The Salt March – the March towards Independence

The Salt March…what exactly is it? Why should a march involve salt and what is its significance?

Well, for those of you who don’t know what exactly is the Salt March, it is a march led by the distinguished Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi in his effort to fight for the independence of India from the British. As you will see later on, salt plays the most ultimate role in this march, and it is salt that made an impact to the whole of India through this symbolic and historic march.

I’m sure most, if not all of you, are familiar with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi. So, let’s just move on, shall we?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi

For many centuries, salt has been an extremely essential commodity for the people of India, in which salt is used for many things such as cooking and preserving food. The Indians frequently produce their own salt for their own uses. Taxes have been levied on salt for many centuries by many governments throughout the land of India. However, when the British East India Company started to take control over various areas of India in the early 19th century, taxes on salt were greatly increased. In 1835, heavy taxes were levied on Indian-produced salt in order to increase the import of British-produced salt from Liverpool. This benefited many British merchants, particularly those from the British East India Company who received large amounts of dividends from the salt trade between the British and India.

Salt - one of the most common commodities in our daily lives

In 1878, of which by then the British had firm control over all India, a uniform salt tax policy was implemented throughout all provinces of India. A Salt Act was then drafted and approved by the British Indian government, in which salt trade was monopolized by the British. This act rendered the production of salt in India illegal and punishable with 6 months imprisonment. Besides, this act made the export of salt out of India illegal and allowed only British government salt depots to produce and distribute salt. Heavy taxes were also imposed on the British-manufactured salt, thus greatly increasing the price of salt sold to the Indians. In other words, the people of India cannot produce their own salt and had to rely on British-manufactured salt only, but they had to pay extremely high prices to obtain the much-needed salt.

The historic meeting of the Indian National Congress (the main political party of India) on the 26th of January 1929 in Lahore (a city presently in Pakistan) saw a decision being made to oppose the cruel Salt Act, with Mahatma Gandhi being the main man in moving this decision. He was given the responsibility to organize a move to oppose the Salt Act, while the Congress agreed to take charge after Gandhi’s expected arrest.

The attack against the British Salt Act may seem like an unlikely move to initiate the people’s fight for India’s independence. So, why exactly did Gandhi decide to take this seemingly insignificant act as a target to move the Indian people in the effort of fighting for India’s independence? Firstly, salt, as I’ve said before, is an extremely essential commodity used by the people of India, all the more so because India’s generally hot climate requires its people to have a relatively higher salt intake. Everyone, regardless of religion or degree of wealth, needs salt, thus it is an absolutely universal commodity for the Indians. Secondly, since a majority of the Indians belong to the poorer classes of society, purchasing the highly-essential salt is a great burden for a majority of the people. Hence, the fight against the Salt Act will have a great impact on the majority of the Indians.

Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy in India during the Salt March

Initially, Mahatma Gandhi sought to amend the Salt Act via non-unlawful means. As such, he sent a letter to the British Viceroy in India, Lord Irwin, on March 2, 1930, in which he wrote:

“If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil.”

An Englishman who believed in the movement towards India’s independence via non-violent means was chosen by Gandhi to deliver the letter to Lord Irwin. However, Lord Irwin replied by writing that the Salt Act and salt taxes will not be amended or repealed whatsoever.

The path of the Salt March from Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmadabad, Gujarat to Dandi, Gujarat

Sabarmati Ashram - Mahatma Gandhi's humble abode in Ahmadabad, Gujarat

Subsequently, on the 12th of March 1930, Mahatma Gandhi embarked on the famous and historical event known as the Salt March. He set off from the Sabarmati Ashram (Hindu hermitage) in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, where he has been living and praying. At the beginning of his journey, he brought along 78 male satyagrahis (Indian activists of truth and independence) who were trained in the Sabarmati Ashram. His plan was to march all the way from Ahmadabad to Dandi, a coastal village in the Indian state of Gujarat. This would be a 241 mile march by foot spanning over a period of 23 days. No vehicles whatsoever were involved, and Mahatma Gandhi marched all the way by foot, stopping at various towns and villages on the way. Even the people who marched with him used only their feet to transport them all the way.

Mahatma Gandhi leading the Salt March to Dandi

All along the way, Gandhi and his followers sung his favourite bhajan (a Hindu devotional song) entitled Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram (Lord Rama, Chief of the house of Raghu). Gandhi stopped at many towns and villages along the way, delivering sermons to the people who came to listen to him. The further he went along the way, the more people joined in the march. He began with only himself and 78 other male satyagrahis, but by the time he arrived at Dandi, it was said that tens of thousands of people, both males and females, were already part of his march. It was also said that the roads that Gandhi passed were watered and sprinkled with flowers and green leaves, welcoming the great fighter of India’s independence.

