Gandhi’s Dress

2 Nov

This is a translation of a blog post from noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan’s blog.

Translation from:

Translated by: Gokul


Two events are widely known. Gandhi came to London in the summer of 1931 to attend the second Round Table Conference and secondly, he met the British emperor George V. There were strict dress codes and protocol for meeting the British Emperor. Gandhi had changed over to his traditional dress much before then. He had started wearing the simple dress of an India peasant. He never changed his dress code anywhere.

Before he left for London, an American journalist asked him ‘Would you change your attire before going to meet the British emperor?’ Gandhi replied ‘No, it would be disrespectful to meet him in any other dress. Because such dress would be inappropriate for me.’

After the meeting a reported asked Gandhi if he didn’t feel ashamed to stand in front of the Emperor in his simple dress. ‘Why should I feel ashamed? The Emperor was wearing enough clothes for the both of us.’ said Gandhi.

There are few political thinkers who understood the power of symbols in politics. The best symbol of what Gandhi stood for, was his dress and appearance. He appeared as one among the crores of half-starved farmers in India. Two possibilities opened up out of this. India’s poor people saw him as one of them. They judged him as one who understood their misery.

This understanding should be judged in the context of India’s historical background. Till then, we had a feudal societal setup;  monarchy. The rulers were born in royal lineage, army commanders and warriors. Later when the British rule took over, the authority of administrators rose. It was the authority of the educated classes. They too were largely separated from the common people and out of reach for them.

The early leaders of Congress came from the upper educated classes. They came from wealthy families. They were successful lawyers or traders. They were as distant from the commoners as the monarchs and rulers before them. The advent of Gandhi bridged this gaping chasm successfully. Through this alone did the Indian freedom struggle become truly a movement of the people.

When Gandhi came to the Calcutta Congress Conference fresh from his South African Satyagraha experience, he didn’t see common people there. The true citizens of India – poor farmers were not there. There were only educated upper and middle classes. All speeches were delivered in English. They were conducted very formally in accordance with British traditions. Gandhi has written very critically about these useless conferences.

In that conference, Gandhi got all of two minutes to speak. Before he delivered the first few sentences of his resolution, they passed it by clapping in agreement. Even in the small duration, Gandhi delivered his message. He placed his message deliberately before them by wearing his traditional Gujarati national turban. His shifting to a half dhoti and shawl later was the next step.

Through his dress, Gandhi told the poor people in India that the Congress was no longer the party of educated upper class people. He participated in political conferences in that dress. He conducted agitations that lead the nation. He went to meet the Viceroy. He signed historic political agreements. That somebody in a half-dhoti and shawl can do all these things was in itself inconceivable till then in Indian history. Gandhi’s half-dhoti is how Indian democracy was born.

In another way, his dress stood as a direct symbol of how India was exploited to outsiders. During Gandhi’s salt satyagraha, media from around the world keenly observed him. America’s Time magazine sported him on its cover twice within ten months. Through hundreds of photographs that were published of him in magazines, Gandhi reached the Europeans. He was in his ‘half-naked’ dress in all of them. There was no need for a campaign tool to illustrate that India was being exploited, other than his appearance. His appearance spoke more to the European conscience than Gandhi himself did.

Another fact to note is that throughout Europe, Christian organizations arranged campaigns against Gandhi’s struggle. Gandhi wanted to go to Rome and meet the Pope in 1931 when he went to the Round Table Conference. Even though he requested for an appointment, Pope Pius XI refused to meet him. The media wrote that Gandhi was refused an appointment since he refused to follow the dress code stipulated for meeting the Pope. It lead to criticism against the Pope from around the world.

But researchers going through the Vatican documents later found out that it was not the only reason why the Pope refused to meet Gandhi. A researcher, Peter Gonsalves has written extensively about this. The Pope was presented with some secret reports from his advisors. Cardinal Eugene Baselli (who later became the Pope) wrote a comment that is significant. There was a warning that Gandhi was against Roman Catholics’ interests in India.

[This Pope, Pius XII was accused of silence during Hitler’s genocide to protect his own interests in Germany and other European countries. A play ‘The Deputy’ based on him is famous. I have written an essay ‘Paava Mounam’ on it. ]

Gandhi always celebrated Christian spiritual values. He tried to make them part of his life. But he criticized religious conversion undertaken as a political campaign. He said that it was against spirituality. The catholic leadership saw this as indicative of Gandhi’s Hindu fundamentalist outlook. Archbishop Panirselvam, who attended the Round Table conference as a representative of the Catholics said that if India became independent, it would become a Hindu nation and the benefits and assistance that the Catholics receive under British rule will be stopped. The Pope accepted this observation. Hence he refused to meet Gandhi.

