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When Gandhi’s Salt March Rattled British Colonial Rule

When Gandhi’s Salt March Rattled British Colonial Rule

Since the late-1910s, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had been at the forefront of India’s quest to shake off the yoke of British colonial domination, otherwise known as the “Raj.” The thin and abstemious former lawyer had led civil disobedience against colonial policies, encouraged Indians to boycott British goods, and had served two years in prison on charges of sedition.

Gandhi’s philosophy of “satyagraha,” which sought to reveal truth and confront injustice through nonviolence, had made him the most polarizing figure on the subcontinent. While the British regarded him with suspicion, Indians had begun calling him “Mahatma,” or “great-souled.”

When the Indian National Congress redoubled its efforts for independence in January 1930, many assumed Gandhi would stage his most ambitious satyagraha campaign to date. Yet rather than launching a frontal assault on more high profile injustices, Gandhi proposed to frame his protest around salt.

As with many other commodities, Britain had kept India’s salt trade under its thumb since the 19th century, forbidding natives from manufacturing or selling the mineral and forcing them to buy it at high cost from British merchants. Since salt was a nutritional necessity in India’s steamy climate, Gandhi saw the salt laws as an inexcusable evil.

Many of Gandhi’s comrades were initially skeptical. “We were bewildered and could not fit in a national struggle with common salt,” remembered Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister. Another colleague compared the proposed protest to striking a “fly” with a “sledgehammer.” Yet for Gandhi, the salt monopoly was a stark example of the ways the Raj unfairly imposed Britain’s will on even the most basic aspects of Indian life. Its effects cut across religious and class differences, harming both Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor.

On March 2, he penned a letter to British Viceroy Lord Irwin and made a series of requests, among them the repeal of the salt tax. If ignored, he promised to launch a satyagraha campaign. “My ambition,” he wrote, “is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

Irwin offered no formal response, and at dawn on March 12, 1930, Gandhi put his plan into action. Clad in a homespun shawl and sandals and holding a wooden walking stick, he set off on foot from his ashram near Ahmedabad with several dozen companions and began an overland trek to the Arabian Sea town of Dandi. There, he planned to defy the salt tax by illegally harvesting the mineral from the beachside. The 60-year-old expected to be arrested or even beaten during the journey, but the British feared a public backlash and elected not to quash the march.

With Gandhi setting a brisk pace at its head, the column crossed the countryside at a rate of roughly 12 miles per day. Gandhi paused at dozens of villages along the route to address the masses and condemn both the Raj and the salt tax. He also encouraged government workers to embrace his philosophy of noncooperation by quitting their jobs. “What is government service worth, after all?” he asked during a stop at the city of Nadiad. “A government job gives you the power to tyrannize over others.”

As Gandhi and his followers inched toward the western coastline, thousands of Indians joined their ranks, transforming the small cadre of protestors into a miles-long procession. The New York Times and other media outlets began following the walk’s progress, quoting Gandhi as he denounced the salt tax as “monstrous” and chided the British for “being ashamed to arrest me.”

In addition to lambasting the Raj, Gandhi also used his speeches to lecture on the injustices of the Indian caste system, which labeled the lowest classes “untouchable” and deprived them of certain rights. Gandhi stunned onlookers by bathing at an “untouchable” well at the village of Dabhan, and during another stop in Gajera, he refused to begin his speech until the untouchables were allowed to sit with the rest of the audience.

Gandhi and his party finally arrived at Dandi on April 5, having walked 241 miles in the span of just 24 days. The following morning, thousands of journalists and supporters gathered to watch him commit his symbolic crime. After immersing himself in the sparkling waters of the Arabian Sea, he walked ashore where the beach’s rich salt deposits rested. British officials had reportedly ground the salt into the sand in the hope of frustrating Gandhi’s efforts, but he easily found a lump of salt-rich mud and held it aloft in triumph. “With this,” he announced, “I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”

Gandhi’s transgression served as a signal for other Indians to join in what had become known as the “Salt Satyagraha.” Over the next several weeks, supporters across the subcontinent flocked to the seaside to illegally harvest the mineral. Women took on a crucial role. Many boiled water to make salt, and others sold illicit salt in city markets or led pickets in front of liquor and foreign cloth shops. “It seemed as though a spring had suddenly been released,” Nehru later said. Some 80,000 people were arrested in the spree of civil disobedience, and many were beaten by police.

Gandhi was taken into custody on May 5, after he announced his intention to lead a peaceful raid on a government salt works at Dharasana. But even with their leader behind bars, his followers pressed on. On May 21, some 2,500 marchers ignored warnings from police and made an unarmed advance on the Dharasana depot.

American journalist Webb Miller was on the scene, and he later described what followed. “Suddenly,” he wrote, “at a word of command, scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads…Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins.”

Miller’s harrowing account of the beatings circulated widely in the international media, and was even read aloud in the U.S. Congress. Winston Churchill—no great fan of Gandhi—would later admit that the protests and their aftermath had “inflicted such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India.”

Gandhi remained in lockup until early 1931, but he emerged from prison more revered than ever before. Time magazine named him its 1930 “Man of the Year,” and newspapers around the globe jumped at any opportunity to quote him or report on his exploits. British Viceroy Lord Irwin finally agreed to negotiate with him, and in March 1931, the two hammered out the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, which ended the satyagraha in exchange for several concessions including the release of thousands of political prisoners. While the agreement largely maintained the Raj’s monopoly over salt, it gave Indians living on the coasts the right to produce the mineral from the sea.

Difficult days still lay ahead. Gandhi and his supporters would launch more protests in the 1930s and 40s and endure even more stints behind bars, and Indian independence would have to wait until 1947—only months before Gandhi was shot dead by a militant Hindu.

But while the immediate political results of the Salt March were relatively minor, Gandhi’s satyagraha had nevertheless succeeded in his goal of “shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” The trek to the sea had galvanized Indian resistance to the Raj, and its international coverage had introduced the world to Gandhi and his followers’ astonishing commitment to nonviolence.

Among others, Martin Luther King, Jr. would later cite the Salt March as a crucial influence on his own philosophy of civil disobedience. Gandhi had sent a simple message by grasping a handful of salt on the beach at Dandi, and millions had answered his call.

READ MORE: How Martin Luther King Jr. Took Inspiration From Gandhi on Nonviolence


LibertyVoter.Org

In March 1930, Mahatma Gandhi and his followers set off on a brisk 241-mile march to the Arabian Sea town of Dandi to lay Indian claim to the nation’s own salt.

Since the late-1910s, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had been at the forefront of India’s quest to shake off the yoke of British colonial domination, otherwise known as the “Raj.” The thin and abstemious former lawyer had led civil disobedience against colonial policies, encouraged Indians to boycott British goods, and had served two years in prison on charges of sedition.

Gandhi’s philosophy of “satyagraha,” which sought to reveal truth and confront injustice through nonviolence, had made him the most polarizing figure on the subcontinent. While the British regarded him with suspicion, Indians had begun calling him “Mahatma,” or “great-souled.”

When the Indian National Congress redoubled its efforts for independence in January 1930, many assumed Gandhi would stage his most ambitious satyagraha campaign to date. Yet rather than launching a frontal assault on more high profile injustices, Gandhi proposed to frame his protest around salt.

Female members of the Indian National Congress during the Gandhi inspired Indian independence uprising known as the Salt March.

As with many other commodities, Britain had kept India’s salt trade under its thumb since the 19th century, forbidding natives from manufacturing or selling the mineral and forcing them to buy it at high cost from British merchants. Since salt was a nutritional necessity in India’s steamy climate, Gandhi saw the salt laws as an inexcusable evil.

Many of Gandhi’s comrades were initially skeptical. “We were bewildered and could not fit in a national struggle with common salt,” remembered Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister. Another colleague compared the proposed protest to striking a “fly” with a “sledgehammer.” Yet for Gandhi, the salt monopoly was a stark example of the ways the Raj unfairly imposed Britain’s will on even the most basic aspects of Indian life. Its effects cut across religious and class differences, harming both Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor.

On March 2, he penned a letter to British Viceroy Lord Irwin and made a series of requests, among them the repeal of the salt tax. If ignored, he promised to launch a satyagraha campaign. “My ambition,” he wrote, “is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”


How Mahatma Gandhi changed political protest

His non-violent resistance helped end British rule in India and has influenced modern civil disobedience movements across the globe.

He’s been called the “father of India” and a “great soul in beggar’s garb." His nonviolent approach to political change helped India gain independence after nearly a century of British colonial rule. A frail man with a will of iron, he provided a blueprint for future social movements around the world. He was Mahatma Gandhi, and he remains one of the most revered figures in modern history.

Born Mohandas Gandhi in Gujarat, India in 1869, he was part of an elite family. After a period of teenage rebellion, he left India to study law in London. Before going, he promised his mother he’d again abstain from sex, meat, and alcohol in an attempt to re-adopt strict Hindu morals.

In 1893, at the age of 24, the new attorney moved to the British colony of Natal in southeastern Africa to practice law. Natal was home to thousands of Indians whose labor had helped build its wealth, but the colony fostered both formal and informal discrimination against people of Indian descent. Gandhi was shocked when he was thrown out of train cars, roughed up for using public walkways, and segregated from European passengers on a stagecoach.

In 1894, Natal stripped all Indians of their ability to vote. Gandhi organized Indian resistance, fought anti-Indian legislation in the courts and led large protests against the colonial government. Along the way, he developed a public persona and a philosophy of truth-focused, non-violent non-cooperation he called Satyagraha.

Gandhi brought Satyagraha to India in 1915, and was soon elected to the Indian National Congress political party. He began to push for independence from the United Kingdom, and organized resistance to a 1919 law that gave British authorities carte blanche to imprison suspected revolutionaries without trial. Britain responded brutally to the resistance, mowing down 400 unarmed protesters in the Amritsar Massacre.

Now Gandhi pushed even harder for home rule, encouraging boycotts of British goods and organizing mass protests. In 1930, he began a massive satyagraha campaign against a British law that forced Indians to purchase British salt instead of producing it locally. Gandhi organized a 241-mile-long protest march to the west coast of Gujarat, where he and his acolytes harvested salt on the shores of the Arabian Sea. In response, Britain imprisoned over 60,000 peaceful protesters and inadvertently generated even more support for home rule.

By then, Gandhi had become a national icon, and was widely referred to as Mahatma, Sanskrit for great soul or saint. Imprisoned for a year because of the Salt March, he became more influential than ever. He protested discrimination against the “untouchables,” India’s lowest caste, and negotiated unsuccessfully for Indian home rule. Undeterred, he began the Quit India movement, a campaign to get Britain to voluntarily withdraw from India during World War II. Britain refused and arrested him yet again.

Huge demonstrations ensued, and despite the arrests of 100,000 home rule advocates by British authorities, the balance finally tipped toward Indian independence. A frail Gandhi was released from prison in 1944, and Britain at last began to make plans to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent. It was bittersweet for Gandhi, who opposed the partition of India and attempted to quell Hindu-Muslim animosity and deadly riots in 1947.

India finally gained its independence in August 1947. But Gandhi only saw it for a few months a Hindu extremist assassinated him on January 30, 1948. Over 1.5 million people marched in his massive funeral procession.

Ascetic and unflinching, Gandhi changed the face of civil disobedience around the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on his tactics during the Civil Rights Movement, and the Dalai Lama was inspired by his teachings, which are still heralded by those who seek to inspire change without inciting violence.

But though his legacy still resonates, others wonder whether Gandhi should be revered. Among some Indian Hindus, he remains controversial for his embrace of Muslims. Others question whether he did enough to challenge the Indian caste system. He has also been criticized for supporting racial segregation between black and white South Africans and making derogatory remarks about black people. And though he supported women’s rights in some regards, he also opposed contraception and invited young women to sleep in his bed naked as a way of testing his sexual self-control.

Mohandas Gandhi the man was complex and flawed. However, Mahatma Gandhi the public figure left an indelible mark on the history of India and on the exercise of civil disobedience worldwide. “After I am gone, no single person will be able completely to represent me,” he said. “But a little bit of me will live in many of you. If each puts the cause first and himself last, the vacuum will to a large extent be filled.”


Gandhi’s Religion and Beliefs:

Mahatma Gandhi wasted no time even on trains

Gandhi grew up admiring the Hindu god Vishnu and following Jainism, an ethically thorough old Indian religion that embraced peacefulness, fasting, observation, and vegetarianism. During Gandhi’s first remain in London, from 1888 to 1891, he turned out to be more dedicated to a meatless eating routine, joining the leader board of trustees of the London Vegetarian Society and began to check a variety of holy writings to become familiar with world religions.

Living in South Africa, Gandhi kept on examining world religions. “The strict soul inside me turned into a living power,” he composed of his time there. He overflows himself in sacred Hindu ghostly messages and embraced an existence of honesty, soberness, fasting, and moderation that was liberated from material merchandise [1] .


Dandi: Salt March

Early in 1930, Gandhi, Nehru, and the Congress were to make a call for purna swaraj, or complete independence from British rule in India. Coming out of what might be termed a political retirement, Gandhi searched his mind for some action that might ignite the nation and serve as the expression of the will of the general community. The course of action that Gandhi decided to undertake is revealed by a remarkable letter that he addressed to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, a letter most unusual in the annals of political discourse. “Dear Friend”, he wrote to his political adversary on March 2, “I cannot intentionally hurt anything that lives, much less fellow human beings, even though they may do the greatest wrong to me and mine. Whilst, therefore, I hold the British rule to be a curse, I do not intend harm to a single Englishman or to any legitimate interest he may have in India.” In a rather detailed analysis, Gandhi was to note the vast inequities in the salaries paid to Indians and to British officials: where the average Indian earned less than 2 annas per day, the British Prime Minister earned Rs. 180 per day, while the Viceroy received Rs. 700 per day more tellingly, the Prime Minister of Britain received 90 times more than the average Britisher, but the Viceroy received “much over five thousand times India’s average income.” While not desirous of humiliating the Viceroy, Gandhi apologized for taking a “personal illustration to drive home a painful truth”, and asked him “on bended knee” to “ponder over this phenomenon.” The system of administration carried out in India was “demonstrably the most expensive in the world”, and it had only further impoverished the nation.

If the British were not prepared to combat the various “evils” afflicting India under colonial rule, Gandhi was prepared to commence a fresh campaign of “civil disobedience”. As he went on to inform Irwin, he intended to break the salt laws, a gesture that no doubt must have struck Irwin as bizarre. The British exercised a monopoly on the production and sale of salt: yet this was an essential ingredient, required by the poor as much as by the rich. “I regard this tax [on salt]”, Gandhi wrote, “to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land thebeginning will be made with this evil.” Since Gandhi intended no harm to the Viceroy himself, or indeed to any Englishman, he chose to have his letter delivered in person by a “young English friend who believes in the Indian cause and is a full believer in non-violence”. The Viceroy, not unexpectedly, promptly wrote back to express his regret that Gandhi was again “contemplating a course of action which is clearly bound to involve violation of the law and danger to the public peace.”

“On bended knees I asked for bread and I have received stone instead”, Gandhi remarked, and making good his promise, he set out on March 12 with seventy-eight of his followers and disciples from Sabarmati Ashram on the 241-mile march to Dandi on the sea. All along the way, he addressed large crowds, and with each passing day an increasing number of people joined Gandhi on the march. It is said that the roads were watered, and fresh flowers and green leaves strewn on the path and as the satyagrahis walked, they did so to the tune of one of Gandhi’s favorite bhajans, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, sung by the great Hindustani vocalist, Pandit Paluskar. On April 5, Gandhi arrived at Dandi: short prayers were offered, Gandhi addressed the crowd, and at 8:30 AM he picked up a small lump of natural salt. Gandhi had now broken the law Sarojini Naidu, his close friend and associate, shouted: “Hail, Deliverer!” No sooner had Gandhi violated the law than everywhere others followed suit: within one week the jails were full, and subsequently Gandhi himself was to be taken into jail.

It has been suggested by some historians that nothing substantial was achieved by Gandhi through this campaign of civil disobedience. Gandhi and Irwin signed a truce, and the British Government agreed to call a conference in London to negotiate India’s demands for independence. Gandhi was sent by the Congress as its sole representative, but the negotiations proved to be inconclusive, particularly since various other Indian communities had been encouraged by the British to send a representative and make the claim that they were not prepared to live in an India under the domination of the Congress. Yet never before had the British consented to negotiate directly with the Congress, and Gandhi met Irwin as his equal. In this respect, the man who most loathed Gandhi, Winston Churchill, understood the extent of Gandhi’s achievement when he declared it “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” Likewise, even Nehru was to come to a better appreciation of Gandhi following his march to the sea, since many Indians now appeared to understand that the nation had unshackled itself and achieved a symbolic emancipation. “Staff in hand he goes along the dusty roads of Gujarat”, Nehru had written of Gandhi, “clear-eyed and firm of step, with his faithful band trudging along behind him. Many a journey he has undertaken in the past, many a weary road traversed. But longer than any that have gone before is this last journey of his, and many are the obstacles in his way. But the fire of a great resolve is in him and surpassing love of his miserable countrymen. And love of truth that scorches and love of freedom that inspires. And none that passed him can escape the spell, and men of common clay feel the spark of live. It is a long journey, for the goal is the independence of India and the ending of the exploitation of her millions.”

T he picture of Gandhi, firm of step and walking staff in hand, was to be among the most enduring of the images of him, and it is through this representation that the Bengali artist Nandlal Bose sought to immortalize Gandhi. Yet in innumerable other respects, many of which have received little attention (and of which I shall mention only four), the march to the sea remains an extraordinary event. First, no one knew the meaning and potential of symbols as much as did Gandhi, but his ability to read and manipulate signs has not been the subject of any systematic study. Second, unlike most ‘revolutionaries’, Gandhi thought it no part of his quest for truth to retain secrecy: accordingly, the Government was informed of his precise plans and invited to arrest him. Again, though women were full and active members of Gandhi’s community, and many were to be closely associated with him over a lengthy period of time, no women were present among the 78 people chosen to accompany him on the march. Gandhi took the view that the presence of women might deter the British from attacking the satyagrahis, and that no such excuse should be available to the British if they should wish to retaliate. Behind this lay Gandhi’s distinction between non-violence of the strong and non-violence of the weak curiously, Gandhi’s thinking was also informed by a certain sense of chivalry, such that any triumph of non-violence was diminished if the playing field was not level. Fourth, the walk brought the body into the body politic, and so belonged with Gandhi’s other practices of the body.

Further Reading

Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, Ch. 4.

Tendulkar, D. G. The Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (new rev. ed., Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division, 1961), pp. 14-38.


On March 12th, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi began a 241 mile trek from Sabmarti, India to the town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea. He and his supporters were protesting the British Salt Act which forbade Indians from collecting or selling salt, as well as the heavy tax that ensued when Indians were forced to buy salt from the British. The legendary act of civil disobedience drew thousands of followers who joined the march which ended on April 5th when Gandhi reached the shore, spoke and led a prayer, and began making salt from seawater. Indian nationalists were inspired to lead citizens make their own salt, causing the arrest of some 60,000 people. A month later, Gandhi was arrested, and released from prison the following January.

Considered one of the most significant acts against British Colonial rule, the Salt March symbolized peaceful non-violent resistance in the move towards independence which was achieved in August 1947.

The following articles are drawn from Proquest Historical Newspapers, which informs and inspires classroom teaching and learning.


National Salt Satyagraha Memorial: Recreating the historic Dandi March

The Salt Satyagraha March or The Dandi March of 1930 as it is popularly known, was a landmark in the history of Indian freedom struggle. As a part of the Civil Disobedience Movement against the British rule, 80 Satyagrahis led by Mahatma Gandhi marched 241-miles from Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi and broke the Salt Law imposed by the British. As was the symbolic nature of the event, it inspired millions of Indians to join the freedom struggle and brought worldwide attention to the movement. The Dandi March demonstrated the effectiveness of non-violent civil disobedience as a form of protest for the first time.

The ‘National Salt Satyagraha Memorial’, Dandi, Gujarat, is conceived as an experiential journey recreating the spirit and the energy of the Dandi March

Spread over a 15-acre land and located in the coastal town of Dandi, where the Salt March ended on 6 April 1930 and the British salt monopoly was broken, the ‘National Salt Satyagraha Memorial’, Dandi, Gujarat, is conceived as an experiential journey recreating the spirit and the energy of the 1930 Dandi March led by Mahatma Gandhi and 80 of his fellow Satyagrahis. The visitors go through the monument step-by-step in order to visualise and understand the history of the historic Salt March and the methodology of Satyagraha, which finally led to India’s Independence from the British colonial rule.

Attractions at National Salt Satyagraha Memorial, Dandi

Welcome Center

The Pathway & 24 Narrative Murals

The Pathway along the lake symbolizes the path of the Dandi March. There are 24 bass-relief sculptural narrative murals mounted along the Pathway that depict and recreate the 24 themes and events from the 1930 Dandi March.

An Artificial Lake

An artificial lake has also been created symbolizing the sea shore aspect of the Salt Satyagraha.

The Salt Marchers & Statue of Mahatma Gandhi

80 Bronze Statues commemorating the marchers that walked along with Mahatma Gandhi through the 24 days of the march has also been installed at the memorial along with the 5-metre high statue of the Mahatma which projects the forceful forward march of a great leader leading the people to freedom from exploitation and injustice.

In The Pyramid of Light, laser lights rise up and illuminates the glass crystal at night to make it a visually enhancing experience.

The Pyramid of Light

The A-Frame: Stylised hands raised up in the sky, holding at the top a simulated salt crystal to form the canopy. Another unique feature is the laser lights which rises up and illuminates the glass crystal at night to make it a visually enhancing experience.

Solar Trees

To reflect the ethos of self-sufficiency imbibed by Mahatma Gandhi, 40 Solar Trees where designed, developed and installed at the memorial. It makes this memorial a net zero-energy project where all the energy required is produced in the memorial itself.

Salt Making Pans

Salt-Making Pans at the Memorial Complex allow the visitors to personally experience the process of salt-making and also make a pinch of salt to be taken away as a memory from the visit to the Memorial.

The visitors go through the monument step-by-step in order to visualise and understand the history of the historic Salt March and the methodology of Satyagraha.

How to get there

• By Road - Surat lies 234 km from Ahmedabad, 131km from Vadodara, and 297 km from Mumbai. Bus stations, both ST and private, are on the eastern edge of the city.

• By Train - Surat in on the main broad Gage line between Mumbai and Ahmedabad

• By Air - Various domestic flights connecting metros and other major cities are operational from the Surat Airport


What was Behind Gandhi’s Success with the Salt Satyagraha in 1930 and the Failure of the Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s?

Gandhi’s leadership and his ability to bring together people from diverse backgrounds is reflected across the movements he initiated, why then were some successful and others not equally so?

Gandhiji leading the Salt March from Sabarmati to Dandi along with thousands of co-participants in the iconic Salt March between 12 March 1930-6 April 1930

Out of the current spate of movements in India and across the world some have achieved success while many have raised their heads only to fade out. The question naturally occurs as to why this is so. After all, movements are the expression of opinions and feelings of large numbers of people. Possibly an answer can be found if a comparison is made of the two movements led by Mahatma Gandhi – one the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920 and the Civil Disobedience Movement exactly a decade later. The first one was called off abruptly amid violence while the second forced the British to convene a second Round Table Conference with the sole aim of ensuring Gandhiji’s participation.

One important factor may have been that in 1920 Mahatma Gandhi was a beginner in India while over the next 10 years he not only gained in stature but also had a much better organised Congress behind him. But this was not his first shot at movements as he had already gained considerable experience over the years in South Africa where he tried out and achieved practical success by using the method of passive resistance. The explanation may be offered that the difference was in numbers – in India he had to deal with much larger numbers than in South Africa where the Indian settlers were only a few thousands.

During the first Non-Cooperation Movement Gandhiji adopted many of the key ingredients required for movements to succeed – clear and easy to understand issues and a plan of action. Chief among the issues picked up by him were the demands for action against those responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and addressing Muslim grievances against the Turkish Treaty.

If the government did not oblige Indians would non-cooperate in a phased manner starting with the simpler ones of giving up titles and honourifics, not attending official functions (the Duke of Connaught was due to visit India) not entering the legislative councils and moving on to boycott of government schools and official law courts and foreign cloth.

Later it would be ramped up to quitting government and military service and refusal to pay taxes. Yet, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violence as the principle underlying the movement, violence broke out and he called it off barely a year-and-a-half after it started much to the annoyance of many of his supporters just as it appeared to be picking up momentum. He himself was sentenced to a longish jail term that threatened to end his career as a political leader in India.

By contrast, the second movement started by Gandhiji in March, 1930 was a resounding success. The civil disobedience and boycott campaign kicked off by the Salt March not just revived the Congress but forced the British to acknowledge that it was impossible to ignore the primacy of the party in any negotiations to frame a new constitution. The Congress had made it clear that the commission for this purpose under liberal politician John Simon was unacceptable to them as it was all-white and ignored Indian opinion. It had also refused to join a proposed conference to discuss the new arrangement unless the British Government announced that the its goal was at least dominion status if not complete independence for India.

No doubt, one of the most important reasons for the great success was that the British had seriously underestimated the influence of the Congress whose popularity was indeed waning in the second half of the 1920s. The radicals were gaining ground everywhere as the Congress found itself at a loose end. Mahatma Gandhi himself had admitted that the party of violence was gaining ground and serious doubts had surfaced even within the Congress about the chances of success of a non-violent campaign. Some sought to shelve non-cooperation in favour of responsive cooperation.

Gandhi was released from jail due to ill health in 1924 but was yet to regain the position that he had acquired after the 1920 Special Session of the Congress in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose had not achieved the status they were to attain later.

In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi not only turned the tables on the British authorities but gained international fame by showing that passive resistance and civil disobedience were not just Henry Thoreau’s dream but could succeed in practice.

So, what was different in 1930 from the previous occasion? Chance and luck may have played a part but they appear to have been minor. Mostly it was planning and preparation in mind-boggling details. This is evident both in accounts that appeared in the media at that time and the eight-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi by D.G. Tendulkar.

A Ringside View

A ringside view of the march can be obtained from the April, 1930 edition of ‘The Modern Review’, a Calcutta English language monthly edited by one of the most prestigious editors of the time Ramananda Chatterjee. Among many photographs, one shows men and women lined up outside the Sabarmati Ashram before the march to Dandi on 12 th March. It carried the caption, “The seventy-nine Ashramites who form the vanguard of the ‘Independence Army’ led by Mahatma Gandhi…” The editor wrote further that while it is easy to imagine armies, tanks, bombs and death and destruction, “…it requires some insight and imagination, some spiritual awakening, to understand, appreciate and be impressed by the march of an old unarmed man at the head of a few dozen of unarmed followers to break the iniquitous laws of the mightiest empire in the world in order to gain freedom for his people. However, the enemy may pretend to laugh, the stages and incidents of this historic march are being eagerly scanned by an expectant world, and the cables of the British Empire itself have to convey its news to London and perhaps to all corners of the earth.”

If reverence appears in the tone on the part of Chatterjee, it is to be clarified that he was among the most outspoken and independent editors of his time who did not hesitate to criticise even Gandhi when it warranted. It was very clear that the march was a momentous one even at that time and Mahatma Gandhi raised virtually to the status of a cult figure by Chatterjee who wrote, “Mr. Gandhi’s march is contemporary history. It is taking place before our very eyes. But if in some distant future it takes the shape of a mythical memory in the race consciousness, villages and towns may then vie with one another in claiming that the great-souled and pure-hearted meek liberator of his people passed through their byways and highways in his sacred pilgrimage and made their very dust holy.” Prescient thoughts.

Much more than luck, chance and circumstance, it was the deep thought and preparation ever since the passage of the Congress’s complete independence resolution of January 2, 1930 that went into making a success of the movement.

Gandhiji had in 1928 persuaded radicals like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose to postpone for a year their demand for full independence rather than remain satisfied with dominion status. It is clear therefore that as early as 1928 he had become aware of the strong possibility of this push within the Congress particularly as the youth were getting disillusioned with the party’s inaction. By 1928 Gandhi knew that he knew that there was no escape from action that could ignite public enthusiasm.

Only a few days after the resolution was passed at Lahore but well before January 26, he hinted at how he planned the movement while talking to students of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth. For civil disobedience he would not rely on numerical strength but on the “strength of character of a few men sacrificing themselves for the cause.”

That explains why there were only 79 men selected for the march to Dandi. He was particularly alive to the possibility of the outbreak of violence which is why he was preparing possible volunteers to be prepared to stop violence even with their lives if required.

He also made it clear on February 27, just a couple of weeks before the march, that he would directly involve only inmates of the Sabarmati Ashram who had “submitted to its discipline…” though he admitted that he was hoping for a spontaneous mass response. Nevertheless, he was aware of the risks and issued a code of discipline that was published in ‘Young India’. The Satyagrahi must harbour no anger and be ready to put up with assault refusing to retaliate and must not resist arrest, among other strict rules.

The final 79 belonged to all corners of India and from Nepal and Fiji as well. Two of Gandhiji’s admirers from England – Madeline Slade (Miraben) and Reginald Reynolds – wanted to join the march but were not allowed to do so by the Mahatma who wanted them to stay at the Ashram to make sure that it carried on with its routine activities. Reynolds, a British Quaker and anti-colonial activist had been entrusted earlier with the task of carrying Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to the Viceroy informing him of his decision to start the movement. This he did to show that the movement was free from any racial motivation.

A comparison of the 1930 movement with the one that was started in 1920 shows several striking differences that certainly can account for the success of the former and the relative failure of the latter. For one, 1920 was a year in which the Congress was passing through the process of change of guard as the younger ones led by Gandhiji sought to take control of the grand old party that was already 35 years old. A Special Session of the Congress was held in Calcutta in September just to gauge support for Gandhi’s proposal of non-cooperation.

Though the non-cooperation resolution was passed by the Congress presided over by Lala Lajpat Rai, the vote remained a matter of controversy. In addition, there were many inside the Congress and outside who were not fully convinced that self-rule could be obtained through non-cooperation and non-violence. Two issues proved contentious– first the matter of whether to enter the newly formed councils under the 1919 Government of India Act which nearly caused a split in the Congress. Eventually, a compromise was reached and the Swarajist group formed under the leadership of Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das who decided to contest elections to the councils and fight the British administration from within. The second point in the programme that people objected to was the boycott of government schools.

But perhaps most of all, while the non-cooperation programme appeared to be lofty, the exact way in which it would force the foreign rulers out was not clear. Besides, it barely touched two to three percent of the Indian population since it was this number that could have anything to do with either schools or law courts. It resulted in several prominent Congress leaders giving up their legal practice. Above all, there were diverse agitations by workers and peasants as well as a revolt by the Akalis, and the Moplah uprising during that time, but there was no unifying symbol around which the movement could coalesce.

By contrast, in 1930 Gandhiji clearly specified that civil disobedience would consist of an act of defiance of the law – making salt and trading in it which was an illegal act. Around this single act the entire movement would revolve. Defying the colonial authority could be as simple as picking up salt lying on the seashore and trading in it – so simple that few had any difficulty in grasping it and carrying it out. Along with the action was also specified the consequences that followed this act of civil disobedience – arrest and imprisonment. Police brutality on this account was to be met not with retaliation but with non-violence. Not surprisingly defiance of the salt law spread like wild fire once Gandhi had bent down and broken the law by picking up salt in Dandi.

The Symbolic Selection of Salt

The choice of salt was ingenious because a number of reasons but foremost because it easily captured the popular imagination. First, its symbolism of faith that was recognized around the world. Second, it touched all sections of the people as everyone consumed it regardless of whether they were rich or poor and it brought out in sharp relief the evil of the system of empire that could tax such a basic commodity. Lastly, the march itself acted like a moving social media all through the 25 days that the marchers took to cover the 241-mile (385 km) stretch from Ahmedabad to Dandi.

In other words, it had just the right combination of those elements that make a movement succeed.

Kalyan Chatterjee was formerly Professor at Amity School of Communication, Amity University, India. He has worked as a journalist for over two decades, covering politics and government.


Gandhi’s strategy for success — use more than one strategy

At the end of 1930, India was experiencing disruption on a scale not seen in nearly three quarters of a century — and it was witnessing a level of social movement participation that organizers who challenge undemocratic regimes usually only dream of achieving.

A campaign of mass non-cooperation against imperial rule had spread throughout the country, initiated earlier that year when Mohandas Gandhi and approximately 80 followers from his religious community set out on a Salt March protesting the British monopoly on the mineral. Before the campaign was through, more than 60,000 people would be arrested, with as many as 29,000 proudly filling the jails at one time. Among their ranks were many of the most prominent figures from the Indian National Congress, including politicians that had once been reluctant to support nonviolent direct action.

Not only were Indians illegally producing salt and staging blockades of government salt works, but, as the effort grew, the campaign adopted a rich array of additional tactics. Hundreds of thousands of villagers refused to pay land and timber taxes. Civil servants resigned from government, with as much as a third of local officials in one district of Gujarat declaring that they would leave their posts. And activists maintained an organized boycott of British imports to India. In the words of one historian, major textile centers including Calcutta, Bhagalpur, Delhi, Amritsar and Bombay, “came to a virtual standstill for part or most of 1930 as a result of [strikes], picketing and self-imposed closures by businessmen.”

Observers near and far could sense the historic magnitude of the moment. In England, Winston Churchill, then a conservative member of Parliament, railed furiously at what he perceived as his government’s incompetence in properly defending the empire. British officials within India were similarly distressed. Sir Frederick Sykes, the governor of Bombay, wrote to his superiors in May 1930: “It is now necessary frankly to recognize the fact that we are faced with a more or less overt rebellion … and that it is supported either actively or passively by a very large section of the population. We have, for one reason or another, practically no openly active friends.” One police commander described his district as: “virtually in a state of war for a substantial part of the year.”

How did the Indian independence movement get to this point? What type of organizing had allowed for this uprising to take place? What strategy had led to such widespread and coordinated disobedience?

In truth, it was not one strategy, but the combination of several. And a large part of the political genius of Mohandas Gandhi lay in his ability to bring these disparate strategies together.

For people seeking to generate change today, the landscape of social movements can appear fragmented and confusing. Responding to the myriad challenges of racial oppression, economic exploitation and environmental catastrophe, different groups pursue widely varying organizing strategies. Some people work to create mass mobilizations — actions such as the Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, or large immigrant rights protests — that draw significant public attention, but that can fade away quickly. Others focus on the slow-and-steady work of building long-term institutions, such as unions or political parties. Still other groups foster countercultural communities and alternative institutions outside of the mainstream. Often, there is little contact between groups employing different strategies — and little sense of common purpose.

However, these different efforts need not see themselves at odds with one another. Movements function best when they recognize diverse roles and find ways to employ the contributions of each in constructive ways. In fact, this can be a key to success.

Although his organizing against British rule in India began a full century ago, Gandhi encountered many of the same divisions that we continue to see resurfacing in modern politics. Because of this, his ability to foster and nourish a rich social movement ecosystem — in which different approaches to change each helped to advance an overall anti-imperialist effort — offers intriguing lessons for today.

Bringing together organizing traditions

Gandhi is one of the most revered public figures of the 20th century. Yet, for all of his renown, Gandhi’s actual strategies for promoting social change in India are much less known. Some people think of him as a spiritual figure who led through moral persuasion alone. Others have heard of the most famous acts of civil disobedience undertaken by him and his followers, protests that have been celebrated widely and dramatized in Hollywood movies. Still others picture him as a political figure, sitting at the negotiating table across from officers of the British Empire.

All of these ideas reflect aspects of Gandhi’s political life. However, each portrait by itself is incomplete.

Gandhi’s methodology for bringing about social transformation was more interesting than any one of these facets suggests. What makes him such a unique figure to examine within the history of social movements is his ability to bring together a variety of different types of organizing. Gandhi was able to cultivate what can be called a healthy “ecology of change,” in which groups with diverse theories and practices for changing their society could each expand the capabilities of the movement as a whole.

In particular, he united three strains of activity — strains which parallel those present today in the U.S. and beyond: First, large-scale mobilizations that employed nonviolent direct action (what Gandhi called satyagraha). Second, efforts to build a lasting organizational structure (the Indian National Congress) that could influence dominant institutions. And third, the creation of alternatives outside of the mainstream (such as Gandhi’s ashrams and the “constructive program”).

Although these three different approaches for fostering progress — mass protest, structure-based organizing, and the creation of alternatives — have been present in many other countries in many different time periods, it is rare when the three approaches collaborate in the service of a unified social movement. Gandhi served as a bridge between these different orientations, providing an exceptional model of how movements can benefit when different strategies come together.

To appreciate Gandhi’s rare talent at bridging these worlds does not require putting him on a pedestal. While it may come as a surprise to those who regard him as an unquestioned saint, Gandhi has always been mired in controversy. The soundness of his various religious and social prescriptions, along with the merit of his countless strategic decisions, were the subject of constant debate even within his own lifetime — and the debates have continued since his death in 1948. Yet, even given the various contradictions and contentions surrounding Gandhi’s career, we can draw valuable insights from the growth of the Indian independence movement in his time and its success in elevating anti-imperialist agitation against British rule to historic levels.

Satyagraha: igniting a mass protest

The first type of activity that Gandhi promoted is perhaps his most renowned: He was famous for creating campaigns of mass disruption that would draw in many thousands of participants, spread over large areas, and force an issue to the fore of political discussion. Gandhi referred to this method of mass mobilization as satyagraha, or the application of “truth force.” Throughout his life, Gandhi led more than a half dozen major satyagraha campaigns. Undertaken over a period of four decades, these began with his initial experiments in civil disobedience and noncooperation in South Africa and culminated in drives that affected the whole of India.

The first mobilizations in India involved regional campaigns of strikes and protests by farmworkers in 1917 in Bihar and 1918 in Gujarat. In the latter case, farmers collectively refused to pay land taxes even in the face widespread arrests, beatings and confiscation of farmland. After five months, the government relented and returned land, released prisoners and eased taxes.

While such early drives were largely contained to local areas, the satyagrahas grew into disruptive campaigns with much larger scope. Today, as in Gandhi’s time, when mass protests grab headlines and send thousands into the streets, they are regularly described as “unplanned,” “emotional” and “spontaneous” uprisings. Many observers do not think that such upheavals can be planned at all, but rather are the product of the historical zeitgeist. Gandhi offered a different view. He argued that moments of whirlwind activity could be engineered by skillful practitioners. An influential early study of Gandhian civil resistance noted that “Satyagraha, as applied socio-political action, requires a comprehensive program of planning, preparation and studied execution.” Indeed, Gandhi’s refinement of this art — the strategic use of unarmed uprising — is one of his great contributions to social movement history.

Gandhi’s first nationwide satyagraha was the 1920-22 drive known as the Non-Cooperation Movement. This campaign unfolded through a series of escalating actions. Historian Perry Anderson describes four levels of disruptive activity: “First, renunciation of all titles and honours conferred by the British next, resignations from positions in the civil service then, resignation from the police and army finally, refusal to pay taxes.” Following Gandhi’s announcement of the strategy in August 1920, the drive quickly took hold. “The campaign electrified the country,” Anderson notes, “drawing in social layers and geographical regions hitherto untouched by nationalist agitation[.]” Historian Judith Brown adds, “Men and women, old and young, townsman and rustic, could choose the action appropriate to them, from attending a meeting to closing a shop, staying away from classes, or persuading local shopkeepers to stop selling foreign cloth and liquor.”

The impact could be felt across an expansive area. Hindi poet Rambriksha Benipuri famously remarked, “From the time I have been aware, I have witnessed various movements however, I can assert that no other movement upturned the foundations of Indian society to the extent that the Non-Cooperation Movement did.”

By early 1922, British administration had been disrupted but not disabled, and noncooperation leaders determined that the movement was ready to begin a tax strike. However, only four days after announcing this escalation, Gandhi controversially decided to call off the Non-Cooperation Movement altogether following an outbreak of violence in the northern town of Chauri Chaura. Gandhi subsequently spent two years in a British jail for promoting seditious activity. While the strategic wisdom of curtailing the campaign was hotly debated among supporters and detractors alike, what is not in question is that the drive successfully translated the principles of satyagraha from its regional applications in Bihar and Gujarat to an India-wide movement. In doing so, it set the stage for an even larger wave of mass civil resistance: the Salt Satyagraha.

Commencing in March 1930, the Salt Satyagraha began with a 200-mile march by Gandhi and his supporters to the coastal city of Dandi, and it expanded quickly from there. “The march generated great India-wide publicity,” Brown writes, and soon millions more joined the satyagraha. Although British authorities brutally repressed protests and made tens of thousands of arrests nationwide, resistance continued month after month. Reflecting on the breadth of mobilization, nationalist leader and future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru later stated, “It seemed as though a spring had suddenly been released.”

After nearly a year of protest, sensing that the momentum of the campaign was abating, Gandhi brokered a settlement with the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin. While political insiders debated the value of the short-term gains secured in the compromise, the Indian public recognized that the Salt Satyagraha had dealt a significant blow to British prestige in India — a sentiment echoed by hardline imperialists in London, who regarded the settlement as a fatal blunder for the empire.

Building a structure for opposition: the Indian National Congress

Even as Gandhi led dramatic mass protests, he also contributed to building up a stable, long-term organization that could serve as an institutional body to represent the independence movement. That organization was the Indian National Congress. Founded in the 1880s, the original purpose of Congress was to foster the greater influence of Indian elites in the British-controlled government. After his return to India in 1915, Gandhi worked to change the organization’s composition and outlook, and in the following decades Congress grew steadily larger and more antagonistic toward the British. By 1930, the organization was advocating for full national independence and expulsion of the British Raj. In time it would become the ruling party of the world’s largest democracy. On August 15, 1947, Nehru, one of Gandhi’s top lieutenants, took office as India’s first prime minister, representing the dramatic transformation of Congress from a small dissident group to a insider party holding the reins of state power.

The gradual growth of Congress over the span of decades was akin to “structure-based” organizing in other parts of the world, such as the formation of social-democratic parties in Europe. In the U.S. context, we can see examples of structure-based organizing in the formation of major labor unions and in Saul Alinsky’s model for building community-based organizations that can leverage the power of their members over time. With reference to the U.S. civil rights movement, Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns could be likened to high-profile drives such as the Freedom Rides or the Birmingham campaign, while the Indian National Congress bore more in common with durable membership organizations like the NAACP.

Gandhi’s involvement in the leadership of the Indian National Congress was episodic, and he would sometimes withdraw for long periods of time to focus on other aspects of his work. He held official positions only for relatively short stretches, and he went so far as to resign his party membership for a time, starting in 1934, after growing frustrated with internal politicking. Yet whatever his formal role at a given moment, Gandhi served as a key figurehead of Congress for nearly three decades, and his interventions played a decisive role in shaping the organization’s development. Even critics of Gandhi, such as Perry Anderson, acknowledge that, in the historian’s words, Gandhi “was a first-class organizer and fundraiser — diligent, efficient, meticulous — who rebuilt Congress from top to bottom, endowing it with a permanent executive at the national level, vernacular units at the provincial level, local bases at the district level, and delegates proportionate to the population, not to speak of an ample treasury.”

Rajendra Prasad, a longtime party leader, recalled several decades later that, prior to Gandhi’s involvement, “Congress had aroused and organized national consciousness to a certain extent but the awakening was confined largely to the English-educated middle classes and had not penetrated the masses.” Historian Judith Brown is more blunt: the Congress of 1915, she writes, was little more than a “shambling debating society,” largely confined to major urban areas and possessing scant grassroots infrastructure over the next decade, Gandhi’s organizing talents helped transform it into a “formidable national organization and fighting force.”

Among other activities, Gandhi authored a new organizational constitution that established a more representative governance structure for Congress and substituted Hindi for English as the language of party business. It also steeply reduced membership dues so that, as playwright, author, and first-hand observer Krishnalal Shridharani wrote in 1939, “the poor had as much opportunity to join as the rich.” Gandhi relentlessly traveled to different regions to cultivate relationships, solidify support for his program, and build up local party infrastructure. By 1922, there were 213 District Congress Committees, covering the great bulk the country that was under direct British administration. Shridharani estimated that by 1930 one out of every three villages had a Congress office. Gandhi’s exceptional fundraising abilities helped to support this growth.

In a heterogeneous India, rife with divisions of class, caste, religion, and geography, most organizations represented limited, sectarian constituencies. Congress made significant strides toward defying this trend, uniting rural and urban, educated and uneducated, and bridging large geographical expanses. Maintaining participation and shoring up the party’s local infrastructure was a continual challenge, and Gandhi’s hopes of bringing together Hindus and Muslims met with very limited success. Nevertheless, Judith Brown writes, by the early 1920s Congress had established itself as “the only organization with any realistic claim to be the mouthpiece of a nation.”

Living the alternative: the constructive program

In addition to the mass satyagraha campaigns and his structure-based organizing through the Indian National Congress, Gandhi was also active in the creation of alternatives, or what has sometimes been called “prefigurative politics.” This aspect of his work is evident in statements from Gandhi including his contention that “The best propaganda is not pamphleteering, but for each one of us to try to live the life we would have the world live.”

For Gandhi, the idea of India gaining independence was more than a political goal it involved changing one’s way of life. His anti-imperialism did not involve merely having Indian elites take over national rule from the British. It also included a rejection of Western conceptions of civilization and modernity, against which he juxtaposed a vision of reinvigorated Indian village life. He saw his efforts to build alternative communities and counter-cultural institutions as an essential component of the overall push for swaraj, or freedom. Historian Dennis Dalton writes that, while more instrumentally focused Congress politicians understood swaraj in narrow terms, “Gandhi interpreted the word to mean freedom in two distinct senses: the ‘external freedom’ of political independence and ‘internal freedom,’” which required a more personal process of decolonization and the pursuit of social transformation outside the realm of formal politics.

Pursuing swaraj, then, was not just a matter of pushing for legal reforms. Rather, Gandhi spent much of his time working on what he called the “constructive program.” In the words of author and theorist Gene Sharp, the constructive program was an attempt “to begin building a new social order even as the old one still exists,” with decentralized cooperatives “functioning independently of the state and other institutions of the old order.” Gandhi’s vision for the constructive program included many overlapping activities: he advocated spinning of hand-woven cloth (or khadi), the expansion of village industries such as soap- and paper-making, and enhanced public sanitation and personal cleanliness. He pushed for simplicity in lifestyle, improved education, cultural practices that rejected established divisions between Hindus and Muslims, and the end of “untouchability.”

As a result of these efforts, many in Gandhi’s time viewed him less as a political leader than a religiously-driven lifestyle advocate. In his published writings, he frequently took up issues of diet and hygiene, concerning himself with matters such as the best way to make an affordable, effective and reusable toothbrush out of commonly available twigs. Needless to say, these were far from the core concerns of organizers in Congress, who focused on constitutional questions of how India would secure self-governance.

Gandhi’s vision of the constructive program was most fully put into practice in his ashrams, or intentional communities. Over the course of his life, Gandhi established and lived in a series of spiritually-oriented retreats, including the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat (where he lived from 1917-1930) and the Sevagram Ashram in Maharashtra (where he lived from 1936-1948). In each case, hundreds of devoted followers lived in community with Gandhi and his lieutenants, adhering to a strict regimen of personal discipline, prayer and public service.

Historians Judith Brown and Anthony Parel write that Gandhi considered the ashrams to be his “best work and [the place] where he tried to work out the core elements of his spiritual vision of the good human life in the pursuit of Truth.” Elsewhere, Brown writes that, for Gandhi, “they were places akin to laboratories where he could attempt to solve in microcosm problems that affected India on a much larger scale.” Regardless of the success or failure of Congress’ political demands on the British, ashram members were living their vision of swaraj in communities that reflected the ideals of local autonomy and decentralized government.

Ashram members lived in voluntary poverty. Among other aspects of communal life, they possessed limited material belongings, ate simple vegetarian meals, slept in collective residences, took vows of sexual restraint, and performed manual labor. They shared in domestic chores, no matter how menial, without regard to one’s class background or caste position. Moreover, they devoted themselves to serving nearby villages through medical relief, hygienic work, instruction in the hand-spinning of cloth and other crafts, and education against untouchability.

The ashrams also provided a base from which Gandhi and his followers developed a wider network of political volunteers and social workers. Early chronicler Shridharani argued in 1939 that this dedicated cadre of volunteers served as “the nuclei of the economic and spiritual regeneration of India’s countryside.” The constructive program reached beyond the ashrams in other ways as well. As one example, the All-India Spinners’ Association, dedicated to spinning khadi cloth and providing employment to Indian farmers during off-seasons, was active in some 15,000 villages and employed more than 350,000 spinners and weavers in 1942. Gandhi called on Indians throughout the country to boycott imported cloth and take up spinning as a method of noncooperation with British industry. In the words of writer Ved Mehta, he made “‘spinning wheel’ a byword for economic independence and nonviolent revolution.”

Toward a healthy movement ecosystem

The three distinct approaches to pursuing social change reflected in Gandhi’s diverse activity — the use of mass protest, structure-based organizing and creating alternatives — are not unique to the drive for Indian independence. Instead, they appear in many different social movements, across continents and time periods. But because these distinct organizing traditions are based on different theories of change, they often find themselves in conflict with one another.

One can find many examples of these tensions. A well-known saying to emerge from the community organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky was “Build organizations, not movements.” Here, suspicion of “movements” reflected a skepticism of mass mobilizations that seemed to burst suddenly onto the political scene but then to fade out just as rapidly. Likewise, in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, friction between “organizing” and “mobilizing” produced heated internal movement debates among groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC.

While mass mobilization and structure-based organizing are sometimes at odds, both approaches can be in tension with groups focused on “living the alternative.” Organizers trying to directly contest the power of capital or of the state are often dismissive of activists who are more interested in creating countercultural communities that sidestep currently dominant institutions. Sociologist Wini Breines argued that, in the context of the 1960s New Left, activists who pursued prefigurative politics “attempted to develop the seeds of liberation and the new society … grounded in counter-institutions[.]” Breines contrasts this orientation with organizers who embraced strategic politics. These politics generally involved different goals and practices, ones oriented toward building power “so that structural changes in the [existing] political, economic and social order might be achieved.” Although the two impulses co-existed within the New Left, they did so uneasily. As a result of their different approaches to change, “politicos” (who pursued strategic politics) and members of “the counterculture” (who focused on prefigurative activity) sometimes found themselves with little common ground.

Such conflicts continue to emerge today in disagreements between activists trying to influence mainstream politics and those trying to build autonomous spaces outside of it. Friction existed in Indian independence movement, too. Indeed, the multi-faceted movement ecosystem that Gandhi nurtured could only be sustained for a limited period. By the time the British had ceded rule over the subcontinent, the movement splintered back into disparate and rivaling factions.

Yet, while it can be difficult for people with different theories of change to work together, it is not impossible to overcome tensions. At its height, the Indian independence movement created levels of popular activity and mobilization rarely seen elsewhere, and it provided an example of how organizers with diverse orientations toward their work could complement each other in powerful ways. Through his personal commitment to each of the three approaches — and his ability to express a vision of them as a unified whole — Gandhi helped create a common identity for the nationalist movement. Within a thriving ecology of change, each branch of the movement could play an important role in advancing a transformative program.

An ecology of mutual support

Critical to a healthy movement ecology among Indian nationalists was the idea that each branch benefited from the contributions of the others. These benefits took tangible form.

First, the portions of the movement focused on alternatives received a major boost from the other branches of the movement — that is, from associating with Congress and with the satyagraha campaigns. Because of this association, counter-cultural stances became norms within the movement as whole. During the times of mass mobilization, movement participants were not merely asked to boycott British goods or legal institutions they were also called upon to abstain from liquor, embrace the spinning wheel, and uphold principles of communal unity. Even though these activities had little to do with directly ousting the British, and more to do with projecting an alternative vision of Indian society, they were substantially integrated into the culture of the movement. Moreover, the mass satyagrahas greatly increased interest in the ashrams and the All-India Spinners Association.

Even though the Indian National Congress was more focused on winning formal independence from the British than building village-level alternative institutions, Congress members were influenced by the wider social movement ecosystem and adopted a variety of countercultural practices. As Brown writes, “The handspun cloth which Gandhi hailed as the symbol of a swaraj society became the virtual uniform of Congressmen who in an earlier generation had prided themselves on their semi-Western sartorial elegance.” So important was this symbol that the spinning wheel was featured on the official “swaraj flag” of the Congress party. Even today, the Indian national flag, by law, must be made of khadi cloth.

Second, the satyagraha campaigns of mass mobilization benefited from the other branches of the movement. Just as the constructive program and the ashrams were boosted by the other types of organizing taking place, the success of periodic mass protests owed much to longer-term activity. The announcement of a new satyagraha was like a declaration of war. As in war, the resources, energy and attention of the populace would be directed into emergency mobilization. This meant activating both the countercultural communities and the Indian National Congress’s networks in service of mass noncompliance.

Volunteers from the ashrams were among the most committed participants in nonviolent disruption. “When the call comes for direct action against the government” Shridharani explained, the ashrams were “transformed into Satyagrahis’ camps where the energy of the people is checked and guided into nonviolent channels.” The initial cadre who set out with Gandhi on the Salt March were members of his intentional community. In interviews with historian Dennis Dalton, former ashram residents recalled being well-prepared by their training in the ashram for the physical and emotional demands of the lengthy march, not to mention the later imprisonment and beatings they would endure at the hands of authorities. Members of the All-India Spinners Association were also reliable participants when a call to satyagraha was issued.

The nationwide satyagrahas were announced as official programs of Congress, and they were backed by the party’s organizational resources and legitimacy. Individual Congress members put their reputations on the line through participation in the campaigns. As Judith Brown writes, “Even such notable and law-abiding Indians as Motilal Nehru,” an esteemed party leader and father of the future prime minister, “now went to [jail] as an honor, though before 1921 they would have considered it a shameful disgrace.”

Third, and finally, the structure-based organizers of the Indian National Congress benefited from the other branches of the movement. For their part, politicians in Congress were willing to support mass protest (the satyagraha campaigns) and the creation of alternatives (the constructive program) not out of abstract commitment to these approaches, but because of the clear gains that their organization reaped. Periods of mass mobilization and civil disobedience allowed Congress to expand its popular reach and grassroots infrastructure, as waves of new people were drawn into political activity. In a 1966 study, Gopal Krishna of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies reported that the non-cooperation campaign of 1920-1922 coincided with a “spectacular growth of the Congress organization,” and that during this time, the group’s recorded membership “increased enormously.” Likewise, with regard to the province of Bihar, scholar Lata Singh writes that it was only as the mobilization began to gear up in 1920 that Congress was able to grow beyond its urban and professionalized strongholds and reach into the countryside.

While satyagraha served as an effective means of expanding the base of the Indian National Congress, the organization also received a boost from the work of countercultural volunteers on the constructive program. Villages whose residents directly benefited from constructive work in sanitation, healthcare, job training and education showed increased commitment and loyalty to the party. Speaking to this point, Shridharani wrote in 1939 of the agricultural workers who gained extra income through the All-India Spinners’ Association: “The farmers … are not slow to recognize that the improvement in their living conditions has been made possible by Mahatma Gandhi and the activities of the Congress. When literature and information regarding the nationalist activities are supplied by the association’s ‘depots’ and wandering scouts, they are eagerly received.”

The end of an ecosystem

The struggle against imperialism in India offers a remarkable example of a rich social movement ecology in action. That the struggle was simultaneously able to sustain itself through repeated waves of nationwide disruptive protest, to build a robust oppositional party institution, and to cultivate communities of people living in resistance to mainstream norms represents a remarkable combination of feats. Yet the movement was not free from internal tensions. On the contrary, maintaining collaboration required persistent effort. Although the ecosystem was sustained for an impressive period, divisions between different approaches to change gradually deepened. Indeed, they would lead to a split by the time of independence.

Many members of Congress, particularly those of a more moderate and lawyerly disposition, were distrustful of mass mobilization. Lata Singh describes how these tensions played out in the lead-up to the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920. In Bihar, senior members of Congress “who believed strongly in constitutional methods of struggle opposed [passing a] resolution [to authorize the noncooperation campaign] and expressed strong doubts and apprehensions about the strategy of launching such a movement,” Singh writes. The resolution only passed after “these senior members had left the meeting in ‘disgust.’”

In subsequent decades, even as Congress repeatedly relied on Gandhi for his expertise in galvanizing public sentiment, only a portion of its members would identify as “Gandhians.” Brown argues that many in Congress extended “ambivalent and conditional support” for his nonviolent campaigns, and they were eager to return to constitutional politics as soon as mass mobilizations died down. “Gandhi accepted this limited commitment among his associates and apparent followers with realism if regret,” she writes.

A great number of Congress politicians did not closely identify with the constructive program and the alternative vision of society modeled by the ashrams. Perhaps most prominently, as Jawaharlal Nehru rose in the leadership of the party, he admitted that he did not follow the constructive program in any detail. He increasingly viewed Gandhi’s advocacy of village life as antiquated and romantic, instead advocating a program of state-led industrialization as the proper means of addressing poverty. He was not alone. Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai wrote in 1944 that “khadi and spinning wheel were there on Congress’ program, yet only a few congressman have a living faith in … the potency of the wheel.”

In response, Gandhi and his ashramites were sometimes dismissive of Congress officials, painting them as petty parliamentarians overly concerned with their own prestige and inattentive to the actual living conditions of the poor. “Political freedom has no meaning for the millions,” he contended, without the economic improvements and cultural reforms that he envisioned achieving through the constructive program.

By the time independence was won and the Congress party assumed control of government on August 15, 1947, a vast divide had formed between these factions. Then in his 70s, Gandhi felt intensely disillusioned that only a limited version of swaraj was advancing. Having long emphasized the importance of communal unity and inter-religious harmony, he was shattered at the prospect of an impending partition of the country into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Biographer Joseph Lelyveld writes of Gandhi: “[H]ere he was, at the end of his days, expressing chronic disappointment and, sometimes, a sense of defeat. He’d had more to do with India’s independence than any other individual — in declaring the goal and making it seem attainable, in convincing the nation that it was a nation — but he was not among those who celebrated.”

By the time of Gandhi’s assassination, less than six months after independence, the gulf between the politicos taking over from the British and the alternative communities organizing in the villages had grown so wide that some preeminent leaders in each branch of the movement had virtually no interaction with one another. Lelyveld writes that immediately after Gandhi’s death, “his political and spiritual heirs gathered at Sevagram, his last ashram, in a meeting that was supposed to consider how they would go forward without him … Vinoba Bhave, widely considered Gandhi’s spiritual heir, noted that he was meeting Jawaharlal Nehru, his political heir, for the first time.”

Vinoba Bhave marching in 1960. (Wikipedia)

In later years, Bhave would go on to lead efforts such as the land-gift movement, aimed at getting landowners to donate a portion of their holdings to the poor. Bhave continued to establish new ashrams and to work toward village-level revitalization until his death in 1982. Meanwhile, Nehru presided over the transformation of India into a modern state with distinctly un-Gandhian features, including a well-armed military and a program of government-supported steel mills, coal mines and eventually nuclear power plants. India would see some campaigns of nonviolent direct action in subsequent decades — including the Chipko movement for forest conservation, which started in the 1970s. Yet these newer efforts would be much smaller than the major satyagrahas of Gandhi’s time.

Steps toward liberation

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this history is not that the social movement ecosystem ultimately fragmented, but that it held together for as long as it did. Over a period of several decades, nationalist forces were able to create multiple cycles of widespread uprising and to absorb the energy of these revolts into lasting oppositional structures. They managed to profoundly alter public opinion during moments of peak mobilization, as well as to sustain a culture of resistance during periods of relative calm. Each of these accomplishments is rare and laudable.

The Indian independence movement was part of a complex array of developments that led to the British departure from India, and Gandhi’s role within this history is the subject of ongoing debate. Many scholars today emphasize geopolitical factors — especially Britain’s weakened position after battling Germany and Japan — as critical in compelling the end of imperial rule. And yet, as scholar Ananya Vajpeyi argues, the social movement ecology that Gandhi cultivated had a profound effect in shaping the course of India’s history.

“No doubt the Second World War hastened the dissolution of the British Empire,” Vajpeyi writes, “but neither Allies nor Axis powers came to rescue India: in the end, India liberated itself.”

In serving as a figure who was able to bridge different organizing traditions, Gandhi provided a model of a complex social movement ecosystem. This model not only holds rich lessons for students of social movements today, it illuminates a critical idea: that transformation is most likely to come about not through any one single approach to creating social change — but through the integration of many.

Research assistance for this article provided by Will Lawrence, with special thanks to Guido Girgenti.


Salt March

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Salt March, also called Dandi March or Salt Satyagraha, major nonviolent protest action in India led by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi in March–April 1930. The march was the first act in an even-larger campaign of civil disobedience ( satyagraha) Gandhi waged against British rule in India that extended into early 1931 and garnered Gandhi widespread support among the Indian populace and considerable worldwide attention.

Salt production and distribution in India had long been a lucrative monopoly of the British. Through a series of laws, the Indian populace was prohibited from producing or selling salt independently, and instead Indians were required to buy expensive, heavily taxed salt that often was imported. This affected the great majority of Indians, who were poor and could not afford to buy it. Indian protests against the salt tax began in the 19th century and remained a major contentious issue throughout the period of British rule of the subcontinent.

In early 1930 Gandhi decided to mount a highly visible demonstration against the increasingly repressive salt tax by marching through what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat from his ashram (religious retreat) at Sabermati (near Ahmadabad) to the town of Dandi (near Surat) on the Arabian Sea coast. He set out on foot on March 12, accompanied by several dozen followers. After each day’s march the group stopped in a different village along the route, where increasingly larger crowds would gather to hear Gandhi rail against the unfairness of the tax on poor people. Hundreds more would join the core group of followers as they made their way to the sea until on April 5 the entourage reached Dandi after a journey of some 240 miles (385 km). On the morning of April 6, Gandhi and his followers picked up handfuls of salt along the shore, thus technically “producing” salt and breaking the law.

No arrests were made that day, and Gandhi continued his satyagraha against the salt tax for the next two months, exhorting other Indians to break the salt laws by committing acts of civil disobedience. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned, including Jawaharlal Nehru in April and Gandhi himself in early May after he informed Lord Irwin (the viceroy of India) of his intention to march on the nearby Dharasana saltworks. News of Gandhi’s detention spurred tens of thousands more to join the satyagraha. The march on the saltworks went ahead as planned on May 21, led by the poet Sarojini Naidu, and many of the some 2,500 peaceful marchers were attacked and beaten by police. By the end of the year, some 60,000 people were in jail.

Gandhi was released from custody in January 1931 and began negotiations with Lord Irwin aimed at ending the satyagraha campaign. A truce subsequently was declared, which was formalized in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact that was signed on March 5. The calming of tensions paved the way for Gandhi, representing the Indian National Congress, to attend the second session (September–December 1931) of the Round Table Conference in London.


Watch the video: Gandhi salt March with Indians (October 2021).