The Salt March was a civil disobedience movement in India. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers led the movement in 1930 (Kuhn 162). Gandhi decided to mount a highly visible campaign against British policies in the salt trade by marshalling thousands of his supporters to walk with him on a 230-mile journey that started from his hometown of Gujarat to the Indian coastal town of Dandi (Kuhn 162).
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Initially, Gandhi only had a few dozen followers who started the journey with him from his hometown of Gujarat. However, when Gandhi passed through several Indian villages, he talked to the people and explained to them the nature of the British salt tax and its disadvantages to the poor people. Through his march, he managed to convince more people to join his movement. Many people heeded his call and the crowds around him grew bigger.
Gandhi led his followers on the 230-mile journey to the Indian coast, and when he reached the coastal town of Dandi, he picked salt from the ground, thereby breaking the salt tax law that prohibited people from producing salt (by picking salt from the ground, he had technically broken the salt law) (Hazarika 5).
His followers did the same, thereby breaking the salt laws too. At first, the government did not do anything to Gandhi. Gandhi therefore continued with his movement for almost one month before he attracted widespread attention that forced the government to react. The colonial forces later arrested Gandhi and about 60,000 more people who took part in the movement (Kling 937). However, his arrest only created more chaos in India as thousands of more people joined the salt march (Kuhn 91).
Gandhi’s arrest also sparked a series of more protests that targeted British establishments (like shops and Mills). Therefore, even though the protest organizers initially intended the march to be peaceful, it resulted in the loss of property and life as police officers engaged the protesters with violence as they marched through the streets of India.
Indeed, since many of the protestors were unarmed, they could not protect themselves from the force of the government. Many protestors died instantly (Ahmed 20). The march to Dharasana was the most violent (Kuhn 162). Nonetheless, after the march, moderate political and social reforms occurred in India. More specifically, the march started a wider national movement of independence in India.
Comprehensively, the Salt march movement was an effective demonstration of how peaceful means of conflict resolution introduced social and political change. The adherence to the principle of non-violence as a peaceful resolution principle supports this claim. Therefore, the salt march movement contributed to the independence movement of India and the replication of similar non-violent movements around the world.
Civil Disobedience – Definition
The act of civil disobedience is a deliberate effort to contravene existing laws of governance to bring social or political change. Analysts see civil law as a non-violent way of achieving this goal, but this may not always be the case (Thoreau 7). In the context of the Indian movement, Gandhi intended the civil disobedience movement to be a form of respectful disagreement (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 718).
However, the violence that descended on the protestors by the British forces undermined this goal. Nonetheless, many questions exist regarding what actions involve breaking the law and civil disobedience. Another issue that arises in this context is the moral justification for acts of civil disobedience.
Possibly among the oldest depiction of civil movement is Siophocle’s play, Antigone. The play depicts the story of the daughter of a former King (Antigone) who feels constrained from burying her brother (by the laws of the land) (Hughes 59). Antigone defies the King after she gave a long speech stating why she believes her conscious is greater than the laws of the land.
She also seems to be undisturbed by the threats on her life, if she defies the king. Eventually she defies the king after she says that she is more afraid of her conscious rather than the consequences of breaking the law (Hughes 59). In an essay, written in 1848, Thoreau (7) also offers a literary insight into the concept of civil disobedience.
He says people are often responsible for the actions of their aggressors because they fail to protest unfair laws and actions, even when these actions are enshrined in the law (Thoreau 7). Referring to this idea, Thoreau (7) says, “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not persuade them to sit on another man’s shoulder. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too” (Thoreau 7).
Acts of civil disobedience started earlier in history when Egyptians resisted British invasion in 1919. The Velvet revolution in East Germany and the Apartheid fight in South Africa also provide other examples of the civil disobedience in the world (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 718). Similar civil disobedience movements have happed in other parts of the world. Relative to this assertion, Brownlee 1) says,
“The Boston Tea Party, the suffragette movement, the resistance to British rule in India led by Gandhi, the US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and others, the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, student sit-ins against the Vietnam War, to name a few, are all instances where civil disobedience proved to be an important mechanism for social change” (Brownlee 1).
