Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, April 10, 2004
by Susan Ives
Last Tuesday was the 74th anniversary of the morning that Mohandas Gandhi hitched up his loincloth, leaned into the sea and scooped up a lump of salt.
It seems a small thing, an old man dipping his hand into the sea and fishing out a handful of salt. Just salt.
The story started in January 1930 when India unilaterally declared its independence from British rule. Nothing changed. The British were still there, the soldiers were still there, the oppressive laws were still there. India was not free. Gandhi realized he needed to shake things up.
Since 1827 the British had imposed a tax on salt. The tax affected both rich and poor. Salt was a necessity in the torrid climate of India, used to preserve food and ward off dehydration.
“We are lucky, at any rate,” Gandhi said, “that there is no tax on the air we breathe!”
A child could follow the recipe for salt. Just scoop it from the sea, as Gandhi did, and boil it for a few minutes. But that was illegal, punishable by six months in jail.
Gandhi decided there would be a satyagraha against the salt tax. In the English-speaking world, we would call it a nonviolent action, as satyagraha is not easily translated. It literally means truth-force, a physical demonstration of an injustice that confronts the oppressors with the intolerable effects of their policies.
“Don’t bring your opponents to their knees,” Gandhi once advised. “Bring them to their senses.”
On March 2, Gandhi delivered a letter to Lord Erwin, the governor-general of India, asking that the salt tax be repealed. If it wasn’t, he said, he would launch civil disobedience in 10 days.
Erwin never replied.
“On bended knees I asked for bread and I have received stone instead,” Gandhi observed.
He speculated, “Supposing 10 men in each of the 700,000 villages in India come forward to manufacture salt and to disobey the Salt Act, what do you think this government can do?”
At 6:30 on the morning of March 12, Gandhi and 78 men from his ashram set off on a 241-mile trek to the sea at Dandi, on the west coast of Gujarat.
At each stop of their 24-day march their crowds swelled. Hundreds marched, then thousands.
The day before they approached the sea, Gandhi told the media, “In all humility but in perfect truth I claim that if we attain our end through nonviolent means India will have delivered a message for the world.”
He bent. He scooped. He boiled.
Over the next few weeks, 60,000 Indians were arrested for making salt. On the night of May 4, Gandhi was sleeping in his cot under a mango tree. The district magistrate drove up with 30 heavily armed constables and arrested him. He was jailed until January.
A month later, Gandhi was at the negotiating table with the viceroy. Winston Churchill was incensed by 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 to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”
For the first time the British were forced to negotiate with the leader of a subject nation.
In 1947, India won full independence.
I asked Gandhi’s grandson Arun, director of the Gandhi Institute in Memphis, Tenn., what message the Salt March has for us today.
“The Salt March,” Arun replied, “was conceived as a way to mobilize the Indian masses to show the British Empire that right is mightier than might.
“I think we today have submitted to might as being right, and we condone violence and wars fought in our name. I think it is time we awoke the conscience of the world to the fact that right is always mightier.”
It has become conventional wisdom that there is only one superpower left in the world: the United States. This is not true. There are two superpowers. The other is the millions and millions of people armed not with guns but with the power of nonviolent resistance. It’s time. Oh, yes, it’s time.