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The March that became a philosophy

On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi began his March to Dandi. Seventy-five years later we remember that the March was historic, but have lost ...

Written by Anil Dharker |
March 14, 2005

On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi began his March to Dandi. Seventy-five years later we remember that the March was historic, but have lost the rest of the plot, except that the March to Dandi was about salt. As it happens, it need not have happened at Dandi, it need not have been about salt and it need not have been a march.

The genesis of the event goes back to the appointment of the Simon Commission by the British government to look into the constitutional position of its Indian colony. Until its appointment in 1927, Indian nationalists were willing to accept Dominion Status for India, which meant that India would be a self-governing territory of the British Commonwealth. However, the composition of the Commission and the generally hard attitude of Westminster were seen not only as unsympathetic to Indian aspirations, but also as a form of inquisition by empire builders into the fitness of Indians for self-rule.

This led the younger elements in the Indian National Congress to reject Dominion Status and demand, instead, Purna Swaraj, Complete Independence. This was formalised at the Lahore Congress Session in the last days of 1929 under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, when January 26 was declared Purna Swaraj Day. A nation-wide programme of Civil Disobedience was to be launched and Gandhi was named, in the strange phrase used then without self-consciousness, ‘Dictator’ of the campaign.

Did Gandhi have a plan? His reply to Rabindranath Tagore was: ‘‘I am furiously thinking night and day. But I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.’’ For Gandhi, the problem stemmed from a reality everyone else shied away from. Which was, ‘‘It is a gross misrepresentation of the true situation to say that the masses are impatient to be led to Civil Disobedience…I see no such sign.’’ In spite of this gloom Gandhi knew that he had a core group ready and prepared for Satyagraha: the men and women living with him in Sabarmati Ashram. They had been hardened by a routine which was demanding in the extreme.

Gandhi knew that any action he planned had to be built around the inmates of Sabarmati Ashram, which is why he rejected all the ideas which were suggested: from Vallabhbhai Patel’s suggestion of a mass march to Delhi (too unwieldy, too difficult to control) or Nehru’s idea of a parallel government (too debating club), to mass burning of foreign cloth (too wasteful and not broad-based enough)…

Gandhi wanted a symbol which was universal, something the poorest peasant could understand and identify with. He therefore chose salt and the breaking of unjust British salt laws. Having decided that the Salt Tax would be the focus of the campaign, he wasn’t sure what form the campaign should take. ‘‘I had not the ghost of a suspicion how the breach of Salt Law would work itself out,’’ Gandhi said. ‘‘But like a flash it came.’’ The flash said the campaign should be in the form of a march.

Gandhi’s preference for a march can be traced to his South African days when he led a group of Indians who were indentured labourers in a march across the Transvaal border to protest against a whole clutch of highly discriminatory laws. Then again, a march, in Gandhi’s mind, would be linked to the idea of a pilgrimage: Kedarnath, Badrinath, Haji Malang, Vaishno Devi, Ambaji…and Dandi.

Dandi fits in here, not because of any association with a holy site but because it was a remote, sea-side village, and getting there from Sabarmati would be a hard trek taking 26 days. Pilgrimages are always tough tests of physical endurance and will-power, in their hardship an examination of the worshipper’s resolve.

Other people had suggested other sea-side towns but Gandhi rejected them because they were too near. To Gandhi the length of the march was important for several reasons: it would be taxing in the extreme, and that would bring about a wave of sympathy and support through the country. The longer period would also help in the build-up of publicity.

When the March did begin, 10,000 people had assembled at Sabarmati to give a send-off, and the number grew enormously at some points of the route: Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad was so full of spectators that the marchers had to walk on the river bed (the river was dry). The March followed a set pattern: there would be vigorous walking from one halt to the next starting early morning, then a halt for lunch, an evening speech by Gandhi attended by a huge crowd, then sleep under a tent or shamiana. In keeping with Gandhi’s dictates, the food supplied at each village was extremely frugal (Morning before departure: rab and dhebra; Mid-day halt: bhakri, vegetable, buttermilk; Evening before March is resumed: Roasted gram, rice; Night: Khichdi with vegetable and milk or butter-milk). ‘‘Sweets,’’ Gandhi had said, ‘‘even if prepared, will be declined. Vegetables should be merely boiled and no oil, spices and chillies, whether green or dry, whole or crushed should be used…The Satyagrahi party is expected to reach each place by 8 am and to sit for lunch at 10 am. No rooms are needed for rest at noon or night. A clean, shaded place is enough.’’

Something else which was also to become a regular feature of the Long March was even more remarkable. Gandhi was leading a group of young men, most of them in their early 20s. He was 60. He wasn’t in the best of health. He was frail and weighed a mere 45 kg. Yet he walked at the head of the column, leading at such a brisk pace that the youngsters found it difficult to keep up. Gandhi asked for no concessions and he carried his bags like everyone else. In addition, he carried on a daily programme of correspondence, spinning his charkha, giving interviews to the media, and a speech at every stop.

When the March finally ended after 25 days and 385 km, through 40 villages and towns, there was a massive change in the mood of the nation. On the 26th day, when Gandhi broke the prohibition against producing salt by picking up a handful from the Dandi shore, his example was followed throughout the country. It was then estimated that five million people had gathered together at 5,000 meetings to defy the British.

By capturing the public imagination, the Dandi Salt March had taken a very large step in changing the freedom movement from one which involved a Westernised middle-class to one which involved the masses. It did so by the magic of Gandhi’s salt symbolism and also by showing the rural poor that it was possible even for them to defy the might of the Empire. In this Gandhi was particular about inclusion, whether it was of untouchables or women (many of them in purdah). He refused, for example, to address a meeting which had excluded Dalits till they were allowed to be part of the audience. As for women, they joined in the field of direct action for the first time, and did it with such enthusiasm and in such growing numbers that even Gandhi was overwhelmed.

The Dandi March also achieved the important objective of influencing world opinion. Until then, the Western world had seen India’s aspirations to freedom through the bias of the British press in England and the bias of the British press in India. The American media was sneering too, and when the march began, American journalists had come in large numbers to jeer. A whole lot of them stayed on to cheer and alter American opinion, especially about Satyagraha. Satyagraha, until then seen as a theoretical construct of Gandhi’s writings, began to be seen as a philosophy which could actually change the world. It isn’t too large a claim to make but the March to Dandi planted the seeds of August 15, 1947, and later for what Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela achieved. And what future generations still might achieve all over the world.

Anil Dharker’s book The Romance of Salt, to be published next week, has a large section on the Dandi March

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