The Magic of Khadi
Gandhi, during Non-Co-Operation Movement, even before, and after the movement, laid central emphasis on using hand spun and hand woven cloth - khadi - made inside the country as a way to achieve swaraj. Promoting hand spun and woven khadi was the core of the Swadeshi programme, which meant first producing, and then using and distributing things in India. The paper discusses aspects of the meaning and uses of khadi.
"Khadi is meant for everyone. Even a depraved man, a sinner, a drunkard, a gambler, anybody, can wear it. But the sacred quality of khadi is that it is a symbol of freedom. Those who wish to live in free India ought to wear khadi."
- M. K. Gandhi
Though GANDHI WAS a shy man, not an impressive orator, not having an attractive personality, still he managed to call upon a huge number of people to participate in the Non-Cooperation movement, by applying his technique in a proper manner. In all his public speeches, he shunned the art of oratory. He spoke to a crowd of thousand in the same quiet and restrained tone of voice that he used in talking to one or two intimate friends. Though Gandhi lacked the hypnotic mannerism of delivery and semi-hysteric shouting and shrieking, his simple utterances made an irresistible appeal. What was that secret actually? Was he a jadugar? Was there any kind of magic power he had, or something else? Yes, he was a magician; he had a magic - the magic of khadi. And here I cannot prevent myself by explaining it through a poetic expression, "Wo jadugar to tha nahi, parjadu kargaya..."
In order to popularise his thoughts, ideas, philosophy and overall techniques, Gandhi used khadi as the most expressive means. Phillip Spratt expressed, "His khadi… might have been designed to further his purpose".1 The way in which the use of khadi was defined and explained by Gandhi is interesting. Here, one will realize the importance of clothing and understand how clothing can speak and convey meaningful messages?
To understand this politics of mobilizer and mobilized with regard to Khadi, I tried to pose a 'lack of fit' between the leader's pronouncement (Gandhi) and popular understanding of such messages, including the message of adopting Khadi. Such a method of historical analysis allows us to ask and explain these types of question and open up the space for writing alternative histories.2 Peasants, merchants, students, and women responded to the nationalist message of Khadi in their own way by debating it as communicable act capable of stirring nationalism.
Gandhi, during the Non-Co-Operation Movement, even before, and after the movement3, laid central emphasis on using hand spun and hand woven cloth - khadi - made inside the country as a way to achieve swaraj.4 Promoting hand spun and woven khadi was the core of the Swadeshi programme, which meant first producing, and then using and distributing things in India5, particularly Khadi, was "an eternal rule of conduct"6.
Why khadi acquired a central place in Gandhi's nationalist vocabulary? To Gandhi, khadi was more than a simple cloth. It was the material embodiment of an ideal and sacredness.7 Adoption of khadi and charkha (spinning wheel) by masses represented not only economic freedom from the yoke of colonialism, but also economic self sufficiency for masses, Swaraj, self- purification and moral purity, Hindu-Muslim unity, social equality and the end of untouchability.8 Gandhi's success lay in his capacity to pick up, embody and develop existing political and economic critiques of colonialism and rework these through his own clothing practices and through his elaboration of the symbolism of cloth by using popular religious and moral imagery of a simple everyday material to which people from all backgrounds could relate. He also proposed a complete self re-clothing of the nation9 as well as a full-scale re-organisation of the textile industry. The revival of khadi was central to these aims.
To revive khadi as national cloth what he calls 'universalizing it'10, Gandhi puts forward his "moral economy' argument. He uses the imagery of self-sufficient prosperous India before the coming of East India Company. He Writes, "...at the time India passed into subjection, there was no other country in the world which produced cloth in the same quantity and the same quality as it did.... From Khadi to Dacca Muslin, every variety of cloth was available then. There was enough to meet the country's demand and leave a surplus which was exported..."11 For Gandhi, "hand spinning was national employment a century ago for millions. This industry was destroyed by extraordinary and immoral means adopted by East India Company. This industry is capable of being revived by exertion and change in the national taste... if this employment was revived, it would prevent sixty million rupees from annually being drained from the country and distribute the amount among lakhs of poor women in their cottages."12 Gandhi constantly refers to this phenomenon of de-industrialisation and drain of wealth (60 corers and 23 corers for the import of foreign cloth and sugar)13 and reposing faith in hand spinning to bring back the nation's economic prosperity.14 For example, one of the advertisements said, "ordinarily spinning is not a business but a duty. India was prosperous as long as there was spinning. Take up again the work of spinning with a view to make India prosperous again."15 Primary target of Swadeshi consisted of introducing the spinning wheel in every household and every household spinning its yarn. Gandhi constantly referred to mobilize masses with 'a spinning-wheel movement'.16 Gandhi emphasised on the voluntary boycott of all foreign goods and tried to establish the superiority of the 'idea of self-sacrifice' against punitive boycott.17 However, there was a thin line that divided these two ideas for masses and Gandhi had to include boycott of foreign cloth as a congress resolution.18 Gandhi always insisted, "through spinning we can achieve boycott of foreign cloth...boycott of foreign cloths means Swaraj"19. He considered use of foreign cloth as sin/haram.20 He said, "like Swaraj, Khadi is our birth right".21
It was not merely purely economic logic but also moral logic which was used by Gandhi to mobilize masses for the nationalist agenda. Observance of self-control by masses will prepare them for Swaraj. Spinning and weaving was a way to gain this self-control and self- confidence.22 Gandhi constantly repeats, "the practice of swadeshi undoubtedly involved a sacrifice on their part (masses)"23 and ....wearing of khadi is a form of self- purification.24 Therefore, these self-controlled masses will lead the nation to emancipation. Swadeshi dharma was 'royal road for safeguarding both dharma and artha'; revival of hand spinning and hand weaving will make the larger contribution to the economic and moral regeneration of India.25 Gandhi popularised spinning and wearing khadi as a religious duty/dharma than as a means of livelihood for the poor.26 But at the same time, he also talked about the benefits of khadi being the alternative source of income for the peasants especially during famines as well as for removing poverty.27 In addition, spinning khadi had moral benefits as it could safeguard Indian women from falling into the clutches of mill-owners and immoral overseers, contractors etc. and thus safeguarding their honour in public.28 Gandhi propagated khadi in such a way that swaraj was a distant charm associated with khadi; before that, there were many immediate economic benefits associated with it. In fact, for the masses, swaraj was more welcomed in its economic sense rather than in its political sense.29 Gandhi was responding to this by making swaraj a condition for freedom from hunger and dependence on cheap cloth produced by mills.
The ways in which Gandhi tried to convince people to use khadi were unique. Khadi was coarse and more expensive than mill made cloth. For it to be accepted by everyone in the country, a visual culture had to be crafted around it to sustain any demand for it. In addition, Gandhi recognises that overcoming the prejudice of khadi is as important as the production of the cloth. He uses metaphors like spinning wheel as a kamadhenu (cow) that supplies all our want and khadi should be in demand like ghee.30 Another example illustrates how Gandhi was willing to use religious imagination in defence of Khadi. He said, "Sitaji, when she was captive in the Ashokvatika was offered all sorts of fine things by Ravana but she indignantly refused to use...and cover her body with the bark of the trees. So as long as India is in the chains of slavery and dharma is not established, every man and woman must look down upon the foreign clothes as something really untouchables.”31 Gandhi exhorted people not to import foreign cloth and spin more khadi.32 He persuaded the masses to use khadi in temples and for marriages.33
In his attempt to re-clothe the nation, Gandhi knew that it would be difficult for many people to suddenly discard the fineries and adopt rough khadi; hence he advised that those who could not use khaddar as their outer costume, could still use it for making under-wears. And even if one is not inclined to use it for personal wear, it can be used for making caps, towels, wipers, tea-cloths, satchels, bed sheets, beddings, holdalls, carpet pieces, cushions, covers for furniture etc.34 Those who wanted to use coloured khadi, so that it won't get dirty soon, can get it dyed Turkey red in swadeshi dye.35 Also, khadi can be used to make school bags and hammocks for children. Chairs, couches and other articles of furniture can be covered with it.36 Gandhi's invention of a white khadi cap represented an explicit attempt to create a single unifying piece of headwear that would be accessible to all Indian men and boys, thereby downplaying existing sartorial diversity on the basis of region, religion, social status and occupation.37 He also tries to establish the superiority of khadi in public and wanted to undo the image of khadi as clothing of lower classes with no art, and also added that . .khadi has the property of absorbing moisture. Khadi is more useful and superior cloth. It is more beautiful than calico".38
