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Gandhi said he would wear loin cloth only for a month. 100 yrs on, it’s a permanent symbol

During the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi had a dilemma. He wanted foreign cloth gone, but the poor didn't have enough money to quickly buy all khadi.

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September 22 marks 100 years of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s decision to change his style of dressing and adopt the loin cloth. At first, he had only intended to sustain it till the end of October 1921.

During the non-cooperation movement of 1921, Gandhi declared a boycott of foreign cloth. But as time passed, he realised it was too difficult to replace all the foreign cloth at once because people did not have enough resources to do it. During his tour of then Madras province, Gandhi made a decision and announced it in a public meeting at Madura on 22 September 1921. He advised people to be satisfied with a loin cloth. He had suggested the same in a meeting at Madras a week before. But in Madura, he went further. Gandhi said, I give the advice under a full sense of responsibility. In order therefore to set the example I propose to discard at least up to the 31st October my topi and vest and to content myself with only a loin-cloth and a chaddar whenever found necessary for the protection of the body….” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 180-181)

Gandhi’s clothing evolved along with his role in India’s freedom struggle. The loin cloth was its ultimate manifestation, remembered along with the spectacles and walking stick today. It even became a subject of frivolous social media debate when the Uttar Pradesh speaker commented on it recently.

Gandhi’s sartorial choices

When Gandhi arrived in India after conducting the Satyagraha struggle in South Africa, he wore what he thought of then as a common man’s dress—a Kathiawadi long coat with strings instead of buttons, dhoti, a long scarf-like cloth on shoulders and a turban. He realised soon that his notion was far from reality and average men wore a kurta or a shirt with a dhoti. He adopted that dress and added a topi that became famous as Gandhi cap. Nitin Patel, ex-deputy chief minister of Gujarat, claimed sometime back that despite the cap’s name, “Gandhi had never been seen wearing it.”

On the contrary, Gandhi’s photo in Gandhi cap is easily available if you just Google it. Gandhi topi was his adaption of the Kashmiri cap, as he told Kakasaheb Kalelkar during a conversation. According to Gandhi, “Kashmiri cap was good and lightweight. It could be easily made and folded… We can put the folded cap in a pocket or a bag. Kashmiri cap is made of wool. I decided to go for cotton. Then I thought about which colour would be suitable for the head. I did not like any other colour. Then I decided to keep it white. Dirt can be easily visible on it. One has to keep it clean and cleaning is easy…I made this cap keeping all these things in mind.” (Bapuni Zankhi, Kaka Kalelkar, Navjivan Prakashan Mandir, Page 87-88)

During the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi described his thought process behind pushing for the loin cloth in an article he wrote for his Gujarati weekly Navjivan (2 October 1921). He made it clear that the decision was not impulsive and was made after deep deliberation. Gandhi recounted previous two occasions when he had felt the urge to change his dress. The first instance was during his visit to Barisal (present-day Bangladesh). Moved by the poverty of the people of famine-stricken Khulna and burning clothes in rest of India as a part of the swadeshi movement, “I felt that I should content myself with a mere loin-cloth and send on my shirt and dhoti…for the Khulna people.” But he restrained his emotion as “it was tinged with egotism”. (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 225)

Another occasion was the arrest of Maulana Mohammed Ali, Gandhi’s associate during the initial phase of the Khilafat movement. Gandhi had to deliver a speech soon after the arrest. “I thought of dispensing with my cap and shirt that moment, but then I restrained myself fearing that I might create a scene.”

Also read: How an engineer and 2 high-flyers became Gandhi’s men

Sceptical circle

Many of Gandhi’s associates were sceptical about his decision to adopt loin-cloth even as an experiment. According to Gandhi, “They felt that such radical change might make people uneasy, some might not understand it; some might take me to be a lunatic, and that all would find it difficult if not impossible, to copy my example.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 225) Gandhi thought for four days. Meanwhile, he started telling people in his speeches, If you don’t get Khadi, you will do with mere loin-cloth but discard foreign clothing.” But as he admitted, “I was hesitating whilst I uttered those words. They lacked the necessary force, as long as I had my dhoti and shirt on.” ( The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 226)

Further discussion with associates brought no new light. That prompted Gandhi to announce his final decision at Madura. Gandhi clarified in his speech and articles that he does not expect co-workers to renounce the use of vest and topi unless they find it necessary to do so for their own work. The only supporter of his change, Maulana Azad Sobhani, liked the idea so much that he made as much alteration in his dress as the Shariat permits. Instead of trousers, he puts on a lungi and wears a shirt of which the sleeves do not reach beyond the elbow. Only at the time of the prayers, he wears a cap, as it is essential. (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 226)

Also read: What unfolded when Gandhi met a playwright, a fascist, a comic legend, a Nobel laureate

A permanent decision

Gandhi appeared in loin-cloth for the first time in a public meeting at Tinnevelly on 23 September, a day after his Madura speech. He wrote to his close aide Mahadev Desai the same day, “You must have noticed the great change I have introduced in my dress—I could not bear the pain no longer.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 184) On 31 October, a new year day as per Vikram Samvat, Gandhi did not stop wearing loin cloth but started spinning regularly for half an hour every day before his second meal. (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 21, Page 375) He informed Mahadev Desai about his vow to keep spinning.

From 23 September 1921, the loin cloth became an inseparable part not only of Gandhi’s clothing but also of his idea of representing the poorest of the poor. Even a visit to Buckingham Palace could not bring a temporary change in the decision he made at Madura.

Urvish Kothari @urvish2020 is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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