Ahmedabad, a city which has seen the best of times and the worst of times

From being a Manchester of the East due to its textile mills, Ahmedabad became a centre of new awakening, standing for symbols like the charkha, khadi and Sabarmati Ashram, and most of all, Gandhi

February 23, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 04:53 pm IST

The Sabarmati Ashram

The Sabarmati Ashram

The city of Sultan Ahmed Shah has undergone so many transformations as to make infinity intelligible. It has been among the best of cities, survived the worst of calamities. Founded by Shah in 1411 on the banks of the Sabarmati, there are different tales about the foundation of Ahmedabad. Scholars, travellers and historians have all been enamoured with the city.

Amrita Shah writes in Ahmedabad: A City in the World, “When Timur Lane launched an attack on Delhi, the Governor of Gujarat was Muzaffar Shah, the son of a Punjabi Hindu, converted to Islam. In 1407, in the uncertain conditions created by the attack on Delhi, Muzaffar was persuaded to proclaim himself as the Sultan of Gujarat. Three years later, he was succeeded by his twenty-year-old grandson and heir, Ahmed Shah, who would build himself a new capital on the banks of the Sabarmati.”

Esther David gives a fresh anecdote about the foundation of Ahmedabad in City with a Past, writing, “One has it that some time in 1411 AD, a dog was looking for easy prey on the banks of the Sabarmati when a hare attacked him and drove him away. Sultan Ahmed Shah witnessed the scene and, impressed by the hare’s spirit, decided to build a city right there.” Today, as Shah writes, “the founder of Ahmedabad lies under a high, striated dome, covered by a maroon and green satin shroud”. And the city moves on, oblivious of its past.

Haven for craftsmen

Shah founded the city close to two trading centres of Karnavati and Asaval, assuring business as the new city connected business caravans from the north, west and south. Among those to gain were weavers, merchants and craftsmen.

As Neera Chandhoke writes in Rethinking Pluralism, Secularism and Tolerance: Anxieties of Coexistence, “For a hundred years, the city grew in wealth and splendour. This period of growth was followed by 60 years of decay.” The reason being the decline of the Gujarat Sultanate and the arrival of the Portuguese. However, Mughal emperor Akbar wrested the city in 1572. Ahmedabad began to look up again only to decline shortly afterwards, its decline being tied to the fall of the Mughals. In 1757, Ahmedabad lapsed into the hands of the Marathas who were to rule over it for the next 60 years before the East India Company took control. It was to prove to be a boon for the city.

As Chandhoke writes, “Ahmedabad once again began to revive under the control of the East India Company and was transformed into a modern city.” The point is elaborated by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth who write in Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Mega City, “Briefly under the Marathas in the 18th century, Ahmedabad experienced a dimming of its fortunes, but with the beginning of British control from the early 19th century the city reasserted its mercantile ethos, even as it began questioning age-old social hierarchies. The opening of the first textile mill in 1861 was a turning point and by the end of the century Ahmedabad was known as the Manchester of the East.”

This transformation of the city had sociological consequences.

As overseas business opportunities offered a ladder for economic advancement, many Hindus converted to Islam as Hindu society prohibited overseas travel, something which had been observed almost a thousand years earlier by Alberuni too.

Peace and riots

Then came an Indian from South Africa who was to turn such lopsided notions on their head. One could go anywhere in the world and retain the purity of spirit and body.

With Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the image of Ahmedabad changed. It wasn’t any longer Shah’s city. The city resonated with Mahatma’s name, his spirit, his Sabarmati Ashram. As Yagnik and Sheth write, “With the setting up of his Sabarmati Ashram, the great manufacturing centre also became a centre for new awakening. It became the political hub of India, radiating the message of freedom struggle based on truth and non-violence.” During the first half of the 20th century, the ashram was like a pilgrimage centre. Nobody talked of the city’s institutes of higher learning, its textile mills, its skilled craftsmen or even medieval monuments. The charkha, the khadi, the ashram and Gandhi, Ahmedabad stood for them all.

But then Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi shortly after Independence. And Ahmedabad was not to know another angel of peace for the next 70-odd years. The city hurtled from one communal riot to another. Soon, there came a time when religion became a marker of existence. As Chandhoke notes, “The residential pattern of the city was characterised by two distinct kinds of housing types for Hindus and the Muslims. The Hindus lived in a cluster known as the pol and the Muslims in the mohallas. The word pol is derived from the Sanskrit word pratoli, which means entrance to an enclosed area.”

No Muslim was allowed to live in the enclosed area called pol, and not many Hindus were found in mohallas.

What’s in a name?

As the demand for Hindu Rashtra has gained volume in recent years, so have the noises to rename Ahmedabad as Karnavati, a proposal first aired in 1987 when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.

It mooted, as Shah notes, “a proposal to change the name of the city to Karnavati, the name of the town or military outpost which may have been established by the Hindu Solanki king Karnadev on the banks of the Sabarmati, preceding the founding of Ahmedabad.” The proposal was rejected.

Then in 2010, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation began calling itself the Amdavad Municipal Corporation. The shift to vernacular Gujarat was intended to rid the city of its Islamic association.

The city today is reorganised on the principle of ‘single community areas’ where no inter-community mixing is possible. And as Chandhoke notes, “The road between the Muslim ghetto and Hindu residential areas is called in popular parlance, the border.”

Shah’s Ahmedabad has moved miles from Gandhi’s all-embracing Ram Rajya. The city where lakhs have been known to worship Krishna since the 12th century could do with some love.

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