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Gandhi's Salt March as living sermon




By Tom Weber

La Trobe University, Australia, TFF Associate

This article is forthcoming in the Gandhi Marg journal, New Delhi




Gandhi's biographer, Louis Fischer, once said that Gandhi's greatness "lay in doing what everyone could do but doesn't." (1) Gandhi provided a signpost for moral living, he left us with some valuable insights about the way life should be oriented so as not to become dysfunctional to the self, society or planet, and provided valuable guidelines to help us with difficult decisions.

For example, his seven social sins warn us against politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, education without character, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. (2) In another place he gives us a test to apply when we are in doubt. This "talisman" asks us to consider the poorest and weakest person we have seen and examine our proposed action in light of the consequences for this person. (3)

And of course he is well known for claiming that his life was his message.(4) His 1930 Salt March to Dandi can be examined as a version of this message, not least about simply doing what we know to be right.


The Salt March as we know it

The Salt March to the remote sea-side village of Dandi and the civil disobedience campaign it launched was the greatest nonviolent battle by possibly history's greatest nonviolent campaigner. And Mahatma Gandhi himself saw this as the quintessence of his philosophy in action. The Salt March, as we have come to know it, is about a battle by a very astute political campaigner to free his country from the yoke of British colonialism. And this was to be done by breaking the iniquitous salt laws that meant that even the poorest labourer could not gather natural salt to supplement the most meagre of diets without paying exorbitant taxes.

Here we have the skinny 45kg, scantily dressed 61 year old Mahatma armed with nothing but a bamboo staff marching to the sea with a handful of mostly youthful followers in an attempt to liberate India. The Salt March, at least as it has entered the history books, is about Gandhi and his chosen 78 followers, leaving Gandhi's ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river on the outskirts of Ahmedabad early on the morning of 12 March, 1930. The ever-swelling crowd covered the 241 miles to the sea in 25 days and, early on the morning of April 6, Gandhi picked up a handful of salt crystals from the beach at Dandi, captured in a dramatic photograph, while India's poetess, Sarojini Naidu, cried "Hail Deliverer!" launching the mass struggle against the salt laws - a struggle that united the people, filled the prisons and shook the foundations of the empire.

In fact there were eighty marchers with Gandhi, not 78. (5) And one of those generally neglected by the historical record was a convicted murderer. (6) The march was probably about 20 miles less than the accepted 241: that being the distance of a proposed and now mostly build commemorative Gandhi Road that approximates the route. Government engineers are more concerned with practicality than exact historical accuracy.

On the morning of April 6, Gandhi picked up a handful of saline mud that had to be cleaned during the day to extract the small quantity of salt that was auctioned for the benefit of the national cause that evening. There is little evidence of the stirring battle cry from Sarojini Naidu, probably there was little more an exchange of pleasantries between old friends. And there was no photographer present to record the event for posterity. The now famous photograph of the event was taken three days later at the village of Bhimrad some 25 kms from Dandi as the crow flies. All classes did not participate equally in the struggle and the campaign did not manage to heal the growing rift between Hindus and Muslims. Although tens of thousands were imprisoned, this amounted to only one fifth of 1% of the population. Following inconclusive talks in Delhi and London, and with Gandhi again languishing in jail, the movement eventually petered out. The salt laws were not repealed and freedom did not come to India for another 17 years. For some this has meant that the Salt March, and the civil disobedience campaign it initiated, were failures.

But there were also extremely large political pluses: the world, and especially America, came to see the moral legitimacy of India's cause (Gandhi became Time magazine's man of the year for 1930). Under the tutelage of Gandhi the proto-feminist, for the first time women became significant players in the Indian political system. And much to the disgust of Churchill, who was appalled by the "nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy's palace there to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor", (7) for the first time the British were forced to talk eye-to-eye with the leader of subject nation. The events set in place by the pilgrimage to Dandi brought vast yet hard to quantify changes to India. Many were never again to be the same afterwards, and the country certainly was not. As Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, was to remark a few years later, people of common clay felt the spark of life. (8) And perhaps it is here, not in the limited world of international power politics, that the greatest gift of struggle from Gandhi can be found.

This deeper, and to us now, more important meaning of Gandhi's Salt March can be teased out by tracing the journey from Sabarmati to Dandi.


Background to the March

Following a relatively quiet period on the political front, after Gandhi had called off the Non-Cooperation struggle of the early 1920s, in a large part because violence had crept into the campaign, a new wave of unrest was building up. Violent anti-British nationalism was on the rise, and at the Lahore Congress in the dying days of 1929 Indian nationalist leaders had resolved to fight for complete independence from the imperial overlords. Gandhi, recognised as leader by the Indian nationalists, had long been preparing himself and his closest followers for the coming battle. He was hoping that he had prepared the country adequately.

What shape was the struggle to take? How could the Mahatma ensure that there would be no repeated violence that went against his creed? While grappling with these questions he wrote a letter to the viceroy Lord Irwin. He addressed Irwin as "Dear friend" - after all his philosophy of nonviolence, while allowing for opponents, never considers anyone an enemy. He explained to Irwin that he intended no harm to any English person, it was English rule that he considered a curse. He pointed out that foreign rule had exploited the country, that while the viceroy was a man he had the greatest respect for, he asked Irwin to ponder the legitimacy of a system where the viceroy's salary was 5,000 times that of the average Indian's. Gandhi wanted to show that nonviolence was a force that could check the organised violence of the British Government. He claimed that his aim was to convert the British people through nonviolent civil disobedience and thus make them see the wrong they had done to India. Gandhi announced that he would defy the salt laws because he sought independence for the poor of the land, not the elites, and the salt tax impacted most heavily on the poorest in society. He signed the letter, "I remain, Your sincere friend." (9)


A Walking Sermon

How did Gandhi come to pick salt as the focus of the campaign? And why a pilgrimage with a handful of the chosen to the backblocks, instead of taking mass demonstrations to the centre of power?