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The main issue that arises in a civil disobedience movement is the unwillingness of authorities to respect the opinions and rights of the majority. Therefore, civil disobedience movements protest unfair laws (as the case in India’s Salt March) (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 718).
Causes of the Salt March
The Salt March was a direct action campaign in India to protest a “salt tax” that was imposed by the British rule (Kuhn 162). The 1930 movement saw Mahatma Gandhi lead thousands of Indians in breaking the salt laws that prevented anybody from producing or selling salt India.
Since salt was a commonly consumed commodity in India, it affected almost everybody because it gave the British colonialists almost absolute power to control the salt business. The British therefore enjoyed an absolute monopoly on the salt trade by requiring all Indians to purchase salt from them at a fee (Kuhn 13).
The Indians were therefore at the mercy of the colonialists who imported expensive salt, from overseas, and sold it to poor Indians at very high costs. Since the salt laws made it illegal for any Indian to collect or process salt from the coast, many Indians had to buy the commodity from the British at exorbitant prices. This issue caused a lot of dissatisfaction among Indians regarding the existence of the salt taxes and its impact on the people. Gandhi therefore led his people to demand for a change of this law.
The planners of the Salt March movement never meant for the protests to be of a violent nature (Kuhn 130). Instead, Gandhi and his colleagues organized the movement as a peaceful demonstration against colonial policies of the salt trade. This is why Gandhi wrote a letter to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, to inform him of their intentions to solve this issue amicably (without violence) (Kuhn 97).
This letter was an effort by Gandhi and his colleagues to find a peaceful solution to the salt tax issue. However, Lord Irwin refused to listen to Gandhi by saying that the government would not change its policies regarding the trade. From this stand, Gandhi and his followers had no other option to engage the government except through a peaceful defiance of existing laws. This defiance emerged as a civil disobedience movement.
Ensuing Mass Civil Disobedience
When Gandhi first picked his handful of salt at the Indian coast, millions of Indians around the country followed his move and started to break the salt laws by producing and purchasing illegal salt. With this move, the sale of illegal salt started to spread along the Indian coast.
One month after the march, the British government started to arrest thousands of people who participated in the civil disobedience. The government arrested about 60,000 people (Szczepanski 4). The arrest of these people quickly fueled further civil disobedience by evolving the salt march from a simple Salt Satyagraha to a massive Satyagraha (Satyagraha was the infamous term of a non-violent civil disobedience movement) (Szczepanski 4).
Before, the march broke out into violent attacks against British establishments; Gandhi led millions of Indians to boycott British goods and merchandise. The boycotts also led to other civil disobedience movements such as the defiance of unpopular forest laws throughout most Indian provinces (Szczepanski 4). The defiance of forest laws was however selective on a few provinces and towns in India, which had suffered a long history of colonial aggression through these laws.
From the start of the legal defiance of existing forest laws, many Indian peasants also started to defy tax laws by refusing to comply with them. The Gujarati peasants formed one such group of Indians who blatantly refused to respect tax laws. They mainly feared the possibility that the colonial masters would take their crops and land away from them. Midnapore and some Bengazis also participated in similar tax law defiance. In their defiant spirit, they refused to pay the chowkidar tax (Szczepanski 4).
The colonial government did not relent in its quest to suppress the civil disobedience movement by introducing new suppressive laws that strived to introduce censorship and the criminalization of Congress (Szczepanski 4). However, contrary to their expectations, these measures did not suppress the civil disobedience movement.
In the middle of the 1930 civil disobedience movement, other students of Gandhi started to lead small groups of activists to support the salt march movement. Through this support, notable Gandhi students like Pashto (a Muslim student of Gandhi) led small groups of non-violent followers in Peshawar to support Satyagraha.
Indeed, when Gandhi strolled along India’s west coast to strengthen his salt march movement, the influence of his other students started to emerge in the east coast. For example, his close student, Rajagopalachari, led a parallel salt movement in the east coast to support Gandhi’s movement in the west.
When his movement became stronger, the government arrested Gandhi for contravening the existing salt laws (Kling 937). The government later responded by introducing a shoot-to-kill order against unarmed civilians. This order led to the death of about 250 non-violent civilians (Kuhn 97). Guided by the teachings of non-violent protests, tens of protesters lined up against firing soldiers who shot at them indiscriminately.
