Of Gandhi’s chappals and the British boots

How Mahatma Gandhi straddled boundaries & yet remained grounded


October 9, 2022

/ By / London

Of Gandhi’s chappals and the British boots

As in life, so after death: Churchill as unapproachable as ever & Gandhi, the man of people, with them

Of the many teachings of Mahatma Gandhi that continue to inspire the world and are more relevant today than ever, one that perhaps the world leaders need to look at is the ease with the idol of peace and equality straddled borders, imaginary and real, in our minds, of languages, religions and nations.

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Whenever I visit London, I simply cannot resist visiting the Parliament Square, not far from the River Thames, where stands a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Sitting at the feet of this great man, I get drawn deep into thoughts of his actions, the period in which he fought his battles, his principles and how astutely and accurately those principles and battles continue to be extremely relevant today and perhaps will stay with us for as long as humanity survives.

A bit about the statue and its story. This was the last addition to the group of statues there and was installed in 2015. The statues are  placed in way that they are all directly looking towards British Parliament as if they have a  message to communicate to that edifice of the democracy that witnessed the innumerable attempts to delay the decisions on ending imperialism and colonialism and giving freedom to the countries that had been fighting the cruel guns of the British Crown and the greed for wealth.

The statue of Gandhi is made of bronze and sculpted by Scottish Sculptor Philip Jackson who also has sculpted statue of Queen Elizabeth II. He designed the statue based on a photograph of Gandhi standing outside the offices of the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 when Gandhi had visited London to attend the Second Round Table Conference that lasted from September to December in 1931. Seeing the statue, I was tempted to think that the photograph may have been taken at the onset of winter in England as Gandhi had a shawl around his shoulders and his hands clasped to trap the body heat. The Mahatma was also wearing his iconic dhoti, reaching below the knees.

Amazing as the statue may be, the reason behind my total obsession to visit the Parliament Square and spend some time early in the mornings in the  vicinity of statue, before heading out to the official meetings of the United Nations, that take me to London, are however a bit more obscure.

Churchill’s hatred

The Parliament Square, where Gandhi’s statue stands, also hosts other 10 statues including that of Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln. It is also near the statue of Winston Churchill whose hatred towards Gandhi, and indeed leaders of other freedom movements around the world, ran deep in his colonial veins and was publicly known. The spiteful language that he consistently used against Gandhi was hardly parliamentary, let alone be prime ministerial in stature.

Some of these unparliamentary and totally undignified phrases that Churchill used to describe Gandhi always ring in my ears. “Malignant subversive fanatic”, “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace” were only some of the choicest abuses hurled by the ‘much-respected’ British Prime Minister against Gandhi.

I often wonder how the British would respond today if someone, let alone a government leader from a former colony, used similar words to describe Churchill or the current dispensation in power in Westminster. Churchill had even gone on to call for Gandhi to be lynched and killed viciously. “He (Gandhi) ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant,” Churchill had said, sounding so much more like a rabble rouser than the leader of the ‘Free World’ as the British and the Allied Powers loved to call themselves.

I, of course, despise such words, but I also feel that may be Churchill’s language was perhaps to be expected given his upbringing in culturally dry and inhumane regal barracks. What more one can expect from an  imperialist with a strikingly contrasting military training, from an aristocratic family and a product of long lineage political dynasts.

Today, of course, the leader who led the armies and used guns and bombs to win wars stands right next to a leader who won his wars and battles with nothing more than peace. Today, they both share the spot, gazing eternally at the River Thames.

But there is a difference between Gandhi’s statue and the other statues standing here at the Parliament Square. I am not sure if this distinction was just a coincidence or something intentional by the sculptor, but it is so fitting. While Gandhi’s statue is at a lower level, almost at the ground level, and hence easily accessible, just like Gandhi was, all his life, accessible to everyone, everywhere. But other statues, including that of Churchill, are installed on a decorative high pedestal, making him as unreachable after death as he was all his life.

Grounded to reality & people in life & after

I often sit at Gandhi’s feet and wonder as to how  Gandhi really belonged to people near to the ground. He dressed like them, clasped like them, looked like them. He  definitely did not look like one of those ‘Middle Temple lawyers’, who were  uniquely called ‘barrister’ in England. Gandhi was the leader of common people, but standing with them, with his feet on the ground, all the time.

More than his attire that is so well-depicted in the statue and near-ground level plinth on which it stands, there is yet another part of the statue that has always attracted me and made me wonder. It is the way that Jackson has sculpted  Gandhi’s chappals (slippers) as Jackson has brilliantly and realistically carved them!

The photograph of Gandhi coming out of 10 Downing Street in his chappals after his meeting with MacDonald who surely must have been in impeccably polished handcrafted shoes. And as it was the start of winter, these chappals in the wet, windy and chilly London weather tell us all about Gandhi’s life-style and principles. His chappals symbolise Gandhi’s simplicity, transparency and non-cooperation, even with the British winter!

The Indian festival of Dussehra comes close to the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. The symbolic message of Dussehra is the victory of good over evil and burning the evil within ourselves. The symbolism is that often, ‘to get rid of evil, one needs to cross boundaries’. In order to fight and kill the evil demon King Ravana, Lord Rama had to cross many boundaries to reach Ravana’s kingdom. Sitting at the feet of  the statue, I thought that Gandhi too crossed the boundaries to come to London in order to get rid of the evils of British Empire.

The statue must have cost a substantial amount of money, but it was fully funded by public through a charity managed South Asians, mainly Indians living in the UK. The chair of advisory group that oversaw the project was the Pakistani-origin politician Sajid Javid, who was the former Chancellor of Exchequer.

“My parents were born in British India with a first-hand experience of partition. The effect it had on millions of people contributed to my decision to take up public service. Celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s reverence and greatness, a man who fought equally for everyone, in the form of a statue in Parliament Square is a fitting tribute,” Javid is reported to have said of the decision to support the statue.

The project to build and instal the statue was expedited in 2014 and was completed in 2015. Interestingly, in his first speech to British Parliament, after he became the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi said, “I was reminded of a question I was asked on a tour abroad. How is it that the statue of Gandhi stands outside the British Parliament? To that question, my answer is: The British are wise enough to recognise his greatness and Indians are generous enough to share him. We are both fortunate enough to have been touched by his life and mission and, we are both smart enough to use the strengths of our connected histories to power the future of our relationship.’’

The chappals, the shawl and dhoti of Mahatma, sculpted by Jackson, and the veiled reconciliatory tone of Modi to the British Lords serve as a perfect rejoinders to the likes of Churchill’s big-headed and haughty remarks. They sum up the reasons for my obsession of spending time with Mahatma’s motionless but ever-inspiring statue, that remains grounded to reality just as Gandhi himself had been.

This is the lesson that the leaders of the world today have perhaps forgotten and desperately need to learn again. May be, they also ought to sit at the feet of the apostle of peace to learn or relearn how to lead the world towards peace and prosperity as Gandhi had strived all his life.

(Rajendra Shende, an IIT Bombay alumni, is a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group.)



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