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MOMENTS IN HISTORY

Marathon march

The Vedaranyam Salt March led by Rajaji in April 1930, though less known, is comparable to Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March. On the 75th Anniversary of the Salt March, LA. SU. RENGARAJAN looks back.


SEVENTY-FIVE years ago in Tamil Nadu, C. Rajagopalachariar (Rajaji) led 100 chosen Congress volunteers to walk 150 miles in 15 days from Tiruchirapalli to Vedaranyam, then in Thanjavur District, to make salt at the seashore and defy British Government's prohibition of its manufacture without licence.

Known as the Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha, it was a landmark event in the annals of freedom movement in South India. The peace brigade braved all the hazards of Government's repressive measures — lathi blows, prohibitory orders, arrests and imprisonment.

Dandi March

On April 6, 1930, a week before this, Mahatma Gandhi, leading a chosen posse of 78 co-workers, had ended his 241-mile walk from Sabarmati in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the seashore to defy the salt law. The act performed, Gandhiji withdrew from the scene and camped at a village near Dandi. Picking a handful of salt by the Mahatma was a symbol of defiance of foreign rule. It signalled a non-violent insurrection. All over India's long coasts, Congress workers and villagers rushed to the beach to make salt. Picketing of liquor shops and foreign cloth outlets by women became the order of those days. The police resorted to lathi-charge and massive arrests. Gandhiji himself was arrested a month later, on May 5, 1930. But it was only in Tamil Nadu that a march comparable to Gandhiji's Dandi March was organised and executed with success under Rajaji. The Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha is perhaps less known outside Tamil Nadu. Nonetheless, the non-violent orchestration of the March to Vedaranyam in 15 days evoked spontaneous response from the people en-route and kindled national spirit all over the then Madras Province.

The Vedaranyam salt satyagraha was well planned in advance. For three weeks before the march, Rajaji undertook a quick tour of Tamil districts, apprising the people on the implication of the forthcoming salt satyagraha. Applicants for the proposed March were meticulously screened and only those with avowed adherence in non-violence and discipline were considered.

At 5.00 a.m. on April 13, 1930, the satyagrahis marched out of the spacious lawns of T.S.S. Rajan's bungalow in Tiruchi cantonment area, Rajaji leading the procession.

C.R. had not walked long when he was shown the morning's paper carrying Thorne's (J.A. Thorne, I.C.S., District Collector) order against "harbouring" the unlawful satyagrahis. Without pausing or slowing down, C.R. dictated a fresh answer to the accompanying press reporters. He knew, he said, his people and their tradition of hospitality better than a British Officer did. The order, he predicted, would enlarge the public welcome. With a twinkle he added, "Thorns and thistles cannot stem this tide of freedom" (thus, punning upon the District Collector Thorne's name!).

People's welcome

G. Ramachandran, who participated in the March, gives the following account: "Rajaji's trust in the people was more than justified by events. They rose everywhere to receive the satyagrahis and shower hospitality on them, unmindful of legal action against them. At Vedaranyam, there was a mighty crowd, and scores of garlands and public addresses awaited him."

After wending their way through towns and villages on the 150-mile long route in 15 days, the marchers reached Vedaranyam on the evening of April 28, 1930. Fearing arrest and imprisonment for harbouring satyagrahis, the local landlords refused to accommodate the marchers in the traveller's inns under their control. At that critical hour, it was Vedarathnam Pillai, a 33-year old Congressman belonging to a local business family, who made arrangements for their stay and food, defying the ban. Hurriedly destroying vast stretches of tobacco plantation owned by him, Vedarathnam Pillai erected a huge pandal with thatched sheds. Much later, he was arrested and saltpans owned by him were confiscated.

Along with Rajaji, about 120 satyagrahis stayed in this makeshift camp, which was named Satyagraha Ashram. A group of seven persons who had specially come from Rangoon to participation in the Satyagraha joined the volunteers.

As announced earlier, the first batch of 10 satyagrahis led by Rajaji was to pick up salt on April 30, 1930. But, the time and spot was not made public with a view to hoodwink the police from preventing the event. At 3.30 a.m. that day, Rajaji and his 10-member group were stealthily led in darkness through a short-cut to reach the salt marsh at Agastiampatti, two miles away from Vedaranyam. When Rajaji and others collected salt, it was already 6.00 a.m. A posse of policemen headed by a superintendent of police reached the spot and arrested Rajaji alone. In the afternoon, he was produced before the local magistrate and was sentenced to six months simple imprisonment with a fine of Rs. 200, or another three months in jail. Rajaji preferred additional three months. He was whisked away to Tiruchirapalli by train.

Continuing struggle

Public meetings and assembly of five or more person were banned in Vedaranyam. On subsequent days, K. Santhanam, Mattaparai Venkatarama Iyer, K.S. Subramaniam and G. Ramachandran were successively appointed as dictators (sarvadhikaris). All of them were promptly arrested and sentenced to six-month imprisonment.

The remaining satyagrahis, joined by others, continued their non-violent struggle for a whole month, till the end of May 1930. In the last days of the struggle, police rode roughshod over the satyagrahis who refused to part with the contraband salt. The volunteers were bodily removed from the Ashram and thrown out. Madurai A. Vaidyanatha Iyer and Dr. Rukhmini Lakshmipathy who came to the Satyagraha camp were roughed up and dragged out. N.S. Varadachari and A. Vaidyanatha Iyer were among those who were beaten up.

More and more Congress workers from different districts joined the fray. On the last day, police raided the Satyagraha Ashram and arrested all the 300 leaderless satyagrahis en masse and razed the pandal. All of them were later sentenced to one-year rigorous imprisonment.

Rajaji emerged from the Vedaranyam Satyagraha as a national hero. He drew from the people not only co-operation in action but also allegiance to Gandhian ideas.

Tailpiece: P.N. Srinivasan, 75-year-old freedom fighter and Chairman of Gandhi Darsan Kendra, is gearing up to re-enact Vedaranyam salt march on the same route from April 13 to mark the 75th anniversary of the event.

La. Su. Rengarajan is a writer, researcher and Gandhian scholar.

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