Inside India #31: Gandhi’s Salt March – bringing down an empire with a handful of salt

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Picture the scene. India’s iconic revolutionary leader, Mohandas Gandhi (known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul”) striding confidently along a dusty rural road, dressed in his trademark homespun white cotton shawl and sandals, a delegation of acolytes trailing in his wake. The group arrives in a village – another of the thousands of Indian hamlets that dot the subcontinent – where Gandhi is greeted like a rock star, a gaggle of foreign media hanging on his every word and adding to the circus-like atmosphere.

This was Gandhi’s celebrated Salt March, an act of non-violent, non-cooperation that became a symbol of India’s independence movement.

Picture attribution: CC.0

Gandhi, a trained lawyer, had returned to India (from South Africa) and swiftly found himself drawn into a stand against the continued British occupation of the subcontinent. He joined the Congress Party in 1915, where he quickly rose to national prominence with a protest philosophy based on a concept that he coined as “satyagraha” – the force of truth.

By the early 1930s he’d already spent years in jail pursuing this peaceful brand of anti-imperialism, including stints for encouraging Indians to boycott British goods, such as cotton.

Gandhi chose the 1882 British Salt Act as a key target for his campaign, a decision met with scepticism among many of his colleagues who felt that salt was hardly a topic worthy of a national protest movement. Gandhi disagreed.

As with many other commodities, Britain had controlled the salt trade in India for over a century, forbidding natives from its manufacture or sale, instead forcing them to buy it at exorbitant prices from British merchants. Gandhi knew that salt was used by Indians of all classes, creeds and castes and thus had the potential to unite his countrymen.

His idea was simple. To march to the coastal town of Dandi and ‘make’ his own salt from the sea, in defiance of the Salt Laws, and to do so in full view of the media.

He set off at dawn on March 12, 1930, from his ashram near Ahmedabad, clutching a wooden walking stick, and with several dozen companions in tow. The British, nervous of Gandhi’s plans, but wary of a public backlash should they attempt to stop him, had little choice but to allow the march to proceed.

Along the way, Gandhi stopped at dozens of villages to address the masses. In his unassuming, yet utterly compelling manner, he condemned the Raj and asked government workers to emulate his philosophy of non-cooperation by quitting their jobs. Stirring up public sentiment, he urged his countrymen to bring the system of administration that had allowed so few Brits to rule over so many to a grinding halt.

As the march wore on, thousands joined Gandhi’s cortege, swelling the ranks of the marchers into a miles-long procession. The images of celebratory crowds cheering Gandhi’s every step, and walking in the great man’s shadow, made the front pages all around the world.

Gandhi finally arrived in Dandi on April 5, having walked 241 miles in just 24 days. The next morning, thousands gathered to watch him wade into the Arabian Sea to commit his symbolic crime.

Gandhi’s act of defiance galvanised the nation. Tens of thousands followed his example. Over the next months, non-cooperation paralysed the country with several incidents making international headlines, in particular a peaceful march on a government salt works at Dharasana where protestors were struck down by truncheons but refused to lift a finger to defend themselves.

Gandhi, who had originally intended to participate in the Dharasana march, was prevented from doing so by his arrest. He would remain in prison until early 1931.

It would not be his last stay.

During the 1930s and 40s Gandhi would ramp up his non-violent protests – and ultimately lead his country to independence in 1947.

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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