By Tom Weber
Mahatma Gandhi’s biographer, Louis Fischer, once said that his greatness ‘lay in doing what everyone could do but doesn’t’. Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi in 1930 can be examined as a version of this message
The Salt March to the remote seaside village of Dandi, about 320 km from Ahmedabad, and the Civil Disobedience campaign it launched was the greatest nonviolent battle by history’s greatest nonviolent campaigner. Mahatma Gandhi himself saw this as the quintessence of his philosophy in action.
The Salt March is about a battle by an astute political campaigner to free his country from the yoke of British colonialism. Here we have the skinny, scantily dressed 61- year-old Mahatma armed with nothing but a bamboo staff marching to the sea with a handful of followers, mostly young, in an attempt to liberate India.
The Salt March sees Gandhi and his followers leaving his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on March 12, 1930 and breaking the British salt laws about three weeks later at the seaside hamlet of Dandi. This launched a mass struggle that filled the prisons and shook the foundations of the British empire.
But the Salt March was more than a mass political action. Gandhi saw the march as a pilgrimage, as a living sermon. It was not merely about removing the British but to demonstrate what an ideal nonviolent society should look like, how ideal lives should be lived.
On the morning of April 6, Gandhi picked up a handful of saline mud that had to be cleaned during the day to extract the small quantity of salt that was auctioned for the benefit of the national cause that evening, and a mass movement was born. But was this movement a success?
Let us see.
All classes did not participate equally in the struggle and the campaign did not heal the growing rift between Hindus and Muslims. Although tens of thousands were imprisoned, this amounted to only one-fifth of 1 per cent of the population.
Following inconclusive talks in Delhi and London, and with Gandhi again languishing in jail, the movement eventually petered out. The salt laws were not repealed and freedom did not come to India for another 17 years.
For some this has meant that the Salt March, and the Civil Disobedience campaign it initiated, were failures. But there were also large political pluses: the world, especially America, came to see the moral legitimacy of India’s cause (Gandhi became Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1930).
Under the tutelage of Gandhi the proto-feminist, for the first time women became significant players in the Indian political system.
And much to the disgust of Churchill, who was appalled by the ‘nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor’, for the first time the British were forced to talk eye-to-eye with the leader of a subject nation.
The events set in place by the pilgrimage to Dandi also brought vast yet hard to quantify changes to India. As Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, was to remark a few years later: ‘People of common clay felt the spark of life.’
And perhaps it is here, not in the limited world of international power politics, that the greatest gift of struggle from Gandhi can be found. To understand the deeper meaning of Gandhi’s Salt March, we have to trace his journey from Sabarmati to Dandi.
Why did Gandhi pick salt as the focus of the campaign? Why a pilgrimage with a handful of the chosen to the backblocks, instead of taking mass demonstrations to the centre of power?
Salt, the only mineral substance consumed by humans, had been heavily taxed by the British for over 40 years and for 40 years nationalist leaders, including Gandhi, had been protesting against the tax.
Gandhi knew the mind of his people. A focus on the salt laws was easy to understand. Also, the salt campaign was to be a non-elitist one. Everyone from the humblest peasant upwards could easily break the law by manufacturing salt, by selling it, or giving it away.
It was a form of action that did not alienate non-Congress supporters or threaten local Indian interests. The Dandi March was to cover areas where Gandhi’s political base was strongest. It was to take over three weeks-a risky but potentially far more effective method than a short march.
A long Salt March, if it did not become the object of derision, allowed tensions to build; for the media, the general public and world opinion to be caught up in the progress. On the morning of April 6, Gandhi and his followers made their way to the seaside.
Gandhi waded into the sea for a ritual bath. Then, in his wet loin cloth, with a shawl draped across his shoulders, he walked back over the fine, dark sand towards his camp. The police had been busy destroying salt deposits, but as the sun rose, the barefooted Gandhi entered a hollow filled with salt and mud.
To the enthusiastic shouts of his followers he bent down and picked up a handful of this mixture. There was little ceremony, but the battle had begun in earnest. Gandhi was not arrested at Dandi.
But the inevitable outcome was clear. Mass salt gathering and production by boiling sea water had commenced, and soon had spread to much of the country.
