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The war over Khadi: What it means for aspirant buyers of India’s freedom fabric

Just before the working week ended on Saturday, the state-run Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) fired off a legal notice to Fabindia, saying it should stop selling garments in the name of khadi.

business Updated: Feb 14, 2017 08:55 IST
Shefalee Vasudev
Visitors at the Khadi Gram Udyog pavilion during Trade Fair in New Delhi, 2016.
Visitors at the Khadi Gram Udyog pavilion during Trade Fair in New Delhi, 2016.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

A khadi war is looming. Just before the working week ended on Saturday, the state-run Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) fired off a legal notice to Fabindia, saying it should stop selling garments in the name of khadi.

KVIC’s media cell called it a “strongly worded legal notice” that stressed its ownership over brand khadi, a symbol of India’s freedom struggle that went on to become the uniform of choice for post-independence politicians and has now evolved into a fashion statement. “The organisation (Fabindia) was continuing to sell its garments in the name and style of khadi despite earlier warnings by KVIC and assurances by Fabindia that it will not do so. It is an illegal act and amounts to indulging in unfair trade practice,” said the notice.

KVIC threatened Fabindia with legal action if it did not stop the practice immediately.

KVIC chairman VK Saxena cited the KVIC Act of 1956 and the Khadi Mark Regulations of 2003—notified by the Union ministry for micro, small and medium enterprises—to say “no product can be sold as khadi without the khadi Mark tag. Not only that, any private brand or producer of khadi must buy khadi from a government-cleared khadi institution. This is the only way to protect khadi artisans”.

Brands that sell khadi products or garments must, in accordance with the law, apply for a khadi mark regulation certificate — a 45-day process.

“Rs 10,000 as fee for the certificate and a list of 25 spinners and five weavers is all we seek. Anyone can sell khadi as long as they follow KVIC’s checks and balances and follow regulations,” said Saxena.

Equally, Fabindia Overseas Pvt Ltd, established in 1960, claims to run the country’s largest retail platform for goods produced by artisans who live largely in rural areas.

Fabindia CEO Viney Singh said in an emailed statement: “We are in receipt of the notice and have responded to KVIC, requesting a meeting with the designated authorities to understand the issues that have been raised, and to resolve them.”

KVIC’s increasing assertion of its legal ownership of Khadi has made companies like Raymond apply for a regulation certification last year to sell khadi fabrics, according to Saxena. However, many other khadi players remain unaware about the obligation.

Read | The fight between KVIC and Fabindia on Khadi tag is more than just a brand war

That’s exactly the warp and weft of the brand khadi story. What must consumers make of what is sold as khadi?

Khadi exponent Rta Kapur Chishti’s label Taanbaan uses handspun, handwoven khadi made on the traditional spinning wheel but nowhere does her brand spell out khadi.

According to Chishti, most, if not all, of what is paraded as khadi is from semi-mechanised ambar charkhas. “Desi charkhas have been completely forsaken because they are slow in production.”

For the aspiring khadi wearer, its brand value as the fabric of freedom endorsed by the greatest handloom marketer of all time, Mahatma Gandhi, is clear. Less clear is what makes for khadi—whether it is handspun, or spun on ambar charkhas, or industrial charkhas.

Under the ambiguities, there is a messy khadi war challenging the notion that khadi’s economic growth and “protection of rural artisans” are the exclusive preserve of the government. KVIC may need to do a lot of efficient and unbiased work to employ vigilance. Taking out the many spurious khadi outlets is one.

Meanwhile, one important question remains: whose khadi is it anyway?

Nikita Doval and Sounak Mitra contributed to this story

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