All this clearly shows Gandhi's pragmatism to make khadi popular. In the later stages, Gandhi even advocated 'pandals' of meetings and flag of Congress to be made up of khadi, and khadi and spinning wheel exhibitions were organised on the sideline of major Congress meetings/sessions.39 Gandhi asks to open Swadeshi stores/ khaddar bhandars and persuades masses to buy khadi from these bhandars.40 In the heyday of Non-Co-Operation Movement, when Gandhi wished people to use khadi even for personal wear, Gandhi took cognizance of the poor people and their practical problems. He knew that it was hard for poor people to suddenly throw away all of their cheap foreign mill clothes and buy new expensive hand-made khadi clothes. To solve this Gandhi suggested that poor people for the time being might manage merely by using loincloth of khadi. To set an example he himself renounced all clothes and started managing only with a loincloth and chaddar.41 Gandhi was willing to compromise on certain things of mill yarn like bed covers, as there were "difficulties in the way of immediate self purification".42
In order to popularize khadi, he frequently flashed the examples of some prominent personalities using khaddar. Most frequently cited examples were that of Sarladevi Chowdharani43, Mrs. Mohani44 and Madan Mohan Malviya's commitment to persuade ranis and rajas to spin45. Gandhi was highlighting these examples as India at that time was still a deeply hierarchical society and nobility were considered as 'natural leaders' by the masses to a great extent. Gandhi was exploiting the traditional channels of communication to popularize khadi. Gandhi also believed that adoption of Khadi in theatre would result in a revolution in public taste and a desire to return to simplicity and natural beauty.46
Widespread response of Gandhi's nationalist message was the result of his ability to reach out different sections of Indian society and his recognition of the characteristics of Indian society i.e., religion, morality, social and economic differentiation, etc. One has to recognise that there was a large population willing to enter into a dialogue with Gandhi, by listening to his speeches or by writing letters to him. It is also important to note that Gandhi himself responded to most of these letters. He wanted every section of the society to take active part in the nationalist movement and to feel a sense of belongingness to the movement.47 Khadi was a medium to communicate and reach out to the masses. Charkha and wearing of khadi was one of the many ways employed by Gandhi to communicate with the various sections of the society, to organize and discipline them48 and to make them active participants in the non-co-operation movement.
Women were traditionally the spinners in Indian society. Gandhi called on them to again take up their traditional profession49, and he likened it to a sacred duty. He cites the example of the Duchess of Sutherland who played a very important role in the popularising of tweed in Scotland and how she helped numerous women get employment in the process. She was able to show that the rough tweed was more artistic than the factory made cloth. It was hoped that Indians would take heart from this story and work to the day when handmade khadi would be worth more than mill made cloth.50 Gandhi brilliantly constructed his message so that women of varied economic and social backgrounds were able to identify with it, from the "fashionable" socialite to a destitute widow. Gandhi writes, 'charkha is the life support of widow'.51 Women from different parts of India were responding to Gandhi's call of spreading Khadi by spinning and selling khadi.52 For example, one can mention here the name of Gangabehn. This woman not only discovered the spinning wheel for Gandhi but became the first organiser of the khadi movement in India.53
In the initial months of non-co-operation, Gandhi targeted women, but as the movement gained momentum, he turned his gaze towards school and college students as well. This served as a part of a double- pronged strategy. He hoped that they would leave the government schools and join, nationalist schools and that they would spin in their spare time (at least four hours), or even during their school hours.54 Self-sacrifice, central to much of the justification of Gandhi's discourse, was invoked to tell students to give up schools and colleges and take up spinning.55 The school in Barisal became a model institution where the students set up a school for the spinning and weaving and had accumulated stocks worth almost Rs.1500056. The purpose of spinning was to be able to earn money and within that framework Gandhi worked out that students would earn Rs. 3-14-6. If weaving were introduced to the schools then this would further increase.57 Thirty- nine medical students from Vizagapatam organised themselves and began carrying out the swadeshi programme.58 Instances like this and schools like Barisal, organised by private individuals show how Gandhi's message had spread to various parts of the country.
