In 2011, when Anna Hazare was running a quasi-political “nautanki” (a kind of folk theatre) before the annual staging of Ramlila, the nation’s best-known folk drama, many compared him to Mahatma Gandhi. Your reporter in the Notebook columns had taken the position, going much against the flow of public sentiments, that a certain Anna Hazare, just because he undertook fasts at the drop of a hat, could not be compared to Gandhi.
During those days of soaring public passion generated by Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, a seminar was organised at Constitution Club to understand the genre and intent of the agitation launched by the farmer leader from Maharashtra. Your reporter was invited to put forth his point of view and was roundly heckled for acting as a ‘government’s stooge’, as he refused to swim with the tide. After much persuasion by the organisers, when I was finally allowed to have my turn at the microphone, I asked a question if anybody recalled Mahatma holding any major agitation in New Delhi.
Silence fell in the auditorium. Champaran, Dandi, Kheda, Noakhali - the names so closely associated with Mahatma, were all located at a distance of 1000 kilometres from Delhi, if not more. Mahatma Gandhi first came to acquire the centre stage position in Indian politics by launching Satyagraha in Champaran against indigo planters. Those were not the days of instant news and television. Even if it were, the television OB vans would have found it very difficult to reach Champaran.
On the other hand, we had Anna Hazare, who played it out to the script written by media houses. I feel so proud that, in one of my Notebook columns written then, I had called Anna’s agitation a ‘Celluloid Movement.’
Images are important in politics. Rulers have been conscious about their images. This point has been so very well made by historian and editor Shazi Zaman, who in his recently published book Akbar writes how the greatest ever Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar projected an image about his reign through the miniatures made by artists employed by the empire. But then there are images which are projected and there are images which get created in the natural course.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became Mahatma in the natural course of his politics. He neither had the state machinery at his disposal nor did he hire a brand management company.
Khadi played an integral part in his politics and in building his and the rough cloth’s brand equity. The attempt to replace Gandhi as the brand ambassador of Khadi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trivialisation of a national legacy. Gandhi’s relationship with the Khadi was organic. The image of Mahatma and his charkha is deeply embedded in public consciousness.
Any attempt by the courtiers of the Prime Minister to erase this image from public mind would only prove to be counter-productive. No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi replacing Mahatma Gandhi from the 2017 wall calendar and table diary published by the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has led to a raging political controversy.
News reports said that most employees and officials of the Commission were taken aback to see the cover photo of the calendar and diary showing Modi weaving Khadi on a large charkha, in the same classic pose as Gandhi. The attempt to postulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi as modern day Mahatma Gandhi is like looking for calm waters in a whirlpool.
KVIC Chairman Vinai Kumar Saxena buttressed his not so very glorious act to replace Mahatma with Modi with an equally inglorious justification. He was reported as saying, “In fact, he (Modi) is Khadi’s biggest brand ambassador, and his vision matches KVIC’s, of Make In India by making villages self-sufficient, skill development by generating employment among the rural masses, infuse modern technology for Khadi weaving, innovations, and marketing. Plus, the PM is a youth icon.”
Now, can there be something farther from the truth? Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicines in Non-Western Cultures (1997) mentions, “In India, Khadi is not just a cloth, it is a whole movement started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Khadi movement promoted a socio-cultural aesthetic, an idea that Indians could be self-reliant on cotton and be free from foreign cloth and clothing. …The Khadi movement by Gandhi aimed at boycotting foreign goods including cotton and promoting Indian goods, thereby improving India’s economy.
Mahatma Gandhi began promoting the spinning of Khadi for rural self-employment and self-reliance (instead of using cloth manufactured industrially in Britain) in the 1920s in India, thus making Khadi an integral part and an icon of the Swadeshi movement. The freedom struggle revolved around the use of Khadi fabrics and the dumping of foreign-made clothes. When some people complained about the costliness of Khadi to Mahatma Gandhi, he started wearing only dhoti (loin cloth).”
Mahatma started the movement in 1920s and sustained it through his life and such was the impact of Khadi movement that it continues to matter as a brand even seven decades after his assassination. This, despite the fact that the political class of the country which has worn Khadi all these years, has not really conducted itself with much splendour.
The ‘Malang Baba’, as the people in the Frontier areas addressed Gandhi for wearing just the loin cloth, inspired a generation and a whole nation to rise against not just imperialist rule but also imperialist economic policies. Likes of Saxena must realise that Khadi is not just about textile and fashion, it’s about national legacy fathered by the Saint of Sabarmati. Let’s not dispute parentage of Khadi, the movement.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and ConsultingEditor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)