It was on 12 March 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi embarked on an unlikely odyssey. By that point, Gandhi – a London-trained lawyer who had risen to become a passionate campaigner for India’s independence from the British Empire – had already spearheaded civil disobedience in India. But this time, even his own supporters and allies were a bit bemused.
Gandhi’s idea was to lead a march about salt. At the time, the British Empire had a stranglehold on salt in India. The essential mineral was heavily taxed by the colonial power, and Indians could even be jailed for daring to make salt themselves. For Gandhi, the issue encapsulated the wicked tyranny of colonialism. ‘Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life,’ he said, believing a mass protest over the salt laws would help invigorate the Indian independence cause.
Other activists thought the idea was weak, and that salt law reform wasn’t an inspiring or glamorous enough rallying cry. ‘We were bewildered and could not fit in a national struggle with common salt,’ recalled future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As an article in an Indian newspaper put it, ‘It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians.’
But for Gandhi, this was a crucial matter, demanding the non-violent resistance he dubbed ‘satyagraha’ (or ‘truth force’). And, while non-violence was always at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy, he clearly regarded the planned salt march as a kind of military campaign. ‘We are entering upon a life and death struggle, a holy war,’ he said. The British authorities remained unruffled, with the Viceroy of India writing, ‘At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night.’
Gandhi and an initial band of followers set out from his ashram in Ahmedabad on 12 March 1930, with the designated end-point being the coastal town of Dandi, over 240 miles away. It would mean covering around 12 miles a day on foot, with the sprighty, 61-year-old Gandhi an instantly iconic figurehead with his stick and plain white robes. The epic walk took them from village to village, where Gandhi’s ever-increasing numbers of fellow marchers could rest each night. International journalists and filmmakers covered the march, while thousands of locals would gather at each stopping point to hear Gandhi deliver speeches against the salt laws.
With this (salt), I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.
Gandhi framed it as an issue of class as well as nationalism – a point of unity for all the oppressed masses of India. Gandhi knew that recruiting the poor of India to the nationalist cause would be essential to the cherished aim of independence. Not only did villagers come to listen, but they joined the march too. They were inspired by Gandhi’s words – his vocal ‘battle of right against might’ – but also by the sheer spectacle of the march itself, with the river of people stretching back for miles.
The most famous moment would come when they finally reached Dandi. Here, Gandhi committed the decisive act. He calmly and deliberately broke the salt laws by evaporating sea water to make his own salt. Raising a handful of salty mud in his hand, he declared: ‘With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’
The success of the march inspired mass disobedience across the land, with millions of people following Gandhi’s example by breaking the salt laws. It’s estimated that around 60,000 people were eventually arrested by the British, and Gandhi himself was hauled away while preparing for a non-violent raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat.
The raid carried on without him, with the protestors staying true to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, even as they were set upon by the police. ‘Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows,’ journalist Webb Miller reported. ‘They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls.’
'The ‘nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir.'
Winston Churchill on Gandhi
For all the violence and mass arrests, Gandhi’s salt protest succeeded in getting the attention of the world. Gandhi himself was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, and American journalists compared Indian defiance of the salt laws to the Boston Tea Party. The British government had to relent, and in 1931 Gandhi met with the Viceroy of India to sign a pact which led to the release of political prisoners and allowed the manufacture of salt by Indians in coastal areas.
It fell short of what Gandhi’s allies wanted, and it certainly roused anger among many in the British establishment – including Winston Churchill, who decried the ‘nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace.’
While Indian independence was a long way off (it would finally come in 1947), the salt march had a profound effect on the psyche of ordinary Indians. As Nehru put it, ‘Non-cooperation dragged them out of the mire and gave them self-respect and self-reliance’. And it would help enshrine Gandhi as one of the most influential thinkers and activists of the 20th Century.