Salt, the only mineral substance consumed by humans, had been heavily taxed by the British for over 40 years and for 40 years nationalist leaders including Gandhi had been complaining about the tax which impacted disproportionately on the poor. The poor in this hot country do the hardest work yet they could least afford salt. There was logic behind the choice, but was this the stuff of which nationalist revolutions are made? Many did not think so, wondering if Gandhi the food faddist who has previously sworn off the eating of salt was on a new version of one of his periodic culinary campaigns. They suggested mass no-revenue campaigns, mass marches on the capital or the viceroy's residence, a boycott of law courts and foreign cloth - almost anything but this seeming irrelevance. (10)

However, Gandhi new the mind of his people better, and his own mind was made up. Focussing on the salt laws was easy and simple to understand. This was to be a non-elitist campaign: everyone from the humblest peasant upwards could easily break the law by manufacturing salt, or by selling it, or giving it away or even simply suggesting that others make, sell or give salt away. It was a form of action that did not alienated non-Congress supporters or threaten local Indian interests. And, further, the government could not easily prevent the breaching of the salt law. The Americans press were approving, noting the injustice of the taxing of a necessary and otherwise freely available substance. Later, as the march progressed, they drew the analogy with their own Boston Tea Party, declaring that Britain would lose India over salt the way she lost America over tea. (11)

But how was the law to be breached? How would the message get to the masses? Gandhi, the lover of walking, had led a mass march in South Africa 17 years before to great political effect. It had heralded mass nonviolent action and confirmed him as an internationally recognised nonviolent campaigner. This march was to cover areas where Gandhi's political base was strongest, where there was heightened political consciousness from past campaigns. It was to take over three weeks - a risky but potentially far more dramatically effective method than a short march. If the British did not arrest the group when they started, and at this stage they hoped that a campaign based around salt would fizzle out in ridicule, when would they do it? A lengthy Salt March, if it did not become the object of derision, allowed tensions to build; for the media, the general public and world opinion to be caught up in the progress.

But the march was more than a mass political action. Gandhi always saw the march as a pilgrimage, as a living sermon. It was not merely about removing the British but to demonstrate what an ideal society should look like, how ideal lives should be lived. And it is this aspect of the march that still talks to us today.


At the Sabarmati Ashram

On the evening of the 11th of March, 1930, the day before the march was to begin, 10,000 people gathered here on the banks of the Sabarmati River just below the ashram, to hear Gandhi speak, possibly for last time. Rumours were rife that the Mahatma would be arrested before he could set off.

He told the crowd: "I have faith in the righteousness of our cause and the purity of our weapons. And where the means are clean, there God is undoubtedly present with His blessings. And where these three continue, there defeat is an impossibility." (12) He told his hand-picked followers that they would not return to the ashram, their home of 13 years, until freedom had been gained for India.

A sleepless crowd stayed at the ashram, lighting fires for warmth in the chilly air. At his usual 4am morning prayer meeting, Gandhi informed his audience that 6.30 would be the departure time and asked his marchers to be assembled in formation by 6.20. Then Gandhi went back to sleep - probably the only person with enough inner calm to do so. At 6.10 he emerged from his room and joined the designated marchers in a cleared area in front of the ashram weaving factory. The crowd had swelled to 20,000 and the level of excitement was very high. Many of the marchers believed that they would be dead within days. Rumours spread that they would be bombed from the air and that a machine gun post had been set up by the authorities not far away. But they had their duty to do. As they went out of the ashram gates, Gandhi announced that "I would rather die a dog's death than return to the ashram a broken man." (13)


On the Road

In the dawning light, through a crowd of 100,000, they walked for 45 minutes to Ellis Bridge. It was thought that Gandhi would cross the bridge and triumphantly enter Ahmedabad proper and there salute the Congress flag. But the bridge was far too crowded to cross, and besides this one bridge across the Sabarmati was a British-built bridge, and crossing it could have been seen as a compliment to British ingenuity. Embarrassment and crowd control problems were avoided by wading across the no more than knee deep river. This route also avoided the centre of the city. The way to Chandola lake, the first resting spot, was through choking dust, made all the worse by news journalists who roared past in motor lorries, hoping to get a prize photograph or movie footage of Gandhi. After a while the Mahatma became so fed up with the pestering from movie-reporters that he draped a towel over his head and told them to go away. (14)

After 11kms of walking, during a five minute rest by the lake, Gandhi addressed the crowd, asking them to return home. Now for the first time Gandhi was at the head of the procession of his marchers, and for the first time there was open country, instead of a sea of humanity, ahead of him.

As they neared Aslali, the stopping place for the night, Gandhi saw his nephew, who had volunteered to carry Gandhi's bags, hand them on to the village headman. He became angry, took back his bags and decided to carry them himself from then on. It was acceptable for family members to help each other out but not to have servants doing unpalatable work for them.

