© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The New Swadeshi

Various Indian spices required to make a Garam Masala
Various Indian spices required to make a Garam Masala

Mahatma Gandhi must be having the last laugh.
In 1921 Gandhi took a pledge to boycott foreign goods by burning 150,000 pieces of English cloth from factories in Manchester and Leeds. Richard Attenborough depicted that scene in his film Gandhi.

G1: The English make the cloth that makes our poverty. All those who wish to make the English leave bring me the cloth from Manchester and Leeds that you wear today and we light a fire that will be seen in delhi and in London. And if like me you are left with only one piece of homespun wear it with dignity.

The swadeshi movement had started earlier when the British partitioned the state of Bengal in 1905. But now it truly captured the imagination of the Indian public

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

Almost 100 years later, a British prime minister of Indian origin has given the call for swadeshi in London in the hope that he too will capture the imagination of his public as Britain heads into an election this week.
In a tweet Rishi Sunak exhorted his fellow countrymen to “Buy British” saying “We shouldn’t be reliant on foreign food.” An X-user’s post saying “Babe wake up the Brits are starting a Swadeshi movement” promptly went viral.
Sunak’s aim was to appeal to national pride and promote self-reliance. His opponents pointed fingers at the role his own party has played in the decline of British agriculture as well as the impact of Brexit on food supply. A London School of Economics study said British households paid 7 billion pounds since Brexit to cover the cost of trade barriers on food imports from the European Union.
When Indians launched the swadeshi movement in 1905, thousands were arrested and sent to jail. Sunak’s clarion call, instead of igniting a similar fervor, has set off a meme fest.
The Buy British slogan rings a little hollow in a country where chicken tikka masala is the unofficial national dish.
But there was a more sobering message as well. Britain once boasted that the sun never set on the British Empire. Even after Independence many Indians remained fascinated by London and knew more about British history than their own. But now it has truly been cut to size. The emperor has no clothes (and no spices of its own either).
Sunak’s plea just had people rolling on the floor in laughter as One X user said it was a great idea but could Sunak direct them to the nearest British tea garden. Another asked for a “drizzle of British olive oil” and “those British spices.”
In the British comedy series Goodness Gracious Me, the characters once go out to a restaurant in Mumbai for “an English”

GGM1: First us we’ll have 12 bread rolls … 
GGM2: Main course, what’s everyone having? What’s blandest thing on the menu.

Goodness Gracious Me was a spoof on English culture by British-Asian comics but now Sunak himself had become the joke. He is pretty much the “blandest thing on the menu.”
But it was actually also an unwitting reminder of how a very small country had colonised so much of the world and cornered so much of its resources for its own gain for so long. The mention of “British spices” is particularly pointed because it was in the name of spices that European colonisers ravaged many parts of the world. That is why Amitav Ghosh used nutmeg as a way to recount a larger story about colonialism and capitalism all leading us towards climate change through the exploitation of the planet’s resources in his book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

AG1: the point I was trying to make, I suppose, in my book, is that beginning from the 16th and 17th century onwards, elite European colonizers began to think of everything in the world as being available for exploitation. Being available for extraction, you might say, you know, no matter whether it's spices or slaves or minerals or whatever.And I think there comes into being at that point, a sort of vision of the Earth as something inert and dead, something that doesn't have any powers of its own.

Now as Sunak tells his countrymen to “buy British” the fact is if they had just bought only British in the first place the history of the world would be very very different. In that light Sunak’s plea sounds more plaintive than passionately patriotic.
He has made it with a rather stoic disregard of the intertwined histories of both the country he leads and the country his ancestors came from. Social media is chortling that this is Gandhi’s revenge but Sunak remains straight-faced and impassive. Revenge might be a dish best served cold but post-colonial comeuppance, it seems, must come with a stiff upper lip.
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW