The ‘Mahatma’ (great soul) has shaped and inspired many of India’s sovereign and political instincts that are still invoked in the name of the ‘father of the nation’. Though in recent times, India’s veritable ‘conscience of humanity’ has been diminished and he shares an increasingly growing and discomforting space with the man who killed him. Overall, the political instincts of the country have not necessarily evolved for the better over the years, in many ways, they have either regressed or atrophied, instead of progressing. The stranglehold of misogynistic, chauvinistic and revisionist politicians, cutting across the political lines, is all pervasive.
Their preachy, outdated and unsolicited sermons on issues that ought not to concern them, militates against better-sense and priorities, and are more in conformity with Khap Panchayat mentality that refuses to evolve over time. In recent times, unwarranted comments on Ripped Jeans and Bermuda shorts have horrified the citizenry. The shallowness of the political ‘bench strength’, even in the ostensible ‘party with a difference’ came forth with the most undesirable comments from a relatively young Chief Minister, who was recently appointed in a reshuffle to deliver good governance, just before the crucial state elections. Within hours he gave a sneak peek into his mind with, ‘You run an NGO, wear jeans ripped at the knees, move about in society, children are with you, what values you will teach’ ~ subliminal concerns with the admixture of NGOs, ‘society’, understanding of ‘values’ as also, clothing itself, was apparent.
It would be pertinent to imagine as to how Mahatma Gandhi who was shot dead by an illiberal fanatic, would have reacted to the issue of clothing. Gandhi was called a ‘half-naked fakir’ for his definitive image in a simple loincloth and khadi, by the racist Winston Churchill. But Gandhi’s image was a deliberate optic of his political and ‘Indian’ assertion, to dare with a visually powerful statement.
Earlier, Gandhi too had adorned the quintessential ‘English Gentleman’ attire, albeit spiced with mild ‘Indianness’ of a velvet Kathiawadi cap and necklace ~ a subtle cue of his descendancy from a family of highranking officials in the court of feudal Kathiawad. Gandhi famously confessed his initial vanity in dressing-the-part by admitting, “the punctiliousness in dress persisted for years”!
Gandhi’s unpublished handbook, Guide to London, addressed to Indian students migrating to England had a section dedicated to the importance of dressing correctly (with English etiquette). In it, Gandhi makes a compelling case for attention to detail in dressing up, as it reflects on one’s character and standards of culture. Clearly shunning ostentatiousness, Gandhi had no qualms in suggesting keeping-up with the trends and fashions that prevailed. That his attempts to be the ‘English Gentleman’ fell apart with the rude shock in South Africa, where racism tolerated no such parity between a White and a non-White, was to lead to a political awakening of a ‘self-respecting Indian’ who bore no inferiority complexes about his native dressing style. His personal tribulations during his societal work with the ‘indentured Indians’ in South Africa triggered seeds of self-reliance, which was to ultimately lead to Swadeshi. Deeper realisation of the miserable fate that awaited the native Zulus in the Zulu Rebellion, moved Gandhi towards a higher consciousness of Satyagraha (Force of truth/soul). Collectively, the increasingly politicised Gandhi expressed his identity, Swadeshiness, Satyagraha in a visual dimension i.e. simplicity and ethnicity of his dressing. Reneging on his earlier view of Western clothing as the only means of civilizing or the necessity of the Manchester cloth became his rallying cry.
But, Gandhi’s reasons for the metamorphoses were contextual, psychological and assertively political for a reason ~ and that reason was not to disparage Western clothing sensibilities as inferior, amoral or scandalous. Gandhi’s insistence on ‘Indianness’ was not reflective of reverse-superiority or the ‘uncivilisationalness’ of the West, but in the more profound tenets of equality for all, without discrimination. His changed sartorial sense was symbolic of conflating one’s identity, convictions and the need for ‘unclothing’, towards a higher purpose.
The later-day Gandhi was on a specific mission, and his deliberately austere and native clothing represented a certain topical reaction and a personal quest for truth, empathy and struggle, as he saw necessary to be expressed in his clothing style. However, India’s Independence in 1947 recalibrated many of Gandhi’s earlier expressions and symbols of freedom struggle (including suggesting the dissolution of the Congress Party) towards more pressing, tangible and critical urgencies in the recently vivisected nation, rather than fussing over clothing style. Unfortunately, for the ever-evolving mind of a Gandhi, his successors in Indian politics have still bound his memory in selective silos that enforce a rigidity of perception, one which ignores crucial contexts underlying the brilliantly progressive mind of Gandhi that made him, ‘Mahatma’.
As ‘Father of the Nation’, Gandhi’s photo adorns the corridors- of-power where elected members to the State and National Assemblies swear to abide by the sacred constitutional spirit, under the watchful (if increasingly diminished) photos of Gandhi.
Beyond the usual partisan slugfest and competitive blamegames ~ the reality is India is in the throes of an unprecedented economic-cartographical-medical- societal crisis, and to pontificate about sartorial preferences is not only a luxury, but a misplaced and a shameful one, at that. The art of ‘diverting’ attention from the real issues staring in the face of an impending ‘second/ third wave’ of the pandemic, ought to make way for deliberations on our true needs.
Politicians ought to understand the evolutionary spirit of the times (which needs no judgmental or misogynistic pronouncements) and to be confident and reassured of the timeless Sanskaars in a 5000-year-old civilisation.
An acute sense of priority and sensitivity is imperative for the public leadership to goad them towards progressive banks, as opposed to trying to swim against the tide and plodding imperiously, ignorantly and incessantly. The issue of Ripped Jeans is not about clothing as much as it is about a ripped mentality ~ there was nothing Sanskaari or Gandhian about the unwanted statements by these politicians. Gandhi would have surely disdained such thinking, that too 73 years after his death.