The government had decided to frustrate Gandhi’s scheme of filling the jails, thus overwhelming the administration and gaining world sympathy. They arrested only national leaders, hoping to isolate Gandhi, who they left alone, and confiscated illegal salt from others, often with brutal force.
Meanwhile, Dandi had proved to be an unsuitable base for operation. At high tide it was cut off from the main roads, hampering Gandhi’s programme of seditious touring. So a change in location was decided upon.
Ten days after arriving at Dandi, Gandhi moved the camp back to the village of Karadi. While some of the original marchers returned to their home districts to organize the breaking of the salt laws, most stayed with the Mahatma and were with him when he was arrested.
Gandhi started to conceive a plan that would compel the government to take decisive action. On April 25, Gandhi wrote to his secretary that he intended to march to the salt works at nearby Dharasana, and seize them after giving due warning to the authorities.
At this time, Gandhi knew that his arrest was imminent. Soon after midnight between May 4 and 5, police swooped on Gandhi’s hut. He smiled at the police as they read out the charges amidst a growing crowd. They allowed him to wash and pray and then loaded him onto one of the waiting police lorries.
By mid morning Gandhi was safely ensconced in Yeravada Central Jail in Poona. He appeared pleased to have finally been arrested and claimed to have been grateful for the good treatment afforded him. Gandhi was released from prison in January 1931.
In February, he commenced negotiations with the Viceroy. In early March, he reported to the nationalist leadership that an agreement had been reached. Although there was general rejoicing over the settlement, the negotiations seemed to yield no tangible gains to the nationalist cause.
The avowed objectives of the struggle-independence, or even an abrogation of all salt laws-had not been achieved. Many felt that the Viceroy had secured all the immediate advantages in the agreement.
The radical nationalists criticised Gandhi bitterly. But the Gandhi-Irwin Pact used words never before heard in the British Empire.
Phrases such as ‘it is agreed’ were not the words of dictation from a ruler. An astute observer pointed out that ‘in people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Englishmen had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details’.
The Salt March gave the world the idea of mass nonviolence in politics. It was also a living sermon to the country, which was heard by many and changed many. That sermon speaks to us just as loudly in the new millennium. The revolution that Gandhi sought to achieve was not merely political. It was also social.
The independence he fought for was not only national but also personal. The Salt March was primarily about empowerment; it told people that they were stronger than they thought and that their oppressors were weaker than they imagined.
Gandhi went so far as to remark that the Civil Disobedience campaign that the Salt March was part of was ‘not designed to establish independence but to arm the people with the power to do so’. For Gandhi, the latter was far more important.
The Gandhi of the Dandi March was not merely a mover of historical and political events, or even social ones. He was also a man working out his own existence-doing what he had to do because his inner beliefs told him that it was right.
The March was more than the propaganda exercise of the clever and astute politician that Gandhi undoubtedly was.
It was also a lesson on how battles should be fought, on the appearance of the ideal free India where none was considered high or low, how villages should be organised in a sanitary and cooperative way, how principles should be adhered to in the face of adversity, the meaning of openness and truth and how we should relate to others. In short, how lives should be lived.
One of those who walked with Gandhi noted that although ‘the march did present itself as a drama, that it did serve as an excellent means for enlisting popular resentment against the British Salt Laws, that it did prove to be the finest stroke of political leadership in organizing the country for Civil Disobedience, that it did attract the attention of the world, these by-products had nothing to do with the Mahatma’s decision.”
“The course of action was adopted, as it is always adopted, by the Mahatma in obedience to the voice of the inner-self’.
Viewed in this light, no matter how one interprets the political successes or otherwise of this key campaign in modern Indian political history, whatever one thinks of the amazing event that was the Dandi March, there can be no failure for someone who was doing what he had to do and reminding people that they too should be doing what they have to do.
In order to do the right thing, in order to be true to themselves, in order to be free.
Tom Weber has authored many books on Gandhi, including On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi’s March to Dandi, Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping, Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics.
Weber is an advisor for the Sweden-based Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF), and co-ordinates the Peace Studies Area at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Originally printed in the Gandhi Marg journal, Delhi.
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