The Salt Satyagraha: Gandhi's Role, Objectives, and Legacy

Introduction

The Salt Satyagraha was the brainchild of Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha (truth-force) was a philosophy very close to Gandhi. The term Satyagraha has often been used to define the civil disobedience associated with the Salt march. The event was momentous in British India’s history because the Satyagraha was able to achieve a large mobilisation of Indians, cutting across caste and religious lines. The narrow aim of the Satyagraha was the protest against the British Government’s Salt law, but the broader aim was the mobilisation of a large number of people in peaceful, non-violent protest and civil disobedience against the powerful British empire government. That Gandhi was able to achieve the broader objectives of the Satyagraha is now well established. However, there are still questions as to Gandhi’s role and the nature of the Satyagraha. Was the Satyagraha merely a propaganda and Gandhi a political opportunist and a propagandist?

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This essay disagrees with the view that the Salt march was just a political propaganda and instead argues that the Salt march was apart from being a political tool also Gandhi’s most ambitious social experiment through which he sought to demonstrate to the world the power of an ideal non-violent society, as well as provide resistance to the mighty British empire. Therefore, the movement was a Satyagraha or a way of enforcing the truth as a moral force that is irresistible in the face of might. To that end, the essay places the Salt march both in its political and social contexts.

Salt Satyagraha: A political movement and a social experiment

Gandhi’s words, “I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might,” give an indication of the scale of attention that he was hoping the Salt march would achieve. It is significant that these words were written by him a day prior to his breaking the Salt law. It is clear that he decided to break the Salt law and undertake the Salt march, after careful thought and with clear political objectives that he hoped his actions would achieve.

The Salt march, or the Dandi march took place in 1930 and was crafted by Mahatma Gandhi to protest against the British salt tax law, the Salt Act 1882, as per which the government had monopoly on the making of salt and people had to buy salt from the government depots at a high price. The march lasted 24 days, from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Western Gujarat. The objective of the March was to defy the Salt Act 1882, by collecting natural sea salt from the shores of Dandi, a small coastal hamlet in Gujarat. However, Gandhi also had a broader and more ambitious objective in mind, as he saw this as an opportunity to spark a large campaign of civil disobedience. Therefore, the larger aim for Gandhi was to provide a common catalyst for mobilisation of a large number of people across India.

  1. Anju Grover Chowdhary and William J Starosta, “Gandhi’s Salt March: A Case Study of Satyagraha with Rhetorical Implications”, World Communication (1992) 21: 1-12.
  2. D Dalton, Critiques of Gandhi,

The Salt march has to also be seen in the context of the principles of Satyagraha or civil disobedience, that Gandhi had managed to give firmer ground to by this point in time. A smaller but effective Satyagraha had been carried out in Bardoli, Gujarat, to protest against the property tax levied by the British only two years prior to the Salt march in 1928. Here, months of Satyagraha or civil disobedience had been carried out successfully to make the government reconsider the property tax. From the point of view of propaganda, Bardoli had received media coverage worldwide, which seems out of proportion when Bardoli’s size and population is considered. Therefore, Gandhi had a fair assessment of the level of people mobilisation that could be effected out of the Salt march, as well as the level of media attention that could be generated from the event.

Satyagraha had already shown its ability to mobilise millions of people and also force the government to reconsider its position in the Bardoli case. By 1930, time was ripe for a larger Satyagraha, which would mobilise people from all across India and create an irresistible force that the British government would not be able to resist. In that context, the Salt March seems like a reasonable political gamble. However, what makes it remarkable and different from Bardoli, is that in the latter case, people responded to an immediate injustice meted out to them in the form of increased property tax; however, in the Salt Satyagraha, Gandhi was asking people to respond to a form of injustice (salt tax) that people had got accustomed to in the last 5 decades, therefore, the novelty or the immediacy of the need of campaign was not seen. Moreover, the Salt Satyagraha was to take place around the Western shores of India, therefore, the organisation of a nationwide protest was a difficult task. However, Gandhi saw Salt tax in an inclusive light, as something that millions of poor Indians were affected by. As it was, from a political perspective, the decision to protest against the Salt tax by employing Satyagraha tactics was a gamble. In that sense, the decision of Gandhi to focus on Salt issue can be said to be taken in a moment of inspiration. Arnold writes:

  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. David Arnold, Gandhi (Profiles in Power) (Oxon: Routledge 2014) 145.

“Apart from its potential impact on government income, already clamped by the effects of the Bardoli Satyagraha on land revenue, the tax provided the kind of single-issue focus in which satyagraha excelled. It presented as a clear moral issue the need to wrest freedom from a foreign regime that was exploitative and unheeding.”

Gandhi’s Salt march was covered extensively by media, both in India and abroad and the Salt march quickly became a media sensation. The march was covered on a daily basis by international media. There were three Bombay cinema companies that filmed the march. Gandhi had commenced the Salt march from Sabarmati Ashram with 78 chosen followers. By the time they reached Dandi, the movement had swelled to thousands of people, who joined Gandhi along the way. After Gandhi broke the Salt Act and was arrested, the movement took pan India flavour with tens of thousands of people risking arrest and incarceration by emulating Gandhi in breaking the Salt law. By the end of 1930, there were 60000 people in jail for breaking the Salt law and the numbers would increase over the next few months. For the rest of the world that was watching, the Salt march was momentous and remarkable in its own way because the sight of unresisting Indians in the face of the British might and use of force was poignant. This was made memorable in the following words of Webb Miller, an American journalist, which appeared in more than a thousand newspapers around the world:

“Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins…From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls.. . . Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. . . . The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.”

