Mahatma Gandhi's choice of salt for the 1930 campaign initially evoked derision and scepticism but the march proved to be sui generis, a gift of gifts to India. It is time to give something back to Dandi, a commemoration that is not stereotypical.

This was not the first time that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had decided to lead a march.

A great column of over 2000 men, women and children had moved in 1913 under his lead from Natal across the Transvaal border to break a ban on Indians travelling from one South African province to another, and to protest against a law that rendered all marriages barring those under Christian aegis as illegal. The result, coming with the Relief of Indians Act, was dramatic.

His work among the indigo peasants in Champaran, Bihar in 1917 and among Kheda's peasants in Gujarat the following year saw him trudging the dusty trail again. Both those roads led to the removal of the peasants' grievances within some six months.

The 24 days during which he led a column of 80 satyagrahis traversing 241 miles from Sabarmati to the Surat coastline to break the salt laws did not yield such results. Though raw salt was lifted 'illegally' by Gandhiji and his followers and though ‘contraband' salt was made and sold, the salt laws stayed and the salt tax was not repealed. And yet the salt march culminating at Dandi on April 6, 1930 is regarded as the most electrifying of all his satyagrahic campaigns, with Jawaharlal Nehru saying “it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released.”

The choice of salt for his campaign had initially evoked derision. The Statesman wrote: “It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians.” The Congress leadership too had been ambivalent, with Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru being initially unpersuaded and Gandhiji's ‘right arm,' Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who wanted a land revenue boycott instead, not concealing his scepticism of salt.

C. Rajagopalachari saw both the logic and the magic of his leader's decision. Speaking at Sholanur, C.R. said: “You may say, hello, this is a funny thing. All along he was telling [us] that if we made khaddar we will get swaraj, now he says we must make salt also...” And then at Tuticorin explained in detail why this “funny thing” was not funny at all. “Suppose,” C.R. said, “a people rise in revolt. They cannot attack the abstract constitution or lead an army against proclamations and statutes...Civil disobedience has to be directed against the salt tax or the land tax or some other particular point — not that that is our final end, but for the time being it is our aim, and we must shoot straight.”

Gandhi's ‘southern warrior' then did a salt march from Tiruchirappalli to the Tamil coastal village of Vedaranyam, in spectacular sync with Dandi.

Sardar Patel, we have noted, was not an initial enthusiast for salt as a satyagrahic weapon. But once the decision was taken, he not only plunged into the preparations but, typically, gave the campaign its first propulsion. ‘Putting Sardar Patel out of the way' became the Surat District Administration's priority because it knew that in a salt-based satyagraha in Gujarat, Sardar Patel would be the salt's very savour.

The Sardar was touring the area to determine the best route to the salt-laden coast and to alert the peasantry, already ‘trained' by the Bardoli satyagraha, for the coming campaign, when villagers in the Surat village of Raas engaged him on March 7 (five days before Gandhiji's column started from Sabarmati) in eager conversation. “How many in Raas are ready for prison?” the Sardar asked. About two hundred came forward. “Are the women ready too?” A group of them, young and old, said they were. Later, when he was about to rise to address the villagers of Raas, an order was brought by a first class magistrate forbidding him to address any meeting in the district. After the Sardar went through the paper the Magistrate asked him, “What do you intend to do?” Came the answer, “I will ignore the notice and speak.” Before he could utter a single word to the gathering, the future Home Minister of India, the country's first to hold that office, was asked to follow the posse of policemen. Rajmohan Gandhi writes in his biography of the Sardar: “Patel rose from his seat, farewelled the audience and stepped smiling and laughing into the police car.”

The campaign had started.

What made this campaign different from earlier ones?

Earlier campaigns had been sharply focussed on issues that were as vital, but with all their voltage, were still of local import. Dandi, despite being geographically identifiable with a particular district, a specific stretch of coast, and a particular spot on that coast, yet straddled the nation. This was by virtue of its being centred on an object that all of India related to. That a gift of nature, salt, could be turned into a government-controlled commercial monopoly suddenly seemed unacceptable. And non-violent but strident resistance of that monopolisation also suddenly seemed logical and in fact vital.

Gandhiji utilised the march to breach some things other than the salt laws as well. One of these was the caste divide in the villages en route. On his arrival in some villages he headed straight for the so-called ‘untouchable' quarters and drew water from the well there for his wash, making his village hosts, often from ‘higher' castes, to cross those ancient and hurtful divides.

