“A proletariat with no greater ideals than a shorter working day and a few cents more in wages will never be capable of a great historical enterprise. And this is why we must elevate ourselves above a vulgar positivism of the belly and above negative, destructive, and nihilist sentiments and interests. The revolutionary spirit is a constructive spirit.”
José Carlos Mariátegui (1894 – 1930), one of Latin America’s greatest Marxist theoreticians and activists (qtd. in Pearlman XXV).
Contemporary with India’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), Mariátegui’s Peruvian sentiments echoed Gandhi’s criteria for an effective revolution against imperialist control. These included conditions of little to no violence, a faith in one’s nation and its local assets, and benefits for all of society.
For the followers of this manifesto, the dilemma that arises exists in the longevity of these impressive propositions after they have been implemented. Because cultures, political arenas, and economic markets are kaleidoscopic in nature, it is hardly possible to predict whether the theoretical remedies in one era will prove just as curative in future circumstances. Great figureheads, like Gandhi, have developed strategies and exerted endless efforts to establish them within a society, with no guarantee for their longevity after they passed on. It seems that this discouraging observation must be ignored by impassioned revolutionaries convinced of the endurance of their schemes. When receiving the recognition deserved, one must question why these ideas lack the immortality envisioned by their designers.
To introduce a case example, Indians had Gandhi to lead them, under the umbrella of the Indian Independence Movement, beyond oppressive British rule, and toward independence. Along with being known for his political discourse, Gandhi developed a theory of social unification and a minimalist lifestyle ideal which he defined in his Constructivist Programme. These ideas, he believed, were capable of creating an alternative modernity and transcending hierarchies of age, gender, and social status – but not the test of time. A major component of the program was to incorporate khadi (a simple hand-spun and hand-woven cloth of a roughly textured nature) into the everyday lives of Indians. The process of its production and the final product itself were marketed as blind to sex and class in order to promote the social equality necessary to unify against a common enemy, the British. This study attempts to illustrate Gandhi’s Constructivist khadi project in relation to its historical context, and to investigate its transition into today’s modernity from the era of its production. Because Gandhian philosophy has been diluted and manipulated over time, I will attempt to evaluate its manifestation in modern and contemporary textile industries, specifically with regard to the working conditions of women and the issue of technological advancement. To ground this assessment, a brief description of Gandhi’s social context and philosophical approach will be necessary, followed by a description of the textile industry’s relationship to the revolutionary movement. I continue by considering Gandhi’s proposal and its incorporation into Indian society, and how it was subsequently managed.
In a nation appealing for a guru to lead them to salvation by means of a prescribed formula of action, Gandhi’s ideology conformed in response to the tumultuous politics, exploited economics and dejected society of colonial India at the turn of the twentieth century. Indian Nationalists were provoked into supporting Gandhi’s passive-oriented resolution because of the inferiority of their economy by domineering British trade corporations. A fitting example is that of the East India Trading Company, operational since 1600, and for the most part dominated the trade of cotton, silk, tea, opium and saltpetre. Being so prominent allowed it to control aspects of production as well as worker conditions, to exploit political relations, and manipulate the economy towards its selfish commercial interests (Bowen 2002). But the specific concern here is that of the cotton industry which it controlled with an iron fist, ensuring maximum profit through mass production in English mill factories. Its business strategy was to grow the raw cotton in India, and export it to Britain, where it would be woven into cloth, increasing employment rates in the company’s own factories as well in the transportation network. The East India Trading company would then import the cloth back into India to be merchandised in its feeble market (Ramagundam 2004). Such mass production, not unlike the frenzied outsourcing policies of today’s international textile economy, was a contradictory extreme to Gandhi’s idea of production by the masses for the masses.
The Indian textile market had not always been exclusively dependant upon this foreign investor. Before the British intervention, India had an established and prosperous craft-based clothing market that allowed individuals to create garments specific to their communities’ preferences as well as for international trade. These small markets respected weavers as artisans and did not reduce their talent to a source of cheap labour, even in the face of low production costs. In fact, Indian products dominated the trade in Asia and Africa (preceding 16th century European interference), and the subcontinent was probably the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles (Chaudhuri 33). Alas, by 1856 the British Imperial Government had completely obscured this complex organization, having manipulated the trade policy for its own benefit. Recognizing the dormant potential for a vibrant, mosaic economy, Gandhi was at the forefront in its restoration campaign. His vested interest in the weaving-based industry was only a small component of his grandiose strategy for attaining independence and national unity in India. He planned to improve rural conditions by imposing a self-sufficient life-style upon the inhabitants of these regions. I later elaborate on this brief description with a detailed account of the Constructivist Programme, specifically its khadi component. This explanation illustrates the exact circumstances under which the handloom and textile economy grew. A clear understanding of these justifies the exposure and critique of the philosophical faults which have left the market in its present condition .
Gandhi’s operation took form in 1920 when the Congress (part of the Indian National Movement under his leadership) launched a rebellion against the British Imperial economy, that invoked two simple rules in hopes of creating demand for hand-spun and -woven items, and thereby boost the national economy. These were: the boycott of foreign, machine-made goods, and the use of khadi. The first stipulation extended to the Gandhian followers deserting schools, universities, administrative positions, and the courts administrated by colonial bureaucrats. Fundamentally it was a tactic of non-cooperation by civil disobedience (Singh 1; Mariátegui 46).
Fuelling Gandhi’s attitude was his opposition to the “western assumption of increasing wants” (Bharathi 6); he rejected the demand for material prosperity and the accumulation of commodities. According to him, material consumption would lead to the degradation of personal morals whose expression is crucial to “awakening the divine element in the man” (Ibid.) and achieving real happiness. In order to promote these beliefs, he faced the challenge of marketing them to individuals occupying different registers of society’s financial hierarchy. Building “bottom up,” Gandhi believed that freedom and independence were crucial to even the destitute members of society. Colonial servants imposing unaffordable British-made products on Indian society highlighted the individuals who were financially underprivileged. Only equality in all aspects (financial, moral and educational) could bring them to the forefront of development, progress, and union. This entailed approaching a basic minimum standard of living, lessening the desire for material products, thereby erasing differences in wealth status, and allowing the Indian masses to participate actively and equally in governing their local communities. Gandhi recognized that the capitalist system had failed to eradicate unemployment, as could have been predicted by modern consumerism due to the high demand for production. Consequentially, he began advocating for labour-intensive village industries to produce consumer essentials such as soap, paper, textiles and matches that would reduce the dependency on mass-produced and imported goods. By establishing self-sufficiency Gandhi and his supporters hoped to create permanent economic niches for all members of the community (Bharathi 89).
Gandhi’s most endorsed human-made product was khadi (also referred to as khaddar), a plain white cotton cloth that was the final product of the home-grown cotton, hand-spun and woven raw material. To Gandhi it was the “symbol of unity in Indian humanity, of its economic freedom and equality” (Bharathi 88). It constituted one of the thirteen items listed as part of the Constructive Programme, which essentially defined an alternative way of life – one aspect of a new social order – sheathing itself with a manifesto promoting non-violent means of liberation and fraternity. The fundamental intention of khadi production was to strengthen the morality of humanity through cooperation, philanthropy and self-reliance (Bharathi 88). In Clothing Gandhi’s Nation, Lisa Trivedi discusses how khadi and the practice of spinning were incorporated into daily life and became a national symbol. This symbol was the expression of the Swadeshi spirit; a symbol of something made in India, by the people of India, for the people of India. When Congress politicians campaigning on Gandhi’s ideas adorned themselves in it, they signified the progressive and democratic modernity of their platform in relation to the strained British rule. Also worn by rural villagers, khadi humbly broke the status barrier between common citizen and lawmaker. Such strong support for a national symbol by means of garment production has rarely appeared in other societies thereafter.