There was much excitement in the village that night and it meant that most of the villagers were still asleep at 6am when the marchers left. British officials had decided not to arrest Gandhi because they had hoped that the crazy idea of marching through the countryside preaching against a little cared about tax would prove an embarrassing flop. Already it seemed that they may have been right. The British papers gleefully reported that enthusiasm was already evaporating as the march was becoming less of a novelty. There were other problems also. Gandhi's rheumatism had become acutely painful during the night and much of the next morning's walking had to be undertaken with the Mahatma leaning on the shoulders of the two youngest marchers. Still, the next evening he send the horse that a follower had provided as a back-up in case Gandhi had difficulty walking, back to it's owner. During the march, several of his followers became ill and needed to stop for convalescence and to go by train, car or bullock-cart to catch up. The 61 year old Mahatma, walked the entire route, never complained, and because of the demands on his time slept far less than the younger marchers.

Walking was done in two stages. First in the cool of the morning, followed by lunch and meetings in the host village, and again in the evening to another host village for dinner, further speeches, and sleep. On the way prayers were held at 7pm, wherever the marchers happened to be at the time. And of course morning prayers were still held at 4am, no matter how late the marchers could retire for the evening. The routine of the ashram was not relaxed just because Gandhi and his followers were on the road. The unfarewelled departure from Aslali notwithstanding, fairly soon into the March a pattern emerged. Villagers would accompany the departing Gandhi-ites from their own village half way to the next, where they were met by a welcoming party.

Following the morning's walk on the third day, the marchers were escorted to a large mango tree about 150 metres from the village of Wasna. Here a cottage had been erected for Gandhi and a canopy for the others. A temporary kitchen had been set up nearby. Gandhi was pleased with the care which had been taken over the arrangements - but he was also a little suspicious about the motive for all the trouble. After lunch, during his speech, Gandhi asked whether the elaborate arrangements made were in order to keep the marchers out of the village proper because his group included both "untouchables" and Muslims. Today Wasna has a statue of the marching Mahatma in the village square to commemorate the visit.

At the night halt, at Matar, the 80th and 81st official marchers joined the ranks of their comrades. One of these two was the Nepali Kharag Bahadur Singh - a convicted murderer who had discovered nonviolence while in prison. Some of the marchers objected to him being included but Gandhi had explained that his nonviolent family was to be a microcosm of an ideal nonviolent society. And in such a society, where he expected forgiveness, they had to forgive someone who had changed their life and dedicated it to nonviolence. (15)

On the fourth day, at the lunch halt at the tobacco growing village of Dabhan, Gandhi was received with great enthusiasm. Perhaps the enthusiasm of the welcoming committee ebbed a little as Gandhi walked straight through the village, past the temple and the village square, to the untouchable quarters where he drew water from the well and bathed. The high-caste Hindus who accompanied him were faced with a dilemma - mingle with the casteless or be rude to their honoured guest. And for someone like Gandhi to draw his own water, rather than have a servant do it for him, was a small practical sermon on the kind of free India he envisaged. The Salt March was the means, all the small examples set by himself and his marchers along the way were to be glimpses of the end. During his speech Gandhi publically mentioned Dandi as the final destination of the march for the first time.

That evening, at the large Santaram temple complex in the small city of Nadiad, 20,000 people turned up to hear Gandhi talk. Gandhi's secretary, who was organising the campaign elsewhere, came to visit Gandhi here. Mahadev Desai noticed that even after a long day of walking his master got little peace. During his evening meal, Gandhi was surrounded by so many people that, in the secretary's words, a few more people "and the room would have been full to suffocation." There was no rest for the elderly Mahatma. He had to do several things at once - he ate and talked with those around him as he was being massaged. The faithful secretary lamented that Gandhi "could not have a private half-hour for a quiet meal" after having just arrived from "a fatiguing journey through he heat and dust of the Kheda villages." (16)

And Gandhi was up before his companions so that he could take care of his correspondence. When his oil lamp went out, rather than wake those sleeping next to him, he continued to write by moonlight. Thus Desai found him at 4am. At morning prayers Gandhi noted that some of the marchers were not handling the pace and pressure too well and he informed them that henceforth Mondays would be days of rest. He also told them that they should not be a burden on those who hosted them and though they may be showered with comforts and given delicacies to eat, they should maintain ashram discipline in dietary matters. Of course this was difficult, and by the fourth day the marcher from America, Haridas Muzumdar, claimed that "it is a (17) constant complaint of the village folk that our Captain would permit them to treat us to nothing but simple food."

The following evening they were in the town of Anand, where they were to have a full day of rest. For Gandhi that also meant a full day of silence. From Sunday evening, after his speech at the nationalist Dada Naoroji High School, until Monday evening Gandhi stopped talking. This was a well deserved rest from the overwhelming volume of verbal communication that was his lot during the day. But he did continue to pass notes with written messages when he thought it necessary.



