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Mahatma Gandhi


13. Weaver

After his arrest, the magistrate once asked Gandhi what his occupation was. Gandhi said: " I am a spinner, weaver and farmer. " He was then 64. Twenty -five years earlier he had written Hind Swaraj. In it had stressed the need of using swadeshi things and of making India free from exploitation from within and without. till then, he had not seen a handloom, nor known the difference between a charkha and a handloom. But he knew how the import of cloth from England had ruined Indian weavers. The Indians helped a foreign government to establish itself firmly on the soil by showing their preference for foreign fineries. He read in books how to increase the export of their mill-made cloth, the east India company terrorized the Indian weavers and compelled them to cut off their thumbs that wove the finest muslin.

Two hundred years ago, India used to export 30 lakh rupees' worth of hand woven cloth a year. After the conquest of India by the British, in 40 years' time, all export eased and 100 years later, India used every year one-fourth of Britain's textile export amounting to 60 crores of rupees. Thus Indian handloom production, which was the envy of the world, got ruined . the weavers lost their occupation, fell back on agriculture and were starved to death. One Viceroy stated that " the bones of the cotton weavers ate bleaching the plains of India. The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce."

Gandhi learnt how the Muslim weavers of Bengal, who wove shabnams of world-wide fame had became idle: the proud weavers of the Punjab left their looms and joined the army and helped to keep India in chains. What once was an honorable and artistic calling was held them to be disreputable. The weavers of Gujarat left their homes in search of work and became scavengers in big cities like Bombay. They ruined their health and took to drink, gambling and other vices. Many homes were broken . These skilled crafts men turned into unskilled labourers. Spinning mills made the rich richer.

Gandhi was determined to rid his country of this dependence, to stop the import of foreign cloth. To him, the practice of swadeshism the use of things produced locally was the foundation of swaraj. To make his countrymen self-reliant and self-sufficient was his life's mission. For attaining that he laid certain conditions. He did not want to add more mills for producing swadeshi cloth. A mill is owned by a capitalist, parts of its complicated machinery are imported from outside, it robs the use of hands of many bread earners and exploits the mill hands the labourers are uprooted from their native place and work mechanically like robots. Gandhi observed : " If our tastes were not debased, we would prefer Khaddar to sticky calico. There is an art that kills and an art that gives life. Production by machine in mass scale blunts the creative urge and deftness of fingers of an artisan." He was charmed to see the " maidens of lovely Assam weave poems on their looms".

Gandhi wanted to revive hand-weaving . He came in direct contact with the weavers and collected firsthand information about handlooms. He chose Ahmedabad for settling up his first ashram in India, because it was the centre of the handloom m industry. He installed handlooms in the Sabarmati Ashram. All the inmates of the ashram observed the vow of swadeshi. They used cloth made only on their own handlooms. The motto was" weave what you require or do without it". A weaving class under a skilled weaver was started and some ashram members began to ply the loom for eight hours a day. Gandhi, at 45, worked on the loom for four to five hours every day. each weaver daily earned 12 anna worth wage. In the beginning, 30-inch wide cloth was woven and that was not broad enough for a woman's wear. The women members of the ashram had to use sarees made from sewn pieces. One day a lady complained of the short width of her saree and wanted to use mill made cloth. Her husband sought Gandhi's advice. Gandhi asked him to learn to weave on a broader loom.

soon after sarees and dhotis of broader width were being woven in the ashram. Other professional weavers took to wearing handspun yarn but they often charged a higher rate. They preferred to weave mill yarn as it was easier to handle. After independence, one khadi worker suggested that the Government should give a subsidy to the spinners. Another said that unless the weavers wove a certain quota of hand-spun yarn, they should not get their quota of mill yarn. Gandhi did not support the we ideas because any kind of compulsion would create a dislike for khadi and the weaver might well refuse to be compelled. He advised them to improve the yarn so that weavers would have less difficult in weaving hand-spun yarn. He also warned the weavers how their dependence on mill yarn would kill their avocation in the end. Mill-owners were no philanthropists. They would draw the noose tight round the neck of the handloom weavers the moment they would see that the handloom cloth was coming near competition with mill-cloth. He admitted: " If we adopted universal weaving, all these difficulties about weaving of hand-spun yarn could not have risen. It was wrong of me not to insist on every-body learning weaving, as i did in the case of spinning."