On occasion of the 89th anniversary of the iconic Dandi March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi published a blog on Tuesday titled ‘When a handful of salt shook an empire’ paying tributes to the contributions made by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to the movement.
“The organisational man that he was, Sardar Patel planned every minute aspect of the Dandi March, down to the last detail. And the British were so scared of Sardar Sahib that they arrested him a few days before the launch of Dandi March hoping it would scare Gandhi Ji,” wrote Modi in his personal blog. He also slammed the ‘Congress culture’ and accused it of being ‘the antithesis of Gandhian thought’.
Sardar Patel did indeed play a very significant role in mobilising people for the Dandi march. However, when Gandhi proposed the idea of a salt march, the working committee of the Congress was not convinced of the impact it would have. In a 2010 column published in the Hindu, historian and Gandhi’s grandson Gopal Krishna Gandhi noted that Patel had, in fact, preferred a land revenue boycott over the salt march.
However, once the decision was taken, Patel threw his entire weight behind it and gave the movement its initial momentum. Journalist Balraj Krishna, who has written several books on Patel, compared the Sardar’s role in the Dandi march to that of John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus. “Patel was John-like: strong-bodied, and a forerunner of Gandhi in the Dandi march, who ‘baptised’ people on the road the master was to follow to Dandi,” Krishna wrote in ‘India’s Bismarck, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’.
It is believed Patel chose Dandi, and even planned the route Gandhi would take. “While yet Gandhi was making preparations, Vallabhbhai went before his master to prime up the villagers of the coming ordeals,” Pattabhi Sitaramayya wrote in his book, ‘The History of the Indian National Congress’.
As Patel went about mobilising people for the march, the district administration of Surat realised it was necessary to get him out of the way. Consequently, on March 7, five days before the march was scheduled, Patel was arrested at village Raas. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment and lodged at Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad.
The news of Patel’s arrest shook the entire population of Gujarat who rose up in protest against the government. Krishna notes that businessmen downed their shutters in protest, and municipality offices were closed.
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi along with 80 satyagrahis started out from Sabarmati Ashram and marched over 390 km to reach the coastal village of Dandi. The march, a protest against the coercive salt tax imposed by the British, was the most significant organised challenge to British authority after the Non-Cooperation Movement of the early 1920s.
The march sparked a series of acts of civil disobedience across India against the salt laws. In a 1997 paper titled ‘Civil Disobedience 1930–31’, historian Irfan Habib noted that what began as a salt Satyagraha quickly turned into a mass Satyagraha. Over 60,000 people were arrested across the country. Soon after, the Congress planned a Satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt Works, 25 miles south of Dandi. However, the plan was shelved after Gandhi was arrested days before the beginning of the movement.