Clothing For Liberation

A Communication Analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution

Peter Gonsalves sdb

We live in a ‘forest of symbols’. Our environment is suffused with meanings that crave our attention – some more powerfully than others, some more intelligently designed to achieve their ends. Some symbols inspire, others debase, most are mediocre.

There are a few rare symbols, however, which are imbued with the capacity to energise millions in the pursuit of sublime goals. They invite a commitment that draws their adherents to a calling far beyond themselves, to total dedication even to the point of giving their lives. My purpose is to explore one such symbol in a defining moment in history: clothing, as used by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) throughout his archetypical non-violent campaign to liberate India from British rule.

Through his Swadeshi Movement Gandhi chose to dress and clothe his fellow countrymen and women in a specific type of cloth called khadi. This choice was not fortuitous. Through it he wanted to eradicate unemployment, but also empower, unite, and liberate his people from centuries of foreign domination. The choice gave to clothing, a conventional form of nonverbal communication, a historical, political, economic, social, psychological, cultural, and moral significance that had no precedent and has no parallel. In terms of scale, context, method, and consequence, the dress revolution he initiated transformed a disunited and submissive mass of over 383 million people into one independent nation, free from imperial control – a phenomenon that heralded the beginning of the end of British imperialism across the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was so moved by the impact khadi had on the masses that he extolled it as the “livery of India’s freedom”.

Yet, it must be admitted, Gandhi’s insistence on spinning and wearing khadi, was one of the most misunderstood initiatives he had undertaken. When he proposed the ‘spinning franchise’ at the All-India Congress Committee in 1924 – that Congress members spin yarn instead of paying their regular membership fee – Nehru, the then AICC secretary, was among those who was deeply angered to the point of submitting his resignation. Motilal Nehru, his father, marched out of the hall with a good number of followers just before the proposal was put to the vote.

There were discordant voices from articulate members of society as well. Aurobindo Ghose called the spinning franchise “a tremendous waste of energy.” Rabindranath Tagore thought that in deciding to use or refuse cloth of a particular manufacture, Gandhi was trespassing into economics, a field he was not competent to deal with. Nirad C. Chaudhuri considered the Mahatma’s demands “extreme…crude and irrational.” Even Samuel Evan Strokes, an American missionary, a good friend of Gandhi and an enthusiastic spinner himself publicly declared: “Not only my reason but all my instincts, […] rebel at the idea of a spinning franchise.”

In this book I argue that a nonverbal communication perspective on Gandhi’s sartorial choices may help us see what his contemporaries were, perhaps, unable or unwilling to recognize: the symbolic potential behind the home-manufacture and exclusive use of khadi for Indian unity, empowerment and independence. I therefore intend to analyse Gandhi’s use of cloth and clothing not merely as functions of bodily protection, adornment or identification, but also as symbols of liberation.

The chapters are horizontally, theoretically and vertically structured. The first presents Gandhi’s diverse communication skills in a broad sweep. It serves as a backdrop to the essays that follow, but it can also open up new possibilities for further research in Gandhian communication. Chapters two to four are detailed analyses of Gandhi’s evolution in the personal and social use of clothing from the perspective of Western communication theories. The theoretical frameworks underpinning these studies are the semiotics of Roland Barthes, the anthropology of performance of Victor Turner, and the dramaturgical analysis of Erving Goffman. These three chapters that form the bulk of the book are as demanding as they are rewarding: demanding in terms of technical language, rewarding for the new insights they offer on Gandhi and swadeshi. The book concludes with a brief in-depth presentation of what may be called a ‘Gandhian approach to symbolisation’ for socio-political change.

As to the reason for my research on Gandhi’s symbolic use of clothing: I have always been fascinated by the power of nonverbal communication to change the hearts and minds of audiences in ways that spoken and written words cannot. As an educator, I was amazed at the extremely sophisticated levels of audio-visual creativity that impact young minds; so I decided to promote mass media literacy among teaching staff in Indian schools. The manual, Exercises in Media Education was a practical response to this deeply felt need.

The more I was drawn into an all-India media education network, the more I felt the importance of emphasising quality over technique. It was not enough to appreciate mass media critically, or to learn the skills of employing them creatively and profitably. The multi-polarised Indian ethos needed principled communicators, ready to encourage a unity in diversity and the promotion of equal dignity for all citizens. The violent communal riots that accompanied the 1990s well into the new millennium only strengthened my resolve to redesign a media education for peaceful and responsible citizenship.

I did not have to look far for an appropriate model. I had always admired, although superficially, the courage of that one diminutive individual who brought down an Empire by the strength of his truth. As soon as the opportunity presented itself I plunged into a three-year historical and communication analysis on Gandhi’s atypical choice of a ‘clothing for liberation’.

It is my hope that this study, now graciously accepted by SAGE Publications, be a modest contribution to the growth of peace communication research throughout the world.

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