The Foundation Monthly
The quiet, wind swept hamlet of Dandi, off Navsari on the coast, which had made history three decades ago and become a household word in India, dear to freedom lovers, was the focus of attention again on April 6,1961.
On that very day, way back in 1930, Gandhiji had picked up a few grains of salt on the village beach having reached there on foot from Ahmedabad in what has come to be celebrated as the Dandi March. This simple act of picking up salt in symbolic defiance of alien authority stirred the imagination of the whole country and of the whole world, releasing powerful currents of thought and action which ultimately led to Independence in 1947. The significance of the event, perhaps not fully grasped at that time, in retrospect, stands out as one of the turning-points of the Indian struggle for freedom.
In grateful remembrance of that occasion, Prime Minister Nehru, heir to Gandhiji’s great mission, journeyed to Dandi on April 6 to pay homage to the memory of the illustrious architect of our freedom, one who had awakened the self-respect of a whole sub-continent, and do honour to all those who had played their part in the movement for liberation.
Panditji visited all the places hallowed by Gandhiji’s association, unveiled a memorial to martyrs, at Matwad and the Dandi March Memorial on the beach and addressed the huge assemblage witnessing the event. He received from His Holiness Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb the gift of his bungalow, ‘Saifee Villa’, where Gandhiji had stayed at the end of the historic Dandi March and which his holiness dedicated to the nation through the Prime Minister.
Dandi, a small village of scattered settlements with one of the most attractive beaches of white sand on the west coast, had been astir for days in advance, preparing for the occasion. Roads had been improvised on the sand, and fences put up to direct and control the large crowds expected. Hundreds, who had trekked overnight from far-off villages, lined the road from Navsari to Dandi in the early hours of April 6.
Flags, festoons and flowers breathed hearty welcome everywhere. And the quiet village, which had known no animation for long, was suddenly alive with the bustle and murmur of a vast congregation of spectators, some of whom had been present on a similar day of stir and expectation thirty years ago when Gandhiji walked into Dandi and made it the centre of worldwide attention and the hub of freedom’s hope.
At that time, the sea was only a little distance away from Saifee Villa where Gandhiji had sojourned with his followers. In fact, at high tide, waves used to lash the steps leading up to the high ground where the building stands. Since then the sea has receded far, leaving an extensive stretch of sand.
A one-storied, roomy, airy bungalow, Saifee Villa has two big-sized rooms on each floor with numerous windows, stretching right across the walls to let in refreshing gusts of sea breeze. The building faces the west, and Gandhiji stayed in the room on the first floor on the southward side while his associates were accommodated on the ground floor.
Close to Saifee Villa are a mosque and two tombs held in high veneration by Dawoodi Bohras and members of other communities as well who come there in large numbers from far and near. Surrounding them are rows of squat buildings, with numerous rooms for the accommodation of the devout, and also a common kitchen where free meals are served.
The pious ladies who are buried in the two tombs and whose memory is reverently cherished by the people were the mother and sister of Syedna Yusuf Najmuddin, an outstanding personality and the very first Dai to come to India from Yemen, establishing his headquarters here in the 10th century A.H., 16th century A.D. The ladies were shipwrecked while on their way back from a pilgrimage to Mecca, and their bodies were washed ashore near Dandi. These associations have made the village a place of special importance and appeal to Dawoodi Bohras.
The first place the Prime Minister visited on reaching Dandi at 9 in the morning was Saifee Villa, which had been bedecked artistically in the colours of the national flag. Recalling Gandhiji’s memorable stay there and also the more important aspects of the satyagraha launched by him were large-sized old photographs on the verandah. A floral arch adorned the entrance.
The exact spot, a few yards away on the beach, where Gandhiji had picked up salt, was marked out with a ring of white-painted bricks, wherein was delineated the map of India in salt, overlooked by an enlarged photograph of Gandhiji bending to gather salt. This simple display, capturing the spirit of the day, conjured vivid glimpses of the quiet drama that unfolded itself then, thrilling the hearts of freedom fighters everywhere.
Prime Minister Nehru, arriving with Mr Morarji Desai, Union Finance Minister, Dr Jivraj Mehta, Chief Minister of Gujarat, and other state dignitaries, was first greeted by His Eminence Mazoon Saheb Prince Burhanuddin, successor-designate to the office of dāʿī, who led the party to the site of the historic event. Looking at the photograph of Gandhiji picking up salt, the Prime Minister appeared to be deeply moved and was lost in thought.
His Holiness welcomed Pandit Nehru at the entrance of Saifee Villa and led him and the other distinguished visitors inside the house, where an inscription in white on a black background, dedicating the place to the nation, was unveiled, by the Prime Minister. His Holiness handed over to Panditji the title-deed of the bungalow, wrapped in an exquisite piece of gold brocade. Then the Prime Minister rested for a while, talking to His Holiness and His Eminence Mazoon Saheb while other members of His Holiness’s family, dignitaries of the Dawoodi Bohra community and other prominent invitees gathered round to pay their respects. Before leaving Saifee Villa, the Prime Minister went upstairs to see the room where Gandhiji had stayed.
His Holiness, in a letter to the Prime Minister, stated that the bungalow which he was dedicating to the nation had been purchased by him and later on handed over to the Dawat, the administrative agency of the Dawoodi Bohra community. He had been feeling for some time that the place, which had been hallowed by the glorious association of a great personality like Gandhiji and of an epoch-making event in the history of modern India, ought properly to belong to the whole nation rather than to a community.
His Holiness considered himself fortunate in being able to make the dedication ‘through the hands of a leader who has himself made a shining contribution to the struggle for freedom and who is so ably fulfilling, in letter and spirit, the great ideological mission of Gandhiji’.
His Holiness added, “I pray to God and earnestly hope that this house, with the proposed library, will radiate the light and inspiration of Gandhiji’s teaching and ever stand as a symbol of those noble ideals of love, brotherhood and communal harmony, for which he lived and died and which alone can help exalt man and preserve human civilisation.”
Referring to Dandi, His Holiness pointed out how the village had an added significance to Dawoodi Bohras as it contained the tombs of two devout ladies who were greatly esteemed by the community. “That this very village should have also become a landmark in the story of our liberation is indeed a very happy coincidence,” His Holiness stated.
As the Prime Minister left Saifee Villa, hundreds of people who had collected on the beach cheered him, and he tarried for a while to greet groups of children who were shouting ‘Chacha Nehru Zindabad’. Proceeding then to the waiting car, Pandit Nehru suddenly turned back and went up the steps once again in a gracious gesture of farewell to His Holiness who was standing at the gate.