18 August 2015
Non-violent resistance - Ghandi and the Salt march: A Case study
“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the 'still small voice' within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.” ― Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas.
Ghandi and the Salt march
(From: The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene, 2006, Pg 420-423)
In December 1929 the group of Englishmen who governed India were feeling a little nervous. The Indian National Congress--the country's main independence movement--had just broken off talks over the proposal that Britain would gradually return autonomous rule to the subcontinent.
Instead the Congress was now calling for nothing less than immediate and total independence, and it had asked Mahatma Gandhi to lead a civil-disobedience campaign to initiate this struggle.
Gandhi, who had studied law in London years before, had invented a form of passive-resistant protest in 1906, while working as a barrister in South Africa.
In India in the early 1920s, he had led civil-disobedience campaigns against the British that had created quite a stir, had landed him in prison, and had made him the most revered man in the country.
For the British, dealing with him was never easy; despite his frail appearance, he was uncompromising and relentless.
Although Gandhi believed in and practiced a rigorous form of non-violence, the colonial officers of the British Raj were fearful: at a time when the English economy was weak, they imagined him organizing a boycott of British goods, not to mention mass demonstrations in the streets of India's cities, a police nightmare.
The man in charge of the Raj's strategy in combating the independence movement was the viceroy of India, Lord Edward Irwin. Although Irwin admired Gandhi personally, he had decided to respond to him rapidly and with force--he could not let the situation get out of hand. He waited anxiously to see what Gandhi would do.
The weeks went by, and finally, on March 2, Irwin received a letter from Gandhi--rather touching in its honesty--that revealed the details of the civil-disobedience campaign he was about to launch.
It was to be a protest against the salt tax. The British held a monopoly on India's production of salt, even though it could easily be gathered by anyone on the coast. They also levied a rather high tax on it. This was quite a burden for the poorest of the poor in India, for whom salt was their only condiment.
Gandhi planned to lead a march of his followers from his ashram near Bombay (present-day Mumbai) to the coastal town of Dandi, where he would gather sea salt left on the shore by the waves and encourage Indians everywhere to do the same. All this could be prevented, he wrote to Irwin, if the viceroy would immediately repeal the salt tax.
Irwin read this letter with a sense of relief. He imagined the sixty-year-old Gandhi, rather fragile and leaning on a bamboo cane, leading his ragtag followers from his ashram--fewer than eighty people-- on a two-hundred-mile march to the sea, where he would gather some salt from the sands.
Compared to what Irwin and his staff had been expecting, the protest seemed almost ludicrously small in scale. What was Gandhi thinking? Had he lost touch with reality? Even some members of the Indian National Congress were deeply disappointed by his choice of protest.
In any event, Irwin had to rethink his strategy. It simply would not do to harass or arrest this saintly old man and his followers (many of them women). That would look very bad. It would be better to leave him alone, avoiding the appearance of a heavy-handed response and letting the crisis play out and die down. In the end the ineffectiveness of this campaign would somewhat discredit Gandhi, breaking his spell over the Indian masses. The independence movement might fracture or at least lose some momentum, leaving England in a stronger position in the long run.
As Irwin watched Gandhi's preparations for the march, he became still more convinced that he had chosen the right strategy.
Gandhi was framing the event as almost religious in quality, like Lord Buddha's famous march to attain divine wisdom, or Lord Rama's retreat in the Ramayana. His language became increasingly apocalyptic: "We are entering upon a life-and-death struggle, a holy war."
This seemed to resonate with the poor, who began to flock to Gandhi's ashram to hear him speak. He called in film crews from all over the world to record the march, as if it were a momentous historical event.
Irwin himself was a religious man and saw himself as the representative of a God-fearing, civilized nation. It would redound to England's credit to be seen to leave this saintly man untouched on his procession to the sea.
Gandhi and his followers left their ashram on March 12, 1930. As the group passed from village to village, their ranks began to swell. With each passing day, Gandhi was bolder. He called on students throughout India to leave their studies and join him in the march. Thousands responded. Large crowds gathered along the way to see him pass; his speeches to them grew more and more inflammatory. He seemed to be trying to bait the English into arresting him.
On April 6 he led his followers into the sea to purify themselves, then collected some salt from the shore.
Word quickly spread throughout India that Gandhi had broken the salt law. Irwin followed these events with increasing alarm. It dawned on him that Gandhi had tricked him: instead of responding quickly and decisively to this seemingly innocent march to the sea, the viceroy had left Gandhi alone, allowing the march to gain momentum.
The religious symbolism that seemed so harmless had stirred the masses, and the salt issue had somehow become a lightning rod for disaffection with English policy.
Gandhi had shrewdly chosen an issue that the English would not recognize as threatening but that would resonate with Indians. Had Irwin responded by arresting Gandhi immediately, the whole thing might have died down. Now it was too late; to arrest him at this point would only add fuel to the fire. Yet to leave him alone would show weakness and cede him the initiative.
Meanwhile nonviolent demonstrations were breaking out in cities and villages all over India, and to respond to them with violence would only make the demonstrators more sympathetic to moderate Indians. Whatever Irwin did, it seemed, would make things worse. And so he fretted, held endless meetings, and did nothing.
In the days to come, the cause rippled outward. Thousands of Indians traveled to India's coasts to collect salt as Gandhi had. Large cities saw mass demonstrations in which this illegal salt was given away or sold at a minimal price. One form of nonviolent protest cascaded into another--a Congress-led boycott of British goods, for one.
Finally, on Irwin's orders, the British began to respond to the demonstrations with force. And on May 4 they arrested Gandhi and took him to prison, where he would stay for nine months without trial.
Gandhi's arrest sparked a conflagration of protest. On May 21 a group of 2,500 Indians marched peacefully on the government's Dharasana Salt Works, which was defended by armed Indian constables and British officers.
When the marchers advanced on the factory, they were struck down with steel-plated clubs.
Instructed in Gandhi's methods of nonviolence, the demonstrators made no attempt to defend themselves, simply submitting to the blows that rained down on them. Those who had not been hit continued to march until almost every last one had been clubbed.
It was a nauseating scene that got a great deal of play in the press. Similar incidents all over India helped to destroy the last sentimental attachment any Indians still had toward England.
To end the spiraling unrest, Irwin was finally forced to negotiate with Gandhi, and, on several issues, to give ground--an unprecedented event for an English imperialist viceroy.
Although the end of the Raj would take several years, the Salt March would prove to be the beginning of the end, and in 1947 the English finally left India without a fight.