Gandhi had had a long association with Anand. During his visit in 1920 he spoke to the assembled throng from the open area that had been the village lake. The following year the long dry lake was again full. Many claimed that it was a miracle resalting from the Mahatma's presence. Two years before the march, a blind American had written to him asking for his divine intervention. Gandhi replied, "I do not perform miracles nor do I believe in miracles." (18) However, during the course of the Salt Campaign another water producing miracle was reported. Following the conclusion of the march while Gandhi and his crew were camped at the village of Karadi, near Dandi, a group of villagers, in procession, singing and carrying gifts circled the camp and approached the Mahatma's hut. It emerged that their village well had been dry for several years and the women had to go to nearby villages to fetch drinking water. The day that the march had passed through the village the well filled with water. Now the grateful villagers had come to worship Gandhi as an incarnation of the god Ram. Gandhi was not amused. He chided the villagers for their "foolish and unbecoming" idea, and added that, "I have no more influence with God than you have." He sent them home, telling them that rather than wasting their time speculating about his divinity they should put their energy into the fight for freedom.


Back on the Road

On the evening of the eighth day of the march, Gandhi's band had arrived at the poor village of Kankapura on the banks of the impressive Mahi river. But there was to be no rest for the night just yet. The tidal Mahi had to be crossed at high tide so that the maximum distance could be covered by boat before the tiring work of wading through mud began. The local fishermen were reluctant to risk the confiscation of their means of livelihood by ferrying Gandhi. However, a brave young local had purchased a boat so that the task could be undertaken. Gandhi waded through knee deep water to the boat, but so did hundreds of other excited well-wishers. There was danger that the boat would be swamped and by the time order had been restored, much precious time had been lost. This meant that Gandhi had to wade for a kilometer in thick mud when the boat beached on the other side. These were the most difficult hours of the entire trip and Gandhi had to be assisted by some of his companions. Dry land was not reached until 1am, and at 4 Gandhi roused his tired troops for morning prayers.

The following day, at the village of Gajera, Gandhi continued his living sermon. A dias had been erected under a large banyan tree for Gandhi's afternoon speech. Four to five thousand people sat patiently waiting for the Mahatma to tell them about the iniquities of the salt tax and the evils of British rule, but the ever punctual Gandhi just sat on the platform and waited. And waited. Tension increased. For the first time during the march, untouchables had been prohibited from sitting with the rest of the audience. Gandhi instructed his followers to sit among the excluded and finally announced: "This meeting has not yet started.... Either you invite the untouchables and my volunteers to sit freely among you or I'll have to address you from the hill where they are sitting." He waited for an answer. Eventually the untouchables were invited into the main audience and Gandhi pointed out the irony that the caste villagers were treating those literally outcasted the same way that they themselves were being treated by the British. By welcoming the untouchables into their midst, Gandhi told the listeners that they had taken the first step towards true freedom. (19)

This was rural India with its time-honoured ways. Strangers often meant trouble, even if they were Mahatmas. When the small advance party, which preceded the main march and made sure that dining, washing, sleeping and toilet facilities would be available for the marchers, arrived in the village of Buva, they were politely asked if the marchers wouldn't mind going somewhere else. Not only were they afraid of the government, but a wedding procession was to arrive at about the same time as Gandhi was anticipated. The wedding party was to stay in the dharamsala, the pilgrim rest house, the only available place for accommodating larger groups. There was disagreement in the village because the youth insisted that Gandhi's marchers stop there regardless of the cost or inconvenience.

Eventually a compromise was reached and timetables were adjusted to avoid a clash. But Gandhi was not invited to the wedding and the elders did not participate in the welcome for him. The turnout at his speech was disappointingly low, and those involved in the wedding boycotted it. Gandhi told those who did attend that he was concerned about the lack of consciousness of the important issues of the day and about the tensions between the old and the young. He told the young that they should have respected their elders and tried to convince them but if this was not possible they should have obeyed them. If the elders were not convinced, he should not have stayed in the village "because he was under the impression that in every village he halted it was with the implied consent of the people." He then rebuked the elders for not giving a proper lead to the youngsters by joining the movement - after all if they came in the way of the youth, to whom the future belonged, they would be disregarded. (20)

At Tralsa, outside the room of the village dharamsala where Gandhi had rested, a small temple to the Mahatma has now been erected. But here also there are clues to the working of Gandhi's mind. Anand Hingorani, one of the marchers, became so grief-stricken when his wife died in 1943, that he had difficulty functioning. Gandhi came to the rescue of his loyal follower by writing him a small "thought for the day" to meditate on. Hingorani received these messages from the Mahatma daily, regardless of how busy Gandhi was, for two years. They gave him strength to carry on through difficult times. Hingorani eventually published these snippets of Gandhian thinking in a beautiful book. (21) He remarked that in it there was perhaps a fruitful field of research for a scholar with a pedantic bent. He believed that the messages Gandhi wrote for him directly reflected what had happened to Gandhi immediately before he penned the aphorism. If Gandhi wrote about the beauty of silence you could take it that too many people had talked to him that day, and so on. (22)

When Gandhi set out from the ashram on the march, he did not have a sheath of speeches tucked away in one of his two small bags. He knew what the message that he wanted to get across was. But often the speeches that he delivered along the way were not about salt, the British or independence, but about social matters. It appears that what happened to him in a particular village during the day often prompted the subject matter that he would speak on. A subject more important than some distant political independence.

At Tralsa, about 50 meters from the dharamsala, there is a large tree facing the village lake. Here Gandhi delivered his afternoon speech on the 25th of March. The speech was about why he tended not to go through Muslim villages and about the evils of the dowry system. But why here? Although Tralsa is a Hindu village, nearby, from where much of the audience came is a Muslim village. And next to this tree is the tomb of a Muslim saint. Gandhi explained that he only went to villages where he was explicitly invited, and this campaign, unlike the one of a decade before, had largely left the Muslims unenthused. He did however announce that he would be breaking the salt law at Dandi from the home of a Muslim friend, and it had long been settled that in the case of his arrest, the march would be led by his Muslim friend Abbas Tyabji.

