Cloth, idea, brand: What is khadi, to whom does it belong?

KVIC has argued that khadi is a specific type of product created by a specific process, which is different from factory-made cotton garments.

Written by Divya A , Shiny Varghese | New Delhi | Published: February 20, 2018 4:46:07 am
KVIC had sent a similar notice to Fabindia in 2015. A spokesperson for Fabindia told The Indian Express that the company has been in talks with KVIC ever since.(Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), the statutory body in charge of the development of khadi and other village industries, has threatened to sue Fabindia, the country’s “largest private platform for products that are made from traditional techniques, skills and hand-based processes”, for Rs 525 crore for “illegally” using its trademark “charkha”, and for calling its products “khadi”. KVIC has argued that khadi is a specific type of product created by a specific process, which is different from factory-made cotton garments.

KVIC had sent a similar notice to Fabindia in 2015. A spokesperson for Fabindia told The Indian Express that the company has been in talks with KVIC ever since. Fabindia had applied to KVIC for “Khadi Mark” certification (that is, the right to call their products “khadi”) in 2016, but its application was rejected. “We are evaluating the situation,” the spokesperson said.

So, what exactly is khadi?

Mahatma Gandhi popularised the charkha and indigenously produced cloth as a symbol of the Swadeshi boycott of foreign-made goods, including cloth. Khadi, fabric that was handwoven from handspun yarn, was meant to make every home self-sufficient, and provide employment for rural India.

After Independence, KVIC was established by an Act of Parliament in 1956. The KVIC Act defined khadi as “any cloth woven on handlooms in India from cotton, silk or woollen yarn handspun in India or from a mixture of any two or all of such yarns”. KVIC has been using the khadi trademark on its products and media displays ever since. With time, however, many Indians, including users of khadi, came to be no longer conscious that the cloth must, by definition, be both handwoven and handspun.

On July 22, 2013, the government notified The Khadi Mark Regulations, 2013 “for the purpose of authentication of genuine khadi”. These Regulations specified that for institutions or people to sell, trade, or produce khadi and khadi products, the cloth would have to bear the “Khadi Mark Tags and Labels” issued by the KVIC. Persons or institutions applying for Khadi Mark registration would be subject to specified sample tests.

Which institutions were found using the khadi tag without authorisation?

KVIC Chairman Vinai Kumar Saxena told The Indian Express, “As many as 176 institutions have been given notices by us over the past three years for violating the khadi trademark in some way or the other. These are mostly single-outlet stores and retailers, including six in Chennai, 30 in Madurai, 34 in Hyderabad, 7 in Ambala and five in the Mumbai region. But while others have stopped any such practices after receiving the said notices, Fabindia is the only repeat offender.”

Saxena said that “Fabindia was warned in 2015 and they apologised, again in 2016 they apologised and assured (us) they will not do it again when we sent them a notice. But they continue to do it even till 2017 despite admitting to the mistake. The legal notice (served in 2018) is part of a process, and it will take its course.”

But why is the government so possessive about the trademark khadi?

Both charkha and khadi have been associated inalienably with Mahatma Gandhi, and are powerful symbols of India’s struggle for Independence. While successive governments have been keen to ensure that the khadi brand be not used for private profit, the current dispensation has been especially enthusiastic to protect and promote the brand. The KVIC, which functions under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, was reconstituted in October 2015, after which it got more teeth, and Saxena was made Chairman.

Soon after taking over, Saxena wrote to BJP president Amit Shah, underlining that khadi provides employment to more than 130 lakh people, and asking that khadi be recommended for use in government departments. Shah subsequently wrote to Ministers, urging them ensure that “the use of khadi… is maximised… in a systematic manner”. In May 2016, a khadi uniform was proposed for Air India’s 4,000-strong cabin crew. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who was also Tourism Minister then, proposed khadi bedsheets and upholstery in ITDC hotels, and the setting up of stalls selling khadi products at all Ministry festivals and fairs. Earlier in January 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given the slogan, “Azaadi Se Pehle, Khadi for Nation; Azaadi Ke Baad, Khadi For Fashion”, and KVIC has a section on its website on the PM’s mentions or tweets about khadi. The government is working on promoting khadi overseas, and KVIC is in talks with industry associations abroad to open franchises, according to a senior Ministry official.

To whom does khadi ultimately belong?

The government has enacted a law and framed Regulations around it, and its disagreement with entities such as Fabindia will ultimately be resolved either through talks within that regulatory framework, or in the courts. At another level though, irrespective of the government’s claim to proprietorship, the brand really belongs to the people who give it their patronage. It is on their continued support that the future of khadi depends. Also, the term “khadi” has been around from long before KVIC came into existence, and in that sense, it is as generic as “ayurveda” or “yoga”.

Attached to the argument over khadi also are a few other questions. Besides the cloth, are the symbols of khadi, the charkha, and the artisans, too fall exclusively in KVIC’s domain? What about smaller artisans who work on handlooms, but are not registered with KVIC? And what other words can be used in popular parlance to describe handmade products if khadi is to be out of bounds?

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