THERE never has been in all of history an empire greater than what the British established which spread from one end of the world to the other. The sun, it was said, never set on it, which was literally true. But has there been any revolution in the entire world, which set out, and achieved its aim, through eco-political subversion? Except in India? That was done by one man and one means: Gandhi, through his message of khadi and swadeshi. It was sartorial subversion at its most effective assertive. And it succeeded beyond measure.
As the author of this brilliant study of the swadeshi movement sums up “it exploded the myth of the civilising mission of colonial powers and gave birth to the world’s largest democracy.” With swadeshi, Gandhi gave his people a power they had never experienced before. Gonsalves sums up in his thesis: “Never before were pieces of clothing on the sweaty backs of skinny peasants infused with such holy defiance. Never before did the slender thread of hand-spun yarn unbraid the industrialised fabric of the greatest empire on earth. It took a little brown man in khadi dhoti, to consign it to history.” To understand what all this means, one must study the economic history of India and the British assault on the socio-cultural life of the ordinary Indian from 1768 onwards. First the British destroyed India’s thriving textile industry with singular determination. Second, the British sought to impose on India a sense of inferiority never before attempted by any foreign conqueror. The British discouraged their own people from accepting any form of Indian culture. On the other hand they encouraged Indians to accept British concepts of dress and deportment.
It left Gandhi with no other option but to turn to the loin cloth around his waist, a khadi shawl around his shoulders and sandals on his feet to show the British what their destruction of the Indian textile industry has done to the people. He even had the courage to call on King George V at Buckingham Palace, thus dressed. When asked if he ever felt embarrassed being a trifle underdressed, he had the wit, and the courage, to say: “Why should I be embarrassed? His Majesty had enough clothes on for both of us.” It was a soft slap on the monarchs face and well deserved, too.
Two chapters in this revelatory book make it clear how the British planned to demolish India’s greatness and get it to accept servility. One is titled ‘The Rape of India’. This chapter shows clearly how, step by deliberate step, the British wiped out India’s splendid textile industry which was once the pride and wonder of the world. The second on ‘Inferiorisation of a People’ is an attempt to show how the British sought to wash out India’s self-respect and self-confidence.
Gandhi not only stood up to such rascality and hypocrisy but got the nation to follow him. His strategy succeeded. His challenge, as Gonsalves as noted, was directed not merely to the empire alone, but also to follow Indias accustomed to being docile subjects. The basic mantra was swadeshi. Gandhi felt – and quite rightly – that he could bring the British to their knees through swadeshi. But it wasn’t all that easy as it sounds on paper.
Gonsalves’ study is exceptional – and brilliant, and, may one add, deeply emotive. This book as the introduction rightly notes, investigates the personal, eco-political, psycho-cultural, socio-religious and philosophical underpinnings that contributed to making Gandhi’s bold assertion a reality.