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Remembering Dandi

The Dandi Salt March was both a political and an economic statement. To discern its true meaning, a historical record is more helpful, says VENU MADHAV GOVINDU, in the context of its planned reenactment from March 12 to April 6.


The Mahatma never failed to admonish his tired marchers to live austerely and endure hardship.

IN 1988 a youthful Rajiv Gandhi tried to re-enact a pivotal moment of our Freedom Movement — Gandhi's famous march from Sabarmati to Dandi. Last August in a speech to the AICC, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reminded his audience that "Gandhiji showed us the power of symbols associated with the common man, aam admi" and exhorted Congress workers to "reconnect with the common people of our country and relate to their needs and aspirations". And this year on its 75th anniversary the Congress is organising a rerun of the Salt March from March 12 to April 6. Political homilies notwithstanding, the Congress must surely be aware that the Salt March was both a political and an economic statement. Salt-making was both a metaphor for India's rejection of colonial rule and a reaffirmation that India's salvation lay in economic regeneration of its villages and the self-reliance of its people. As a proponent of economic globalisation and neo-liberal policies, surely today's Congress cannot stake claim to the Mahatma's legacy. Its policies are nothing but a repudiation of what Gandhi and his comrades stood for.

The best accounts

To discern the true meaning of the Salt March, the historical record is more helpful. Foreigners provide some of the best accounts of this high-water mark of India's freedom struggle. In 1930, newspapermen like Webb Miller and William Shirer (of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich fame) did much to take India's fight against colonial rule to the wider world. And a foreigner also offers the most authentic retelling of the march. Thomas Weber, an Australian, has spent years researching the life of Gandhi and its meaning. In 1983, Weber walked the entire length of the Salt March without fanfare. Having also diligently researched the march itself, years later, Weber turned his painstaking work into the most authoritative book on Gandhi's journey to Dandi. If you'd pardon the un-Gandhian metaphor, On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi's March to Dandi published in 1997 is like fine wine that has matured over the years. By splicing a narrative of the daily events of the March with his own travelogue, Weber provides us with a wholesome and immensely thought-provoking read.

Running the gauntlet

As Weber points, out the march to Dandi was no picnic. In fact many surmised that the marchers would be shot dead. The march would also have its share of problems as it ran the gauntlet, not of British power, but that of very Indian problems that still persist today — caste and class, the Hindu-Muslim divide and orthodoxies of rural life. But in his speeches in villages enroute, Gandhi always converted these hurdles into opportunities. And he never failed to admonish his tired marchers to live austerely and endure all hardship. They were India's foot soldiers and their life was to be compatible with India's stark poverty.

Its protagonists themselves provide a true measure of the motivations for the march and its impact. Throughout his public life, Gandhi had used journalism as an instrument for propagating ideas and engaging in public discourse. During the Salt March, his weekly Young India was naturally the journal of record. What follows here is derived from the issues of Young India during 1930-31 which provide an insightful window into the making of history itself. As the weeks pass by, the pace gathers and the pulse quickens. And the relentless crush of events is reflected in the changing nature of the weekly reports.

The civil disobedience campaign was very contentious and many anxiously wrote to Gandhi on his "many inconsistencies". In reply he quoted Emerson — "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". The die was cast and a confrontation was inevitable. Gandhi being in no doubt of the outcome addressed his readers on what to do "When I am Arrested". The first salvo was fired in the January 30 issue where Gandhi makes a "childish" offer to Viceroy Irwin and desires reform on 11 points. Amidst issues like "Reduction of the land revenue" and "Abolition of the C.I.D. or its popular control" is a bland demand, "Abolition of the salt tax".

