As someone who has been wearing khadi for nearly 30 years and has sporadically worked on a spinning wheel for the past 25 years, the substitution of Mahatma Gandhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Khadi and Village Industries Commission calendar and diary for 2017 is more disconcerting than the obvious symbolic impudence, something that we as a nation are used to since the coming of Modi.

The employment of Modi’s iconography is an explicit politics of obscene propaganda-making, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes across the world throughout history. Here, the replacement or defacement of an earlier icon with a newer one by the regime in power is a resolute form of deliberate political re-imagination and transformation of not just the past but also of the present that they want to control. We have seen this most overtly in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Communist China, among other places. The ubiquitous insertion of an iconic symbol (such as the swastika, sickle and hammer, photos and statues of Mao or Lenin) is a form of insidious and surreptitious inscription of a dominant ideology into the subconsciousness of its citizenry.

The outrage in the case of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission is justified, as the semiotics of this substitution is unequivocally evident. Gandhi has been replaced by a figure that was and still is a proud card-carrying member of the political outfit that assassinated Gandhi. And more problematically, the person who was at the helm of the state that perpetrated genocidal violence against its own citizens has substituted the universal symbol of peace and non-violence. This is unmistakably offensive because not only does the mutilation of Gandhi occur in this move, it also deceptively restitutes Modi’s deeply eroded ethical position.

However, that is not the point of this essay. The crux of the iconographic exchange is that it is not simply an example of a Hindutva icon (Modi) appropriating or dislocating a nationalistic icon (Gandhi), it is also a more perturbing transference.

Khadi as politics of ecology

Gandhi emerged into my consciousness when I, as a 10-year-old, went to watch the biopic by Richard Attenborough with my cinephile parents in Calcutta in 1982. For me, Gandhi was a fantasy figure as much as Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay. I only began to appreciate Gandhi while I was involved with an anti-pesticide, organic farming campaign as a teenager in rural West Bengal. Reading books like Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher and Pyarelal Nayyar’s biography of Gandhi, especially the final volume detailing his last years, I realised that Gandhi was not just a politician but a deep thinking ecologist.

Through him, I realised that khadi was not just a fabric that was a forgotten symbol of struggle for Indian independence, but that it was material theory for a sustainable future for Earth. Hand-spun, hand-woven, hand-made khadi did not consume any fossil fuel unlike machine-made cotton or polyester-based textile. This greatly inspired me. So, as a 15-year old environmental activist, I decided to permanently give up machine-made cloth after a protracted resistance with my middle-class family. Since then, I have only worn khadi.

For me, khadi is not just a piece of cloth to cover my body, it is politics of ecology. When I wear khadi, it is my determined effort to decrease my dependence on fossil fuel. I am very aware that it is an inconsequential act in the larger order of things, but for me it was and continues to be a symbolic resistance against the onslaught of ecologically-destructive modernity. If khadi was born as a symbolic act of resistance to the colonial occupation of India, today, I wear it as a symbolic act of resistance against the ecological destruction of Earth.

Create what you consume

But I was to learn another lesson. In 1992, two weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and following the killing of hundreds in the city of Bombay, I participated in a peace vigil at Flora Fountain in the middle of a city that was afraid and traumatised. A group of frail but courageous peace activists staged a silent protest against the violence that had engulfed the cosmopolitan metropolis. In the small assembly was the veteran Gandhian Thakurdas Bang, sitting calmly in one corner spinning khadi on a petti-charkha – a collapsible, horizontal spinning wheel niftily enclosed in a rectangle wooden box.

I was astounded by the presence of the frail man sitting quietly at the edge of the street, spinning khadi silently as the city was burning. The symbolic valence of the act pierced my consciousness. I was in tears. I sat next to the elderly gentleman and stared as he dextrously spun yarn. I was intrigued with the grace with which a fine thread emerged from a ball of cotton as the 75-year-old man rotated the mechanical contraception nonchalantly, without any effort. I was deeply moved. He noticed my awe and invited me to spin on his charkha. I floundered and he patiently taught me. I was a mess at spinning. That moment led me to Mani Bhavan – the house where Gandhi stayed during his sojourn in Bombay, where I learnt to spin for a few weeks. Once I mastered the process, I would spin an hour a day or more, but over the years I have become sporadic.

For me, spinning khadi on a charkha is closest to mediation. Spinning taught me the relationship between physical work and spirituality, something that Gandhi would often remark about in his writings but I would shrug at that connection. Spinning khadi, I learnt, was a metaphysical theory of work. Here, the daily ritual of rotating a mechanical machine was not just about making thread but underscored for me an umbilical link between production and consumption. I learned that for an ecologically aware existence, it is important to produce what we consume, and this is the metaphysics of being a human.

Gandhi versus Modi

The insertion of Modi in the iconography of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission is a fundamental shift in the post-colonial, neo-liberal theory of work. Gandhi was the commission’s emblematic icon, not only because he wore khadi but because he spun the cloth himself. Gandhi wore what he made. Khadi meant an unambiguous relationship with not just wearing it but also making the cloth that one wore, similar to eating the food one cooks. This theory was at the crux of the relationship between consumption (cloth/food) and creating (spinning/cooking) that Gandhi espoused.

At the heart of khadi is not a theory of consumption but one of creation, which for Gandhi had spiritual significance. For him, the act of spinning khadi was more meaningful that the mere act of covering one’s body with it. For Gandhi, khadi began as a political act of resistance against a colonial power by disrupting its economic prowess and at the end of his life, it became the centre of his imagination of a civilisation that was not a slave to ecologically-destructive technological modernity.

Modi, on the other hand, among other things (that I have mentioned above), represents unabashed conspicuous consumption. He, by his own account, represents big capital, global market and technological modernity (no different from the Congress’ neo-liberal ideology) that is radically antithetical to what Gandhi represents. Modi does not know how to spin, he has occasionally worn and he has sometimes advocated khadi. According to Khadi and Village Industries Commission chairman Vinai Kumar Saxena, the prime minister’s spiel about khadi on radio has boosted its sales, which has merited this substitution. Therefore, here the shift is from the theory of creation to the theory of consumption. The producer is completely erased and a conspicuous consumer is brought in its place.

By replacing Gandhi with Modi, the commission has belittled its own philosophical mandate between creation and consumption, between the metaphysics of physical work and the ethics of consumption. By foregrounding the market logic rather than the ethics of creation, it has finally metamorphosed (under duress from a neo-liberal state) from ethical producer-centric enterprise to market-based brand entity. By situating Modi on it’s calendar, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission has not just symbolically but also physically killed its own ethos and philosophy.

The writer is a film-maker, and assistant professor in film/media at Harrington School of Communication, University of Rhode Island