Gandhi also took the idea of spinning and khadi to kisans. He argued that kisans should take up spinning after their daily labour59 while their wives and sons can spin and weave the yarn. This would give an alternative income to the family while contributing to the cause of swaraj. In his instructions to U.P. peasants Gandhi advised that spinning wheel should be introduced in every home and everyone should devote their time in spinning, and also avoid foreign cloth and wear only khadi.60 Similarly, Gandhi advised the Muslims that the Khilafat crisis could be solved if swaraj is achieved and swaraj could be achieved by swadeshi. Therefore, Indian Muslims should start spinning and wearing khadi. He also advised the Bhil tribesmen to take up spinning.61 He asked the merchants and mill owners to contribute their share in the movement by stopping the sale of foreign yarn and cloth. He wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj from Sabarmati jail, "From the purely economic point of view, I can say that unless merchants dealing in foreign yarn and foreign cloth give up their trade… the chief malady of out country will not be ended. I hope all businessmen will participate fully in the propagation of khaddar and the spinning- wheel…”62 He also appealed to artisan class, especially, weavers to indulge in weaving and use hand spun yarn against foreign yarn and carpenters and black smiths to make as many spinning wheels as possible.63 If one attempts to find a region-wise response to Gandhi's message of adopting Khadi, one finds his constructive programme got a phenomenal success in Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab and Bombay(to some extent as students showed reluctance to adopt khadi) in comparison to Madras presidency and Calcutta.64
While Gandhi tried to develop a structure of swadeshi based on hand spinning and weaving^ he also faced numerous challenges in the form of correspondence from his readers and also people willing to take advantage of this new culture and demand for khaddar to make profits. Many of the critical letters written to Gandhi, while sympathetic to swadeshi, highlighted the problems of weaving and the lack of looms in the country to meet the rising supply of yarn.65 An important intellectual critique of Gandhi's message came from Rabindranath Tagore who argued, "....spinning wheel will curb the minds of the man who piles it".66 Gwalior state's response was interesting and it declared "there is no harm about the inhabitants of the Gwalior state using Khaddar.... warns the people against attending lectures on Khaddar and finally prohibits ....the use of 'Gandhi cap'.67 This was coupled with the official clamp down on khadi by some provincial governments.68 The Government tried to subvert swadeshi and show the fallacy in boycott of mill cloth, saying that this would lead to increase in prices, which itself would lead to looting and law and order problems. People wearing khadi caps were targeted (including prisoners).69
Gandhi's mobilisation of masses on the issue of Khadi was based on persuasion.70 It was essential that mobilisation had to be based on persuasion to entitle the nationalist elite to speak for the whole of Indian society against foreign cloth, which represented India's subordination. However, this persuasion was not hegemonic in its 'prescribed method' as Gandhi's nationalist message was open to interpretation by illiterate masses in their own ways. We can observe in his various writings that he is- meticulously defending, explaining and answering various questions and issues raised against khadi and charkha and persuading all to adopt khadi. One finds instances of a lack of fit between Gandhi's pronouncement and popular understanding of such messages, including the message of adopting Khadi. For Gandhi, swadeshi means to spin and weave as sacred duty and self sacrifice, but the masses took swadeshi as boycott of British goods. Gandhi constantly protested against this mass perception to clear the line which divided these two notions and later accepted that if there had to be any boycott, it had to be voluntary and should involve all foreign goods.71 Reports of abuse of khadi were also not uncommon. There instances of those who adopted Khaddar costume "using it as passport for arrogance, insolence, and what is worse, fraud...have neither sprit of non co-operation in them nor the spirit of truth. They simple use the Khaddar dress as a cloak for their