The most important reason for the success of Gandhi’s struggle was that he brought it to the attention of the world. He had won the support of the moderates in Europe and America. The American media hugely supported events like the Salt Satyagraha. To decimate that support, the British-aligned forces followed two methods. One, to show that Gandhi’s struggle was innately violent. His non-cooperation and breaking the law were widely portrayed as violent. Secondly, to show him as against Christianity.

Gandhi’s appearance stood up against both of this two forms of propaganda. It showed him as a supported of the poor people. Several Europeans even considered him an uneducated villager. Even magazines that supported him called him ‘naïve’. His appearance made him look like one of the Christian saints of former times. What needed several thousand words to convey, Gandhi said with his dress.

The two statements from Gandhi when he went to meet the British Emperor clearly show his mindset. Gandhi says that his dress is natural to him. He says that he is his dress. His next statement is subtler. Saying that the Emperor is wearing his dress too, made him the exploited India and the Emperor as the exploiting British empire. The photographs of him and the Emperor were alone sufficient to establish that India was being exploited by Britain. When they were published, they told the world what Gandhi and the Congress wanted to tell the world.

I was reading Gandhi’s ‘Experiments with Truth’. I noticed the starting point of Gandhi’s politics with dress in it. In the sixteenth chapter, under the heading ‘Lord Curzon’s Durbar’, Gandhi writes about the experience of meeting Indian princes who came for the government assembly under Lord Curzon, when he was staying in a lodge called the India Club in Calcutta. In his own style, he briefly narrates it and moves on.

Gandhis notices that maharajahs who normally wear dhotis and shirts, wear tall and shiny boots that come up to the knees and pants what fit into them, when they appear for the Durbar. As he studied in London, he knows that it is the uniform of the servants in the British royal palace. He speaks to the maharajahs. Then he realizes that they know it too.

Only we know our unfortunate state. The  dishonor we endure to protect our wealth and titles, only we know’ says a maharajah. ‘Even so, should you wear this pants and boots that only servants wear?’ asks Gandhi. ‘Do you see any difference between us and them?’ replies the maharajah sadly.

Yes, this was the starting point for the politics of attire. Gandhi’s dress was a revolt against the British colonial mindset which dressed up Indian maharajahs in servant’s attire and made them stand among them. Gandhi went to the Viceroy’s assembly dressed in a single cloth and a shawl. By then he had organized the entire Indian nation behind him. Through his dress, Gandhi told the British mindset, ‘You have to treat me an equal and hold talks with me. I dare you to refuse’. ‘You can dress up Indian princes as servants. But you have to treat the Indian peasant as your equal’.

 There arose a situation that the British Emperor had to meet Gandhi. He had to relax his protocol. Because Gandhi was not a person. He was a nation. Churchill was furious when he came to know that; that the British crown jewel was disrespected. The Emperor’s side said ‘In British history, never before was the dress protocol relaxed. Never will be again. This is an exception.’

It was a turning point in Britain’s colonial history. The Emperor was a symbol of the feudal setup. A symbol of monarchy. Gandhi was a symbol of the fledgling era of democracy. A symbol of the power of the people. One stood for hegemony, another for right. It was a historical moment in world history when Gandhi stood before the Emperor. It is a significant point in the history of democracy.

Gandhi didn’t stay in the special hotels that were arranged for the attendees of the Round Table Conference. From his ship, he went directly to the quarters of the washermen who came to welcome him at the port. In the harsh winter of Britain, he went in his half naked attire and stood in front of the British Emperor. He treated the Emperor as his equal. At that moment, India’s injured self-respect would have held its head high. In the dark rooms of palaces, several maharajahs would have smiled in tears.

Gandhi was not one who considered anyone below him. Hence he didn’t treat anyone as above him either. But at that moment, as a historical personage, he towered above others. Who is that George V? Where is that Pope Pius XI? They are mere pebbles that lie in the depths of history today. Gandhi is history; a towering peak.

There is a statute of the Buddha returning home after Enlightenment, in a museum in Mathura. Yashoda, Sudhodhana, elephants, the palace roof and the entire city would be below the knee level of Buddha. In the summer of 1931, Gandhi would have stooped low to speak to the Emperor who stood to the height of his feet – in his own gentle style.

3 Responses to “Gandhi’s Dress”

  1. AJ February 25, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on Grey matter.

  2. Kavin karthikeyan May 23, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

    This article (link below) says something slightly different from the above story. Kindly Confirm

    • Gokul May 27, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      Hi, the Hindu article says Gandhi’s deliberations climaxed in Madurai where he adopted his simple dress. As far I as I could see, there is nothing in Jeyamohan’s article that refutes it.

      – Gokul

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