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Khadi and Gandhiji: looking beyond the fabric

Mahatma Gandh at the Kingsley Hall during his stay in London.  

From being referred to as the “Livery of Freedom” by the Mahatma and “Clothing for Liberation” by a more contemporary writer Peter Gonsalves to being an unprofitable commercial venture, khadi has indeed come a long way. Although its form, from being rough ‘khaddar' has definitely improved, its essence and impact, unfortunately, has declined. This year, on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, khadi will not be available at discounted rates to customers. The Central government has ordered the withdrawal of current rebate of 20 per cent on khadi in order to reform the existing subsidy patterns.

While the government calls this an attempt to institutionalise a uniform distribution of sales throughout the year and enable khadi to survive in a competitive market, the counter allegation is that it is an attempt to corporatise a Gandhian model which would adversely affect both the sales and spinners/weavers. But, for me, the larger question still remains unanswered: Do we really need khadi today? To answer this question, one has to understand why khadi was required in the first place and are the reasons for its requirement still persisting?

Be it satyagraha or non-cooperation, passive resistance or non-violence, salt or spinning-wheel, for Mahatma Gandhi, they were not just the means of a political struggle, they were ideas. Ideas, which Gandhiji knew, had the potential to revolutionise the entirety of Indian masses towards one of its kind, independence movement. Khadi, too, was not just a home spun cloth but a revolutionary idea. Khadi, for him, was symbolic of Indian self-respect and self-reliance.

Peter Gonsalves argues in his book Clothing for Liberation that khadi was used by Gandhiji less as a garment but more as a message to both Indians and British. According to Gonsalves, against the British, khadi was used as a symbol of homogeneity, absence of status, simplicity and nakedness or uniform clothing. It was the instrument which made the swadeshi movement possible, which created the greatest cooperative in the world and which forced the mills in Lancashire to shut down. No doubt, khadi was an effective medium in the process of uprooting the British but does that validate its continuance today in the globalised world when India is not just a democratic republic but one of the fastest growing economies in the world? To critically appreciate this argument, it is important to understand the message that Gandhiji wanted to give to his fellow Indians (which is far more important than the message he gave to the British) and the values and ethics he wanted them to imbibe.

For the Makatma, khadi was the means to economic liberation of the masses. He had observed that “political liberty must include economic liberty of the starving millions”. Poverty was considered by him as one of the biggest impediments in attaining ‘poorna swaraj' as it dehumanised human beings, undermined their sense of dignity and wasted their potential. For him, every country had an obligation to arrange its economic affairs in a manner that the needs of all its masses are met. He felt that in order to accomplish this, India should try to formulate its very own humane economic model. Gandhiji realised that unlike the West, India has excessive labour because of which there was acute unemployment. Since capital was scarce, low capital and skill intensive, full employment-oriented industry was needed. He saw the employment opportunities created by the khadi movement as the solution. Even today, although khadi makes only one per cent of the textile industry, it employs 20 lakh people.

Gandhiji, being the great visionary he was, foresaw the repercussions of large-scale industrialisation and market economy fed on consumerism. He felt that such economic ethics estranged economic life from moral considerations, made the pursuit of wealth the ultimate human goal and disturbed the equilibrium between man and nature. He, therefore, advocated the minimisation of wants and emphasised on “a need-based as against greed-based life”. Gandhiji's sympathy, sensitivity and support to the suffering masses made it inconceivable for him to accept a lifestyle higher than the lowest in the land and so, he created the concept of “consume only what you can produce”. Production of a home spun cloth was an exemplary medium of manifesting this.

Gandhi proclaimed:“It is a libel to call women the weaker sex” because he firmly believed that India cannot progress until its women are freed from the shackles of oppression, suppression and inequality. He felt the khadi industry would not just utilise and harness the potential of lakhs of women but also bring them out from the boundaries of the household to the mainstream of political struggle. He observed: “I swear by this form of swadeshi (khadi) because through it I can provide work to the semi-starved, semi-employed women of India. My idea is to get these women to spin yarn, and to clothe the people of India with khadi which will take the impoverished women out of it.” But gender justice is still a fragile myth in our country.

Many a time, Gandhiji emphasised that khadi should not be used just as a cloth and it has to be worn with the values which are inseparable to it. According to him, “The message of the spinning-wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant.” We, the people of India, can certainly do away with khadi if we have achieved the values, ethics and morals for which Gandhi evolved the idea of khadi. But, unfortunately, that is not the case even after 64 years of independence.

(The writer is a former national general secretary of the NSUI and former president of Delhi University Students Union. Her email is: >

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 6:47:59 PM |

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