Khadi, from fabric of liberty to enslavement

Tushar Gandhi

November 15, 2023

“Khadi, to me, is the symbol of unity of Indian humanity, of its economic freedom and equality and therefore, ultimately in the poetic expression of Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘The livery of India’s freedom.’ ”

MK Gandhi. Mahatma: Vol VI, P 20

“I know village economics. I tell you that the pressure from the top crushes those at the bottom. All that is necessary is to get off their backs.”

MK Gandhi. Press Reports, June 30, 1944

These quotes from Bapu sum up khaddar, what the original coarse hand-spun and hand-woven fabric was called. Khadi is its finer version. Today, what is officially sold as khadi fabric would cause extreme anguish to Bapu. It isn’t khaddar; it is an irrevocably polluted, bastardised version of Bapu’s khadi. What the Khadi Village and Industries Commission (KVIC) now sells is the PM’s version of super-luxury ‘khadi’.

Bapu diligently resurrected a murdered traditional craft of India and turned it into a weapon in his non-violent war for freedom. A war he relentlessly waged against the colonial power that had enslaved India through economic subjugation more than with military might. The khadi Bapu revived broke the back of the British industrial might and brought the empire to its knees. Of course, there were other factors but khadi became the icon of India’s freedom – truly its fabric of liberty.

In reviving khadi, initially as a fabric to clothe his people, he asked them to burn and forsake all their British-manufactured clothing and consumables. Through that enterprise, he believed he would found the industry that would revitalise villages and make them thriving economic powerhouses of a free India. His model of khadi and village industries would be built on human skill and labour, embracing the compassionate principle of salvation of all, sarvodaya, beginning from the very bottom and slowly building up to massive, tall peaks, the mode for welfare of all, antyodaya.

Independent India needed to manufacture and provide essential consumables to its masses. As an agrarian civilisation, it needed to provide food to its masses too. Farmers based in its villages provided the staples and filled its granaries even when they were dependant solely on the monsoon. The prosperity of ancient India was due to its agriculture and the high-quality work of its artisans.

Farmers and artisans were the foundational blocks of Bapu’s concept of khadi and village industries. Villagers would grow the variety of food required by its people. Artisans and craftspersons would manufacture in every home in every village, and all of them would collectively spin khadi in their spare time and some of them would weave the yarn into fabrics for collective use. Those living in forests would harvest their produce and sell it to be converted into consumable products. This was a model of a sustainable, ecological, economical and inter-dependent industry that was truly of the people, for the people and by the people. It would be a thriving nation formed by a union of many democratic self-sustained village republics. There would be no poverty, no starvation and no idleness (read unemployment).

“All should make it a point of honour to only use village items, wherever and whenever available. Given the demand, there is no doubt that most of our wants can be supplied from our villages. When we have become village-minded, we will not want imitations of the west or machine-made products, but we will develop a true national taste in keeping with the vision of a New India, in which pauperism, starvation and idleness will be unknown.”

MK Gandhi. The Constructive Programme, P 11

In this model of village and cottage-based production, the economic principles would also be specific to the production ability of that particular group. Independent India went down that route partially. To become self-reliant in dairy production, the White Revolution was brought about – from which the entire thriving cooperative-based dairy industry thrives even today. From Dr Verghese Kurian’s effort to form a dairy cooperative in Gujarat, the global giant Amul was born and is today known as the taste of India.

The huge industrial public sector India built in its initial years and its protective policies were required in the republic’s infancy. Their prolonged existence led to corruption and the stifling of the entrepreneurial spirit, an unfortunate fallout because the protective policies were not done away with when they should have in the early 1970s. But the strong public sector that provided mass employment to its people was also required; it enabled the creation of at least three generations of Indians who benefited from the job security and based on it were provided with subsidised world-class education, at the school as well as undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

Unfortunately, independent India did not as diligently pursue the idea of khadi and village-based industries. Yes, it formed the KVIC, opened Khadi Bhandars in every city and town, and in the first four decades it gave handsome rebates to the khadi fabric. What it achieved was to turn the fabric of liberty into a captive addicted to subsidies and turned the once dynamic fabric into a parasite surviving solely on subsidies. It was this addiction to subsidies that also turned the khadi cottage industry into a nest of corruption. Today, KVIC is one of the most corrupt government enterprises. This is not an unsubstantiated allegation. One can experience it right from the first contact with the institution; nothing happens without money changing hands under the table.

