Updated: March 14, 2021 8:07:11 am
On the 91st anniversary of the historic salt march led by Mahatma Gandhi from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off a symbolic 386-kilometre ‘Dandi march’, following the same route on Friday. The PM also launched Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav to celebrate 75 years of India’s Independence.
The 24-day march from March 12 to April 5, 1930 was a tax resistance campaign against the British salt monopoly. Based on Gandhi’s principle of non-violence or Satyagraha, the march marked the inauguration of the civil disobedience movement. The Dandi march was easily the most significant organised movement against the British Raj after the non-cooperation movement of the early 1920s. In all the attention that it drove from the national and international media and world leaders, it was truly a turning point in the Indian Independence movement.
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Why did Gandhi call for the Dandi March?
The 1882 Salt Act gave the British a monopoly in the manufacture and sale of salt. Even though salt was freely available on the coasts of India, Indians were forced to buy it from the colonisers. Gandhi decided that if there was any one product through which the civil disobedience could be inaugurated, then it was salt. “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life,” he said, explaining his choice, even though many in the working committee of the Congress were not too sure about it. The British government, including the Viceroy Lord Irwin too did not take the prospect of a campaign against the salt tax too seriously.
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Addressing a massive gathering in Ahmedabad on March 8, Gandhi declared his decision to break the salt laws. “That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom,” he said as quoted in historian Ramachandra Guha’s book, ‘Gandhi: The years that changed the world (1914-1948)’. Guha wrote, “Gandhi wanted this to be a long march, or pilgrimage perhaps, where his leisurely progress would enthuse people along the way and attract wider publicity too.” Finally, he decided on Dandi to be the point at which the salt law would be broken.
What happened during the march?
There was great excitement in Ahmedabad on the eve of the march. A large crowd gathered around Sabarmati ashram and stayed through the night. Gandhi wrote to Nehru that night, informing him about rumours of his arrest. That did not happen though and Gandhi woke up a free man the following day.
He gathered his walking mates, a group of 78 men, who were bona fide ashramites. These included Manilal Gandhi from South Africa and several others from all across India. “There were thirty-one marchers from Gujarat, thirteen from Maharashtra, lesser numbers from the United Provinces, Kerala, Punjab and Sindh, with Tamilnad, Andhra, Karnataka, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa sending one man apiece. The diversity was social as well as geographical, for among the chosen marchers were many students and khadi workers, several ‘untouchables’, a few Muslims and one Christian,” wrote Guha. Even though women too wanted to be part of the march, Gandhi preferred to keep it restricted to men alone.
They started out at 6:30 AM, amidst a large group cheering them along with flowers, greetings and rupee notes. On their way they stopped at a number of villages, where Gandhi addressed large crowds with fiery speeches on the need to boycott the salt tax.
Newspapers of the day reported on how at every stop Gandhi was greeted by enthusiastic followers. “Indescribable scenes of enthusiasm marked the progress of the march of the Swaraj Army on this fourth day. . . . The rich and the poor, millionaires and mazurs [workers], ‘caste’ Hindus and so-called untouchables, one and all, vied with one another in honouring India’s great liberator,” noted a report in the Bombay Chronicle. Other newspapers, particularly the international ones like the Time magazine and The Daily Telegraph, though provided a much bleaker picture of the march.
Gandhi reached Dandi on April 5. The following day, early morning he proceeded along with the other marchers to the sea, where he picked up lumps of natural salt lying in a small pit. The act was symbolic, but was hugely covered by the press, and was the beginning of several other acts of civil disobedience in other parts of India.
“With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire,” said Gandhi while picking up the salt in his hand. “Now that the technical or ceremonial breach of the Salt Law has been committed it is open to any one who would take the risk of prosecution under the Salt Law to manufacture salt wherever he wishes and wherever it is convenient. My advice is that the workers should everywhere manufacture salt to make use of it and to instruct the villagers to do so,” he told a representative of the Free Press.
What was the significance of the Dandi march?
The popularity gained by the march shook up the British government. It responded by arresting more than 95,000 people by March 31. The following month Gandhi proceeded to Dharasana salt works from where he was arrested and taken to the Yerawada Central Jail.
As Gandhi broke the salt laws in Dandi, similar acts of civil disobedience took place in other parts of India. In Bengal, for instance, volunteers led by Satish Chandra Dasgupta walked from Sodepur Ashram to the village of Mahisbathan to make salt. K.F Nariman in Bombay led another group of marchers to Haji Ali Point where they prepared salt at a nearby park.
The illegal manufacture and sale of salt was accompanied by the boycott of foreign cloth and liquor. What started as salt satyagraha soon grew into mass satyagraha. Forest laws were flouted in Maharashtra, Karnataka and the Central Provinces. Peasants in Gujarat and Bengal refused to pay land and chowkidari taxes. Acts of violence too broke out in Calcutta, Karachi and Gujarat, but unlike what happened during the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi refused to suspend the civil disobedience movement this time.
The Congress Working Committee decided to end the Satyagraha only in 1934. Even though it did not immediately lead to self rule or dominion status, the Salt Satyagraha did have some long term effects. “Indian, British and world opinion increasingly recognised the legitimate claims of Gandhi and the Congress for Indian Independence,” wrote Richard L. Johnson who authored the book, ‘Gandhi’s experiments with truth: Essential writings by and about Mahatma Gandhi’. Moreover, the British also realised that control over India now depended completely on the consent of the Indias.
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