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Updated: October 2, 2012 00:36 IST

Dressed to subvert

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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KHADI — Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion: Peter Gonsalves; Sage
Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.
KHADI — Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion: Peter Gonsalves; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.

Drawing upon a remarkable range of sources, Peter Gonsalves details the semiotics of white khadi as a defining symbol of India’s struggle for Independence — and more besides. Gandhi’s decision to choose white khadi, needless to say, was not made overnight; it started as part of his self-transformation from an English dandy and successful lawyer to a leader of all Indians, one whose life has implications for all humanity as well.

It was a chance meeting in South Africa with Balasundaram, an indentured labourer savagely beaten by his master, that widened Gandhi’s sense of public obligation; until then he had mainly tried to improve the lot of upper-class Indians in South Africa. Thereafter, it took his unique political genius to cause political transformation without collapsing into a duality of the inner and the outer or imposing his will on others. His phrase ‘be the change’ meant that his own life became the message and the change.

A central element of Gandhi’s genius was his capacity to identify and exploit, often instantly, an enemy’s weakness, and he took on mighty enemies and evils. The East India Company, which from its very foundation in 1599 had been desperate to gain both access to and control over India’s fabled wealth, had by 1830 become almost a monopoly retailer with a parasitic and predatory dominance over India; some of today’s retail giants may well be planning precisely that, but globally. And if British imperialism was initially motivated mainly by economic concerns and was therefore more pragmatic than other European imperialisms, the Company was also advancing itself at home. Its officials came to hold about a tenth of the seats in parliament, and Horace Walpole remarked that England was a ‘sink of Indian wealth, filled by nabobs.’

By Gandhi’s time, however, what Gonsalves terms the Company’s systematic rape of India had been succeeded by the even greater dominance of the imperial government, which readily did everything the Lancashire cotton-mill owners wanted; in the 1860s the fact that Indian mills consumed 7 per cent of the yarn that Lancashire mills did was enough for London to remove all tariffs on the import of Lancashire textiles into India.

Swadeshi lesson

That kind of measure meant, furthermore, the transformation of key elements of the Indian economy; in a classic colonial pattern, India was turned from an exporter of finished textiles into one of raw materials. That pattern has been replicated today by the European Union, which will not allow even temporary suspensions of import duties on finished goods, while it can allow suspensions for raw materials or semi-finished goods. The swadeshi lesson is salutary. It ‘did the empire the greatest damage in the long history of British colonialism in India’; at its height the movement reduced British cotton exports to India by 84 per cent.

The swadeshi challenge was nevertheless as much symbolic as economic. From the time it replaced the East India Company in 1857, Great Britain had intensified the processes whereby an entire Indian sensibility was reduced to considering itself inferior to that of the rulers. Pico Iyer remarks elsewhere that explicit and pervasive imperial racism grew much worse after London took over from the Company, and did so particularly after the colonial men’s wives came out and set up home in India. Winston Churchill, whose imperialism was anachronistic even when he was very young, has been well documented as a racist bigot, but the adoption by Indians of colonial clothes and ways could never change one point: racial prejudice ‘ran deeper than clothing and no amount of cloth could cover this fact.’

A second enemy of Gandhi’s, and no less of one than the empire, lay in the Indian forces ranged against khadi. Gandhi meant khadi to be a public statement of commonality with all other Indians; it obliterated the distinctions of wealth, status, power, and faith that fabric, cut, and even colour signified. Perhaps inevitably, khadi developed another semiotics too; it became a mask or stage costume for those who used it for their own political advancement or had no intention of creating any substantive commonality with the hundreds of millions they had oppressed for far longer than the empire had done — or both. In addition, some on the Left saw it as the abandonment of technological progress. Perhaps worst of all for the established Indian order, khadi was all-inclusive. It gave women significantly greater access to public action, and was politically unaffected by those women who wanted at least some ornamentation on the white ground. And it meant that Dalits could efface at least one visible element of the evils they had suffered for millennia.

Yet Gandhi’s attempts at socio-cultural and socio-religious subversion through white khadi were substantially less successful than his subversion of British rule, and Gandhi knew the bitter resistance to structural change that permeates almost all of Indian society. Gonsalves shows why it would be a mistake to attribute the failures to an excessively spiritual or symbolic focus in the adoption of khadi, despite the metaphysics involved — which he handles adeptly. Gandhi knew that he was challenging an economic order as much as anything else. Rural India had grown used to acquiescence, ineptitude, and powerlessness, but for Gandhi that had to change: … the village and not the city would be the unit of production; the charkha plied by villagers and not the city mills would be the means of production; labour and not capital would be the foundation of the process of production; people and not the government and its allies would be the new agents of transformation.

That may or may not be left-anarchism, but it is grounded in an incisive sense of the production relations that today keep something like two thirds of a billion people in some of the worst and longest-lasting oppression the world may ever have known. With this examination of the subversive semiotics of khadi, Gonsalves has also provided a powerful critique of the whole political economy of India. This book is a rare achievement.

KHADI — Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion: Peter Gonsalves;

Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044.

Rs. 795.

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