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The Salt March--Gandhi's and My Own

By Jan Øberg

On March 2, 1930, Gandhi sent a letter to Lord Irwin, the English viceroy, to warn him that an act of civilian insubordination was about to start. 

Gandhi had decided to make the salt tax the focal point of nonviolent political protest. The British monopoly on the salt trade in India dictated that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government was a criminal offense.

"The British system seems to be designed to crush the very life out of [the peasant]. Even the salt he must use to live is so taxed as to make the burden fall heaviest on him." Gandhi wrote. "Take your own salary. It is over 21,000 rupees (about 7,000 dollars equivalent) per month . . . You are getting over 700 rupees a day against India's average income of less than two annas (four cents) per day. . . Probably the whole of your salary goes for charity. But a system that provides for such an arrangement deserves to be summarily scrapped . . . Nothing but organized non-violence can check the organized violence of the British government."

Gandhi explained that those participating in this action would "ignore" the salt tax and would readily accept imprisonment. Should Irwin be prepared to discuss the matter, they would call off the action. 

Gandhi defies the salt tax  [www.mahatma.org.in]

The Salt March began on March 12, 1930, at 6:30 a.m. Not quite 80 of Gandhi's followers set out from Sabarmati and walked to the coastal village of Dandi, 385 kilometers to the south, a journey which was to last 23 days. In each village Gandhi rallied support for his actions. On reaching the coast he picked up a clump of mud and salt and said, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." He then boiled it in seawater to make the salt which no Indian could legally produce. 

On March 12, 2001, at 6:30 a.m., I walked through the gate of the Sabarmati ashram, covering on foot the first few kilometers of Gandhi's Salt March route. I then took a train, and planned to drive the final 50 kilometers, visiting the temples and other places the marchers passed all those years ago. 

In the small village of Dharam, I find a simple house which has a statue of Gandhi in front of it. I hear there is a man living here who was with Gandhi during the march. Mr. Bakhta is now 94 years old. "I was 23 and a freedom-fighter when we did the march. I was studying history at Gujarat Vidyapith, which Gandhi founded. We travelled ahead of Gandhi and planned night accommodations and rallies. We were ready to die for the independence of India. That's how it must be if you really want to achieve something!" 

Vivid Memories

I tell him that we are going to the village of Dandi and then to see the salt works of Dharasana. "I'd love to go with you, would that be possible?" he asks. So off we go, driving on tiny paths toward the coast. 

We finally arrive at the salt works. In the film about Gandhi, you may remember the rows of unarmed demonstrators and marchers who were brutally beaten by the police here. Two died and hundreds of them were taken to the hospital bleeding from their injuries. Mr. Bakhta was one of them. Today he tells us a little of everything: how deadly tired they were, how much they were prepared to be arrested at any moment, Gandhi's temperament. 

Barefoot salt-workers shovel the salt back and forth towards the banks. We ask them for some salt as a souvenir and we take some also for Mr. Bakhta. I see a tear rolling down his cheek. He says: "I'm so happy I came along; I haven't been back since all that happened here."  

When we return in the evening Mr Bakhta is very tired but very happy. We thank each other heartily. The salt reminds us that symbol politics and nonviolence can be stronger than realpolitik and violence.

Jan Oberg is cofounder of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Futures Research (TFF), based in Sweden. See www.transnational.org for the full, unabridged account.


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