A hero in white

Pass the salt,” said Appa. Everyone was at the breakfast table. Manikantan and Swetha were eating their idlis with gusto. “The sambar has less salt.” Appa had made the sambar.

“Can’t you eat it with less salt?” asked Swetha.

“You can, of course! But it wouldn’t taste as delicious. Salt is the king of spices. The most basic ingredient but also the most important.”

“In fact,” said Appa, “salt was a hero during the Indian freedom struggle.”

“Salt, a hero?” asked Swetha, her eyes going wide.

“Yes, salt can be a hero — it is an example of personification,” said Manikantan with a grown-up air, “where objects and feelings are given a human quality.” He always liked to show off what he had learned in school.

“Okay, but why was salt the hero? Did it go and fight battles or star in a movie? She tried to imagine ‘salt’ as a swashbuckling hero fighting off the baddies.”

“Haha, something like that. You see a long time ago, before India got Independence, Indians had a pay a lot of tax to the ruling British government every time they bought salt.”

The salt tax

“What is tax?”

“Every time you buy something or earn a salary, some of the money goes to the government. In turn, the government uses the tax money to run the country. But, sometimes, taxes can be unfair. As was the case with the salt tax.”

“Why was it unfair?” Swetha had unconsciously grabbed the salt shaker on the table.

“Well, even in places like Gujarat, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, where there was plentiful of salt in the marshes, one could not collect, sell it or use it. Everything had to routed through the British government and was expensive.”

Swetha looked puzzled. She had that face she made when she did not understand something.

“Imagine having mangoes in your backyard but not being able to pluck and eat it. Instead, you have to wait for someone to pluck and sell them in the market. When you go to buy them — your own mangoes — you will have to pay a large amount of money, including a tax.”

“That sounds awful.”

“It was. So, Mahatma Gandhi, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu, and many other leaders decided to protest and make their own salt. In Gujarat there was the Dandi Salt March. Rajaji, as Rajagopalachari was fondly called, followed it up with the Vedaranyam Salt March in Tamil Nadu on April 13, 1930. They marched for 15 days over 240km from Tiruchi to Vedaranyam, a coastal town.”

“Where did they eat and sleep?” asked Manikantan.

On the way

“There were 150 volunteers who marched. Local people gave them food and boarding. A British officer called J.A. Thorne threatened the locals and said that those who supported the volunteers would be arrested and put in jail. But the people were clever and hid food in trees or buried them in pots by the river bed and found ways to give the marchers place to sleep. When they finally arrived in Vedaranyam to collect salt, the police arrested the volunteers. But the locals continued to make salt, despite the arrests. It was too large a protest and everyone was fed up with the unjust taxes. Many were lathi charged. Rajaji famously said: ‘Thorne and thistles cannot stem this tide of freedom.’

“Very clever,” said Manikantan. “Rajaji punned on the name Thorne.”

“Indeed, Rajaji was very clever. He wrote many books in Tamil and English.”

“Sounds so daring! I wish I could have been a part of the march,” Swetha said wistfully, forgetting the idlis and piping hot sambar on her plate.

Appa continued, “Four women joined the protest; the most famous being Rukmini Lakshmipathi. She became the first woman to be arrested for participating in the Salt Satyagraha. She was and still is an inspiration to many.”

“I am going to look her up,” said Swetha, “this Salt Queen.”

Amma said soberly, “There were many salt warriors. So many lost their lives. It was a seemingly simple thing: making salt. But it became a turning point in India’s freedom struggle. The world took notice of the atrocities of the British. Finally, the British left India in 1947 and the salt tax was removed!”

“Salt!” exclaimed Manikantan, “who would have thought it has so much history.”

Swetha raised the salt shaker in the air. “I am the Salt Queen. I can topple governments.” Amma laughed.

“Now back to my original request,” said Appa, “Pass the salt, please — or should I say — please pass the hero of the day.”

“Not just today, but every day!” exclaimed the kids.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 8:35:19 pm |