Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India
Indiana University Press 2007 pp205
Lida Trivedi teaches at Hamilton College in USA. On a study tour of India she travelled with, among others, an uncle who was a former freedom fighter and labour leader. Travelling for four months across northern and western India she had the opportunity to meet many who had taken part in the struggle. In addition the oldest sister of her father taught her to spin on the charka. So she learned about khadi and swadeshi as the material facts of India’s national politics.
Her study is about khadi – the self-made cotton for daily use and the role it played in the national struggle for independence. For many people outside India – and I was certainly one of them – the making and selling of khadi is an economic process. Khadi had to replace the imported cloth from Britain to re-establish the former Indian textile industry.
The movement which supported the idea was named swadeshi, the approach to economic self-reliance. One of the eleven Gandhian virtues, swadeshi meant belonging to or being made in one’s own country. This policy of self-reliance meant in practice using only Indian-made cloth. In a wider sense it meant establishing India’s economic autonomy as the basis for future self-government.
Thus khadi meant three different but related things: as a material artifact of the nation; part of a national economic policy; a visual symbol of the Indian people. In doing so it challenged the political boundaries of both traditional Indian society and the British colonial regime. The swadeshi movement found popular support and after some time the Indian National Congress through the Congress Working Committee created the All India Khaddar Board, comprising technical instruction, production and sales. It established in 1922 a new school to train swadeshi workers – the Akila Khadi Vidyalaya, which was in many ways the heart of Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement.
Within the Congress however there was controversy. One of the issues was with regard to members of Congress wearing khadi at Party functions. In keeping with the principles of mass participation the Congress Working Committee decided in 1924 that a revised franchise required that Congress membership had to be earned, not just paid. Hand-spun thread had to be donated to Congress’s Khadi Board and this had to become part of Congress membership. This decision however was not popular with many and within nine months the spinning franchise was repealed. There remained a diluted commitment to swadeshi politics and khadi.
This meant a defeat for Gandhi’s form of swadeshi but khadi was brought to the general public with great success. Gandhi formed the All-India Spinners Association in 1925 which oversaw the development of the swadeshi movement from Satyagraha Ashram. The assets of the defunct Khadi Board were transfered to this new organisation and there was support from some industrialists. Swadeshi now included other hand-produced goods.
India had known a century-long tradition of weaving and textile production including colourful clothing which was an obstacle to undyed khadi becoming popular. To counter this, promoters used exhibitions, showing of lantern-slides, the use of the Gandhi-cap, and the charka flag.
The swadeshi movement achieved three things:
- khadi became more than a boycott of foreign goods – it became a moral system of labour and consumption for the nation. It emphasised the distinction between indigenous and foreign production.
- it provided a heterogeneous population with a sense of a united India, relocating rural and urban India within a market-place shaped by common taste and defined by common values.
- the habitual khadi-wearer celebrated the principle of universal labour and self-sufficiency as the basis of political community and made him or her visible as an individual.
The Gandhi cap or topi emerged as a symbol of political dissent and as a signal of one’s obligations, thus khadi became more than an economic issue. One more product of the khadi movement is worth mentioning, that is the flag of India. It no longer bears the symbol of the charka, the swadeshi movement emblem, but the Ashoka chakra wheel or dharma wheel, but it still represents the hopes and aspirations of the people of India. The flag still has to be made of hand-spun and hand-woven wool, cotton or silk.
Lisa Trivedi has written a penetrating and comprehensive study of khadi in a lively style and is a pleasure to read.