On the day of the speech there were also two weddings taking place in Tralsa, what could be more appropriate than talk about the dowry system?



Generally the march attracted large and enthusiastic crowds and generally the focus was the issue of independence. But it was also a campaign of individuals, the soldiers of Gandhi's ashram family, with all their human frailties. And it was these minor lapses amongst his followers that allowed Gandhi to provide the practical sermons to the widest audience, including those, such as us, looking back many years later.

Gandhi's normal equilibrium was strongly upset only once during the march. After Nadiad and Anand, Broach was the third town visited along the route. The marchers rested at the hospital dental clinic ashram of the great nationalist worker and friend of the poor, Dr. Chandulal Desai. While visiting Dr. Chandulal's city clinic, marcher Muzumdar was offered some ice-cream. The good doctor thought that someone from America would enjoy a treat that he would have been used to in his adopted home. Although Gandhi allowed Dr. Chandulal to serve sweets to his marchers, the Mahatma ate only some fruit and nuts, and when Muzumdar's indulgence was brought to Gandhi's attention some days later, he severely chastised his young follower, telling him that all the marchers had to be models for others to copy. (23)

On the 29th of March, at the evening stop in Bhatgam, things finally came to a head. (24) That morning, before the marchers left their night halt of Umrachi, a proposed breakfast treat for Gandhi heralded the worst day of the pilgrimage. Milk had been scarce in the district the marchers were passing through but Gandhi had been assured that in this district milk was plentiful and could easily be obtained everywhere. Fresh vegetables had also been promised by supporters, but at the time the area was in the grip of a drought and local supplies were limited. The district organisers sent a car to bring supplies from the outside. The vehicle had a puncture and was unable to make it back to the village by breakfast time. When Gandhi learned that supplies were being brought from the outside he became angry. He had awoken at 3am on this morning and as he wandered around the village he had seen poor tribal women making bread from juwar flour, a last ditch attempt at bread making when flour of more favoured grains was unavailable. The contrast between the lot of the poor and the treatment that was being afforded his group, who professed to be servants of the people, was not lost on him. He talked more in disappointment than anger during his early morning prayers with his followers, but as the group left Umrachi for Ertham, the anger and sadness in Gandhi were strongly felt by those around him. The morning's walk was done in an atmosphere of deep gloom.

During the lunch halt, a bullock-cart carrying spinning wheels rumbled into their camp to aid the marchers in their daily task of ritual spinning. There was a shortage of spinning wheels in the immediate district and these wheels were brought from a Gandhi supporting ashram in the town of Bardoli, some 40 kilometres away. Gandhi considered this a costly and time-consuming extravagance. When the wheels finally arrived they had to be cleaned, assembled and oiled. The spinning this morning was the last done on wheels - Gandhi ordered that from hence onwards all spinning was to be done on hand spindles and the wheels were sent back.

All day small things happened which annoyed Gandhi further. At lunch he noticed that he had received his drink from a new cup. He discovered that his old one had been accidentally broken and when Pyarelal, his personal secretary on the march, had asked a local organiser to purchase another, the eager assistant bought two to cover the possibility of a further breakage. Another extravagance to displease the already less than happy Mahatma.

Things did not end there. The misdirected desire to please saw the importation of fresh vegetables and luxury fruits from the nearby city of Surat. Gandhi's anger grew, but he kept it under control. He decided to undertake personal penance for these lapses of his followers. From now until the end of the march he was to take no fresh fruit apart from lime juice and restricted his diet to dates, currants, lime and goat's milk.

During the evening prayer meeting, Gandhi learned of Muzumdar's ice-cream eating. This was almost the last straw. And on the walk to the night halt in Bhatgam the camel's back was finally broken for the irritated Mahatma.

It was becoming dark on the last part of the journey so a pressurised petromax lantern was lit. The servant carrying the lantern was prodded to walk faster to keep up with the Mahatma. Gandhi saw what was happening - a lowly local being mistreated by a prominent nationalist. By the time he reached Bhatgam, Gandhi had trouble repressing his anger. When Gandhi's speech of that evening was published in his paper, he called it "Turning the Searchlight Inward" and noted that it was an important and introspective speech "which moved both the audience and me deeply."

He told his audience that night that in light of the discovery of these many lapses he had no right to write to the Viceroy complaining about his salary in a poor country. After all it seemed that they were now, in his words, costing the country fifty times the average daily income of its people. He detailed the luxuries they were given in the previous days and added that "to live above the means befitting a poor country is to live on stolen food."

He also alluded to the walk into the village:

We may not consider anybody low. I observed that you had provided for the night journey a heavy kerosene burner mounted on a stool which a poor labourer carried on his head. This was a humiliating sight. This man was being goaded to walk fast. I could not bear the sight. I therefore put on speed and outraced the whole company. But it was no use. The man was made to run after me. The humiliation was complete. If the weight had to be carried, I should have loved to see someone among ourselves carrying it. We would then soon dispense both with the stool and the burner. (25)

Everyone was quite shaken by the speech.

