The Salt March:
Gandhi's Legacy and India's Pride
April 5, 1930 would have been a day like any other day for the people of India, but it was the day the great Gandhi, called Mahatma, or "Great Soul," had set aside for his latest Satyagraha, or act of civil disobedience, the salt march. On that day, with thousands of loyal followers cheering at his back, Mohandas K. Gandhi bent down to the sea and lifted no more than a pinch of the precious commodity above his head in victory. He had advertently broken the British salt monopoly, and stood up to the centuries of exploitation under British rule. In the eyes of oppressed Indians all over the country, he was a hero. While Gandhi's salt march had been a huge step towards breaking down the British Raj, it was by no means the first. For centuries small riots and other means of rebellion had been flung on the British Viceroy's lap as Indians struggled for home rule. No previous attempt, however, had been able to achieve the amount of success and renown as Gandhi's march. To this day, March twelfth is celebrated as an Indian national holiday. Why? What is it about the Salt Satyagraha that so motivated the people to freedom? What's more, how on earth did a frail, old man like Gandhi organize and lead what is probably one of the greatest acts of mass civil disobedience ever known? The answers are all in the guilt. Literally. Gandhi knew that in order for the powerful British government to acknowledge the inferior pleas of their subjects, he would have to think big. The salt march could not have been more aptly conceived. Not only did it get Gandhi's point across to the conservatives, it kept the British moderates on his side as well. It even appeased the more radical Indians with the sheer massiveness of the Satyagraha. Thus, Mohandas Gandhi's renowned Salt Satyagraha breathed life and power into India's previously ignored independence movement.
In his lifetime, Gandhi, like many of his fellow Indians, had realized with horror that the British Raj was starving India from the inside out; gutting out what was most precious, like spices, cotton, and salt, and leaving the rest to rot. However, it had not always been this way. True enough, the vast land had been wrenched apart by war, geography, and prejudice. For almost a millennium, the Muslim princes had ruled the firmly Hindu India, often unjustly. In addition, an age-old caste system was in order. That is, a social order decided by mostly heredity, but also wealth, occupation, and religion. Gandhi was born of the merchant class. When the Europeans first came, they were in shock at the strange traditions of the Indian people, but eventually, they used India's inner conflicts to their advantage. Once the 1800s rolled around, and the Brits began to modernize India with new-fangled inventions like the railroad and electricity, making it far more modern and easier to cultivate, they began to take pride in this economical "jewel in their crown."1 When WWI struck with all its bloody velocity, the British used Indian supplies and cash to fight for their own homeland. After the war, poverty was more ubiquitous than ever, and an anti-British sentiment had been reborn among the people. Nevertheless, they obeyed, and they hoped that the good and just British Parliament would help and eventually free their loyal subjects. Even Gandhi, in his early years, had believed in British justice and modernization so much so that he left India to study to become a lawyer in England. But it was not to be. The British depended on India for money and raw materials. To free them now, after being so shamed by the loss of the other British territories, would have been a final, cringe-worthy blow to Imperial England. For the British, however, the oppressed were not going to tolerate their sickening foreign pride any longer. They had a great Mahatma now, the man Gandhi, who would set the righteous free.
But who was this man Gandhi; the man who would spend his life sparking the flints to burn down the Raj? Quite frankly stated, Mohandas K. Gandhi was a nobody. He was your everyday Joe-Shmoe with a used lawyer suit and a low-paying job that barely kept him and his family in league with the rest of the middle-class. After a life-changing trip to South Africa, Gandhi went through an odd but wondrous transformation. Instead of wearing the finely-sewn British garments, he made is own. Always a modest eater, Gandhi went full-out vegetarian. He took up an insatiable interest with local, then national, politics. Intrigued by the self-sacrifice of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, and the modest lifestyle chosen by American writer Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi set about re-arranging and re-constructing his priorities and beliefs. Gradually, he fathered the concept and the term of Satyagraha, which roughly translated from Sanskrit means "Truth," which Gandhi connected to love, and "Firmness." In actuality, the Satyagraha was an act of peaceful civil disobedience. The Satyagraha would be Gandhi's main mean of attaining his ultimate goal: the unification of a free India. During his trip to Africa, Gandhi saw great injustices with him that he carried throughout most of his life. It is said that these racial injustices inspired him to fight the injustices back home.2
First things first, to fight a great wrong, one must find a great force to do the fighting. Gandhi, however, believed only in the force of truth, not violence. He needed to find a way to make a point as if by great force, without the blood and struggle. So, Gandhi scanned his surroundings. Sure enough, he found the solution in the abominable salt tax. . Gandhi chose the salt tax for several reasons. The first of which was that he deeply understood the people's need for cheap salt. Used to preserve as well as flavor food, salt was a common staple in every Indian diet. It was a necessity of life that once came cheaply to the people who for thousands of years had only to take a quick stroll to the seashore and make their own salt as needed. Those days were gone. Under the Raj, a heavy tax had been levied on the precious preservative. All Indians of all classes could relate to this natural need. Neither caste nor religion would play a part here.3 Also, he saw the law as unfair because the people had no say in it. Indians in parliament were weak and in the minority, with little say in how India was run. Another, more subtle, reason was political. He knew that the salt monopoly was moderately neutral territory as far as the British were concerned. The British had more pressing matters at hand than a broken salt tax; post-war reconstruction for one thing, and world depression for another. Basically, while the salt tax was a huge issue to Indians, it was almost trifling to the British. The firmer conservatives in India and parliament may ardently protest such illegal activity, but Gandhi knew that a non-violent act of Satyagraha would not deeply ruffle the moderates while pleasing the radicals. This was a good thing. If he kept the moderates and radicals under his wing and in check, he would have the support of the majority in the palm of his hand. Mahatma Gandhi, however, was not looking for a big law to break, but rather, lots of support breaking a small law. He was aiming for magnitude. The more support he gained for his minor infringement, the more unsettled the British would become. It was a masterful strategy. As author John Keay so brilliantly wrote, "Massive civil disobedience was to be launched in the name of man's inalienable right to the untaxed enjoyment of a common condiment,"4 and he was right.
