Gandhi’s Salt March 1930

The Nation Arises: The 1930-31 [Indian] Independence Campaign

Gandhi Chooses the Issue: the Salt Tax

Encouraged by such a success for Gandhian tactics, [the Indian National] Congress in December 1928 passed a resolution demanding independence within a year. By December 1929 it was evident that Ramsay MacDonald’s hints of the possibility of dominion status were unlikely to materialize because of political factors in Britain, and Congress, meeting in Lahore, resolved on complete severance from the empire. All members were called to resign from legislatures and official positions. Nehru was elected president of Congress, and Gandhi was deputed to lead the nationwide satyagraha [nonviolent action] that would implement the resolution. He was to decide its scope and timing.

On the 26th January, now celebrated as a national festival, Gandhi published the Indian Declaration of Independence, a document which wedded the purely political ambitions of many of his associates in Congress with his own conception of a liberation that would be social and spiritual as well.

Gandhi chose the Salt Tax as the issue on which to initiate the independence campaign. He could hardly have picked an issue which touched directly the lives of more people. On January 1, 1930 The New York Times had been able to report that ‘In England the India crisis is not yet a topic of general conversation outside of political groups, and in India itself millions of people know nothing about it’.

It was not long before nearly everyone in England, India and the literate world knew what was happening.

A Salt Commission had sat in 1835 and recommended that Indian salt should be taxed in order to enable the sale of English salt in India. The Salt Act set up a government monopoly on the manufacture of salt. Any violation of this monopoly was punishable with confiscation of the salt and a six months’ imprisonment.

In addition to picking an issue with which to begin the campaign which had the active support of the people, Gandhi had picked an issue which put his opponents in a strange position. A considerable part of the officials in both India and Britain had also thought the salt law was outrageous and had said so.

In response to Gandhi’s request, the Working Committee agreed that the civil disobedience campaign should be begun and controlled by those who believed in nonviolence as a matter of principle as contrasted to following it as a temporary policy.

The plan of action was that Gandhi would go to some spot, and pick up salt – thus violating the law. He was to be accompanied only by members of his Ashram at Sabarmati. All others were to wait until he was arrested. Then there would be simultaneous reaction all over India. The people would know what to do.

The chivalry of Gandhi’s nonviolence would not permit him the advantages of a surprise attack. He wrote a letter-ultimatum to the Viceroy, which is probably one of the strangest letters a ruler ever received. It was delivered by Reginald Reynolds, a young British Quaker who was one of Gandhi’s disciples.

Sabarmati Ashram
Sabarmati, March 2nd, 1930

Dear Friend

Before embarking on Civil Disobedience and taking the risk I have dreaded to take all these years, I would fain approach you and find a way out.

My personal faith is absolutely clear. I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less fellow human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India.

I must not be misunderstood. Though I hold the British rule in India to be a curse, I do not, therefore, consider Englishmen in general to be worse than any other people on earth. I have the privilege of claiming many Englishmen as dearest friends.

The names, ages and identification of those who were to march to the sea with Gandhi appeared in the March 12th issue of Young India. The ages ranged from eighteen to Gandhi’s sixty-one years. Of the 79 who were to march with him, three were between 41 and 45 years, four between 36 and 40, six between 31 and 35, and all the rest were under 30. It was announced that Shri Abbas Tyabji was to lead the march if Gandhi were arrested.

There were nearly 10,000 at the evening prayers on March 11th, the eve of the march. The enthusiasm was swelling. Gandhi felt it was the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’.

