Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why the Dandi march is a big deal

If you walk into Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road, you'll see this striking illustration by Nandlal Bose - it is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, at the 1930 Salt March in Gujarat.

"Here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth - quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Why was the Salt March a "quest of truth"? And why did Gandhi decide to do it?

In 1780, the British Governor-General Warren Hastings brought salt manufacture and taxation under total government monopoly. By the 1800's salt had become a major source of revenue for the East India Company. Prices of salt were so high that the common man could no longer afford it. In fact, in 1836, at a Parliamentary Select Committee, Dr. John Crawfurd of the Bengal Medical Service gave the following evidence: "I estimate that the cost of salt for a family in Bengal as being equal to about two months’ wages, i.e., 1/6th of the whole annual earnings."

The Salt Tax seemed morally unjustifiable to Gandhi - here was a widely manufactured essential commodity that had been summarily appropriated by the Government. The objective was clearly the spreading of the widest possible dragnet for tax collection, with no concern for the hardship it imposed.

Already, a prosperous rural economy had been destroyed by ruthless land revenue and forest management acts. The British had seized and converted local farmland to foreign-owned plantations, restricted internal trade, destroyed the livelihood of nomads, taxed Indians heavily to support unsuccessful expeditions in Afghanistan, and set in motion inflationary measures that increased the price of food. (To get some perspective into this, just look at this statistic: Between the period 1875 to 1902, 26 million Indians died of famine).

Not surprisingly, Gandhi called the Salt Tax "the most inhuman tax the ingenuity of man can devise". He first protested against it in 1891, in an article in 'The Vegetarian'. In 1930, as part of his Civil Disobedience Movemenet, he decided to organise a mass protest against the tax.

The protest took the form of a long walk, through Gujarat, from Sabarmati to Dandi on the coast.

The Salt March: 241 miles in 24 days

The walk went through many villages in Gujarat, and grew in size and number as it moved on. Gandhi halted at several locations and delivered speeches. In the three-week period, it got widespread international and national press coverage. On the morning of April 6, Gandhi and his followers made their way to the seaside at Dandi, where after a ritual bath in the sea, he picked up a handful of muddy salt.

But was the Salt March a success? Did Gandhi's defiance of the law have any effect?

Immediately after Gandhi broke the salt laws, what began as a Salt March quickly changed into a nationwide movement. Mass civil disobedience spread throughout India as millions broke the salt laws by making salt or buying illegal salt. Salt was sold illegally all over the coast of India. A pinch of salt made by Gandhi himself sold for 1,600 rupees (equivalent to $750 dollars at the time). In reaction, the British government jailed over sixty thousand people by the end of the month. Gandhi was jailed for a year. However, the salt laws were not repealed in the Gandhi-Irwin pact of 1931, and freedom came to India only 17 years later.

All the same, in my eyes, the Salt March was a resounding success.

In the first place, it was the beginning of the common man's participation in a mass nation-wide struggle. "People of common clay felt the spark of life." said Jawaharlal Nehru, describing the phenomenon. Secondly, it was the first time Indian women played an active role in the freedom struggle. A government report at the time stated that "thousands of women emerged....from the seclusion of their order to join Congress demonstrations and assist in picketing: and their presence on these occasions made the work the police was required to perform particularly unpleasant."

The Salt March also brought for Gandhi, immense media attention from the West. In 1930, Gandhi became the Time magazine's Man of the Year. And much to Churchill's annoyance, the Government had to parley on equal terms with the leader of a subject nation.

While these things were important successes of the Salt March, to Gandhi the march was always about doing what was morally right. "I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might", he wrote from Dandi, in his endearing scrawl. You can see a copy of this letter at Mani Bhavan.

If you're planning to visit Mani Bhavan, then read the little paragraph below before you go. It is Rabindranath Tagore's description of Gandhi the Mahatma (Great Soul). The magic of Gandhi comes alive in Tagore's words.

He stopped at the th
reshold of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not just quotations from books. For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name. Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood?

At Gandhi’s call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once before, in earlier times, when the Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow-feeling and compassion among all living creatures


bhavna2716 said...

Hey.... nice t c Mumbai with a difference lence.. I m a Tv journalist would love to do a profile on u plz.. mail me ur contect details at My Email Id:
Thanks & Regards
Bhavna Chouhan

bhavna2716 said...

Hey.... nice t c Mumbai with a difference lence.. I m a Tv journalist would love to do a profile on u plz.. mail me ur contect details at My Email Id:
Thanks & Regards
Bhavna Chouhan

Unknown said...

Really nice one. I knew it was significant, but I guess I didnt pay too much attention to my history books, cause I didnt know the salt tax was so harsh.

I still get goosebumps watching the Dandi march scene in the movie Gandhi. He walks backs slow, looks at the people, turns around, and the camera moves at speed as the march begins with awesome speed and purpose. The shot where he meets Sarojini Naidu, taken from the top is beyond awesome. The two streams of people meet. So many people for a movie shot - no longer true anymore, its all computer animated now.