The Swadeshi and Boycott movements helped Indians regain a sense of pride and autonomy that helped pave the way for India to become an independent country after World War II. For many years, Indian pride had been broken by the rule of the Raj or British, who looked down on the Indians and in every way promoted British and western culture as superior while exploiting the country and the people on a massive scale.
Gandhi organized the Indian people to boycott imported, foreign-made goods. As is often the case with colonies like India, their raw materials were sold abroad at very low cost and then the materials fashioned into finished goods imported back into the country and sold at high cost. Gandhi wanted the people to regain control over their lives and encouraged them to boycott or not buy imports and to make their own goods, particularly to weave their own cloth.
We have seen similar movements in the United States as this country dealt with the impact of globalization: Buy American was an attempt from the 1970s to keep manufacturing jobs in the States by encouraging people to buy only US-made clothing and cars.
Gandhi was ahead of his times in the Swadeshi movement by having people weave cloth on hand looms in their homes. At the time, photographer Margaret Bourne White had a debate with Gandhi in which she ridiculed the idea of home industry. Instead, she said, Gandhi should be encouraging large, heavy industry to come into the country, such as the kind of big steel plants she had photographed in the Soviet Union. This would, she argued, quickly jolt the country into the modern age. Gandhi disagreed, saying such huge works projects would fail, as India was not ready for them. History has proven Gandhi right, and today we embrace what is called micro-enterprise as a key to raising living standards in the Third World.
The greatest impact of both movements was to instill in a people used to abjection and loss of self-worth a sense that they could be the masters of their own destiny and run their own country without need for the British. This, as noted above, made independence more possible.
Notes on Swadeshi Movement Lead by Mahatma Gandhi!
A very significant instrument of social change, in Gandhi’s view, was the precept and practice of swadeshi, which implied self-reliance and self-sufficiency at the level of the individual, the village and the nation. By following the swadeshi principle, the nation’s confidence and prosperity could be assured. It would be appropriate to quote him on the rule of swadeshi: “Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote.
Thus, as for religion …. I must restrict myself to my ancestral religion …, if I find it defective, I should serve it by purging it of its defects. In the domain of politics, I should make use of the indigenous institutions and serve them by curing them of their proved defects. In that of economics, I should use only those things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be found wanting. It is suggested that such swadeshi, if reduced to practice, will lead to the millennium.
Thus, all Gandhi’s wide ranging activities, whether in the sphere of Hindu-Muslim relations or the removal of untouchability or khadi and rural uplift, could be subsumed under his ideal of realizing swadeshi. However, the importance of swadeshi in the economic field was the greatest, he said, because departure from the principle resulted in loss of independence and poverty for the nation. India was a case in point. To undo the evil was not difficult, provided the thinking portion of the community took the vow of swadeshi, even though observing it could cause considerable inconvenience for a time. It should be accepted as a religious discipline, he said. As a temporary measure, he was willing to confine swadeshi to a given set of articles.
Gandhi did not just conceptualize the instruments of change he also showed their efficacy by use. He began the manufacture of swadeshi cloth on a small experimental basis at the Sabarmati Ashram in 1917. He found five families who had been weavers till a few years ago and were willing to resume their occupation if they were given some help. The ashram supplied them with yarn and its volunteers took delivery of the cloth woven and paid them cash at the market rate.
Gandhi’s work and commitment attracted to him the resources of many wealthy and patriotic Indians. This enabled him to go ahead with many of his cherished programmes. The khadi work at the ashram grew gradually, but steadily, and hundreds of men and women, many of them untouchables, found an independent vocation. Some segments of the business community in Mumbai helped Gandhi to extend the production and sale of swadeshi cloth.
In June 1919, some philanthropic merchants set up the Pure Swadeshi Cloth Store in Mumbai, which offered for sale all types of cloth woven out of yarn spun from indigenous cotton, wool and silk. The proprietors, Narandas and Jerajani, vowed not to charge more than 5 per cent on the cost price as profit and no profit at all on cloth that was completely hand spun and hand woven.
Gandhi appealed to other merchants also to set up stores on such “purely patriotic lines”. He asked for volunteers who would take up the work at the individual and group level and help produce swadeshi cloth. The most notable among those who helped him was Gangabehn Majumdar of Vijapur – she was instrumental in organizing the spinning wheel movement in Gujarat.
Khadi activity received a great impetus during the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22 because it was part of the constructive programme together with the boycott of foreign cloth. The charkha had been introduced in national schools and vigorous attempts were made to produce finer yarn that would attract a bigger market. A unique feature of the programme during the non-cooperation days was Gandhi’s appeal to established mill owners and cloth merchants to help make the swadeshi movement a success.
They should see that middlemen did not exploit the people, he said. His message to the big cloth merchants who sold mainly imported cloth was: “Swaraj means that you and I put our country’s trade before ours. The appeal to you to refrain from importing foreign cloth is in other words an appeal to subordinate your individual gain to the country’s.” They should instead aim at making the country self-sufficient in cloth by organizing hand spinning and hand weaving on an extended scale. His appeal did not fall on deaf ears. In June 1921, three principal merchants of Mumbai agreed to stop importing foreign cloth.
The far reaching impact of the charkha movement began to manifest itself soon after its launch. The value of imports of foreign cloth fell from Rs 102 crore in 1920-21 to Rs 57 crore in 1921-22. Import of British cotton piece goods was 1,292 million yards and 955 million yards, respectively, in the same years.