The salt tax

The salt tax was no trifling matter. As many essayists sought to demonstrate, a tax of about 1,000 per cent on the cost was "the worst blot on our revenue system". Although difficult to imagine now, we should bear in mind that in 1930, Indians were forced to spend a considerable fraction of their income on salt. People could not manufacture their own salt and most of it was imported. An astonishing five per cent of national tax revenue was from salt! Helpful readers also provided Gandhi with much material including "History of Salt Manufacture", the relationship between "Salt and Cancer" and more practically "Penal Sections of the Salt Act".

In early March, Gandhi wrote a letter to his "dear friend" Irwin but thought that it was "advisable to wait for an acknowledgment from Delhi before publishing the letter". The most important March 12 issue was published a day earlier and carried a detailed list of the first batch of 79 satyagrahis. However all was not well amongst Indians and Gandhi sought to squelch the charge that his was "a movement not for Swaraj but Hindu Raj and against Musalamans". The March 12 issue also featured Gandhi's letter to Irwin which was eagerly awaited by many readers who were reminded that this was "No threat but a Sacred Duty". In his letter, Gandhi was also anxious to clarify that while "I hold British rule to be a curse, I do not intend to harm a single Englishman".

The redoutable Sardar Patel, a key planner of the march, had been arrested and Mahadev Desai provided an account of "How Sardar was Imprisoned". The dour-faced Sardar had "a loud laugh which filled the air" and was a ready wit to boot. "Follow me," he said, "I am keeping room ready for you." On April 6, the Salt Law was broken at Dandi but opinion remained divided. Many English friends of Gandhi were anxious of the outcome and the sagely dissenter C. Rajagopalachar warned of "The Risks of Civil Disobedience". And in case you still wondered "How to Manufacture Salt" , Mahadevlal Shroff and K.G. Mashruvala provided a handy recipe. The April 17 issue inaugurated a column that reflected the darkening mood. "Weekly War News" provided a roll call of arrests from different provinces with a sickening regularity. Gandhi was himself arrested in a midnight swoop in early May and soon the burden of editing Young India fell on Joseph C. Kumarappa who later went on to become the greatest exponent on applying Gandhian values to economics.

Kumarappa was an Indian Christian satyagrahi, a relative rarity, and he pronounced a devastating indictment of his co-religionists for siding with the British.

By now repression was rampant and had reached a peak with the brutal beating of unarmed, peaceful volunteers at Dharasana. But fidelity to truth had struck deep roots. Earlier an unnamed assistant editor had emphasised "the need for publishing absolutely accurate and authentic information". And now Kumarappa warned his correspondents that without their signature on letters, he could not publish news "for lack of proper authentication". The Gandhian restraint was very much evident. However some, like a letter-writer in the June 26 issue, were still not "convinced that there is the true spirit of love amongst Gandhiji's followers" and while professing belief "in the practicability of Christ's teaching of non-resistance of evil" questioned if there wasn't "the ulterior motive of gaining power over one's enemy". Such doubters however seemed sanguine of the purity of the British motive in India. By July the Government seized the press and from July 10, 1930 to March 5, 1931, Young India appeared on every Thursday in cyclostyle form. Despite the martial law and chaotic situation, not a single issue was missed and on his release from prison Gandhi himself confessed that he did "not yet know how over 7,000 copies are being issued with such regularity".

The immediate objective

Like many of Gandhi's campaigns, the Salt March failed in its immediate objective. The salt tax was not to be repealed until Gandhi reminded his colleagues of it in 1947. But it drew thousands of ordinary people, including many women for the first time, into the national struggle. And by adhering to a creed of ahimsa, Indians had exposed the immorality and brutality of British rule in India. The demise of the Empire was still distant but was now inevitable. Based on a bedrock of satya and immense sacrifice by ordinary people, a new form of political mobilisation was invented and bequeathed to the world.

Freedom was won in 1947 but millions are still struggling for survival. And if the aam admi still matters, is it too much to expect to see it reflected in Parliament and the working of our Government? And while on the subject of truth, wouldn't it be a wonderful commemoration of the Salt March if the Government of India were to reinstate the original, unexpurgated edition of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi?

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