Researching the salt mines in Europe, I found several articles dealing with salt in India. Along the west and east coasts of India, extensive low-lying marshes are flooded by the sea during the monsoon season. When the seawater evaporates during the summer, large salt pans are created that hold thick layers of salt. Many years ago, if you lived near these salt pans, you could gather all you needed, and then sell or trade the remainder.
Then someone figured out that if everyone had free access to salt, someone else was losing an opportunity to make money. Therefore, for the past 5,000 years, India has suffered in one way or another from the objective of making money from its naturally abundant salt.
In particular, the governing of India by the British in the 1700s created a seriously onerous situation where overlords made it a law that indigenous residents would be taxed for salt, resulting in, first, the British East India Company having a monopoly on the manufacture, sales, and possession of salt, and then the British Government, itself, to use the continuing monopoly to make up to 10% of its Indian revenue. Eventually, the law made it a crime not only to make salt, but to even possess it without having bought it from the government. The annual cost to a family for salt was two-thirds the average family’s income.
The history of British salt in India is involved in the particulars, but it brought about one of the most famous non-violent acts of civil disobedience by a nation: the Salt March of 1930, led by Mahatma Gandhi. That action and subsequent actions around the production of salt would eventually add momentum to India becoming independent of Great Britain.
From 12 March to 6 April, 1930, for 24 days, Gandhi led a march from the town of Sabarmati Ashram to the town of Dandi, around 240 miles away. Beginning with 78 trusted followers and ending with many thousands, the march brought world-wide recognition of India’s oppression by the British government, and would lead to large scale acts of civil disobedience against the salt laws by millions of Indians. The Salt March culminated with Gandhi walking into a salt pan at 8:30 in the morning, gathering a lump of salty mud and boiling it in seawater, and then raising the handful of salt that he had made high above him, declaring that he had broken the law. He then implored all his followers to likewise begin making salt along the seashore.
Gandhi kept the British government fully informed of what he was going to do – before, during, and after he had done it. There were no covert actions; he wrote articles, had letters published, sent telegrams, held interviews, and met daily with reporters, all telling the same story: salt laws were unjust, it punished the Indian society at the individual level as well as the national level, it hurt the poor worst, it kept the Indian economy at the mercy of the British government, and it was a crime against the very society who should be benefiting from their natural resources.
The British reacted in royal fashion by arresting Gandhi and 60,000 others. They passed more laws, including censorship of correspondence, as well as the clamping down on newspapers reporting the incidents. They also reacted with force, the most famous incident using machine guns to slaughter 200-250 non-violent and unarmed protestors in Peshawar’s Qissa Kahani Bazaar on 23 April, 1930. One British Indian Army soldier, Chandra Singh Garhwali and some other troops from the renowned Royal Garhwal Rifles regiment refused to fire at the crowds. The entire platoon was arrested and many received heavy sentences, including life imprisonment.
Less than a month later, another non-violent action was planned as a raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat, south of Dandi, where Gandhi’s walk had ended. It ended with British soldiers senselessly clubbing non-resisting protesters until “…in two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies…The police became enraged by the non-resistance…They commenced savagely kicking the seat men in the abdomen and testicles. The injure men writhed and squealed in agony, which seemed to inflame the fury of the police…The police then began dragging the sitting men by the arms or feet, sometimes for a hundred yards, and throwing them into ditches.”
The story of the brutalities appeared in 1,350 newspapers throughout the world and was read into the official record of the United States Senate.
Nothing changed. The salt laws remained and no major policy concessions were made by the British until the 1950s. However, world opinion increasingly began to recognize the legitimacy of claims by Gandhi and the Indian Political Party. It was a significant step in Britain ultimately surrendering its control of India.
Thirty years later, the significance of the Salt March was still being felt in America:
“Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of his [truth force or love force] was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m taking a vacation with my family in a week, so will not be posting blogs on the next two Sundays.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.