Radical Objects

Radical Objects: The Common Man’s Gandhi Cap

The current Indian election – the counting is on May 16th after staggered voting which began on April 7th – has seen a re-invention of the country’s most politically iconic headwear. The old Gandhi cap, a symbol of India’s non-violent pursuit of self-reliance and independence, has been revived – not, as Andrew Whitehead explains, by the Congress party with which Gandhi was once associated but by a new, insurgent political party. 

In the back streets of East Delhi the other week, I witnessed a curious sight. As scores of people waited patiently late into the evening for a Parliamentary candidate to come and address them, party workers handed out dozens of cheaply made hats. Gandhi caps. Youngsters pushed and jostled to get one, and by the time the main speaker arrived, the small but enthusiastic crowd was a sea of white headgear.

Photo by Andrew Whitehead

Each cap bore the name of the wildcard party in India’s elections, the Aam Aadmi (it means ‘common man’ in Hindi) Party, and its election symbol, the jharoo, the traditional dried grass broom. Why a broom? Well, the AAP is a single issue party which wants to sweep away corruption … and it has recently proved its popularity by sweeping to power (albeit briefly) at state level in Delhi.

The reference back to M.K. Gandhi, the Indian political leader with arguably more moral authority than any other, is not accidental. The AAP has revived one of Gandhi’s most renowned political props to seek to benefit from the respect accorded to ‘Bapu’, the father of the nation. In East Delhi, one of the best Parliamentary prospects for the AAP, the Gandhi association is even more explicit – the party’s candidate here is Gandhi’s grandson.

The origins of the Gandhi cap are not entirely clear. They appear to lie in Gandhi’s initial excursions into non-violent protest in South Africa in the years before the First World War. Nagindas Sanghvi (in The Agony of Arrival: Gandhi, the South African Years, New Delhi, 2006) has suggested that Gandhi and other Indian protestors confined to South African jails at this time were obliged to follow the dress code of black prisoners, which included the cap that Gandhi was to make his own. It’s a simple white side cap, pointed at front and back, with a wide band which gives it almost a military aspect.

Gandhi + cap

From 1917 onwards, Gandhi’s campaign of non-cooperation with Imperial power in India became associated with the wearing of ‘khadi’, made out of homespun cloth. Simple, coarse white clothing became the informal uniform of the Gandhi’s campaign for swaraj or self-reliance, something rather more than simply political independence. The Gandhi cap in particular became an important symbol of opposition to British rule. During the non-cooperation movement, says the historian Lata Singh, (Popular Translations of Nationalism: Bihar, 1920-1922, Delhi, 2012), it was sold at all major political meetings and on street corners. By 1922, a substantial proportion of the Indian male population was wearing the Gandhi cap – and Lata Singh argues that its significance was created as much by British responses to it as by Gandhi’s personal attempts to promote it. ‘The British had for long been trying to control Indian headwear and they now began to clamp down on Gandhi cap-wearers by dismissing them from government jobs, fining them and at times physically beating them. The government employees were forbidden to wear the Gandhi caps in the office and risked dismissal if they wore khadi dress and caps.’

The dress code which Gandhi promulgated became indelibly linked with the nationalist movement, and – by association – with Congress. Gandhi’s assassination within months of India achieving independence added still greater force to the emulation of his style of dress. To this day, Indian politicians when at Parliament or on official duty normally wear khadi-style simple white clothing.

As for the Gandhi cap, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Harrow-educated politician who was India’s Prime Minister for its first seventeen years of the independence era, habitually wore a smart cap in the Mahatma’s style. Of later Prime Ministers, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai in particular embraced Gandhi’s choice of headgear. But over the decades, the Gandhi cap faded out of fashion. It came to be seen as dated, parochial, unmodern.

The political revival of the Gandhi cap came with the rise to prominence in 2011 of the social activist and campaigner Anna Hazare. As with several of the leading figures in India’s increasingly strident anti-corruption movement, he championed right-to-information legislation as a way of seeking greater accountability in governance. Anna Hazare was lauded by India’s urban middle classes, who wanted greater meritocracy and viewed both politicians and much of the system which sought to implement their decisions as tarnished almost beyond redemption.

Anna Hazare. Source: Wikipedia

Anna Hazare adopted one of Gandhi’s hallmark methods of campaigning, the public hunger strike, and his choice of headwear further strengthened the association with the most effective and admired of the country’s campaigners. The Gandhi cap had once more become a political statement – and associated not with Congress but with a rival political force.

The movement Anna Hazare led quickly fractured – in part because he resisted moves to form a political party dedicated to tackling corruption and divisions were further accentuated by his perceived illiberalism (advocating,for example, the death sentence for the most corrupt public officials). When the Aam Aadmi Party was founded in November 2012, its leader was Arvind Kejriwal, a younger right-to-information campaigner and former civil servant, and he too made a point of wearing the Gandhi cap, blazoned with AAP slogans.

Modern Indian politics is littered with parties which began amid a thunderburst of attention but failed to establish the support or grassroots organisation to achieve any measure of electoral success. The AAP has, to date, avoided that political graveyard. At the close of 2013, this new party stunned the political establishment by winning twenty-eight of the seventy seats in the state assembly covering Delhi and the adjoining area. Delhi’s Congress Party chief minister lost her own seat, and while the AAP was not the largest party in the state assembly, Arvind Kejriwal took over as state chief minister at the head of a minority administration. It’s been described as one the biggest breakthroughs of a new party in modern Indian politics.

Source: Wikipedia
Arvind Kejriwal. Source: Wikipedia

The dramatic success of the AAP, harnessing the enthusiastic support of the hitherto anti-political Delhi upper middle class and of the urban poor, meant an even more emphatic return to fashion of the cap its leaders wore. The normally staid and austere pages of the Economic and Political Weekly in February 2014 published an article by M.S.S.Pandian entitled ‘Radical Chic: The Rebirth of the Gandhi Cap’. The ‘Indian glitterati’, Pandian averred, ‘has embraced the Gandhi cap as the next new fashionable item of radical chic. At the Lakme Fashion Week, actors like Vidya Balan, Sridevi and Vidya Malvade sported Gandhi caps. What’s more, Bella Ragazza, a Delhi-based fashion boutique, announced its intention to launch a designer Gandhi cap collection.’

From humble headwear to haute couture, from political emblem to style accessory, the Gandhi cap had undergone quite a transformation.

Forty-nine days after he took office, Arvind Kejriwal resigned as chief minister, complaining that the mainstream parties were blocking his proposals to empower a new anti-corruption task force. By then, India was embarking on a nationwide general election campaign. Kejriwal and his AAP, lagging far behind the two main parties in resources and grassroots reach, have used two symbols as statement of their political purpose – the broom and the Gandhi cap.

Image from the Aam Aaadmi Party website: http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/
Image from the Aam Aaadmi Party website: http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/

The caps given away liberally at AAP rallies are not made of khadi or indeed cotton, but of cheap material known as China net. Some of the AAP’s rivals have seized on this to suggest that the campaign caps have been shipped in from China, which appears to be unfounded. For tens of thousands of party workers and supporters, the Gandhi cap is an emblem both of their ambition and the political tradition in which they stand. Whether the ‘aam aadmi’ version of the Gandhi cap will be a fleeting political fashion or a radical object with greater resonance and staying power … that’s for India’s 814 million voters to decide.

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