‘Gandhi’s course was now clear. He intended to rely on cumulative effect, on a movement that would be small in the beginning and almost childishly simple in its aim, but would spread like ripples in a lake until the whole of India was stirred. He set out at dawn on the 12th March from Sabarmati Ashram, at the head of 79 volunteers. They were marching to Dandi on the seacoast, 241 miles away. Vast crowds accompanied them out of Ahmedabad, and throughout the march the volunteers were only the minute tip of a procession that always numbered several thousands. The Viceroy had ordered a policy of non-interference, since he believed the march would fail. It became instead a triumph, with the villagers strewing the roads with green branches for Gandhi to walk on, and gathering every night in hundreds under the peepul trees to hear him in his thin, small voice expounding the glories of freedom and the beauties of the moral life. The whole enterprise took on in the imagination of observers and participants the quality of a mythical quest, and people from all parts of India and in the rest of the world followed with tense anticipation – as they followed Lindbergh’s flights – the slow, deliberate progress of the little man with his bamboo staff leading his peace army to the sea.’

The march reached Dandi, and on the 6th April, the anniversary of the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh [Amritsar], after bathing ceremonially in the ocean, Gandhi came to the shore and picked up a fragment of salt, while the poetess Sarojini Naidu shouted ‘Hail, Deliverer!’ The effect of that simple gesture was extraordinary. Through the years of stagnation since 1922, the conviction that alien rule must be brought to an end had been spreading among Indians of all classes, while the steady work of Gandhi’s followers had resulted in a wider understanding of the necessary disciplines of satyagraha. When Gandhi picked up his pinch of salt, it was like turning a switch that sets in motion some vast and complex mechanism. Everywhere in India people began to manufacture salt, on beaches, on house-roofs, and to hawk it in the streets. Legislators and local officials resigned; hundreds of village headmen left their posts. Newspapers ceased publication rather then accept censorship. There were the usual hartals and processions, policed by nonviolent volunteers. Up in Peshawar the men of the Garhwali Rifles, one of the crack regiments of the Indian army, refused to fire on the demonstrators, and for two weeks, until Gurkha troops arrives, the city was a free commune administered nonviolently by the local Gandhian leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his Red Shirts. Women joined the movement in unprecedented numbers, even emerging from purdah to do so. This time, there was no violence to mar the satyagraha; as Gandhi had promised, not a single Englishman was hurt.

If Gandhi and his followers believed that this would be the end of British power, they were mistaken. The government arrested 60,000 people, and harshly suppressed the movement in Peshawar. Most Congress leaders were in prison, but Gandhi still had thousands of trained volunteers to direct, and he now warned that the satyagraha would assume a more active character than ever before by the nonviolent invasion of the government salt factories. The threat brought his arrest on the 4th May, but this did not halt the movement, for Gandhi had arranged for that eventuality. His detention without trial under an old East India Company statute provoked a countrywide hartal, and on the 21st of May his followers invaded the Dharasana Salt Works. It was an impressive example of nonviolent tactics at work. The 2,500 chosen volunteers advanced like a miniature army, with their commisariat and their ambulance corps of stretcher bearers and first-aid men. Four hundred armed police guarded the salt works. Like Indian policemen even today, they became easily unnerved under stress, and as the satyagrahis advanced in wave after wave, they attacked with a blind, mechanical violence. Many suffered from fractured skulls, some died, and hundreds were hospital cases. The struggle ended with the salt works still unoccupied, but even though they failed, it was the courage of the satyagrahis, described by American and British journalists, that impressed the world.

This was the climax of the movement. One hundred thousand people were in prison, the elite of Congress, and resistance moved into low key, as continued noncooperation, so that Bombay and other towns were virtually in the hands of Gandhian shadow governments. The Viceroy, like Gandhi, believed that a stalemate had been reached that could only be resolved by establishing a dialogue, and on the 26 January 1931 he released the Congress leaders and invited Gandhi to confer with him in Delhi. Out of days of conversation emerged the face-saving Irwin-Gandhi Pact. Salt, it was agreed, could be made for personal use; the 100,000 imprisoned volunteers would be released; Gandhi would represent Congress at the Round Table talks to be held in London to determine the next stage in giving constitutional government to India.

Reference: unknown. For the most authoritative account of Gandhi’s Salt March, see Thomas Weber On the Salt March: the historiography of Gandhi’s march to Dandi New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1997.

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