Friday, February 23, 2007

Salt Satyagraha

The Salt Satyagraha, also known as the Salt March to Dandi, was an act of protest against the British salt tax in Colonial India. Mahatma Gandhi along with his followers, walked from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, Gujarat to make salt, and large numbers of Indians followed him. The British could do nothing because Gandhi did not incite others to follow him. The march lasted from March 12 to April 6, 1930.


At midnight on December 31, 1929, the Indian National Congress unfurled the flag of independence on the banks of Ravi at Lahore. The Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, issued the Declaration of Independence on January 26, 1930. The Congress placed the responsibility of initiating civil disobedience on the All India Congress Committee. This campaign also had to achieve the secularization of India, uniting Hindus and Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that non-violent civil disobedience would form the basis for any subsequent protest. One of Gandhi's principal concepts, "satyagraha" goes beyond mere "passive resistance" - it was a synthesis of the Sanskrit words "Agraha" (persuasion) and "Satya" (Truth). For him, it was crucial that Satyagrahis found strength in their non-violent methods. In his own words,

"Truth (Satya) implies Love, and Firmness (Agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force… that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or Non-violence… [If] we are Satyagrahis and offer Satyagraha, believing ourselves to be strong… we grow stronger and stronger everyday. With our increase in strength, our Satyagraha too becomes more effective, and we would never be casting about for an opportunity to give it up."
Beginning in February, Mahatma's thoughts turned towards the British tax on salt, one of many economic means used to generate revenue that supported British colonial rule. Gandhi decided to make the salt tax the focal point of non-violent political protest. The British monopoly on the salt trade in India dictated that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government was a criminal offense punishable by law. Salt was readily accessible to labourers in the coastal area, but they were instead forced to pay money for a mineral which they could easily collect themselves for free. Gandhi's choice met the important criterion of appealing across regional, class, religious, and ethnic boundaries. Everyone needed salt, and the British taxes on it had an impact on all of India. Protesting the salt tax as an injustice to the people of India was an ingenious choice because every peasant and every aristocrat understood the necessity of salt in everyday life. It was also a good choice because it did not alienate Congress moderates while simultaneously being an issue of enough importance to mobilize a mass following.

On February 5, newspapers reported that Gandhi would begin civil disobedience by defying the salt laws.

The march

In an effort to have the salt tax amended without breaking the law, on March 2, 1930 Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin: "If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man's standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil."

The Viceroy failed to respond to this request. So, on March 12, 1930, Gandhi and approximately 78 male satyagrahis set out, on foot, for the coastal village of Dandi, Gujarat, some 240 miles from their starting point in Sabarmati. This 23 day walk passed through 4 districts and 48 villages, and met with extensive popular support on the route. Thousands of satyagrahis and leaders like Sarojini Naidu joined him during this march.

Upon arriving at the seashore on the 5th of April, in an interview with a reporter of the Associated Press, he stated:

“ God be thanked for what may be termed the happy ending of the first stage in this, for me at least, the final struggle of freedom. I cannot withhold my compliments from the government for the policy of complete non interference adopted by them throughout the march .... I wish I could believe this non-interference was due to any real change of heart or policy. The wanton disregard shown by them to popular feeling in the Legislative Assembly and their high-handed action leave no room for doubt that the policy of heartless exploitation of India is to be persisted in at any cost, and so the only interpretation I can put upon this non-interference is that the British Government, powerful though it is, is sensitive to world opinion which will not tolerate repression of extreme political agitation which civil disobedience undoubtedly is, so long as disobedience remains civil and therefore necessarily non-violent .... It remains to be seen whether the Government will tolerate as they have tolerated the march, the actual breach of the salt laws by countless people from tomorrow. I expect extensive popular response to the resolution of the Working Committee (of the Indian National Congress). ”

On the following morning, after a prayer, Gandhi raised a lump of mud and salt (some say just a pinch, some say just a grain) and declared, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." He then boiled it in seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally produce—salt. He implored his thousands of followers to begin to make salt wherever, along the seashore, "was most convenient and comfortable" to them.


The effects of the salt march were felt across India. Similar civil disobedience movements erupted throughout the nation. A non-violent "war" on the salt tax was to be continued during the National Week, that is, up to the thirteenth of April. There was also a simultaneous boycott of British made cloth/goods. Salt was sold, "illegally", all over the seacoast of India. Thousands of people made salt, or bought illegal salt. A pinch of salt made by Gandhi himself sold for 1,600 rupees, (equivalent to $750 dollars at the time). In reaction to this, the British government had incarcerated over sixty thousand people by the end of the month.

In Peshawar the satyagraha was led by a Muslim Pashto disciple of Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan. Ghaffar Khan had trained an army of non-violent activists, called Khudai Khitmatgar. On April 23, 1930, Ghaffar Khan was arrested. A crowd of Khudai Khitmatgar gathered in Peshawar's Kissa Khani [Storytellers] Bazaar. The British opened fire on the unarmed crowd and shot hundreds of Khudai Khitmatgar and other demonstrators. One British Indian Army regiment refused to fire at the crowds. According to some accounts, the crowd acted in accord with their training in non-violence. As people in the front fell, those behind came forward to expose themselves to the firing. The shooting continued from 11 AM until 5 PM.

On the night of May 4th, Gandhi was sleeping on a cot under a mango tree, at a village near Dandi. Soon after midnight the District Magistrate of Surat drove up with two Indian officers and thirty heavily-armed constables. He woke Gandhi by shining a torch in his face, and arrested him under a regulation of 1827.

As the march mobilized many new followers from all of Indian society, it came to the world's attention. After Gandhi's release from prison, he continued to work towards Indian independence, which was achieved in August, 1947. Dandi was a key turning point in that struggle.