The Khadi spirit | Sunday Observer

The Khadi spirit

17 October, 2021

We have heard about him, talked about him, written volumes about him. Today I would like to write about his ‘Khadi movement’ and how we can learn from the Khadi concept to empower the billions of people around the world to help themselves to attain svaraj. His main effort was to eradicate poverty and Khadi movement, which started in 1918, was one step in this direction. A hundred and three years later, with about 10 million people dying of starvation every year, it is time to revive the Khadi movement, as one way to eradicate poverty.

Especially right now, when in India and all the countries where he is remembered and his influence is felt, celebrated his birth anniversary on October 2. He is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Since Gurudev Rabindranath first called him ‘The Mahatma’, he continues to be ‘The Mahatma’ to all the people around the world who know him.

Teaching self-reliance

Khadi means hand spun and handwoven cloths. In 1918 Mahatma Gandhi started his movement for Khadi as a relief program for the poor masses living in India’s villages. Spinning and weaving was elevated to an ideology for self-reliance and self-government, Svaraj. The program decreed that every village shall plant and harvest its own raw-materials for yarn, every woman and man shall engage in spinning and every village shall weave whatever is needed for its own use. In the first half of this century, and in many parts even now, farmers had not enough work to earn their living throughout the year.

About four months they may be idle due to the dry season. Spinning would thereby supply the best occupation and it can easily be learnt. It requires practically no outlay or capital, even an improved spinning wheel can be easily and cheaply made. Gandhi saw it as the end of dependency on foreign materials (symbolising foreign rule) and thus giving a first lesson or real independence.

It was for economic, cultural and social reasons and not merely political that Gandhi established the ‘Khadi Movement’. In 1934-35 he expanded the idea by helping the poor individual to self-reliance of whole villages. In 1942-43 he had sessions with workers groups and village organisers to re-organise the whole program on a bigger country-wide scale. Thus, Khadi is not merely a piece of cloth but a way of life.

In introducing the Khadi program to eradicate poverty, Mahatma was borrowing a term used by the 19th century Indian sage Swami Vivekananda, (1863 - 1902), “that service to the poor is equivalent in importance and piety to service to God.” The Mahatma also stated, “If we have the ‘khadi spirit’ in us, we would surround ourselves with simplicity in every walk of life.” (Mahatma Vol 2 p. 398).

Gandhi said, “Every time that we take our khadi garment in the morning to wear for going out, we should remember that we are doing it for Daridranarayan and for the sake of the starving millions...”

Wearing Khadi garments today is a fashion among the new rich, as we see Khadi shops at international airports. Unfortunately, businessmen have taken over the khadi to make high profits by using the fabric to create designer clothes. Ela R. Bhatt (who founded the Self-employed Women’s Association of India) wrote in the Indian Express (03/02/2015) that “It used to be that when one bought khadi worth one rupee, 80 paise went to the village producers and 20 paise to the management.”

Today perhaps it is the other way around. She adds, “Handicrafts are no different. Our country’s potters, carpenters, weavers, dyers and embroiderers also work with their hands. They are highly skilled workers; they carry generations-old knowledge and traditions within themselves and keep alive the cultural identity of our country.... the urban industrialised world is wreaking havoc on our rural economy. Craft skills that take generations to acquire are being lost overnight because the craftsmen and women can no longer live by their trade. They are forced to work as unskilled labour at the bottom of the economy. The plight of village crafts workers is the same, whether you are in India or Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.”, or Sri Lanka for that matter.

We do not have khadi material in Sri Lanka, but we had our own hand loom industry many decades ago. It was a real cottage industry, run though cooperative societies or by a few families together. They would buy the yarn, which had to be imported, because even then our yarn industry had been dead for a long time, though our chronicles boast that our women were making cotton yarn 2500 years ago. Anyway the yarn was used to weave sarees, sarongs and bed linen, mostly. There was a heavy demand for them, even if they were of very simple designs. The Government encouraged the industry through State owned sales outlets for a few decades.

Handloom industry

While in India, the handloom industry kept on flourishing and is still a major industry, despite commercialised, automated cloth manufacture, our industry collapsed. Today we depend almost totally on imports of our sarees and sarongs from India and most other fabric from China.

We do not have to take the Khadi spirit at its face value, or as the Mahatma meant it to be. We cannot go back in time, and we cannot ignore the technological advances we have achieved, and we cannot reverse the industrial revolution or globalisation. But we can still retain the khadi spirit. That is when we have to heed the call for compassionate consumerism.

We may not be able to spin our yarn and weave our own clothes, but we can learn to respect our indigenous traditional products created from our own native natural resources. South Asia has a long history of living in harmony, not only with fellow human beings, but with all life, both plant and animal, showing loving kindness to all. Before the period of occupation by the less civilised Europeans, our ancestors led simple lives, with less greed and envy.

Today, by study and by discussions, let us develop a successful project, not just for South Asia, but for the whole world, to save the people from poverty, not only through material, but also intellectual.

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