A consequent benefit khadi brought to the villages, other than providing a uniform of fellowship, was the revival and strengthening of the handloom industry in individual communities by means of decentralized production. According to K. S. Bharathi, a labour- intensive program such as this would promote the “dignity of …the individual…from a pitiful dole seeker to a self-respective wage earner” (154). In order to promote self-reliance in individual villages, it was necessary to divide the administration of the industry among each individual producing facility. Benefits would include easier management of workers and accounts, more precise administration and management of the facility, and greater accessibility for local retailers. Bharathi also explains that “Khadi mentality… [ultimately called for the] decentralization of the production and the distribution of the necessities of life” (88). Decentralization would encourage the disillusioned Indian villager to take initiative and responsibility to establish working relationships that would lead them to develop self-sufficient qualities. With the high demand for variety and branded goods in today’s Western-influenced global society, such a concept would probably not survive in the face of outsourcing and the lack of employment-appeal offered by small firms (i.e. fewer benefits, greater instability, and weaker reputation). But Gandhi took extra steps to ensure that such a dilemma would not occur in the khadi campaign by providing sturdy and all-encompassing support for the industry.
Gandhi established the philanthropic agency All India Spinners’ Association (AISA) to ensure that the khadi program followed decentralization rules and benefited all villagers. Created in September 1925, it catered specifically to the poverty-stricken population of India and provided them with a consistent financial flow. An increased demand for khadi during political instability, and scepticism of its value at times of order created an irregular rhythm in khadi sales. AISA was essentially a dam-like enterprise which controlled production, and increased demand for the product by the rural villagers now able to afford it. The organization had three major priorities separate from its political agenda. The first was monetary investment, which proved feasible thanks to philanthropic support from middle-class revolutionaries. Second, and the hardest, was to recruit qualified workers, or people that could master the textile skills efficiently. And last was ensuring that workers had the right moral attitude toward producing khadi, and that they personally lived a minimalist existence (Ramagundam 2004). Gandhi objected to the idea of hiring only professionals in the field, not only because they would demand higher wages, but because their work would not be motivated by the true spirit of sacrificing comfort and living minimally. In this way, AISA was not run like mainstream commercial enterprises, and it depended heavily on voluntary aid to support administrative services.
Its original plan to hire educated workers was unsuccessful, so AISA proceeded to establish a khadi recruitment service. It would find “half-starved individuals, mostly women” (Ramagundam 2004) and enlist them in the program. Through this initiative, persons would get a minimum of two years of training that included spinning lessons, book keeping and accounting, as well as the basics of growing cotton. Despite his commitment to workers’ rights, Gandhi did not allow the workers to join or form any union. He believed that this defeated the organization’s philanthropic agenda, and devalued the role of artistic skill to the cause. Incentives for promoting a trust-based worker-employer relationship were proposals for minimum wages, maximum wages and the option of payment being made to a common fund of a joint-family unit of spinners. The spinners were ultimately the craft-creators and were responsible for the association they worked for. At its dissolution five years after Gandhi’s assassination, AISA handed its controls over to individual facilities, while it limited itself to auditing duties rather than its previous market-regulating functions. This action achieved the organization’s foundational plan to create a completely decentralized system where each locale was responsible for addressing its own needs. Looking back, we see that the establishment of AISA occurred at the beginning of the end of Gandhi’s political reign. His follower and political power was in an endangered state due to the resurgence of supporters of the old politics (Ramagundam 2004). There seems to have been a desperate attempt at trying to ground khadi’s importance in the face of a threat other than the British, one it was not designed to combat. Even after India’s introduction of the Textile Policy in 1985, designed to eradicate the Gandhian system of textile trade, a visible remnant of independent networks of production exists.