The civil disobedience movement also marked the start of female participation in Satyagraha. Indeed, large groups of women came from small and big villagers to protest the government’s policies in the salt trade (Hardiman 113).
The participation of women in the movement was against Gandhi’s wish because he believed women would not have such a strong impact on the movement (Hardiman 113). However, many women participated in the illegal manufacture and sale of salt throughout most parts of the country. To demonstrate the participation of women in the salt march, another Gandhi student, Usha Mehta, said
“Even our old aunts and great-aunts and grandmothers used to bring pitchers of salt water to their houses and manufacture illegal salt. And then they would shout at the top of their voices – We have broken the salt law” (Hardiman 113).
Indian women also engaged in early morning protests, which they disguised, as religious worship. The authorities were therefore reluctant to stop their activities because they feared the citizenry would accuse them of infringing on the religious rights of the women (Hardiman 113). This movement strengthened the Salt March.
The increased participation of women in the salt march movement was a new and powerful phenomenon that shocked the British government. Moreover, the involvement of women in the protests made it more difficult for police to clamp down on the protestors. This movement evolved to be a fight for independence.
When the mass civil disobedience started to receive extreme opposition from the government, the movement slowly gained a violent twist, especially after violence broke out in some of India’s major cities of Kolkata, Karachi, and Gujarat (Hardiman 116). At this point, Gandhi developed a hard-line stance against the government by motivating more of his followers to protest non-violently (but at the same time, acknowledging the hundreds of lives that were lost in the movement).
Some historical excerpts show that the civil disobedience movement significantly disrupted the activities of the government by creating a lot of confusion regarding if it was right to continue with the violent clampdowns on the protestors, or to jail Gandhi (Kuhn 162).
Effectiveness of the Salt March
Albeit there were no immediate effects of the Salt March movement, the 1930 protest brought global attention to India and its quest to find peaceful means for stopping colonial aggression. Indeed, many photographers and journalists scrambled to cover the movement and its effects, especially since it was a significant part of India’s history.
Since the salt March was a peaceful protest, many protestors did not engage in any violent means to end the conflict. Moreover, even as the government violently clobbered the protestors, they never tried to defend themselves (Ahmed 20). Images and videos of the government bashing the heads of innocent protestors (to stop the protests) therefore beamed throughout the world, thereby attracting a lot of sympathy for India’s quest to gain independence from the colonialists (Ahmed 20).
Certainly, even while some critics fault the effectiveness of the Salt March in unifying all religions against the salt tax, the salt march movement still managed to unify many Hindus and Sikh Indians against British rule (Szczepanski 9). This development fueled the demand for independence from all Indians.
Albeit some historians say the salt march did not significantly change British policies in India, many historians believe that the movement demonstrates, for the first time, how people could use civil disobedience to introduce social and political reforms (Friffiths 518).
Certainly, the effectiveness of civil disobedience in introducing political and social reform emerged in other parts of the world, such as, America where Martin Luther King equally used the method to fight for African American civil rights. Through the contributions of Gandhi in the salt march movement, King (478) said,
“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 Satyagraha (Satya is a truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means 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” (King 478).
Another notable effect of the salt march movement was the growing global acceptance of the need for India to get its independence from Britain. Indeed, even though the British colonialist still maintained dominant control over India, the world was increasingly starting to understand the legitimacy of Gandhi’s claim that the British colonialists were oppressing Indians (Szczepanski 9).
Moreover, through the movement, the colonialists remembered that their continued control over India entirely depended on the consent of the Indians. The 1930 Salt March was the first show from the Indians about the eroding legitimacy of British colonial rule (Szczepanski 9). Referring to this outcome, Johnson (37) said that the salt march was the first real attempt by Indians to gain respect from the colonialists.
The salt March was also the first attempt by the Indians to be less reliant from the British government. Indeed, the movement had a strong impact on the government because it marked a turning point in its history of governance as the citizenry became more defiant and courageous enough to question any policy they did not like about the government (Johnson 37).