The following night at the evening speech at Delad, there was no longer any petromax light. His way to the field where the meeting was held was lit by a hurricane lantern. He told the audience that:

Although I was agitated yesterday and still am, I have not lost my peace; the fiery words of love which I had directed towards my friends, companions and assembly were not regarded as such. Instead of the dazzling lights of yesterday I see small dim lights of hurricane lanterns. Yesterday I did not find the outer and inner peace which I find in today's assembly. There was an artificiality in yesterday's lights. I found no affinity between those lights and our rural life. (26)

However, a few nights later, at the picturesque village of Vanz with it's Jain temple, Gandhi again had to start his speech on a critical note: "How can I see the Kitson light burning when there are several hundreds of thousands of villagers starving?" (27) The lights were quickly replaced by torches of oil soaked rags on poles.

At Navsari, the final town passed through on the march, and the rail-head for Dandi, Gandhi made a speech before tens of thousands. He was seated high so that all could see him and a wealthy gentleman, who obviously had not heard about Gandhi's anger in the villages at the use of petromax lanterns, at his own expense had organised for the whole area to be wired and illuminated by electric lights. But this was no rural village and the crowd was huge, Gandhi let it go.


The End of the Road

The final evening of the walk, before Dandi was reached, was spent at the Matwad side of the twin villages of Matwad/Karadi. Gandhi now had to think of the realities of what was to come. At his evening speech he addressed the locals, telling them that he knew that they were already picking up salt secretly, but that now they should do it openly and face the consequences.

They were only five kilometres from their destination and by 7.30 on the following morning had reached Dandi. Marcher Hingorani recalled the growing delight as they neared the coast after over three weeks of trudging the dusty roads of Gujarat; "The murmur of the sea was loud and musical and could be heard from a distance. On the way we came across some salt deposits in the dried up hollows. With almost childish glee, we picked up the salt from them and gazed at it in a manner as though we had found a treasure." (28)

At Dandi, Gandhi took up residence in the spacious bungalow of his Muslim friend Seth Sirajuddin Vasi, known locally as Shiraz Abdulla. Gandhi had previously discussed the possible repercussions of staying in the Seth's house, but Vasi was ready to face the possibility of losing his home. Gandhi also wondered about his and his marchers' own fates. The government had tolerated the march, but would it tolerate the actual breach of the salt laws that would be initiated by the Mahatma the following morning? Although the area around Vasi's bungalow had been converted into a sizeable police camp, the government had a different plan.

Following prayers, early on the morning of the 6th of April, Gandhi and his followers, including Sarojini Naidu, made their way to the ocean. Gandhi waded out into the sea for a ritual bath, and then in his wet loin cloth, with a shawl draped across his shoulders, he walked back over the fine, dark sand towards the bungalow. The police had been busy destroying salt deposits, but as the sun was rising, thirty meters from the bungalow, the barefooted Gandhi entered a hollow filled with salt and mud. To the enthusiastic shouts of his followers he bent down and picked up a handful of this mixture. There was little ritual or ceremony - but now the battle had begun in earnest.


The Battle

Gandhi was not arrested at Dandi, he was allowed to make salt for now, but the inevitable outcome was clear. Gandhi formalised the chain of command to succeed him in the event of his arrest - Gandhi's close friend, the venerable retired judge Abbas Tyabji, and then Sarojini Naidu.

Mass salt gathering and making by boiling sea water had commenced, and soon had spread to much of the country. At the village of Aat, just seven kilometres away, the strategy of the government was becoming clear. Gandhi and his immediate followers were left to make and gather all the salt they wanted but others, like the Aat villagers, had their salt confiscated and on the second day of the salt campaign one of them had his hand injured by police when he refused to let go of his treasonable treasure. His was the first injury of the campaign, one of countless more to follow. It only encouraged others to also commence gathering salt.

The government had decided on its tactics to frustrate Gandhi's scheme of filling the jails and thus overwhelming the administration and gaining world sympathy. They arrested only national leaders, hoping to isolate Gandhi, who they left alone, and confiscated illegal salt from others, with force, and often brutal force, where they thought it necessary - without making arrests.

During the days that followed, Gandhi spoke at many close-by villages, often after publically breaking the salt laws (and being photographed doing it), gave press interviews, penned dozens of letters of advice and instruction and began preparing to bring women into the battle. But, following the heady days of the march, his troops were getting bored boiling water with impunity, and the repression of others, while they, the supposed front line soldiers of the campaign were living in relative comfort, upset Gandhi. He toured more and more villages, made more and more radical speeches, and sometimes even made fun of the situation he found himself in. On the 11th of April, near Navsari the police were stopping cars and searching for illegal salt when Gandhi's vehicle pulled up. Gandhi called out to the deputy superintendent of police who had led the raids at Aat, "I have some contraband salt, do you want to stop me?" His car was neither detained nor searched.

The uncertainty, responsibility and sheer work load were starting to take their toll. Newspapers had long reported that Gandhi was beginning to wilt under the strain and government sources claimed that the Mahatma seemed restless and doubtful and somewhat depressed. One report claimed "that Mr. Gandhi has not bargained for a policy of non-interference on the part of the government and that it has upset his plans. It is certain that he is now hard put to it in devising some change of front to save Dandi from ridicule." Something more was needed.

In the meantime, Dandi had proved to be an unsuitable base for operation. At high tide it was cut off from the main roads, hampering Gandhi's program of seditious touring, now undertaken by car, so a change in location was decided upon. Ten days after arriving at Dandi, Gandhi moved the camp back to Karadi. While some of the original marchers returned to their home districts to organise the breaking of the salt laws, most stayed with the Mahatma and were with him when he was arrested.