The local impact of the charkha movement was also noteworthy. T.K. Mahadevan, editor of the Deshabhimani in Kollam (then known as Quilon) and a leader of the Ezhavas (untouchables) of Travancore, said to Gandhi, “My community has been much benefited – morally much more than materially – by your charkha movement …. The enthusiasm you have created for Indian made clothes is partly responsible for the removal of the social stigma attached to weaving – we are trying to push up weaving.”
Similarly, in many places, indigent women – many of them Muslim – were provided with employment at home. This led Mian Mohammad Chotani, a wealthy Muslim of Mumbai, to donate one lakh spinning wheels to Gandhi, saying that they should preferably be used for members of the Maiman community. Gandhi’s instruments for change were beginning to gain popular appeal and commitment, which was in itself proof of his understanding and the rationality of his vision.
The viability of carding and spinning as supplementary occupations was demonstrated in flood and famine affected areas as well. In June 1922, a severe flood hit Hooghly district in Bengal. The local Congress committee introduced spinning wheels in the area and work started with a few women plying them. By June 1924, 200 people were employed. There were many Muslim women among them.
A correspondent who was helping in the relief work wrote to Gandhi that “women who used to beg for their sustenance, were now well off. They no longer quarrelled among themselves because they had no idle time left after carding and spinning. Their husbands could not now ill treat them as they were contributing considerably to the family fund; and lastly, but not the least, their izzat was saved.”
In some places, khadi work was associated with other programmes such as national education, arbitration and social service. In Hooghly district, a separate propaganda department was set up, which published a litho weekly called Congress Sambad. The weekly contained expositions on topics such as non-violence, non-cooperation, khadi and untouchability. The organization was called the Satyagraha Sangh.
By September 1925, the charkha movement had spread so widely that Gandhi found it necessary to set up a separate organization that would carry forward the economic programme of the nation more efficiently. This was the All India Spinners Association (AISA), which had its central office at the Satyagraha Ashram in Sabarmati. Gandhi described it as an expert and permanent organization for the development of hand spinning and khadi. Though it was an integral part of the Congress organization, it had an independent existence and powers. The association took over the funds and assets of the All India Khadi Board and all the provincial khadi boards and their existing financial obligations.
To carry the message of the charkha, Gandhi toured extensively and addressed public meetings and women’s gatherings. He collected donations for the khadi fund, which was meant for the daridranarayan, to use his phrase. He hoped to make AISA the largest cooperative society in the world. The thrust of his message everywhere was to help make the people and the country self-reliant and, thereby, truly independent.
In April 1930, with the launching of the civil disobedience movement, Gandhi desired to focus the attention of the nation on the importance of the swadeshi movement. With this in mind, he introduced a major change in his khadi programme, which would also meet the increasing demand for khadi and make the boycott of foreign cloth more effective. In his words, “No one who wishes to buy khadi will get it for money – it will be sold only against hand spun yarn.
This is the only way to make it clear to people that khadi is not a mere commodity, like foreign cloth … but that it is a symbol of the nation’s strength and aspiration.” He made it clear that it was not necessary for the prospective buyer to spin himself; he could get it done by someone else. This would involve some trouble, he was aware, but the sacrifice was necessary for the nation, he declared.
As spinning wheels could not be produced fast enough to meet the demands of the whole country, he suggested the home manufacture of simple taklis (handheld spindles) to supplement them. Provided the taklis were well made and one had sufficient practice, the output of yarn on a takli could be quite high. He also disseminated instructions for making taklis at home at practically no cost.
By August 1935, Gandhi discovered that though khadi sales had increased immensely and prices had been reduced on account of growing efficiency in every department of khadi production, the main purpose of the khadi movement had not been served – spinners were still not getting subsistence wages.
In the provincial centres of production, it was found that khadi was neither popular nor self-supporting. All the concentration was in the big cities. At Gandhi’s instance, AISA adopted a new and radical policy. He ordered that private trade be almost stopped and the large staff of the big urban stores be substantially reduced.
He warned patrons of khadi that prices had to go up to give better wages to the spinners; greater technical skills needed to be developed among khadi workers; and a greater spirit of self-sacrifice had to be evoked amongst all classes connected with the production and distribution of khadi. He demanded that the reports of AISA must henceforth state the increase in spinning wage. His personal opinion was that it should be equal to a weaver’s hourly wage as the work required equal, if not more, skill.
This new directive sent the price of khadi up a considerable extent, yet sales increased noticeably in March 1937. The biggest Khadi Bhandar (store) in Mumbai recorded daily sales of Rs 1,000. With some satisfaction, Gandhi wrote, “For me, the sale of khadi is the best thermometer for measuring India’s peaceful progress …. I presume that people have increasingly begun to understand the significance of khadi and those who wear khadi are satisfied by the higher rate paid to the women spinners and thus their enthusiasm for wearing it has increased.” He also found that since the rate of spinning had been increased and the work was being supervised, the “softness and durability” of khadi had increased.
For Gandhi, India’s development at the grass-roots level and the khadi programme were so closely linked that when the question of another civil disobedience campaign came up in 1940, his chief instruction was that every Congress committee should become a satyagraha committee and enroll Congressmen who believed in the constructive programme. The registered satyagrahis would not only use khadi exclusively themselves, but also persuade the primary members to do likewise. Only such a disciplined, non-violent army could be led to battle. “I as your general must insist on your taking to the charkha, which will be your uniform,” he stated.
In short, it may be said that the goal of Gandhi’s swadeshi programme was to make India self-sufficient as far as her needs of food and cloth were concerned and to provide an adequate means of livelihood for the needy. This, he believed, would pave the way for the real emancipation of the masses and provide the basis for building a dynamic nation.