An important irony becomes evident in contemplating modern, decentralized khadi production. It is only the charkhas (spinning machines) and looms that participate in the decentralized plan, while other aspects of khadi production are carried out in mass- production facilities. These include, but are not limited to, “opening of the cotton, lap making, cording, drawing, roving, washing, dyeing, and printing” (Bharathi 155). Thus, we can see the clear fragmentation of Gandhi’s concept of simple and labour intensive techniques and its supplementation with mechanisation and capitalisation. It becomes apparent that Gandhi’s strategy has not been immune to the changing demands of an Indian government trying to assert its presence in the global sphere. But it was not only novel developments that hindered the success of khadi production; pre-existing associations with textile production were too strong to be eradicated completely by Gandhi, and lay below the surface, easily visible from the viewpoint of contemporary analysis .
The issue of gender and subsequent traditional associations of it with a predominantly female craft can be blamed in part for khadi’s failure in the Indian society. It is hard enough to obliterate the preconceived Indian notions of women being subordinate to men, but it becomes a lot harder to convince Indian men to participate in a “feminine activity” (Ramagundam 2004). The khadi movement held great importance for female egalitarianism in India. We can look to Gandhi as one of the most influential promoters of this cause. Consequently, women were key players in the hands-on, labour division of the khadi programme, allowing them to be the main group targeted for recruitment, and around which education and training were centred.
Let us quickly review Gandhi’s personal theories on women in order to more thoroughly explore the complex relationships between women and khadi. In his political treatise Hind Swaraj, Gandhi emphatically moralizes that “women must be the true helpmate of man in the mission of service” (Gandhi 175). This is followed by his justification for sexual equality:
Echoing Gandhi, Madhu Kishwar (a leading academic and activist of women’s rights at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi) explains that women were not merely “passive recipients of more humane treatment through the initiative of enlightened male effort” (1691), but that they were capable of determining their own destiny, and that of the nation as well. Ultimately, Gandhi saw women as a dormant power and moral force that could help India attain its freedom.
In the process of pleading for to men to purify their morals, Gandhi made an attempt to obliterate prostitution in India. Seeing this field as created by the lust of men themselves, he stated that the image it gave India was that of shame and humiliation. Though he did not excessively advocate the abolition of prostitution, as compared to his work in promoting manual labour, he encouraged the “unfortunate sisters” to adopt the more spiritually pure and chaste livelihood of taking to the charkhas and handlooms (Kishwar 1693). This would bring them closer to their dharma (ultimate law to be followed in the Hindu religion) and their full role in practicing non-violent activism. Gandhi taught that hand-looming and weaving were intrinsic to their duty as women who were primarily responsible for clothing their families (Thapar 86). Interestingly, such definitions exist in Indian culture today, but in a more frail and conservative vein, and can no longer be used to convince women to leave such professions. But the basic concept of educating and installing all women into reliable vocations is very prominent in our world influenced by Western models of the “working woman.” Also like our generation’s humanitarian efforts (for example, the United Nation coerced India to implement the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (1986) for the criminalization of prostitute trafficking), it was not only de-moralized prostitutes who were being directed to the textile industry for salvation. In linking the status of women and other oppressed people (such as the poor and the ‘untouchable’ caste), Gandhi hoped to channel their growing aspirations for soci al freedom to a national level (so it would be supported by all members of society), and thus increasing the prospects and authority of the movement (Kishwar 1694).
Fast-forwarding to 1993 in the state of Bihar (an ideal example of established handloom and khadi commerce), women employed in this textile industry are faced with challenges (predominantly Western-influenced managerial systems) that were not as imperative in the Gandhian era, and whose remedy therefore has no precedent. A study conducted by the Ministry of Labour (Government of India) has uncovered many complex concerns regarding the social and economic conditions of female employees in the industry. Statistics and information were collected from both organized and unorganized sectors of the rural industry to inform the development of updated labour laws. Specifically these sectors were differentiated by being union regulated (organized) or not (unorganized).
