The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

Non-opposition is costly

The BJP didn’t forcefully counter the UPA government’s communal socialism. It’s paying for it in Rajasthan

Let there be no mistake: those who organised the violent mass agitation demanding entitlements that go with a scheduled tribe (ST) status, including its leader Kirori Singh Bainsla, are responsible for the deaths and injuries that resulted. Surely in a country where Chauri Chaura is taught in history textbooks, public protests involving burning down police stations and public transport buses can’t be called non-violent protests? Mr Bainsla’s claim to a Gandhian parallel—he was fasting while blocking railway traffic—is a macabre parody. The Gujjar riots are not about non-violence. They are about cynical use of violence and the threat of violence to press political demands.

And let there also be no mistake that even ‘non-violent’ tactics that disrupt normal life—blocking railways and holding up traffic—have no place in a constitutional democracy. As B R Ambedkar said, such methods are the “grammar of anarchy“. The political demands that the Gujjar protesters had should have been pressed in constitutional ways: through electoral politics and the judicial system. Arson and vandalism are crimes. Nothing in the Gujjar agitation must desensitise us from seeing them for what they are.

The police and law-enforcement authorities acted correctly. The loss of lives is unfortunate. But the police were not firing on a group of peaceful satyagrahis, but rather, on mobs that were resorting to mass violence. Mr Bainsla and his colleagues cannot escape moral responsibility for these deaths. They also cannot escape responsibility for diminishing the legitimacy of whatever genuine grievances some in the Gujjar community might have had.

These riots have come at a time when tensions between the BJP government in Rajasthan and the UPA government at the centre came to the fore after the terrorist attacks in Jaipur. The Congress Party is revelling at the Vasundhara Raje government’s discomfiture, at the hands of a monster that the UPA government nursed back to health.

It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of ’social justice’, ‘reforms with a social face’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of ‘backwardness’, with its attendent benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and if the UPA government were to have its way, in the private sector too. The designation of backwardness was subject to electoral promises, not hard-data or economic rationale. Do this long enough and you run into the Gurjjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places. [The Acorn, 4 June 2007]

Dr Frankenstein will face his creation eventually, but the BJP cannot escape its share of blame for failing to prevent, or at least draw attention to, the UPA’s larger project of divide and rule. It did complain when entitlement were sought to be handed out along religious lines, calling it minority appeasement. But it remained cynically silent when entitlements were handed out along caste and ethnic lines.

A party claiming to represent the whole of India should have protested loudly inside and outside parliament when the UPA government began its divide and rule project. Why, even a party claiming to champion the interests of the Hindu majority should have protested loudly when its base was being vivisected. If the Congress Party has succeeded in pulling the rug from under the BJP it is only because the latter could not muster up the leadership and courage to speak out against entitlements. As the Gujjar riots indicate, it will have to play the game by the rules set by its opponents.

Three cheers for the Delhi High Court

Its verdict should halt the tendency to use the law to flaunt competitive intolerance

Excerpts from the verdict of a single-judge bench of the Delhi High Court (Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul):

In a free and democratic society, tolerance is vital. This is true especially in large and complex societies like ours where people with varied beliefs and interests mingle..

It is very unfortunate that the works of any artist today who have tried to play around with nudity have come under scrutiny. These artists have had to face the music, making them think twice before exhibiting their work of art.

India’s new Puritanism, practised by a largely ignorant crowd in the name of Indian spiritual purity, is threatening to throw the nation back into the Pre-Renaissance era. Criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative act.

Today, each painting has a story to narrate. Art to every artist is a vehicle for personal expression. An aesthetic work of art has the vigour to connect to an individual sensually, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

The test for judging a work of art should be that of an ordinary man of common sense and not that of a hyper-sensitive one. Therefore looking at a piece of art from the painter’s perspective becomes very important, especially in the context of the nude.

Art and authority never had a difficult relationship, until recently…Our greatest problem today is fundamentalism, the triumph of the letter over the spirit. [IE]

Thus bench disposed off a slew of charges against M F Hussain (See Retributions). The plaintiffs will probably take their intolerance to the Supreme Court, but Justice Kaul’s judgement applies the brakes on the march of competitive intolerance. The big challenge, of course, is to make the ordinary man less hyper-sensitive. This judgement helps.

(We are trying to get hold of the full text of what looks like a very well-composed judgement.)

Update: Read Sandeep’s view, because it’s different.

Grammar of Anarchy

Lessons from another Maharashtrian

Those who take to the streets often invoke Mahatma Gandhi. Like Raj Thackeray. Surely, if the Mahatma could break the law, then it’s perfectly kosher for lesser mortals to do so?

Not quite.

Because once the Constitution of India came into force in 1950, the rules of the game changed. In one of his last speeches to the Constituent Assembly, on 25th November 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar said:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us. [Archives of the Parliament of India]

That manoos from Maharashtra got it right: political violence—and non-violence outside the constitutional route—are the grammar of anarchy. So don’t let the invocation of Gandhi be a fig leaf for practices that have no place in a democracy.

On Gandhi and the Jews

A deeper understanding of ahimsa at the time of genocide

Over at Prospect magazine, Salil Tripathi has a brilliant explanation of Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the Jews and the Third Reich.

This position has been characterised as passivity bordering on cowardice. But it is subtler than that. Gandhi expressed great sympathy for the historical persecution of the Jews. He called antisemitism “a remnant of barbarism.” He supported German Jews’ right to be treated as equal citizens, and admired their centuries of refusal to turn violent. He wanted the Jews to assert themselves wherever they happened to be, as citizens of that country first (which is why he argued that the Jews should not attempt to form a homeland in historic Palestine).

Jews must insist upon non-discrimination and equality wherever they lived, he said: they should fight the Nazis by insisting on practising their faith freely, as equal citizens: “If I were a Jew and were born in Germany,” he said, “I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.” A Jewish cry for a national home, Gandhi argued, would in fact provide justification to the Nazis to expel them. Continue reading On Gandhi and the Jews