deceit" and Gandhi writes that, "....a person wearing khadi can also be a CID...we not assume that a person wearing khadi is necessarily patriot."72 This was particularly true in the case of Gwalior state. Foreign cloth was sold as khadi in many places including the various khadi bandhars and Gandhi received complaints from khadi sellers that they either pass off khadi made from mill-spun yarn as hand spun khadi or make big profits.73 On the other hand, various fraudulent persons and spies were using Khadi (sometimes only cap) as a cloak to infiltrate the congress.74 People were selling black caps made of decaying foreign baize, foreign thread and foreign satin exploiting swadeshi movement and Gandhi's name. It may be noted that Gandhi had insisted on wearing only the white cap made of khadi.75 At various places, women were weaving khadi but not wearing it and at Surat women came to listen to Gandhi in foreign clothes.76 Even the congress volunteers in United Province and Calcutta at the height of the non co-operation movement ignored Gandhi's instruction of wearing proper khaddar cloth.77 Merchants in Calcutta responded to Gandhi's call to stop import of foreign cloth with their own economic logic, "they suggested that they would stop imports only up to 31st December and should reserve the liberty for exchanging and selling foreign yams among them with their existing stocks'.78
To conclude, during Asahyog Andolan, Gandhi created a symbolic visual culture around Charkha, Khadi and his own partially Khadi clothed-body to which a large section of masses responded enthusiastically even as they faced the hardships of war and harboured discontent of the colonial government. The power of khadi as a national symbol lay in the fact that since everyone wore same form of clothing, everyone had the same opportunity or, as Gandhi saw it, the same duty to participate in the freedom movement. And since this was traditionally the dress of peasant, artisan and tribal rather than the Indian elite, its potential wearers were in theory as numerous and varied as the Indian population itself. To this extent, khadi was a powerful visual tool in the creation of an imagined national community, which for the first time incorporated the non-literate majority. He recognised that in India, religion, caste and community all played a role in forming civil society, so he envisaged a moral economy based on the popular religious imagery and moral arguments. His success lay in his ability to reach out to all sections of Indian society - elites, business class to peasantry, artisans, women, students.
For Gandhi, Swaraj was to be achieved by spiritual self-control, which itself was to be cultivated by Swadeshi, which in turn was based on the two-pronged programme of voluntary boycott of foreign goods and Khadi, which would prepare the masses for self- purification and the Non Co-operation Movement. By wearing Khadi, people felt a sense of being nationalist and associated themselves with Gandhi on a day-to-day basis. People responded to Gandhi's nationalist message of khadi and spinning in their own way, not always adhering to Gandhi's instructions.
By 1922, Congress with its new constitution certainly emerged as mass party by opening its membership for masses and establishing itself institutionally from top to bottom parallel to the colonial government and Gandhi emerged as its superb leader. Congress and Gandhi tried to mobilize and discipline the whole nation with the help of trained volunteers by non-cooperating with the colonial government and boycotting foreign commodities and institutions. One finds that this persuasion for mobilisation and discipline was not hegemonic as masses responded to Gandhian programme in their own ways, responding to a logic that they themselves framed.
Notes and References
GEETIKA SINGH is an independent research scholar as well as a well-known writer of Hindi literature. She received an M.A. degree in History from University of Delhi and a Diploma in Archives and Records Management from National Archives of India. She has been honored with a number of awards and distinctions. Most notable is Indira Puraskar given by Directorate of Education, Government of Delhi in 2007. Her published works include Paryavaran Raksha Jeevan Suraksha (2001), Anokha Balidan (2003), Satya Ki Jeet (2003), Maa Ki Sewa (2004), Kavyanjali (2011), KHADI: Language of Gandhian Politics (2016). Contact: 09868107327; Email: email@example.com