Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Dandi March

Let's go,” Gandhiji said, as he stepped out of the Sabarmati Ashram on the morning of March 12, 1930. The sun was high up in the sky. He had 78 followers who followed in his wake.

The bespectacled Gandhiji was bare-bodied but wore a white shawl across his chest and a folded dhoti. The others wore white caps or turbans, shirts and pyjamas.

Gandhiji held a long wooden walking stick, looked downwards and walked with a rhythm of a man who was used to walking long distances.

As he went along narrow, dusty roads, through many villages, many others joined in. These included people who played the drum, 'dhak dhak dhak' the sound went, and singers who sang songs of encouragement at the top of their voices.

As more and more people joined in, dust rose up in the air. Beads of perspiration began to appear on Gandhiji's forehead but he moved on, with a smile and a wave of his hand.

And Gandhiji was determined to travel as frugally as possible. At a village called Bhagtam, Gandhiji scolded the local people for getting milk from Surat in lorries for the marchers. At another time, he came across a man who was carrying a heavy Kitson burner so that the people could see when they were walking in the night. Gandhiji stopped using him because he felt it was a begar (forced labour).

Later, freedom fighter and poet Sarojini Naidu joined in, in a bright saree, and framed her head with the pallu, to get protection from the summer heat.

This was a walk of protest. The British government introduced a tax on salt, declared that the people’s salt reclamation activities illegal, and repeatedly used force to stop it. So Gandhiji was walking all the way to Dandi, a distance of 387 kms to break the salt laws and to make salt. He said, “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might'.

Each day he walked 20 kms. “With no luggage, this is child’s play,” said the 61-year-old. In a YouTube video, he can be seen resting on the floor of a hut after the day's walk, looking relaxed and at home. In another scene, he is wiping his face with a towel.

Anyway, the walk continued. Finally, at 6.30 a.m. on April 6, Gandhiji had a bath in the sea at Dandi and picked up some salt. Gandhi took part in several public meetings before he was arrested on May 4.

Thereafter, the Congress Party planned to stage a satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt Works, 40 kms from  Dandi as well as the salt pans on May 21. It was near the Dharasana factory that the British troops attacked the participants.

Here is an excerpt from American journalist Webb Miller’s report, who was the only journalist present:

'Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when more than 2,500 Gandhi ‘volunteers’ advanced against the salt pans in defiance of police regulations. The official government version of the raid, issued today, stated that ‘from Congress sources, it is estimated 170 sustained injuries, but only three or four were seriously hurt.’

'About noon yesterday I visited the temporary hospital in the Congress camp and counted more than 200 injured lying in rows on the ground. I verified by personal observation that they were suffering injuries. Today even the British owned newspapers give the total number at 320 …

The scene at Dharasana during the raid was astonishing and baffling to the Western mind accustomed to seeing violence met by violence, to expect a blow to be returned and a fight result. During the morning I saw and heard hundreds of blows inflicted by the police, but saw not a single blow returned by the volunteers. 'So far as I could observe the volunteers implicitly obeyed Gandhi’s creed of non-violence. In no case did I see a volunteer even raise an arm to deflect the blows from lathis. There were no outcries from the beaten Swarajists, only groans after they had submitted to their beating.’

The British tried their best to prevent Miller's cables from going out but he managed to find a way through another channel. Despite attempts at professional neutrality, Miller’s story of brutality against unarmed and fearless demonstrators spoiled the image of the civilised Raj looking after poor, unsophisticated Indians.

The Dharasana story appeared in 1,350 newspapers served by the United Press throughout the world and make the concept of nonviolent resistance world famous.

Meanwhile, the protests against the salt tax lasted for a year. Over 60,000 Indians were jailed. It ended with Gandhiji's release from jail on January 26, 1931. In September, 1931, he held negotiations with Viceroy Lord Irwin at the Second Round Table Conference at London.

However, it failed to result in major concessions from the British, but it transformed international opinion towards India. Many countries felt that the desire for Independence was deep and widespread across the nation.

Another journalist who was able to turn international public opinion towards India was veteran correspondent J A Mills of the Associated Press. He wrote many in-depth features of Gandhiji, including the drama of the fight against the British which appeared in numerous newspapers in the US.

Mills also travelled with Gandhi by ship when the latter went to attend the Round Table Conference and developed a close working relationship with Gandhi. He was also the first to do an audiovisual interview with Gandhi.

In effect, the Dandi March let loose a chain of events which would culminate in India's freedom on August 15, 1947. 

(Published in The Gandhi Supplement, The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

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