Today is October 2, Gandhi Jayanti
The Prime Minister’s recent visit to the Silicon Valley has been marked by a lot of platitudes about Indian entrepreneurship. But those celebrating the spirit of enterprise in contemporary urban India may wish to take a moment to look back into our past. Arguably, the most significant start-up in Indian history is not from tech-savvy Bengaluru. Rather, it owed its origins to a small ashram in Ahmedabad founded by a certain Mohandas K. Gandhi. The khadi movement is accorded a significant role in India’s struggle against British rule. But we seldom recognise that it was also a hotbed for creativity and innovation in many senses, i.e., political, social, economic and technological.
The colonisation of India and the subsequent dumping of mill-made British cloth dealt a severe blow to the flourishing textile industries across the subcontinent. While this is a story of great complexity and debate, there is no doubt that during the colonial period, both India’s textile output and the economic status of weavers underwent a precipitous decline. By the time Gandhi returned to India from South Africa a century ago, India’s fabled handloom industry had almost withered away. Perhaps we may recognise the resulting lowly status of India’s textile manufacture in a simple fact. In 1909, when he wrote his famed Hind Swaraj, Gandhi did not know the difference between a charkha and a loom, two different devices for spinning and weaving respectively. And yet, within a decade of his return to India, the manufacture and sale of khadi was a pan-Indian phenomenon that had a central position in the struggle for swaraj. Surely, as an enterprise bootstrapped out of virtually nothing, khadi was a roaring success.
While it embodied the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship like many modern-day corporations, the larger objectives of the khadi movement were markedly different. With its agrarian economy in shambles, India was crying out for useful employment for its millions. Therefore, instead of making its founders fabulously rich, Gandhi’s khadi movement was squarely aimed at putting a few valuable rupees into the pockets of the poorest of Indians. The distributive power of khadi is well illustrated by the fact that in 1927-28, the All India Spinners Association manufactured and sold fabric worth Rs. 24 lakh. Of this value, an astounding 60% or about Rs. 14 lakh was paid as wages to a lakh of spinners and a few thousand weavers. To recognise the significance of these numbers, we should note that during this period, the average annual income in India was less than Rs. 50 and the weavers and spinners of khadi made far less.
If spinning brought a measure of income and self-worth to those who desperately needed work, Gandhi enjoined upon everyone to spin daily and wear khadi. In this process, he challenged the barriers of economic class as well as the traditional values which associated weaving with specific castes and spinning as the work of women.
Of the many aspects of khadi, the one that is least recognised is that of technological innovation. Perhaps this owes as much to the focus on the political dimensions of khadi as it does to the persistent misrepresentation of Gandhi as being anti-modern and resolutely opposed to machinery. What is lost out in such typecasting is the fact that Gandhi was not opposed to machinery per se, but to the loss of economic opportunity and freedom of the worker in the face of mechanisation. When the market for goods was monopolised by those using large-scale industrial processes in the name of efficiency and modernisation, the autonomy of the ordinary individual was severely compromised. With the consequent loss of options and bargaining power, the worker was reduced to wage slavery. Indeed, Gandhi presented this understanding when, in 1931, he was cross-examined on his economic views by the actor Charlie Chaplin. Gandhi argued that he was opposed to ‘mass production’ and preferred ‘production by the masses’ which preserved the economic autonomy of the individual.
Gandhi was acutely aware that if khadi was to spread across the country and flourish as a measure of economic emancipation, there was a need to improve the reliability and technical efficiency of the traditional designs of the charkha. But he also demanded that any technical improvements had to be both economically affordable to the poor and also not displace the employment opportunities inherent to the manufacture of cloth. In a country where most people had very few assets or skills, there were no other choices.
The man who took up this complex challenge was the Mahatma’s nephew, Maganlal Gandhi. From the early days of the venture in 1918 to his untimely death in 1928, Maganlal was instrumental in making the spinning and weaving of khadi a viable technological and economic process. Throughout the 1920s, the Gandhian community was engaged in designing, testing and propagating changes and novel inventions that aided the spinner and the weaver. The significance attached by Gandhi to designing a better charkha can be seen in the contest he announced in 1929. The call was for a new model that satisfied a set of requirements that included efficiency and affordability. And the reward for such an invention was the princely sum of a lakh of rupees. While eventually the prize was not awarded as no design fulfilled all criteria, the Charkha Prize gives us a sense of Gandhi’s conception of a good machine as well as the depth of his commitment.
What Swadeshi meant to Gandhi
During the 1920s and 30s, many Indian capitalists sought to profit from the groundswell of nationalism. They advertised their wares as being swadeshi by dint of being made by businesses owned by Indians. At the same time, large volumes of mill-cloth were packaged and palmed off as khadi. An alarmed Gandhi publicly declaimed such opportunism. In 1934, after a series of meetings where he failed to convince the representatives of some of India’s leading businesses, he offered a ‘new definition of swadeshi‘. Much to the displeasure of these industrialists, Gandhi’s swadeshi now explicitly excluded the patronage of the products of large-scale industries as they had no moral claim on any special preference from the purchasing public. Today, when big business and even global capital stakes a claim on national pride, we must remind ourselves of Gandhi’s conception of swadeshi.
For Gandhi and his colleagues, khadi represented a swadeshi that was not based on parochial nationalism. It was their answer to the demand for economic justice and dignity for India’s millions. With the arrival of independence, the spirit of khadi and village industries was steadily eroded as they were converted into appendages of an indifferent, bureaucratic state. Indeed, the foundational values of the khadi movement are not to be sought in the tiresome sarkari version but in the work of many public-spirited men and women who have dedicated their life to the welfare of India’s handloom weavers. The lesson from the history of khadi is that instead of wasting taxpayer money on glitzy campaigns promoting ‘Make in India’, the government should enable India’s poor to participate in the economy and ‘Make for India’.
Venu Madhav Govindu is with the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. This essay first appeared in translation in Kannada Prabha. All views are personal.