The people of India joining Gandhi in the Salt March to Dandi

The Salt March also saw prominent Congress leader Sarojini Naidu (also known by her maiden name Sarojini Chattopadhyaya) participating in it. Sarojini Naidu was the first Indian woman to become the president of the Indian National Congress and later became the governor of the state of Uttar Pradesh, making her the first woman governor of an Indian state. She was married to Dr. Muthyala Govindarajulu Naidu from the state of Andhra Pradesh. She joined Mahatma Gandhi in the Salt March, marching alongside him at the front of the procession.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu (right) leading the Salt March

On April 5, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu, along with the entire crowd of the procession, arrived at the seashores of Dandi, Gujarat, thus ending the Salt March. On the following morning after a prayer, Gandhi went to the seashore, stooped down to pick up a lump of salty mud, raised it as high as he could and declared to everyone present:

“With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”

He then boiled the salty mud in seawater, subsequently producing salt illegally. The British deemed this an illegal act as only British salt depots were allowed to produce and sell salt. Gandhi then called upon all his fellow Indian countrymen to do the same by disregarding the Salt Act and producing their own illegal salt. All over India, men and women did so and even boycotted British-produced salt by illegally selling their own salt. The pinch of salt that Gandhi produced at the end of the Salt March sold for 1600 rupees, equivalent to $750 at that time. Even other Congress leaders such as Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru sold salt to the people openly.

The historic moment when Gandhi picked up a lump of salty mud on the shores of Dandi to produce illegal salt

As a result, more than 60,000 people were arrested throughout India. All the jails were packed and stuffed with lots of people on the charge defying the Salt Act. After the Salt March, Gandhi planned to organize a public non-violent raid against the British-controlled Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Once again, Gandhi informed Lord Irwin about his plans by writing a letter to him. As a result, on the midnight of May 4, 1930, while Gandhi was sleeping on a cot in a mango grove, he was arrested by the District Magistrate of Surat, who was accompanied by two Indian officers and 30 heavily-armed constables. He was held without trial in the Yeravada Central Jail in Pune, Maharashtra.

After Gandhi’s arrest, other Congress leaders decided to go on with the planned raid, but many of them were arrested before the decided date, including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (later the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India) and Jawaharlal Nehru (later the first Prime Minister of India). Subsequently, on May 7, 1930, Abbas Tyabji, a retired judge, and Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi took charge of the planned raid and started marching by foot towards the Dharasana Salt Works. Unfortunately, both of them were also arrested, along with 58 other satyagrahis, on May 12, even before they reached the salt factory. With the arrest of the both of them, the march towards the salt factory was left with no Congress leader in charge, so Sarojini Naidu and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad then led the march and the raid. Under their leadership, the satyagrahis attempted repeatedly to enter the salt works, but were turned back by the police and soldiers stationed there. On one occasion, the satyagrahis sat down and waited outside the salt works for 28 consecutive hours. In line with their non-violence approach, Naidu warned the satyagrahis:

“You must not use violence under any circumstances. You will be beaten, but you must not resist; you must not even raise a hand to ward off blows.”

A caricature depicting Sarojini Naidu leading the march to the Dharasana Salt Works

Finally, on May 21, the satyagrahis endeavoured to tear away the barbed wires protecting the compound of the salt works. The police and soldiers retaliated by clubbing them one by one. This event attracted immediate attention worldwide. One reporter described the non-violent raid against the Dharasana Salt Works in such a way:

“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. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.”

The satyagrahis in action in the non-violent raid against the Dharasana Salt Works

The people’s disregard for the Salt Act set up by the British persisted for months after the raid against the Dharasana Salt Works, right until the release of Gandhi from jail in early 1931. The great leader was then given an opportunity to hold talks on equal terms with Lord Irwin, bringing about the Second Round Table Conference at the end of 1931.

Statues in Delhi, India erected to commemorate the Salt March

Indeed, the entire episode of the Salt March had not only left a great impression amongst the people of India, but had also attracted international attention and interest in the non-violent struggles for independence practiced by the people of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Being the precursor of India’s serious non-violent struggle for independence from the British, it gave India a good start in bloodlessly fighting for the nation’s independence and sovereignty. Weird as it may sound, the Salt March has actually left one of the greatest impressions in Indian history merely by means of one of the most common commodities that many of us tend to take for granted – SALT!

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel - first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru - first Prime Minister of India

Abbas Tyabji (left) - a prominent Congress member and retired judge

Kasturba Gandhi - wife of Mahatma Gandhi

Maulana Abul Kalam Muhiyuddin Azad - first Minister of Education of India

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