What Was Gandhi's Salt March?
The much-publicized, 24-day, 240-mile Salt March began on March 12, 1930, when 61-year-old Mohandas Gandhi led an ever-growing group of followers from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea at Dandi, India. Upon arriving at the beach in Dandi on the morning of April 6, 1930, loincloth-clad Gandhi reached down and scooped up a lump of salt and held it high. This was the beginning of a country-wide boycott of the salt tax, imposed upon the people of India by the British Empire. The Salt March, also known as the Dandi March or Salt Satyagraha, became a prime example of the power of Gadhi's satyagraha, passive resistance, which ultimately led to India's independence 17 years later.
Why a Salt March?
The manufacture of salt in India was a government monopoly established in 1882. Though salt could be obtained from the sea, it was a crime for any Indian to possess salt without having purchased it from the government. This ensured that the government could collect a salt tax. Gandhi proposed that every Indian refuse to pay the tax by making or purchasing illicit salt. Not paying the salt tax would be a form of passive resistance without increasing hardship for the people.
Salt, sodium chloride (NaCl), was an important staple in India. Vegetarians, as many Hindus were, needed to add salt to food for their health since they did not get much salt naturally from their food. Salt was often needed for religious ceremonies. Salt also was used for its power to heal, preserve food, disinfect, and embalm. All of this made salt a powerful emblem of resistance.
Since everyone needed salt, this would be a cause that Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians could all jointly participate in. Landless peasants as well as merchants and landowners would benefit if the tax were lifted. The salt tax was something that every Indian could oppose.
For 250 years, the British had dominated the Indian sub-continent. At first it was the British East India Company that forced its will on the native population, but in 1858, the Company turned over its role to the British Crown.
Until independence was granted to India in 1947, Great Britain exploited India's resources and imposed an often brutal rule. The British Raj (rule) improved infrastructure to the land, including the introduction of railroads, roads, canals, and bridges, but these were to aid in the export of India's raw materials, carrying India's wealth to the mother country.
The influx of British goods into India prevented the establishment of small industries within India. In addition, the British levied heavy taxes on various goods. Overall, England imposed a brutal rule in order to protect its own trade interests.
Mohandas Gandhi and the INC wanted to end British rule and bring about India's independence.
Indian National Congress (INC)
The Indian National Congress (INC), founded in 1885, was a body made up of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsi, and other minorities. As the largest and most prominent Indian public organization, it was central to the movement for independence. Gandhi served as president in the early 1920s. Under his leadership, the organization expanded, becoming more democratic and eliminating distinctions based on caste, ethnicity, religion, or sex.
In December of 1928, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution asking for self-rule within the year. Otherwise, they would demand complete independence and would fight for it with satyagraha, non-violent non-cooperation. By December 31, 1929, the British government had not responded, so action was needed.
Gandhi proposed opposing the salt tax. In a Salt March, he and his followers would walk to the sea and make some illegal salt for themselves. This would begin a country-wide boycott, with hundreds of thousands breaking the salt laws by making, gathering, selling, or buying salt without British permission.
The key to the struggle was non-violence. Gandhi declared that his followers must not be violent or he would halt the march.
A Warning Letter to the Viceroy
On March 2, 1930, Gandhi wrote a letter to Viceroy Lord Irwin. Beginning with “Dear Friend,” Gandhi went on to explain why he viewed British rule as a “curse” and outlined some of the more flagrant abuses of the administration. These included obscenely high salaries for British officials, taxes on alcohol and salt, the outlandish land revenue system, and the importation of foreign cloth. Gandhi warned that unless the viceroy was willing to make changes, he was going to begin a massive program of civil disobedience.
He added that he wished "to convert the British people to nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India."
The viceroy responded to Gandhi's letter, but offered no concessions. It was time to prepare for the Salt March.
Preparing for the Salt March
The first thing needed for the Salt March was a route, so several of Gandhi's trusted followers planned both their path and their destination. They wanted the Salt March to go through villages where Gandhi could promote sanitation, personal hygiene, abstention from alcohol, as well as the end of child marriages and untouchability.
Since hundreds of followers would be marching with Gandhi, he sent an advance team of satyagrahis (followers of satyagraha) to help the villages along the path prepare, making sure that food, sleeping space, and latrines were ready. Reporters from around the world were keeping tabs on the preparations and the walk.