Another thing on his mind was the fragility of Hindu-Muslim equations at the time. There were only two Muslim marchers in his team of 78, which later became 80. But the role he gave to Abbas Tyabji, as his alternative ‘leader,' and his choice of the beachside home of Sirajuddin Vasi (locally known as Shiraz Abdulla) as his place of stay in the village of Dandi sent a clear message. It was that the swaraj being fought for was to be for all India, across religious denominations.

A third ‘bonus' of the campaign was the profiling it gave to women satyagrahis and thereby to the Indian woman. Gandhiji did not include women among the marchers, but gave them roles along the campaign, with Kasturba setting the marchers off at Sabarmati, Sarojini Naidu being at hand the moment the first fistful of salt was lifted at Dandi on April 6,1930, and the remarkable Parsi social worker Mithuben Petit standing just behind the Mahatma when he repeated the violation at Bhimrad three days later. A memorable photograph captures the moment, Gandhiji stooping to lift the salt crystals. And at different places, women like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Hansa Mehta, Amina Tyabji, and Rukmini Lakshmipathy broke the salt laws. Their example acquires a meaning of its own today as the nation moves dramatically ahead with what is popularly called the Women's Reservation Bill.

But beyond these, there are two other ‘Dandi achievements' that need to be recognised and studied for their contemporary salience.

Dharasana, 25 miles south of Dandi, had a government salt depot. The satyagrahis did a series of raids on this depot. The brutality with which the non-violent raids at Dharasana led first by Abbas Tyabji and then by Sarojini Naidu, with Gandhiji's son Manilal Gandhi participating, was met showed, in J.C. Kumarapppa's words “the fangs and claws of the government in all its ugliness.” But more astonishing than the state use of force against the satyagrahis was the amazing self-discipline of the satyagrahis in the face of the repressive violence. Not one satyagrahi retaliated to the baton charges, often delivered from horseback.

Dandi and Dharasana exemplified Gandhiji's non-violent methods of protest based on the principle that “to kill for freedom will legitimise killing after freedom.” They carry a meaning today that we cannot afford to miss.

The other abiding ‘Dandi achievement' lies in an altogether different area. Explaining “why salt?” Gandhiji said: “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”

Gandhiji was not a conscious ‘environmentalist.' The term ‘ecology' did not figure in his vocabulary. But the fact that he described the criticality of salt as being “next to air and water...” assumes an enormous significance. At a time when environmental pollution and the contamination of water sources are all too plain and can shock us into astonished disbelief, the attention paid by Gandhiji to those two lifelines and then to the only inorganic material that humans and animals consume carries more than a significance. It carries a message and constitutes a mandate.

There is no governmental monopoly over Indian salt today. But India, like the rest of the world, is aware of the manner in which the industrial behemoths of the world hold nature's gifts of air and water, of non-renewable resources, including land and its minerals, in a techno-commercial grip.

Dandi gave India a gift of gifts in 1930. It is time, during this 80th anniversary of that gifting, for India to give something to Dandi. This can and should be in terms of a ‘built' commemoration that vivifies the Great March. Dandi would like to see such a memorial. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's announcement in Dandi in April 2005 was to that effect. And the Government of India and the Government of Gujarat are working towards raising precisely such a complex.

But the more abiding ‘gift' to Dandi needs also to be in terms of a ‘living memorial' that enriches the quality of the life of the people of Dandi and the region, enabling them access to more drinking water, green energy. The march was sui generis. Its commemoration cannot be stereotypical.

Which is why it is hope-giving to see State and central authorities planning a project at Dandi, which, apart from a sculptural-cum-architectural monument complex, will use solar power for lighting the venue and later generate solar energy at Dandi, and give it a bioshield as well. The stretch of beach at Dandi today is no different from our coasts elsewhere. Need one be surprised? The Gujarat Vidyapith at Ahmedabad, which played a major role during the Dandi campaign, is planning to collaborate with the local authorities to see the Dandi beachline becoming, in time, pristine.

With remarkable sensitivity, the Archaeological Survey of India has, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture currently under the Prime Minister's direct charge, restored the house at Dandi where Gandhiji stayed. Its solar-illumining on April 6, 2010 by the Ministry of Renewable Energy will spotlight the multi-mode memorial.

His pocket watch dangling at the waist, Gandhi truly took time by the forelock at Dandi. The evolving commemoration of that historic event will also have to do more than be in step with the times. It will have to show the way to an ecologically sustainable future where the gifts of nature are not in thrall.

(The author is Chairman of the Dandi Memorial Committee constituted by the Government of India.)

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