This study provides a good illustration of the working conditions of women in Gandhi’s model industry, but it is hard to find significant remaining traces of his legacy. In the 1992–93 census it was found that 86 percent of workers in the khadi industry were women, specializing in the spinning of yarn and winding at handlooms. These women work predominantly from home, where their maternal duties were not hindered. This statistic concurs with other findings that 93 percent of female khadi workers were married but none reported usage of the maternity benefits (Ministry of India II). This alludes to inequitable working conditions, as supported by the fact that “majority of the handloom and khadi workers in general had neither any security of service nor any facility of paid leave or other fringe benefits” (Ministry of India. IV). Regrettably, it was also found that all the workers were illiterate, a situation clearly in contrast with Gandhi’s aspirations. Also, there was no medical facility available to the workers. The only specific Gandhian policy that seemed to exist was the lack of a union. But I speculate that motives for this are ulterior to those prescribed by Gandhi, and follow more of an oppressive character.
The cracks of mortality in Gandhi’s foundational theories began to expose khadi as an uncompetitive player against mill-made cloth in terms of cost, and hand-spinning as an un profitable occupation, especially in the face of inflation. For the most part, khadi production was not strong enough to guide the Indian textile industry into today’s Western-dominated economy and could not compete with “mechanized manufacturing” (Mariátegui 47). But it was kept alive by heritage supporters because of its “fetishized” image and symbolic importance, and was supported monetarily by subsidies obtained from wealthy patrons (Hardiman 79). Unfortunately, its symbolic status was not enough to retain many of the Indian supporters who were ultimately scared of breaking direct ties with the employment sector of the British-run market. It is important to note that many Indian workers from the English working sector in India, that were dismissed, returned to their administrative posts, thus surrendering to the British their Gandhi-informed lobby for non-cooperation with British-run systems (Mariátegui 47). Having been reduced to a minimal scale, there was also criticism by supporters of Western economies against the labour-intensive methods that directly opposed the more popular labour-saving techniques of the Industrial Revolution (Diller 386). Gandhi was accused of sentencing the poor to “back-breaking labour” (Hardiman 79) even though that was not his intention. But today, it is easy to see the real exploitation of workers desperate to keep their jobs at the powerlooms and other sweatshops in general.
Other than the technical flaws of the khadi program, there developed a disjuncture in Indian society itself. The two groups at conflict were the literate and well-off Indians who supported the British, and those who were empathizers of the poor who “acted for social-well being” (Ramagundam 2004). Consequently, there were two forms of khadi wear. One would either wear it to display their alliance, or wear it regardless of their political agenda. Ramagundam characterizes khadi as “the fulcrum in which one’s political and personal belief could be weighed” (2004). Granted that the process of moving from one faction to the other was transformative (i.e. one publicly proclaimed a specific moral belief by switching to khadi clothing), it left room for critique and judgement of an individual. Non-support would be easily identified and this could be a cause for discrimination by revolutionists and division of the population. I put forth an extreme conjecture in order to bring to light a new perspective of Gandhian philosophy’s incompatibility with the modern political affairs: in today’s world, not only would such inequity of political preference cause further political and economic rifts in the already precarious Indian society, but an entire sub-culture would be formed within the nation that would have separate values and ethics, ultimately creating potential for more undesired violence and civil rebellion.
Returning to an assessment of the textile industry itself, I draw upon a critique by Sushil Khanna on the manufacturing technology and competitiveness of the textile economy that illustrates the poor conditions of the cotton textile industry and its revival . In this 1989 study, Khanna summarizes the condition of the industry at that time, and shortly before, concluding that it was far from the ideal stage envisioned by Gandhi. The markets were uncompetitive and ‘”high cost” producers remained oblivious to the developments in technology, marketing strategies, and administrative procedures in the world beyond India. The verve of the cotton industry (not specifically khadi) seems to have deteriorated into a state that could only be resuscitated by those exact systems Gandhi’s program hoped to eradicate. The Indian textile market had largely ignored international advanced capital economies in order to protect its existing decentralized system of production (Khanna M–103). Strict trade laws prevented the transnational flow of capital and technology, rendering Indian systems obsolete elsewhere. The government attempted to solve this issue by opening its doors to the rest of the world, resulting in imported technology and capital goods, allowing for international investment, and reducing the duties on imports. One example Khanna mentions is mergers and vertical integrations with UK corporations such as ICI and Courtaulds that held shares as large as 65% at the time of the study (M–105). Working directly contrary to Gandhian policy, the government hoped to promote textile company mergers with international corporations.