Since the arrest of Gandhi forced thousands of protestors to throng the streets of India to demand for his release, India was able to establish its legitimacy as “the ultimate power” of the land when they forced the government to release everybody that the government arrested in the salt movement. Indeed, soon after Gandhi’s release, he met with Lord Irwin and struck a deal that would see all prisoners who took part in the movement freed (Kuhn 108). In exchange, Gandhi would end his civil disobedience movement (Kuhn 108).
Albeit Gandhi was able to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, the salt march movement gave him unrivaled influence in India. Besides securing a position as a representative in Congress, he was able to affirm the effectiveness of non-violent disobedience in the Indian society (Kuhn 108).
Not only did Gandhi affirm the effectiveness of a peaceful solution to conflicts, he created examples of peaceful people who also pursued similar methods of peaceful resolution mechanisms. For example, even as the British beat the protestors before arresting them, the protestors never responded with violence too (Ahmed 20). This way, Gandhi was able to introduce useful social and political changes in his society without harming other people (Ahmed 20).
Adherence to the Principle of Nonviolence
Albeit the salt march movement started as a non-violent protest, there were pockets of violence in some Indian cities. Mainly, the violence was an offensive effort from the British forces to stop the protests (Ahmed 20). Historical excerpts show that the marchers were largely peaceful, even when ruthless British soldiers beat them (Weber 46). Indeed, there was minimal or no resistance at all to British aggression (Ahmed 20). An excerpt from a correspondent, who reported he Salt March, said,
“No protestor tried to raise an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like tenpins. 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 shoulder. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down” (Ahmed 20).
To this extent, it is correct to say that the movement adhered to the principle of non-violence.
Symbolism of the Salt March
The salt march movement was one among a series of other protests that Gandhi had planned to be part of his civil disobedience action. It was his basic idea that a foreign government cannot come to dictate how people in other places live, especially by imposing draconian laws (like the salt tax) (Szczepanski 9). Salt was a strategic symbol of Gandhi’s quest to introduce social and political justice in India because many Indians could easily relate with the commodity.
Gandhi also cleverly understood that his rally to abolish the salt tax could resonate with millions of people in the country, regardless of their religious affiliation, creed, or race (most people used salt) (Szczepanski 9). This rally was in sharp contrast to other political reform movements that would often fight for constitutional reforms, or land reforms, because such issues were complex and many ordinary Indians could not relate to them (Szczepanski 9).
The salt march movement was therefore Gandhi’s stepping-stone to undertake similar protests to reduce land rates, military spending, and foreign cloth tariffs (Szczepanski 9). These ambitions forced the British government to detain Gandhi without any trial as he planned to raid a salt factory in his native hometown. The protests however occurred when his wife and some of his followers led tens of Indians to participate in the protests. The government later arrested and jailed the protagonists.
The salt march was a product of Gandhi’s principles of non-violent civil disobedience that aimed to introduce social and political change. Starting from small march that included only a few dozen people, the salt March movement grew into a national movement that included millions of people and confused the British government, especially when they had to decide how to react to the protest.
The nonviolent nature of the conflict was a key feature of this movement that enabled it to withstand the credibility of its objective. Indeed, through the nonviolent means that the protesters used to advance their objectives, the government did not know how to react to this movement. This was Gandhi’s main objective because it was unfounded for the government to engage in violent means of quelling the protests, while the protestors were peaceful.
Nonetheless, the reaction of the government (through violent means) cemented the effectiveness of the salt march because through the actions of the government, the salt march movement was able to show to the world how the British government did not respect its subjects, who were the custodians of their legitimacy to rule the colony.
Indeed, through the violent reaction of the government, the effectiveness of the salt march movement transcended its previous objectives of abolishing the salt laws, to fueling the quest for independence.
Similarly, through the global attention that the Salt March movement attracted, other leaders around the world saw and understood the power of peace in solving social and political conflicts. The influences of the conflict on other world leaders demonstrate this power. Nonetheless, the Salt March movement elevated the profile of Gandhi as the chosen leader for steering Indian independence, thereby forcing him to receive the global recognition as a respected humanitarian and a lover of peace.
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