The effect of the world wide media attention to the event was precisely what Gandhi had hoped for when he had first vowed to break the Salt law at Dandi and the proof that the even did get the Western world’s attention is in the fact of Gandhi’s nomination by Time magazine as 'Man of the Year'. Gandhi was also on the cover of the first issue of 1931. The Salt March was also remarkable for its unprecedented participation of women, from the middle-class families. These women faced the risk of arrest and detention by participating in the protest marches, making illegal salt, and even facing police lathis and going to jail.

  1. Ibid, 145-46.
  2. Suchitra, “What moves masses: Dandi March as a communication strategy”, Economic and Political Weekly (30) 14 (1995): 743-746.
  3. David Arnold, Gandhi.
  4. Ibid, 148.
  5. Quoted in Ibid, p.148.
  6. Suchitra, “What moves masses: Dandi March as a communication strategy.”

Although the Salt March proved to be a great stroke of political genius, with respect to garnering mass mobilization of people, getting world-wide media attention, and creating pressure on the government; for Gandhi, the Salt March was more than a political movement. For Gandhi the Salt March was in the nature of a pilgrimage and its purpose was to demonstrate what an ideal nonviolent society should look like and how ideal lives should be lived. In the many photographs of Gandhi taken during the period of the Salt March, Gandhi is often seen to be pensive and whether he is in a crowd or alone, he seems to be away from the world, deep in thought. These are not the photographs of a man driven by action alone, but a man internalising and philosophising about the import of his actions and the larger movement he finds himself placed in. Therefore, to reduce the Salt March to its propagandist value, is to narrow down the scope of the event as Gandhi viewed it to the narrower confines of a political movement as opposed to a larger and broader social and humanitarian movement, which it really was.

Gandhi’s insistence that untouchables also be a part of the movement and walk alongside those of higher caste, at a time in India, when this was unthinkable gives an indication of the social objectives of his march. He also wanted Muslims to be a part of the march. In one incident, where in the village of Wasna, people welcomed Gandhi and his group in a house 150 metres away from the village, Gandhi wondered if that was because there were untouchables and Muslims in the group, because of which the people of Wasna did not want them to enter the village. Throughout the march, Gandhi demonstrated the value of inclusiveness by taking his meals on the way in untouchable homes and bathing with water drawn from untouchable wells, putting his high caste followers in a moral dilemma. Yet, despite the obvious rural focus of the Dandi march, the message that Gandhi wanted to portray reached people in cities like Bombay as well and in 1930, protests and picketing increased in Bombay. As pointed out by Masselos:

  1. Ibid.
  2. Thomas Weber, “Gandhian Nonviolence and the Salt March”, Social Alternatives (21) 2 (2002): 46-51, p.47.
  3. Ibid, p. 47.
  4. Sumit Sarkar, “The logic of Gandhian nationalism: Civil disobedience and the Gandhi-Irwin Pact”, The Indian Historical Review 3 (1976): 114-46.

“In Bombay there followed a movement of major proportions. It was an exemplar of Congress's agitational mode at work in an urban context and one that affected the ability of the British to govern.”

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Conclusion

The essay contended that the Salt march was not just a political propaganda by Gandhi but also social and humanitarian experiment. The Salt march was Gandhi’s supreme ingenious masterstroke in terms of its ability to mobilise a large number of people acting in unison for the achievement of the common cause with peaceful non-violent means against a more powerful but morally corrupt law. In these terms it would be correct to understand the propaganda value of the Salt march. However, Gandhi did not envisage the march merely in political terms although the march sought to achieve certain political objectives. Rather, Gandhi wanted to demonstrate the values of non-violence as a moral and irresistible force against a more powerful government. Gandhi also used this as an opportunity to promote the values of social inclusiveness by insisting on the involvement of untouchables as well as Muslims. In that sense, the Salt march was an exercise in social experimentation for application of reformist ideas.

Bibliography

  • Arnold, David. Gandhi (Profiles in Power). Oxon: Routledge, 2014.

  1. J Masselos, “Audiences, Actors and Congress Dramas: Crowd Events in Bombay City in 1930”, South Asia (8)1-2 (1985): 71-86.
  • Chowdhary, Anju Grover and Starosta, William J. “Gandhi’s Salt March: A Case Study of Satyagraha with Rhetorical Implications.” World Communication 21 (1992): 1-12.
  • D Dalton, Critiques of Gandhi,
  • Masselos, J. “Audiences, Actors and Congress Dramas: Crowd Events in Bombay City in 1930.” South Asia (8)1-2 (1985): 71-86.
  • Sarkar, Sumit. “The logic of Gandhian nationalism: Civil disobedience and the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.” The Indian Historical Review 3 (1976): 114-46.
  • Suchitra. “What moves masses: Dandi March as a communication strategy.” Economic and Political Weekly (30) 14 (1995): 743-746.
  • Weber, Thomas. “Gandhian Nonviolence and the Salt March.” Social Alternatives (21) 2 (2002): 46-51.

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