Initially, after its establishment, KVIC worked diligently and honestly. It was then administered and run by contemporaries of Bapu. Then they started dying and with them died the integrity of Bapu’s fabric and industrial ideal, the village industries. That’s when the corruption began. That was also when khadi’s fatal addiction to subsidies began. It was in the early 1970s when fatigue with Gandhi post his birth centenary in 1969 began to manifest in the nation.

Indians, mostly the political lot who were still sticking to khadi as their attire, began waiting for the Gandhi Jayanti rebate to buy khadi. Khadi Bhandars and Bhavans, which were not visited during the rest of the year, would see throngs of buyers when the rebate was offered. Initially the two-month rebate on khadi fabric was reduced to a month, then a fortnight, then a week and finally done away with. Khadi producers had a tough time recovering the rebate/subsidy from the babus who controlled the cash. That was the beginning of the corruption.

Bapu’s khaddar could not survive in such a toxic environment and so it was done to death in modern India. The final stroke was when mechanisation and the use of power was allowed in the production of khadi fabric. Handlooms were replaced with mechanised ones. Khaddar was hand-spun and hand-woven but, while it remained hand-spun, it began to be machine-woven.

Questions have been raised about the ethicality of the multi-spindle Sunder Charkha and its latest version, the Solar Charkha. Bapu would not have accepted the yarn and fabric produced thus as khaddar, which used to be a non-polluting, zero-carbon-footprint fabric, entirely produced by human ability, labour and power. The energy required to produce khaddar was the naturally renewable energy of human beings.

“Khaddar economics is wholly different from the ordinary. The latter takes no note of the human factor. The former wholly concerns itself with the human factor. The latter is frankly selfish, the former necessarily unselfish. Competition and, therefore, prices are eliminated from the conception of khaddar.”

MK Gandhi. Young India, July 16, 1931

 Khadi also gave birth to the patriotic ideal of Swadeshi, consumption of local produce only. Both ideologies were espoused by Bapu to empower Indians and to free them from the eternal trap of poverty. They were part of the legacy left by him to those he called the Daridra Narayan, the poorest of poor Indians.

“Khaddar delivers the poor from the bonds of the rich and creates a moral and spiritual band between the classes and the masses. It restores to the poor somewhat of what the rich have taken from them.”

MK Gandhi. Young India, March 17, 1927

Bapu wished for khadi and village industries, the tools for Gram Swaraj, to remain free and unfettered for use by the people as a means of antyodaya, the emancipation of the last and least individual in society, the Daridra Narayan he served his entire life. Today, KVIC is just a vehicle for the prime minister’s PR. He frequently poses with the charkha, which Bapu used as a weapon in Satyagraha and the vital tool of Gram Udyog. KVIC produces a corrupted khadi utilising machines, the fabric adulterated with man-made synthetic fiber, polyvastra. Now KVIC has restricted the use of khadi and khaddar as a brand and created an un-Gandhian monopoly.

Swadeshi is no longer an ideology but a brand exclusively owned by India’s premier corporation.

“Khaddar is the concrete and central fact of Swadeshi. Swadeshi without khaddar is like the body without life, fit only to receive a decent burial or cremation.”

MK Gandhi. Young India, June 17, 1926

“Khadi is the breath of national life. Like Swaraj, it cannot be given up. To give up khadi would be to sell the masses – the soul of India.”

MK Gandhi. Harijan, January 20, 1927

KVIC has done the unthinkable – sold off the soul of India barely 75 years since Bapu was murdered. Hey Ram!

 Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: