On December 31, 1929, the Congress under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, passed the historic resolution at Lahore, moved by Gandhiji, declaring Purna Swaraj as its goal. It also resolved to boycott the Central and Provincial legislatures and the Round Table Conference to be held at London. It authorised the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) to launch a programme of Civil Disobedience, including refusal to pay taxes. As the clock struck the zero hour, the great Jawaharlal, full of youth and passion, hoisted the tricolour flag of independence on the banks of river Ravi in the presence of a mammoth gathering. A thrill of joy and enthusiasm warmed up the hearts of the people.
The independence day was observed solemnly on January 26, 1930 all over the country. People assembled in large numbers and took the following pledge :
“We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We also believe that if any Government deprives the people of these rights and oppresses them, the people have a further right to alter or abolish such a Government. The British Government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom, but has also based itself on the principle of exploitation of the masses and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. We believe, therefore, that India must sever the British connection and obtain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.”
The people thus asserted their right to forgo all ties with the British raj in order to have full opportunities for growth. The Government viewed the defiance with contempt. There was bound to be a new confrontation between Gandhiji and the British Government. What would be its form and technique could be anybody’s guess.
Rabindranath Tagore, who met Gandhiji at Sabarmati Ashram on January 18, 1930, asked him as to what he proposed to do. His reply was, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” The inner struggle in his mind went on for days and days. The answer he got finally was the finest fruit of his creative genius. It was so simple, yet so dramatic and so enchanting to everyone. It was to be salt, which he had given up as a part of his daily diet many years ago. Yet, it was so important to everyone—an essential ingredient of food. There could be no life without salt. Its manufacture was, however, the Government’s monopoly, which raised its price slightly by imposing a small tax upon it. Economically, the price rise or the tax was too insignificant, but it hit the poor people. That was the reason why Gandhiji decided to embark upon his struggle against it. As Jawaharlal wrote, “Salt suddenly became a mysterious word—a word of power.” The salt satyagraha drew worldwide attention and invigorated the country’s struggle for freedom.
Before embarking upon the salt satyagraha, Gandhiji published his eleven points depicting the evils of the British raj and wrote to the Viceroy on March 2, 1930 that if the Government accepted them, he would not resort to the Civil Disobedience Movement. He also asked for an interview with the Viceroy. These points touched on reduction of land revenue, prohibition, abolition of the secret police, imposition of a protective tariff on foreign cloth, reservation of coastal traffic to Indian shipping, an amnesty for political prisoners and finally abolition of salt tax for the peasants and poor people. It was obvious that the Government would not accept them, but Gandhiji had full faith in his capacity to convert the British people through non-violence and make them see the wrong they had done to India. Lord Irwin neither granted him an interview nor accepted his demands. His Secretary sent a crisp reply that the Viceroy regretted that Gandhiji contemplated a course of action which was bound to involve violation of law and endanger public peace. Gandhiji retorted, “On bended knees I ask for bread and I have received a stone instead.” The die was cast.
In accordance with his plans, Gandhiji explained to his co-workers at the evening prayer on March 11, 1930 the concept and strategy of his march. He stressed that it was to be a symbolic gesture of total protest by the people for bringing to an end the domination of the British over India. It might or might not have an impact upon the authorities, but was bound to arouse the people against the alien rule. He was confident that the Indians serving the Government would abandon their posts, the lawyers their practice, the teachers their classes and tax-payers their payment of taxes. He declared, “Our cause is just, our means are strong and God is with us.” He felt that there could not be a defeat for satyagrahis unless they forsake truth and non-violence. Let them, therefore, do their duty and leave the result to the Almighty. On March 12, 1930, he started his march on foot at 6.30 a.m. with seventy-eight co-workers of his ashram for Dandi, 241 miles away on the seacoast near Jalalpur, to defy the salt law. Clad in a simple loincloth and with a bamboo stick in hand, he walked slowly for he was in no hurry to reach his destination. It was a unique march in the annals of mankind. People, who gathered on the way, strewed leaves across his path. They climbed roofs, walls and trees to have a glimpse of the march. They bowed in reverence when Gandhiji passed by them and raised slogans to greet him. Wherever he stopped en route, he exhorted the people—live in harmony, treat the untouchables as your brothers, keep your environment clean and tidy, give up alcohol and intoxicants, spin the wheel and join the satyagraha against the salt law. The Government watched his march with anxiety, but were unable to understand what he was doing. Newsmen came from all over the world to flash the progress of his march, but for the authorities, he was moving too slowly and that was causing tension.
At Aslali, where he stopped en route for rest at first night, he told the people that he would either die on the way or else refrain from returning to the ashram until Swaraj was won. In the event of his arrest or death, his place would be taken by Abbas Tyabji, his old friend. He walked ten to fifteen miles everyday, and seldom felt tired or exhausted. He spun every evening, wrote his diary and gave suitable instructions to his comrades for the next day. He was opposed to comfort or luxuries and expected his co-marchers also to bear with him all the hazards of the journey. Obviously, they could not complain that they were not getting good food, recreation or rest during their journey. The reports about the march reached the Viceroy every day, but he hesitated to act. He wished the event to pass peacefully, but was often nonplussed. “The fire of a great resolve is in him,” said Jawaharlal who exhorted the youth of the country. “The field of battle lies before you, the flag of India beckons you and freedom herself awaits your coming. Do you hesitate now ? Will you be mere onlookers in this glorious struggle ? Who lives if India dies ? Who dies if India lives ?” The marchers reached their destination on the evening of April 5, 1930 after a long and arduous journey of 24 days. Gandhiji looked thin and strained, but he was extremely happy and felt elated. Asked next day as to what he wanted to achieve by defying the salt law, he answered, “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.” Undoubtedly, he achieved his objective fully in winning the support and sympathy of millions all over the globe for the freedom of his motherland.
Throughout the night of April 5, 1930, the marchers devoted themselves to prayers. Next morning, Gandhiji went to the seashore along with them. He walked into the sea and took his bath. At 8.30 a.m., he picked a small lump of natural salt and defied the law. Sarojini Naidu shouted excitedly: “Hail, Deliverer.” This lump of salt was carefully preserved and later auctioned for sixteen hundred rupees. The entire nation was aroused. It was a universal signal for the defiance of law. People violated the salt law on the seashores and where there was no seashore, they defied the other laws. They cut down the timber in Central Provinces and Bombay in defiance of forest laws. In the United Provinces and Gujarat, they started a campaign for non-payment of land revenue. The mayor of Calcutta defied the law of sedition by openly reading the banned literature in a public meeting. In North-West Frontier Province, the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), known popularly as the Red Shirts, organised anti-Government movements in various ways, including non-payment of Government dues. They were led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The Government arrested him, which led to big demonstrations by his followers. The armoured cars sent by the authorities to control the situation were themselves attacked by the demonstrators and set on fire. The demonstrators broke open the jail and released their leader. In utter disgust, the administration was compelled to call for outside help to retrieve the situation, but the two platoons of the 18th
Royal Garhwali Rifles sent to establish order in the disturbed town, refused to open fire on the unarmed crowds. The defiant soldiers were court-martialled, but their brave and patriotic act placed the city of Peshawar in the hands of the Frontier Gandhi and his Red Shirts for ten days from April 25 to May 4, 1930.
In response to the appeal of Gandhiji in the Young India on April 30, 1930, thousands of women offered satyagraha. They picketed the foreign cloth and liquor shops. At Delhi, 1,600 women courted arrest. The position was equally encouraging in other metropolitan towns like Bombay and Madras, which greatly impressed the foreign visitors like H.N. Brailsford and G. Slocombe. At the tender age of twelve, Indira Priyadarshini, the daughter of Jawaharlal, built up an army of 6,000 children at Allahabad to offer their services to the elders in the struggle for freedom of the country. In Nagaland, the young Rani Gaidinliu, at the age of thirteen, raised the banner of revolt in response to the call of Gandhiji. She was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment.
But for Gandhiji, the violation of the salt law was both an act of faith and his principal objective. He announced his intention to raid the Government-owned salt works at Dharsena in Surat district and take them over in the name of the people, until the Government withdrew the salt tax. The Government promptly arrested Gandhiji. His place was to be taken by Abbas Tyabji, who was also arrested. The mantle of leadership now fell on the young Sarojini Naidu, who rushed to Dharsena to lead the raid on May 22, 1930. The raiders comprised 2,500 volunteers wearing white dhotis and Gandhi caps. There were 400 policemen armed with steel-tipped lathis within the salt works’ compounds. An account of the heroic non-violent struggle by the Congressmen and the police atrocities upon them at Dharsena was flashed to the world media by Web Miller, the correspondent of the United Press of USA. He wrote :
“Slowly and in silence, the throng commenced the half-mile march to the salt deposits…. As the throng drew near the salt pans, they commenced chanting the revolutionary slogans, Inquilab Zindabad, intoning the two words over and over…. Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently-imposed regulation, which prohibited gathering of more than five persons in any one place. The column silently ignored the warning and slowly walked forward.” “Suddenly, at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like tenpins…. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls and broken shoulders. In two or three minutes, the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down….”