Gandhi started conceiving a plan that would compel decisive action on the part of the government. On the 25th of April, Gandhi wrote to his secretary that the salt works at Dharasana were not far away and that he intended to continue the march to the salt works and seize them after giving due warning to the authorities. On the next day, he made his plans public. Gandhi's arrest now became as inevitable as the intended raid itself. The ex-marchers at Karadi now had something to look forward to. The days of spinning khadi, and preaching against the evils of alcohol in the villages were coming to an end. The ball was back in the government's court.


The Arrest of Gandhi

When Gandhi declared that he intended to raid the Dharasana salt works, leaving him alone, hoping for ridicule was no longer an option. Gandhi knew his arrest was finally immanent. A series of sentries had been organised at Karadi to keep watch throughout the night and bang on pans if the police came. However, soon after midnight between the 4th and the 5th of May, the police swooped with such precision and efficiency that they were inside Gandhi's hut, shining flashlights in his face, before the alarm was sounded. Gandhi smiled at the police as they read out the charges amidst a growing crowd. They allowed Gandhi to wash and pray and then loaded him onto one of the waiting police lorries and drove him away, leaving his disconsolate followers behind. The Frontier Mail, en route from Ahmedabad to Bombay, was briefly halted at a level crossing about 10 kilometres away, and, under the cover of darkness, Gandhi was whisked aboard an empty restaurant car which had been attached to the train at Navsari.

At a level crossing outside of Bombay, the train screeched to a halt and Gandhi was escorted from the train into a waiting car by the police. By mid morning Gandhi was safely ensconced in Yeravda Central Jail in Poona. Gandhi appeared pleased to have finally been arrested and claimed to have been grateful for the good treatment afforded him. A medical examination showed that he was a relatively healthy man for is age, with a blood pressure of 140 over 104. His height was recorded as being 165 centimetres, and his weight 45 kilograms.


The End of the Campaign

The Salt March was over. Following the raids on the Dharasana salt works (29) almost all of the marchers had joined Gandhi behind bars but unrest still swept the Indian subcontinent. However, Gandhi's arrest and the cessation of the raids at Dharasana did not herald the end of the campaign - that was still some months off, and the end of round two, some years off.

Gandhi was released from prison in January and in February commenced negotiations with the Viceroy. In early March 1931 he reported to the nationalist leadership that an agreement had been reached. Although there was general rejoicing over the settlement, the negotiations seemed to yield no tangible gains to the nationalist cause. The avowed objectives of the struggle - independence, or even an abrogation of all of the salt laws - had not been achieved. Many felt that the Viceroy had secured all the immediate advantages in the agreement and the radical nationalists criticised Gandhi bitterly. (30) Jawaharlal Nehru was so upset by the agreement that tears came to his eyes. The Mahatma had to make personal efforts to reconcile him to the truce. For others the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was the greatest anti-climax in a long history of anti-climaxes that arose when Gandhi appeared to call off seemingly "successful" campaigns on the strength of what they saw as little more than his whims.

But the Pact used wording never before heard in the British Empire. Phrases such as "it is agreed" were not the words of dictation from a ruler. The Empire had started to crumble and while all the nationalist leadership may not have seen it, the masses and the rest of the world did. An astute observer pointed out that "In the people's eyes, the plain fact that the Englishman had been brought to negotiate instead of giving orders outweighed any number of details." (31) By showing its brutality to the world at Dharasana, the Raj lost the moral high ground. It could no longer claim to be bringing civilisation to backward colonies. The Raj was doomed. And when the British did finally leave India, they did so as friends.

However, whatever the views of critics or supporters, the movement that began early on the morning of the 12th of March, 1930, when Gandhi, followed by 78 disciples and countless others, left the ashram at Sabarmati for the long trek to Dandi, was about far more than political independence and in its wider messages the evaluation in terms of success or failure is irrelevant.


The Messages of the Salt March for the 21st Century

The Salt March gave the world the idea of the use of mass nonviolence in politics. To Indians, it helped produce a "Father of the Nation." Gandhi was instrumental in freeing India from the yoke of British imperialism and consequently started the unravelling of global colonialism. This alone is enough to count him a towering figure of his time. But his life continues to inspire. Peace workers, civil rights campaigners and environmental activists the world over acknowledge their debt to the Mahatma. His life addressed the perennial questions: How do we fight for justice in a way that does not result in further injustice? How can we fight for peace without violence? How do we deal with our opponents so they don't become our enemies? How can we be the change that we are trying to bring about?

The Salt March was a living sermon to the country and it was heard by many and it changed many. That sermon speaks to us just as loudly in the new millennium. The revolution that Gandhi sought to achieve was not merely a political one, it was also social. The independence he fought for was not only national but also personal. The Salt March was primarily about empowerment; it told people that they were stronger than they thought and that their oppressors were weaker than they imagined. Gandhi went as far as to remark that the salt campaign was "not designed to establish independence but to arm the people with the power to do so", (32) and for Gandhi the latter was far more important. The Salt March was a lesson in nonviolence, and gave clues to the type of life that is worth living, the type of life that makes one free.

The Salt March was both about reforming society and about the self-reformation of the individual. For Gandhi the two were inextricably linked - reform yourself and you have started to reform the world, reform the world nonviolently and you will have reformed the self.

