Winston Churchill, war time Prime Minister of Great Britain and a great leader of the Second World War, was a “Royalist” (grandson of the Seventh Duke of Marlborough) and a diehard imperialist who opposed India’s independence.
In the British parliament, he once called Gandhi “our enemy!” and said, “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, 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, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”
Albeit Churchill’s diatribe, Gandhi further reduced his apparel to a bare minimum of a loin cloth, his well-known attire! There is a sequel to this metamorphosis.
Pothan Joseph was an eminent journalist and one time editor of Hindustan Times. In the pre-partition days, Mohamed Ali Jinnah employed him as editor of his mouthpiece The Dawn newspaper published from New Delhi. (The Dawn continues its publication from Karachi in Pakistan). Pothan had an elder brother George Joesph. George was a staunch, if not a fierce, nationalist. The British administration in India had imprisoned him several times for his Swadeshi activities. He had once shared the same prison cell with Jawaharlal Nehru. George’s grandson who lives in London, in his biography of his grandfather, mentions about Gandhiji changing over to his distinguishing loin cloth.
On a visit to Madurai in 1925, Mahatma Gandhi stayed with George Joseph and his family. At a public meeting in the city, many in the audience approached him for a darshan. Those from the villages were not only barefoot but bare-bodied except for a dhoti wrapped round their waists and a piece of cloth on their heads.
To Gandhi, a Gujarati, this appearance seemed strange and primitive. For, in Gujarat and in North India, people rarely went about so minimally clad. In surprise, Gandhi turned around to Rajagopalachari and George Joseph and asked them for an explanation.
It was explained that the main reason for their dress was poverty. That night in George Joseph’s residence, Gandhi spent a restless night thinking about the plight of the poor who could not afford even a covering. The next morning, to the amusement of those present, Gandhi turned up without a shirt and wearing a garb with which he soon became identified.
He wanted to identify himself with the struggling masses even in the matter of dress. It was a message to the British regarding their role in the impoverishment of India. His change of apparel was a protest against their profligacy.
When Gandhi attended the 1930 Round Table Conference in London, he was invited by the King Emperor to the Buckingham Palace. Someone suggested to the Mahatma about the scantiness of his apparel. In his usual witty reply, he said, “His Majesty is dressed for both of us!”
In spite of his struggle with the British Government, he maintained a very civil attitude in dealing with the British administration in India, particularly with succeeding Viceroys. In his correspondence, he used to address the Viceroy as, “My dear friend…” Also in spite of Churchill’s outbursts, Gandhi had many admirers in England, His London hostess Muriel Lester initiated the Pacifists Movement and visited the Mahatma in Sevagram on many occasions.