The march began on March 12, 1930 and lasted 24 days. Starting at his current residence in Sabarmati, the sixty-year-old legend and some of his most ardent supporters began to walk the 241 mile trail to the seaside village of Dandi with nothing but the clothes on their backs and bamboo staves. More than once, Gandhi had written to the Viceroy of India himself, warning about his plans to break the salt tax. It was no secret. Still, the Viceroy did nothing to try to interfere with the impending march. The people knew too. Gandhi had made sure of it. Their support was crucial to the success of the march. The turnout could not have been better. Slowly but surely, as the merry band traveled along, their numbers snowballed from approximately 78 people to a mass army numbering into the thousands. The march was a resounding success. Gandhi had found the support he needed, and those who had averted their eyes from the Indian cause could no longer look away as thousands of united Satyagrahis, followers of the Satyagraha beliefs, swarmed the beaches of Dandi.
The great 1930 march had many effects in both the short and long term. While in the long term, mostly good came from the march, in the short term, Gandhi himself was not all-together pleased with his latest Satyagraha. For one thing, police had raided the event when the parade reached Dandi. The rules of the Satyagraha, as perceived by Gandhi, are the complete and total encompassments of self-discipline and sacrifice. Violence is especially forbidden, yet when the police attacked, many of those who claimed to be perfectly loyal to Gandhi fought back with rocks, clubs and anything else they could find. Parts of the march became a bloody mess with loss of life on both sides. Yes, Gandhi had indeed figured that some of his people could die from police brutality, but he did not expect that they would retaliate as they did, and was greatly disturbed by it. He had hoped that the British newspapers, politicians and civilians would see the fiendish murders of innocent protestors and react with disgust, but because the protesters fought back, the effect was not as profound. Secretly, he had been relying on human guilt to help the march have the desired effect. If the British saw the results of their oppression in plain sight, maybe they would sympathize with India's freedom fighters; or perhaps, in this case, freedom non-fighters. Gandhi, like the other 60,000 people incarcerated by the end of April, was arrested by the British for participating in the Salt Satyagraha.5 By this point, nothing could stop Gandhi. From prison, he wrote many essays and letters preaching the triumphs of civil disobedience. Once out again, he continued his policies of peace and nonviolence right up till the very eve of India's liberation in 1947. A year later, the great Mahatma was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. As the purifying flames of his funeral pyre leapt up into the sky, the grieving crowd chanted, "'Mahatmaji amar ho gae,' meaning, 'Mahatmaji has become immortal!'"6 While some disloyal Satyagrahis did use violence against the police, many did not. The survivors, enlivened by the success of the march, began several other miniature boycotts on British goods such as cloth. Riots and protests peppered India's cities for months. The British now knew that the old, pacifist-eccentric really was a force to be reckoned with, and the Indian people now knew that the Raj was not impenetrable. The real legacy of the Salt March was not the few measly grains it produced, but the fiery verve it built like scaffolding around the scattered independence movement.
Even in this crazy day and age, Gandhi's simple, but powerful works are far from forgotten. The day of the Salt Satyagraha, as it is sometimes known, is now a national holiday in India during which many families and friends will get together with politicians and others and follow the 241-mile trail Mahatma Gandhi himself walked almost 76 years ago. Truly, Gandhi is still a national figure and his memorial has become a popular tourist site. In the years following his death, particularly during the tumultuous sixties, Gandhi would inspire countless peace activists protesting injustice and violence. Of the more noteworthy of these peaceful rebels were Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and South African President Nelson Mandela. Gandhi's body may be gone, but his spirit is still with us. In the hearts of Indians everywhere he is remembered as their hero and even their savior. His Satyagrahas, the Salt March especially, sparked a new fighting spirit into the previously obscure independence movement. His actions taught the world a profound lesson in ethics, love, and truth. And those are lessons we all need to hear.
1 Beck (791)
4 Keay (486)
6 Malaspina (111)