Another method used to promote India’s textile economy was the increased production of synthetic fibres. High demand by international buyers (such as ICI) had propelled the Indian petrochemical oligopoly, and allowed textile firms to introduce these new technologies (Khanna M–103; M–105).
In the same vein of contradicting Gandhian guidelines, the new strategy of modernisation appealed to the “necessary evil” of reducing the work force in order to compensate for the increase in technological investments. According to Khanna, “most Indian machinery producers have well absorbed the [international] technology, developed local ancillary suppliers and made minor design changes to suit Indian conditions and raw materials” (M–109). According to Mariátegui, Gandhi emulated Ruskin and Tolstoy in the abomination of the machine (48). For this reason, his teachings developed around avoiding mechanization, understood as one avenue through which Western ideas infiltrated India. Since Gandhi’s opposition to materialism, impurity and sensuality disclaimed Western civilization, it was only logical that his philosophies on Indian psychology stated that the Indian people would “not [be] suited for a European education” (Mariátegui 48). In fact, he hoped that the new Indian procedures of a simplistic life style could be a prototype adoptable by other societies. But considering Gandhi’s idea to diverge off the progressive path toward complexity it is necessary for humankind to evolve forward through understanding, and not merely fall back in time to an uncivilized simplicity. Mariátegui eloquently expresses this idea when he says that “once the machine has been acquired, it is difficult for humanity to renounce its use” (49). For support, Mariátegui quotes literary giant Rabindranath Tagore as saying that “Today’s problem is international. No people can seek safety by separating itself from the others. They will be saved together or disappear together” (49). The regulation of today’s global economy supports the contemporary fact that it is necessary for a country to be open to inspiration and competition from the international society in order to flourish technologically and theoretically. We see this in international relationships of foreign investment (such as out sourcing), migration, political influence, and more lenient trade in goods and services.
It is plain to see that Gandhi’s ideas do not complement the contemporary trends of globalization, in terms of trade and commerce, arts and entertainment, and history and culture. Forgotten is the minimalist lifestyle; today’s Indian populace looks to models that display economic prosperity, high social status, and a marketable image. The focus on decentralized planning, satisfying basic needs, and economic self-sufficiency have unfortunately been left by the way side. Critics of India’s national planning have found some explanations for why Gandhi’s proposed strategy did not blossom into its desired goal. They suggest that the plans were never able to really penetrate to the bottom levels of society and thus resulted in “the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer” (Bharathi 65). Also, the drastic increase in population size has led to more unemployment, which has also fostered new threats of black-money; black-market trading and smuggling (Ibid.). The current situations (economic and social) have become a lot more complex as evidenced by my investigation of the reaction to Gandhi’s revolutionary Constructivist Programme. Having assessed the role of textile production in eradicating gender discrimination, examined its support by middle-class revolutionaries, and analysed its effectiveness as a solution for the time of its creation, it is clear to see that the existing problems have exceeded the scope of Gandhian remedies. His philosophy and ideas were suited for the political and cultural frame he lived in, but they could not endure the transition into modernity. “Gandhian India,” wrote Mariátegui, “poetically turned to the music of the spinning wheel” (46), which has become but a mere symbol of pride; a visual reminder of the conception of intricate strategies retrospectively-successful in rescuing the Indian nation from oppression and submission.
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