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At the age of 63, Gandhi was imprisoned in the Yeravda jail with Vallabhbhai Patel. Vallabhbhai needed a pair of sandals but there was no good show-maker in the jail. Gandhi said : " If I can get some good leather, I can make pair for you. Let me see if I remember that art which I had learnt long ago. I was a very good cobbler. A sample of my workmanship can be seen in the khadi Pratisthan Museum at Sodepur. I sent that pair of sandals for'-' . He said he could not use them as foot-wear but only as an ornament for no use them as foot-wear but only as an ornament for his head. I made a number of them on Tolstoy Farm."
He learn this craft in South Africa from his devoted German friend Kallenbach. Gandhi taught others to make shoes and they excelled their teacher in shoe making. Shoes made by them were sold outside the farm. At that time, Gandhi set a fashion in wearing sandal-shoes with trousers. In tropical countries, they were more comfortable than covered shoes and could as well be worn with socks in winter.
Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal and others once went to Sevagram for Gandhi's advice. They found him busy in stitching a batch of trainees: " The strips should be here, the stitches should be there on the sole where the pressure is the heaviest." They were getting the defects correct by Gandhi. One of the leaders complained: " But they are robbing us of our time." Gandhi said: " Don't grudge there lesson they are having. If you feel like, you can also watch how a good sandal is made."
another day, Gandhi and some co-workers were seen witnessing the full process of flaying a dead bull by the dead animal with a village knife without damaging the hide impressed Gandhi. He was told that none, not even surgeons, could do that work better than a village tanner. To Gandhi every medical student who dissected job is respected where as a sweeper's or a tanner's occupation is despised. They are untouchables to the Hindus.
Gandhi did not stop at learning show-making. He wanted to be a tanning expert. What else could he do? So many persons all over the world wear leather shoes and that leather is mostly procured by killing healthy animals cows, bulls, sheep and goats. Gandhi was a believer in non-violence. A man who did not give beef tea or eggs to a dying wife or a sick son, was the last person to agree to slaughter animals for wearing shiny shoes. But he needed leather.
He decided to use the hide of only those animals that die a natural death. Shoes and sandals made from such leather became known as ahimsak chappals. It was easier to treat hides of slaughtered animals than the hides of carcasses and tanneries did not supply ahimsak leather: and Gandhi had to learn the art of tanning.
He found out that raw hide worth nine crores of rupees was exported from India every year. After being treated scientifically, finished leather articles costing crores of rupees were imported in India from abroad. This did not only mean a loss of money but loss of an opportunity of using our intelligence for tanning raw hides and of making good leather articles. Like spinners and wavers hundred of tanners and cobblers were deprived of their livelihood. Gandhi wondered since when tanning had become a degrading calling. It could not have been so in ancient times. But today, a million tanners do this work and are counted as untouchables from generation to generation. The higher classes despise them and they lead a life deprived of art, education, cleanliness and dignity. tanners, sweepers and shoe makers serve society and do useful work yet observance of caste forced a part of the nation to live a miserable life. In other countries, a man does not become a poor illiterate untouchable, if he chooses the profession of a tanner or a show-maker.
For reviving this village industry, Gandhi made public appeals. He sought help from tanning chemists for revitalising the art of village tanning which was fast dying out. Reformed tanning which was fast dying out. Reformed tanning, Gandhi thought, would stop carrion eating. When a dead cow is brought to a tanner's house, the whole family gets jubilant. It means a day of feast on the flesh on the flesh of the dead animal. Children dance round it and as the animal is flayed, they take hold of bones and pieces of flesh and throw them at one another. This scene was repulsive Gandhi.
He told the Harijan tanner: " Will you not give up eating carrion? If you do not give up, I may touch you but the orthodox people will shun your company . It is a filthy habit." They said: " If we are to dispose of dead cattle, flay their skin, then you cannot expect us to stop eating carrion." I can say fro my experience that scavenging and tanning can be done in a perfectly healthy and clean manner."
a tannery section was opened by Gandhi at the ashrams in Sabarmati and Wardha. It started on asmall scale but later had a pucka building for storing hides. Gandhi collected Rs. 50,000 for the building where the asram boys did tanning work helped by expert chamars. Leather goods made there were sold in the open market. The entire work was done with dead cattle hides.
Gandhi visited the National Tannery in Calcutta and with keen interest saw the process of manufacturing chrome leather. He marked how salted cow hides were limed to take off hair, how dyeing was done . He also kept in touch with the research work that was being done in Tagore's Santiniketan for improving village tanning. Gandhi did not want to scrap the ancient method of village tanning, nor did he like to remove tanning and such other industries to cities from villages as that would have meant sure ruin for villagers. They would lose the little opportunity they had of making skilled use of their hands and heads. He wanted to find a decent way of removing a dead animal from one part of the village to another. The village tanner lifts it, drags it and thus injures the skin and reduced the value of the hide. He does not know how to utilise the bones. He throws them to dogs and incurs a loss. Handles and buttons made from bones come to India from foreign lands. Powered bones also serve as a good manure.
Gandhi went to chamar's huts, mixed with them, talked with them. they too put great trust on him and looked up to him as a friend determined to improve their lot. when he visited their colony, they complained of the lack of drinking water. They told him how they were not allowed to use the public well or to enter a temple, how people avoid their company and hoe they are compelled to live in the outskirts of a village or city. Gandhi felt hurt and ashamed. He did not believe in doing charity to them. he wanted them to stand on their own legs. With Tagore, he prophesied that an evil day dawned upon India when body labour began to be looked own upon and a day would come when those who denied human rights to their brethren would have to answer for their unjust and unkind acts.
Gandhi felt the need of a band of dedicated workers who would see that the tanners get proper wages, real education and medical aid. they would conduct night schools, take the Harijan children to picnic and sight-seeing. he himself opened night schools quarters and concentrated on doing Harijan work.
the chamars in return tried to respond to his appeal. some of them promised to deal only with dead cattle hide, some to give up drink and carrion eating Gandhi once went to a cobblers' meeting in a tattered pair of sandals. He was on tour and had no extra pair of sandals with him. The chamars noticed it and two of them made a pair of ashimsak chappals and presented them to Gandhi.
Gandhi himself once presented a pair of hand-made sandals to General Smuts who had jailed Gandhi in south Africa. On Gandhi's 70th birthday, General Smuts wrote: " In jail he prepared for me a pair of sandals. I have worn them for many a summer, though I feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."