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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Read authoritative books written about the March to Dandi and the Salt Satyagraha. The books are in English and Indian vernacular languages.

On the Salt March-Thomas WeberThe Historiography of Gandhi's March to Dandi
"For those of us who have awaited Weber’s Study for 15 years and also followed his excellent articles on the march in Gandhi Marg, this book is certainly worth the wait. The way that he weaves his own experience so deftly into the central narrative gives the event remarkable immediately.
He has combined scholarly persistence with hard manual labor( in the best Gandhian tradition) andwe must remain
deeply indebted to him for the enormous efforts that he gave to this enterprise.
Weber has made a lasting contribution to our understanding (of messages of satyagraha) not only through study and reconstruction of this historical moment, but reliving it himself and then sharing with us the singular fruits of his labors."
Dennis DaltonBarnard College, Columbia University

Map in "On the Salt March"

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dandi : Salt March

Early in 1930, Gandhi, Nehru, and the Congress were to make a call for purna swaraj, or complete independence from British rule in India. Coming out of what might be termed a political retirement, Gandhi searched his mind for some action that might ignite the nation and serve as the expression of the will of the general community. The course of action that Gandhi decided to undertake is revealed by a remarkable letter that he addressed to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, a letter most unusual in the annals of political discourse. "Dear Friend", he wrote to his political adversary on March 2, "I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less fellow human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India." In a rather detailed analysis, Gandhi was to note the vast inequities in the salaries paid to Indians and to British officials: where the average Indian earned less than 2 annas per day, the British Prime Minister earned Rs. 180 per day, while the Viceroy received Rs. 700 per day; more tellingly, the Prime Minister of Britain received 90 times more than the average Britisher, but the Viceroy received "much over five thousand times India's average income." While not desirous of humiliating the Viceroy, Gandhi apologized for taking a "personal illustration to drive home a painful truth", and asked him "on bended knee" to "ponder over this phenomenon." The system of administration carried out in India was "demonstrably the most expensive in the world", and it had only further impoverished the nation.

If the British were not prepared to combat the various "evils" afflicting India under colonial rule, Gandhi was prepared to commence a fresh campaign of "civil disobedience". As he went on to inform Irwin, he intended to break the salt laws, a gesture that no doubt must have struck Irwin as bizarre. The British exercised a monopoly on the production and sale of salt: yet this was an essential ingredient, required by the poor as much as by the rich. "I regard this tax [on salt]", Gandhi wrote, "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 thebeginning will be made with this evil." Since Gandhi intended no harm to the Viceroy himself, or indeed to any Englishman, he chose to have his letter delivered in person by a "young English friend who believes in the Indian cause and is a full believer in non-violence". The Viceroy, not unexpectedly, promptly wrote back to express his regret that Gandhi was again "contemplating a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace."

"On bended knees I asked for bread and I have received stone instead", Gandhi remarked, and making good his promise, he set out on March 12 with seventy-eight of his followers and disciples from Sabarmati Ashram on the 241-mile march to Dandi on the sea. All along the way, he addressed large crowds, and with each passing day an increasing number of people joined Gandhi on the march. It is said that the roads were watered, and fresh flowers and green leaves strewn on the path; and as the satyagrahis walked, they did so to the tune of one of Gandhi's favorite bhajans, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, sung by the great Hindustani vocalist, Pandit Paluskar. On April 5, Gandhi arrived at Dandi: short prayers were offered, Gandhi addressed the crowd, and at 8:30 AM he picked up a small lump of natural salt. Gandhi had now broken the law; Sarojini Naidu, his close friend and associate, shouted: "Hail, Deliverer!" No sooner had Gandhi violated the law than everywhere others followed suit: within one week the jails were full, and subsequently Gandhi himself was to be taken into jail.

It has been suggested by some historians that nothing substantial was achieved by Gandhi through this campaign of civil disobedience. Gandhi and Irwin signed a truce, and the British Government agreed to call a conference in London to negotiate India's demands for independence. Gandhi was sent by the Congress as its sole representative, but the negotiations proved to be inconclusive, particularly since various other Indian communities had been encouraged by the British to send a representative and make the claim that they were not prepared to live in an India under the domination of the Congress. Yet never before had the British consented to negotiate directly with the Congress, and Gandhi met Irwin as his equal. In this respect, the man who most loathed Gandhi, Winston Churchill, understood the extent of Gandhi's achievement when he declared it "alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor." Likewise, even Nehru was to come to a better appreciation of Gandhi following his march to the sea, since many Indians now appeared to understand that the nation had unshackled itself and achieved a symbolic emancipation. "Staff in hand he goes along the dusty roads of Gujarat", Nehru had written of Gandhi, "clear-eyed and firm of step, with his faithful band trudging along behind him. Many a journey he has undertaken in the past, many a weary road traversed. But longer than any that have gone before is this last journey of his, and many are the obstacles in his way. But the fire of a great resolve is in him and surpassing love of his miserable countrymen. And love of truth that scorches and love of freedom that inspires. And none that passed him can escape the spell, and men of common clay feel the spark of live. It is a long journey, for the goal is the independence of India and the ending of the exploitation of her millions."

T he picture of Gandhi, firm of step and walking staff in hand, was to be among the most enduring of the images of him, and it is through this representation that the Bengali artist Nandlal Bose sought to immortalize Gandhi. Yet in innumerable other respects, many of which have received little attention (and of which I shall mention only four), the march to the sea remains an extraordinary event. First, no one knew the meaning and potential of symbols as much as did Gandhi, but his ability to read and manipulate signs has not been the subject of any systematic study. Second, unlike most 'revolutionaries', Gandhi thought it no part of his quest for truth to retain secrecy: accordingly, the Government was informed of his precise plans and invited to arrest him. Again, though women were full and active members of Gandhi's community, and many were to be closely associated with him over a lengthy period of time, no women were present among the 78 people chosen to accompany him on the march. Gandhi took the view that the presence of women might deter the British from attacking the satyagrahis, and that no such excuse should be available to the British if they should wish to retaliate. Behind this lay Gandhi's distinction between non-violence of the strong and non-violence of the weak; curiously, Gandhi's thinking was also informed by a certain sense of chivalry, such that any triumph of non-violence was diminished if the playing field was not level. Fourth, the walk brought the body into the body politic, and so belonged with Gandhi's other practices of the body.