About 20 officials and staff members of the Gandhi Vidya Sansthan in Varanasi began an indefinite dharna on the institute lawns on Thursday, protesting the Narendra Modi government’s alleged attempt to grab the Gandhian institution.
On Monday, the Uttar Pradesh government allegedly took over the institute, which holds lessons on Gandhian ideas and brings out publications, apparently to hand it over to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), run by the central government.
“I am fasting for the day and the other members are sitting with me to show support,” said Ram Dhiraj, head of the Sansthan as well as the social organisation Sarva Seva Sangh that used to run the institute from its premises till Monday.
“We shall sit here from 10am to 5pm every day until we get back what was ours,” Dhiraj told The Telegraph over the phone.
The Sarva Seva Sangh has challenged the takeover, carried out apparently on the orders of Varanasi divisional commissioner Kaushal Raj Sharma, before Allahabad High Court, which has reserved its verdict.
Dhiraj said the protesters had got a canopy erected because the day temperatures were hovering above 40° C, but a group of policemen came and removed it.
“I was in jail for about two years during the Emergency (1975 to 1977). I told them (the police) they could put me in jail again or shoot me. They are experts at shooting people,” he said, alluding to the “encounters” in which Yogi Adityanath’s police claim to have killed several dozen alleged criminals.
“I have lived my life and would happily die in jail or by a bullet. But my dharna will continue till the government withdraws from the property of the Sarva Seva Sangh,” he added.
Dhiraj claimed the property records were in the Sarva Seva Sangh’s favour.
“We had given the land to the Gandhi Vidya Sansthan for 30 years. The lease will end in November 2023. Then it will be our decision to renew the lease or take the property back for our use,” he said.
“I appeal to the police to refuse to follow the bad order of the government and stand by the truth.”
A police officer in Lucknow said: “They (local police) are only following orders. We too are waiting for the court order.”
IGNCA regional director Abhijit Dixit had told this newspaper on Wednesday that the national arts centre had a policy to strengthen and “take care of” institutes like the Sansthan.
Local people said that while some of the dharna participants spun the charkha, others read books on Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the founders of the Sansthan.
“It will not be easy for the government to snatch the four buildings of the Sansthan, spread over 2.5 acres of land,” Dhiraj said.
“We have submitted all the documents before the high court and expect an order in our favour. The Supreme Court too is there for our legal protection.”