Anyone willing to make a 241-mile march in boiling heat under constant
threat of government violence to protest a tax on salt is a tower of strength. Yet
that was the Mahatma Gandhi-led Great Salt March in India, an early example of a
nonviolent protest that mobilized Indian people and set the stage for negotiations
that led to Indian independence.
In 1889, the British, having taken control of India’s government from the
East India Tea company in 1857, implemented the Salt Laws and imposed a
government monopoly on the production and sale of salt, and a tax on its sale. Salt
was a necessity for Indians, since most Indians were laborers who needed salt in
their diet to balance their physical labor in India’s humid climate. The Indian
people strongly resented the heavy tax on a dietary necessity.
Gandhi, a lawyer who had returned to India in 1915 after a successful
campaign in South Africa on behalf of Indians living there, had developed a
nonviolent strategy and philosophy, based on both truth and strength:
In January 1930, Gandhi announced an Independence Day on January 26,
1930. Hundreds of thousands of Indians pledged that it was a crime to submit to
British rule. Buoyed by this support, Gandhi began what he hoped would lead to a
mass movement by calling for a march from his ashram 241 miles to Dandi on the
Arabian Sea to obtain salt in defiance of the Salt Laws. Although some, including
the British rulers, ridiculed Gandhi for focusing on something seemingly as minor
as salt, Gandhi reasoned that the universal need for salt would unite those of
different classes and castes.
Gandhi first wrote to the British viceroy Irwin seeking a repeal of the Salt
Tax. When Irwin failed to respond, on March 12, 1930, Gandhi and 79 followers
set off on foot from his ashram toward Dandi. As the march passed through
villages, many joined and eventually the procession was more than a mile long.
The British government did not interfere with the march.
When the group arrived in Dandi on April 5, Gandhi found a piece of mud
with embedded salt, and boiled the mud to remove the salt. He also encouraged
people living along the coast to emulate him and make their own salt 1 Millions of
Indians engaged in civil disobedience involving making their own salt, and 60,000
were arrested. Gandhi announced a plan to march peacefully to and take over a
government salt plant at Dharasana, but before the march took place, Gandhi was
arrested. However, 2500 followers carried out the march and did not fight back
even after government police attacked them:
Gandhi and other followers were released in January 1931, pursuant to an
agreement that called for Indian protests to be suspended while members of the
protest movement, including Gandhi, were given a seat with the British
commission negotiating toward Indian independence. Although it was 16 more
years, 1947, before Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan obtained independence from
Britain, the Great Salt March set the stage for India’s independence.
The Great Salt March and its aftermath gained large participation among
both educated and uneducated Indians. It also had a fledgling supportive
organization, the National Congress Party, that eventually became the ruling party
in India post-independence. It also had multi-generational leadership. In addition to
Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, 20 years younger than Gandhi, became the President of
the Congress Party in 1929 and eventually India’s first prime minister in 1947.
While Nehru at times felt Gandhi should pursue a more aggressive approach to
pursuing independence, there was no disagreement over nonviolent tactics.
Further, the tactic and philosophy of satyagraha began to turn the views of British
authorities unhappy with the sight of police clubbing marchers who offered no
resistance but who did not retreat.
And like the Women’s Suffrage Movement discussed in a previous blog,
Gandhi’s satyagraha philosophy required truth, strength and patience to ultimately