The Gandhi of the Dandi March was not merely a mover of historical and political events, or even social ones, he was also a man working out his own existence - doing what he had to do because his inner beliefs told him that it was right. The march was more than the propaganda exercise of the very clever and astute politician that Gandhi undoubtedly was. It was also a living sermon on how battles should be fought, on the appearance of the ideal free India where none was considered high and none low, on how villages should be organised in a sanitary and cooperative way, on how principles should be adhered to in the face of adversity, on the meaning of openness and truth, on how we should relate to others. In short, how lives should be lived.

In his interpretation of the Salt March, marcher Muzumdar warns us against painting Gandhi in our own image. He protests against those who call Gandhi a dramatiser, explaining that:

The term dramatiser is merely a refined appellation for a "stunt performer".... Neither the adoption of the loincloth nor the March to the Sea was a dramatic gesture. The historic Salt March to the Sea was "an act of dedication to God", as the Mahatma put it to me. "This pilgrimage to Dandi is undertaken", added Gandhi, "in order to receive the blessing of God and the blessing of man so that I may return to the Ashram with Swaraj in the palm of my hand." That the march did present itself as a drama, that it did serve as an excellent means for enlisting popular resentment against the British Salt Laws, that it did prove to be the finest stroke of political leadership in organizing the country for Civil Disobedience, that it did attract the attention of the world - these by-products of his acts of dedication to God had nothing to do immediately with the Mahatma's decision. The course of action was adopted, as it is always adopted, by the Mahatma in obedience to the voice of the inner self. (33)

Mazumdar reminds us to realise that the statesmanship of the spirit is infinitely superior to the statesmanship of politics.

Those who have some scepticism about the Mahatma as being anything more than an extremely shrewd politician with his finger on the pulse of the masses, one who had great organisational and manipulative abilities, would not place much value on Muzumdar's interpretation. To a large degree, however, they would be wrong. The freedom Gandhi sought, and largely achieved for himself, the freedom he tried to steer the masses towards in his political campaign of freeing India, and perhaps especially during the Salt March, was freedom in the existential sense, "statesmanship of the spirit."

Viewed in this light, no matter how one interprets the political successes or otherwise of this key campaign in modern Indian political history, whatever one thinks of the amazing event that was the Dandi March, there can be no failure for someone who was doing what he had to do and reminding people that they too should be doing what they have to do - in order to do the right thing, in order to be true to themselves, in order to be free.



Louis Fischer, "Miscellaneous Notes from a House Guest", in Norman Cousins (ed.) Profiles of Gandhi: America Remembers a World Leader (Indian Book Co.: New Delhi, 1969), pp.54-64, at p.61.

Displayed prominently on a sign outside Gandhi's hut at his Sevagram ashram.

Reproduced in G. D. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, revised edition (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India: New Delhi, 1961), vol.8, facing p.89.

Quoted in Tendulkar, Mahatma, vol.8, p.111.

On these myths of the March, see Thomas Weber, "Historiography and the Dandi March: The Other Myths of Gandhi's Salt March", Gandhi Marg (1986), vol.8, no.8, pp.457-476.

See Thomas Weber, "Kharag Bahadur Singh: The Eighth [Eightieth] Marcher", Gandhi Marg (1984), vol.6, no.9, pp.661-673.

Quoted in Thomas Weber, On the Salt March: The Historiography of Gandhi's March to Dandi (HarperCollins: New Delhi, 1997), p.458.

Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography, (Bodley Head: London, 1936), p.213.

Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), (Publications Division, Government of India: New Delhi, 1958-1991), XLIII: 2-8.

Weber, On the Salt March, p.85.

L. F. Rushbrook Williams "Indian Unrest and American Opinion", Asiatic Review, July 1930, pp.479-496 at p.491.


Weber, On the Salt March, pp. 136-137.

Weber, On the Salt March, pp. 140-141. Much of the rest of the account of the march that is presented here is based on the narrative in the book.

See Weber, "Kharag Bahadur Singh".

Young India, 20 March 1930.

Bombay Chronicle, 8 April 1930.

Gandhi to Morselow ,16 April 1928, CWMG XXXVI, p.199.

Weber, On the Salt March, pp.206-207.

CWMG, XLIII, pp.221-223.

M. K. Gandhi, A Thought For the Day (trans. and ed. by Anand T. Hingorani), (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India: New Delhi, 1968).

Interview with Anand T. Hingorani, New Delhi, November 1982.

Weber, On the Salt March, p.245.

See Weber, On the Salt March, pp.268-275.

CWMG, XLIII, pp.146-149.

CWMG, XLIII, pp.157-159.

Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement in India, vol.3, "Mahatma Gandhi", Part III 1929-1931 (Directory of Printing and Stationary, Maharashtra State: Bombay, 1969), p.26.

Anand T. Hingorani, "My Reminiscences of Dandhi March, Northern India Patrika, 13 March 1973.

For a graphic account of the first mass raid, see Web Miller's famous description in his book I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1940), pp.134-137.

Weber, On the Salt March, pp.461-462.

Geoffrey Ashe, Gandhi: A Study in Revolution, (Heinemann: London, 1968), p.298.

CWMG, XLIII, p.306.

Haridas T. Muzumdar, Gandhi Versus the Empire (Universal: New York, 1932), p.150


Copyright © 2001 By the author



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