of these ethical concepts to give a concerted direction and collective leadership to the freedom movement. Babu Rajendra Prasad in Bihar and Rajaji in Tamil Nadu were the valiant exemplars of this Gandhian ideology underpinning the freedom struggle.

Discarding his prosperous legal practice in Madras city, Rajaji unobtrusively moved to a remote village with a spirit of self- denial and seclusion to look after the welfare of the indigent people. He plunged himself into the constructive programme touching the bare needs of the impoverished villagers. Rajaji built the ashram on a donated piece of land by his family friend, Pudupalayam Zamindar Ratnasabapathy Gounder. The ashram came into existence on February 6, 1925.

With a band of disciplined and dedicated workers, Rajaji concentrated his village upliftment work in and around Tiruchengode on Khadi production, prohibition and Harijan welfare. His crusade in this aghast rural socio economic scenario is a landmark in the history of India's non-violent revolution for political independence.

Rajaji lived for nearly 10 years in a little thatched hut inside the ashram campus with his family. His daughter, Namagiri, was his sole companion and caretaker - from the ashram mud hut to the New Delhi Rashtrapathi Bhavan. C. R. Narashiman carried on his father's mission and task which is now steered by Justice Sengottuvelan. Soundara Kailasam, an ashram inmate of the earlier days, says that the very memory of Rajaji's life and work in the nucleus of the Gandhi Ashram is elevating and encouraging to anyone who understands the pragmatic link between constructive work and the power of Sathyagraha.

Rajaji exhorted the home truth to constructive workers: ``It is not often realised that untouchability work among the villagers differs fundamentally from that in the urban areas. Here reason and propoganda are utterly futile against the walls of ignorance and superstition. No frontal attack is possible. The only means of work that is possible are personal example and social uplift work among the depressed classes.'' If only this truism is realised and put into practice in all the human development programmes, soon there will come peace and harmony in our community life. Around the campus on display are the placards and educative slogans coined by Rajaji himself to arouse the villagers' change of heart to accept their untouchable brethren as one among them, to eschew drinking habits, take to Charka and Khadi spinning for earning enough money - all geared for the welfare of the family and village.

This ashram enunciating such lofty ideals by humane Rajaji is a veritable learning oasis for the Sarvodaya workers and a beacon light house for nation builders and leaders. Bapu and Kasturba came twice in 1925 and 1934 as ashram guests. The rank and file of the freedom movement leaders and volunteers constitute a list of distinguished visitors including Pandit Nehru, Bapu Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhai Patel and philanthropists like G. D. Birla and Seth Jamnalal Bajaj. Sri K. Santhanam and T. Sadasivam were longtime inmates of the ashram. ``Kalki'' Krishnamurthy was the resident editor of the Prohibition Tamil journal Vimochanam.

The first ever Sarvodaya workers conference was held in the ashram in July 1940 convened by Rev. Keithan, an American missionary turned Gandhian. N. S. Varadachari and Elai Alwar were Rajaji's Khadi ambassadors to improve rural economics with J. C. Kumarappa Sri G. Ramachandran (Mama) and Dr. T. S. Soundram (Amma), founders of Gandhigram (Madurai), were schooled in this ashram, under the tutelage of Rajaji, sponsored by Gandhiji himself. I was fortunate to make most of my education and career in Gandhigram with the profound filial affection of Mama and Amma. I also had a blessed opportunity to come into close contact with Rajaji's younger generation workers who moulded my personality, probity and integrity. I owe the fulfillment of my life long career in rural health and development to my Gandhigram experience.

TheHindu Kasturiranga Iyengar, Salem Vijayaraghavachariyar, Madras Mayor Sathyamurthy, Rt. Hon'ble Srinivasa Sastry, Madurai Vaidyanatha Iyer and a host of others were the patrons and wellwishers of the ashram. The ashram maintains a gallery of awe inspiring photographs of these and many more stalwarts and noble men associated with Rajaji's life and work. There are also some rare photographs of Rajaji with his family, of the Salem Bar Association, the Masonic Lodge, at his desk with a villager and radiating his dignity and decor with John Kennedy. A library of some very rare books is very engaging for any voracious reader.

Rajaji's farewell visit to the ashram was in 1962. Ramaswamy who joined the ashram at the age of 12, told me of Rajaji's affection and regards for each and every individual worker of the ashram. N. S. Varadachari gave a very reverential and intimate tribute on Rajaji's 93rd birthday. ``Politics apart, Rajaji is a scholar of distinction. His stay in prison at the Tiruchengode Ashram and his occasional retirement from the heat of politics helped him to devote to a study of Sanskrit, Tamil and English literature thus facilitating him to write a number of short stories and render English and Tamil translations of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, Gita and Kural. The depth of his understanding, the care with which he chooses his words and phrases and the limpid style he adopts, give his writings the odour of true culture. Rajaji is the personification of both goodness and greatness marching in step.''

I hope the young readers of this article, schools and colleges will take the first opportunity to make an excursion to the Gandhi Ashram to pay their homage to Rajaji who was a champion of good character. The Dravidian leader, E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker, graced the inaugural function of the ashram in 1925. Kamaraja Nadar presided over the golden jubilee. The Vice-President, R. Venkataraman, inaugurated the diamond jubilee. Preparations are on to celebrate the platinum jubilee of the ashram this month.

(By R. Varadarajan of Gandhigram)

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