When Lord Irwin and his British advisers learned the specifics of the plan, they found the idea ridiculous. They hoped that the movement would die out if it was ignored. They began arresting Gandhi's lieutenants, but not Gandhi himself.
On the Salt March
At 6:30 a.m. on March 12, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi, 61 years old, and 78 dedicated followers began their trek from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. They resolved not to return until India was free of the oppression the British Empire imposed on the people.
They wore sandals and clothes made of khadi, cloth woven in India. Each carried a woven bag containing a bedroll, a change of clothes, a journal, a takli for spinning, and a drinking mug. Gandhi had a bamboo staff.
Progressing between 10 to 15 miles a day, they walked along dusty roads, through fields and villages, where they were greeted with flowers and cheers. Throngs joined the march until thousands were with him when he reached the Arabian Sea at Dandi.
Although Gandhi had prepared for subordinates to continue if he were arrested, his arrest never came. International press was reporting the progress, and had Gandhi been arrested along the way it would have increased the outcry against the Raj.
When Gandhi feared the inaction of the government might dim the impact of the Salt March, he urged students to suspend their study and join him. He urged village headsmen and local officials to resign their posts. Some marchers broke down from fatigue, but, despite his age, Mahatma Gandhi stayed strong.
Daily on the trek, Gandhi required each marcher to pray, spin, and keep a diary. He continued to write letters and news articles for his papers. At each village, Gandhi collected information about the population, educational opportunities, and land revenue. This gave him facts to report to his readers and to the British about the conditions he witnessed.
Gandhi was determined to include untouchables, even washing and eating in their quarters rather than in the places where the high-caste reception committee expected him to stay. In a few villages this caused upset, but in others it was accepted, if somewhat reluctantly.
On April 5, Gandhi reached Dandi. Early the following morning Gandhi marched to the sea in the presence of thousands of admirers. He walked down the beach and picked up a lump of natural salt from the mud. The people cheered and shouted "Victory!"
Gandhi called on his companions to start collecting and making salt in an act of civil disobedience. The boycott of the salt tax had begun.
The boycott of the salt tax swept across the country. Salt was soon made, bought, and sold in hundreds of places across India. People along the coast gathered salt or evaporated sea water to obtain it. People away from the coast bought salt from illegal vendors.
The boycott expanded when women, with Gandhi's blessing, began picketing foreign cloth distributors and liquor shops. Violence broke out in a number of places, including Calcutta and Karachi, when police tried to stop the lawbreakers. Thousands of arrests were made but, surprisingly, Gandhi remained free.
On May 4, 1930, Gandhi wrote another letter to Viceroy Irwin describing his plan for followers to seize the salt at the Salt Works in Dharasana. However, before the letter could be posted, Gandhi was arrested early the next morning. Despite Gandhi's arrest, the action was to continue with an alternate leader.
At Dharasana on May 21, 1930, approximately 2,500 satyagrahis peacefully approached the Salt Works, but were brutally attacked by the British. Without even raising a hand in their defense, wave after wave of protesters were clubbed over the head, kicked in the groin, and beaten. Headlines around the world reported the bloodbath.
An even larger mass action took place near Bombay on June 1, 1930, at the salt pans in Wadala. An estimated 15,000 people, including women and children, raided the salt pans, collecting handfuls and sackfuls of salt, only to be beaten and arrested.
In all, about 90,000 Indians were arrested between April and December 1930. Thousands more were beaten and killed.
The Gandhi-Irwin Pact
Gandhi remained in jail until January 26, 1931. Viceroy Irwin wanted to end the salt-tax boycott and thus began talks with Gandhi. Ultimately, the two men agreed to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. In exchange for an end to the boycott, Viceroy Irwin agreed that the Raj would release all the prisoners taken during the salt upheaval, allow residents of coastal areas to make their own salt, and allow non-aggressive picketing of shops selling liquor or foreign cloth.
Since the Gandhi-Irwin Pact did not actually end the salt tax, many have questioned the efficacy of the Salt March. Others realize that the Salt March galvanized all Indians into wanting and working for independence and brought worldwide attention to their cause.