A Page from History
Why did Gandhiji break the salt law?
By Dibyendu Guha
In the beginning of 1930, due to pressure from the radicalists, the Congress was compelled to adopt the resolution calling for complete independence of the country in its Lahore session, instead of accepting the offer of ?dominion status?. At that juncture, when the people of resurgent India were hankering after some positive action to oust the imperialist power, the Congress leaders had no other alternative but to declare ?complete independence? as their goal and civil disobedience as the means to achieve the objective. This unexpencted declaration was made by the Congress just to retain its anti-imperialistic image. Gandhiji was not happy with the decision of the majority. In his Collected Works, Gandhiji expressed his reaction in these words: ?By the exigencies of circumstances we are now compelled to declare that Congress wants complete independence.? Assuring the Raj and the big compradors, who were patrons of the Congress and at the same time great admirers of the British rule, Gandhiji declared: ?The independence resolution need not frighten any body.?
Leading a nation aspiring to break the shackles of bondage, Gandhiji never wanted a direct confrontation with the British Raj because he fervently believed: ?When that comes (freedom), if it ever does, it will come through a gentlemanly understanding with Great Britain? (Collected Works of Gandhiji). But Subhas Chandra Bose had a different idea on Gandhiji'sexpectations. He wrote: ?The leaders, as a body, were too anxious to find some honourable escape from the impending fight with the government, which was everyday becoming inevitable? (Indian Struggle).
Revolutionaries in Punjab, Bengal and elsewhere were planning and preparing to embark on a violent insurgency. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt dropped bombs and fired some shots from the Visitors Gallery in the Central Legislative Assembly. In a pamphlet, they had declared: ?From under the seeming sereneness of the sea of humanity a veritable storm is about to break out.? In the joint statement made before they were hanged, Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt categorically expressed their disgust against use of Gandhiji'spolicy of non-violence as a political weapon. They said, ?We have only marked the end of the era of utopian non-violence, of whose futility the rising generation has been convinced beyond the shadow of doubt.? On September 13, 1929, another revolutionary of Bengal Jatin Das died a martyr after 64 days of a continuous fast and suffering indescribable torture. The spirit of these revolutionaries and their sacrifices aroused the people of the country and their hatred for the British Raj grew manifold. At Calcutta, 5 lakh people attended a mass demonstration expressing their solidarity with the spirit of the revolutionaries.
Under the shadow of such unrest and high expectations for a positive programme, the Congress was forced to adopt the resolution for complete independence. But Gandhiji immediately sprinkled cold water on the spirit of the people by declaring his 11-point programme, which he described as the ?substance of independence?. He, in writing, assured the British authorities that if those 11 points were conceded, ?there will be no question of civil disobedience to press for independence.?
Why did Gandhiji decide to break the salt law, avoiding the other oppressive laws of the Raj like the Chaudidari laws, forest laws, etc.? Because it was the least oppressive of all the imperialist laws.
A.D.D. Gordon in his Businessmen and Politics observes that in these points Gandhiji included almost all the demands of the industrialists of Bombay?reduction in the sterling rupee ratio to Is 6d, protective tariff on foreign cloth, passage of the Coastal Traffic Reservation Bill and reduction of military expenditure. Gandhiji declared that he had kept the door open for compromise and he would not rush to embark upon civil disobedience, the responsibility of which was entrusted on him by the Congress Working Committee. The party also asked the people to take the ?Independence pledge? on January 26. When the mood of the people was to fight to the finish with the British imperialists and attain purna swaraj, Gandhiji'scompromising attitude dampened the spirits of the common masses. But the revolutionaries, who from the very beginning had lost faith in Gandhiji'sutopian concept of non-violence, accelerated their underground activities in the form of violent uprising against the British Raj.
A Government of India Intelligence Bureau publication, in assessment of the political situation of the period, wrote: ?The Lahore congress at the end of 1929 was held in an atmosphere surcharged with violent revolutionary feelings, the like of which India had probably not seen since the Mutiny. Many extremist bodies, of which Kirti Kishan Party was but one, held miniature congresses of their own and discussed and passed hundreds of resolutions, many of them of an extremely violent character.?
Gandhiji further expressed a similar apprehension on a ?secret violence breaking out in many parts of India?. He declared, ?It is this menacing force of violence that threatens the land which must be first sterilised? (CWG). In order to sterilise ?that secret, silent perserving band of young men and even women, who want to see their country free at any cost,? Gandhiji felt the need for an action to divert their focus. He was convinced ?that a non-violent action in the form of civil resistance can save the country from impending lawlessness and secret crimes? (CWG).
In this background, Gandhiji conceived the idea of Salt satyagraha, which he said should be offered by him alone or jointly with a few companions only, as he did in South Africa. He was sure that such a civil disobedience movement alone could stop the bursting of fury. Inviting the government officials to be his ?ally?, he said that ?the British officials if they choose may regulate the civil disobedience so as to sterilise the forces of violence? (CWG). Reminding the Viceroy that ?the resolution of Independence should cause no alarm?, Gandhiji on March 2, 1930 clearly said in a letter that the proposed civil disobedience movement was ?intended not to achieve independence but to draw attention of the government to some demands such as sterling rupee ratio, pressure of land revenue, etc., as placed earlier.?
To break the salt law, Gandhiji began his Dandi March on the early morning of March 12, 1930 with a group of followers. The march continued for 25 days. On reaching the sea-shore, he ceremonially broke the law on April 6, without inviting any wrath of the authorities! As to the Raj, Gandhiji was considered a ?safety valve? and his action was felt absolutely advantageous to the government in diverting the attention of the resurgent people from adopting violent methods against the Raj. Officials really became Gandhiji's?ally? in this historic event of breaking a law, framed by the government itself. They allowed Gandhiji to march for 25 days and even to make salt, breaking the law, on the shore. No action was taken either to stop the march or to take him to custody. Suniti Kumar Ghosh in his India and the Raj, Vol. I, draws our attention to the other aspect of this historic march. He writes: ?It was also advantageous to the Indian big bourgeoisie in more ways than one.?
Nalgi Narayan wrote thus to Thakurdas: ?Mahatma'smovement has diverted the people from adopting violent methods to his non-violent method.? Judith Brown in his book Gandhi Rises to Power writes that Ahmedabad mill owners appeared to have supported Gandhiji in the belief that he was a force against violence and would protect their industry from disorder. He believed that by inducing people to adopt the method of non-violence, the nation could nip in the bud the possibility of a Bolshevik type of revolution in India. He wrote: ?If I can induce the nation to accept satyagraha only as a predominant factor in life, whether social or political, we need have no fear of Bolshevik propaganda? (CWG).
Now the question is, why did Gandhiji decide to break the salt-law, avoiding the other oppressive laws of the Raj like the Chaudidari laws, forest laws, etc.? Because it was the least oppressive of all the imperialist laws. Elucidating the reason for selecting the ?salt-law? as the target by Gandhiji, Suniti Kumar Ghosh explains: ?It had several advantages. Not many people outside the coastal areas would find it possible to join the movement; charges of violent confrontations with the minions of law and other would be minimised, it would also divert attention from the pressing problems of peasantry and industrial workers in those depression years and at the same time, it could be made into a highly emotional issue.? (India and the Raj).
At many centres in Gujarat and Bombay, people in batches participated in the movement and broke the salt law. ?It became an occasion for them to give vent to their anger against the oppressive ruler.? Everywhere, except the satyagraha before the Darshana Salt Works, where about 2,500 volunteers were led by Sarojini Naidu, violence flared up in complete disregard of Gandhiji'sinstructions, when the government used repressive methods to cow down the people into submission. Arrests, beatings, searches were common things. Firing too was often resorted to? (Suniti Kumar Ghosh).
When the government realised that Gandhiji'scontrol over the masses was slipping and people in large number were shaping the civil disobedience in a more militant way, Gandhiji was arrested on May 5, 1930, that is almost after a month. A government communique on his arrest ?regretted that he was unable to control his unruly followers though he continued to ?deplore the outbreaks of violence. So the government has decided to lodge him in jail, where every provision will be made for his health and comfort during his detention.?
(The author can be contacted at 408/B Paramount, 44 Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri(W), Mumbai-400 053.)