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Salt March launched popular resistance to British rule

The Tennessean

Mohandas Gandhi picks up salt in defiance of British rule of India. / wikimedia commons

By Frank Daniels III - Tel: +1 615-881-7039.

In the evening of March 11, 1930, Mohandas K. Gandhi delivered a speech to 10,000 or so folks gathered for prayers in the eastern Indian city of Ahmedabad. Gandhi was preparing to lead a large, visible protest march to Dandi — he termed it the Salt Satyagraha — to protest colonial rule.

He concluded his speech:
“I wish that there should be no suspension or abandonment of the war that commences tomorrow morning or earlier, if I am arrested before that time. I shall eagerly await the news that 10 batches are ready as soon as my batch is arrested. I believe there are men in India to complete the work begun by me. 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 combine, there defeat is an impossibility. A Satyagrahi, whether free or incarcerated, is ever victorious. He is vanquished only, when he forsakes truth and nonviolence and turns a deaf ear to the inner voice. If, therefore, there is such a thing as defeat for even a Satyagrahi, he alone is the cause of it. God bless you all and keep off all obstacles from the path in the struggle that begins tomorrow.”

Just a few weeks before, on Jan. 26, the Indian National Congress had declared Purna Swaraj, resolving to fight for complete self-rule, independent of the British Empire, and hoisted the new flag of India across the country. Jawaharlal Nehru drafted the declaration of independence: “The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually. We believe, therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj, or complete independence.”

The Congress Working Committee assigned Gandhi the task of organizing the first act of civil disobedience, and prepared to take responsibility after his arrest. Gandhi, to the incredulity of much of the movement’s leadership, chose to challenge the 1882 Salt Act, which gave the British a monopoly on the collection and manufacture of salt, limited salt availability to government salt distributors, levied salt taxes and made the personal harvesting of salt a criminal offense.

The Statesman newspaper editorialized, “It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians.”

The colonial government was dismissive of Gandhi’s protest, but Gandhi thought the Salt March would touch all Indians and give common cause by highlighting the unfairness of British rule on the simplest of things that touched everyone, regardless of creed or social status, in the tropical climate. “Next to air and water,” Gandhi said, “salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.” The salt tax represented more than 8 percent of the government’s revenue and was particularly onerous on the poorest.

Gandhi led a 24-day, 290-mile march to produce salt and not pay the tax. On April 6, when he made salt in Dandi, more than a million Indians, flouting the salt laws, joined the protest; 80,000 people were arrested during the march.

Gandhi was not arrested until May 4, when he informed Lord Irwin, viceroy of India, of his intention to conduct the Dharasana Satyagraha against the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Undaunted, the Indian National Congress went ahead with Gandhi’s plan, though many leaders, including Nehru, were arrested before the march could start. Gandhi’s wife tried to lead the march and was also arrested.

On May 21, as the protest was in fever pitch, and leaders were admonishing the satyagrahis to refrain from responding to violence, the protesters were rebuffed from the salt works by club-wielding police.

American journalist Webb Miller’s report stunned 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 whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow.”

It was not until Aug. 15, 1947, that the British relinquished rule.

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