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]

Grand Strategy

India has always had a grand strategy: to keep the country united

N S Sisodia, IDSA’s director-general, makes the case in the Indian Express today for the strategic affairs community to develop and articulate a grand strategy for India. IDSA recently launched the National Strategy Project (INSP) that aims to bring together a wide range of scholars, analysts and experts and jointly shape a grand strategy. (Disclosure: a couple of us at Takshashila are involved in this project).

Now, that government-related institutions are beginning to think systematically about the big “Why” questions of foreign and national security policies is a good thing. (ICRIER had launched a National Interest Project in 2007). Does India need a grand strategy that will inform and influence policymakers across ministries, across political party lines and over time? Obviously, yes. Should this be publicly articulated? Most certainly—it might not convince everyone, but doing so offers us a way to assess whether or not policymakers are sticking to the given script.

But is it true that India has lacked a grand strategy all this while?

Two answers are usually offered: the first, made famous by George Tanham, suggests that India lacks coherent strategic thinking. Unlike many other countries, the Indian government’s decision-making remains behind a wall of secrecy, records remain locked up in archives or personal collections and few people close to the action write books on contemporary events, if they write at all. So it is fair for information-starved academic scholars to conclude that the absence of evidence is really evidence of absence—forget grand, they would say, New Delhi lacks strategy.

The second answer contends that non-alignment was India’s grand strategy from independence to the end of the Cold War. During the early Nehruvian-era, non-alignment had realist underpinnings, but in 1962—when Nehru requested Kennedy for US air power support—non-alignment became a grand slogan. But what are bureaucracies for if not to provide policy continuity? Non-alignment continued to be worshipped by India’s politicians and intellectuals even after Indira Gandhi—in an act of hard realism—signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was only when the Cold War ended that non-alignment became a painfully obvious anachronism. The deity had vanished, leaving the worshippers lost and confused.

So it is perhaps not a coincidence that Tanham’s view gained traction in India the early 1990s, just after the Cold War ended.

Actually, the case of the missing grand strategy remained unsolved because they were looking in the wrong place. India’s leaders, at least from the Mauryas to the Mughals to Manmohan Singh, have always had a grand strategy. And it is a very simple one—to unite India and keep it united. Scholars of international relations have missed this because India’s grand strategy has been largely domestic in its focus. As K M Panikkar laments, India’s rulers have always been preoccupied with the subcontinent. Even as it indicates a lack of interest in extra-subcontinental geopolitics, it suggests that they were not “bereft of coherent strategic thinking”.

From Chandragupta’s empire building to Aurangzeb’s military expeditions to the Deccan to the Indian republic’s foreign policy, the grand strategy is consistent—bringing the whole of the Indian subcontinent under their rule and keeping it that way. Non-alignment was not grand strategy, but rather, an approach that followed from the grand strategy. And Tanham was wrong. The survival and security of the state, the most parsimonious definition of the national interest, has been and remains India’s grand strategy. It should remain so.

That said, can India afford such parsimony in its strategic approach towards the twenty-first century? Not quite, because to the extent that India’s grand strategy caused India’s leaders to be inward-looking, both the opportunities and threats emanating from outside have been neglected. In the highly competitive times of the twenty-first century, India cannot afford to miss either. So there is a case to rethink grand strategy. There is a need to shake up the foreign policy and security establishment from one that was defending a weak India from a world that was out to get us, to promoting the interests of a stronger India in a world where there are opportunities as there are threats.

Pakistan’s ‘second’ nuclear arsenal

My talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

Earlier this month, I presented my analysis of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal at CLAWS. A summary of the talk and discussion is up at their website. Excerpt:

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. [Shah Alam/CLAWS]

Related posts: Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear capacity? The arms race in the Middle East; Not our problem; and, MUD not MAD

Think tanks, spy fronts and websites

China’s ‘institutes for strategic studies’

The website that first published the provocative article had the domain name—when that site was up it redirected to In addition there is and at least one other site with IISS in it. They do not have anything remotely to do with the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (the IISS), nor do they have anything to do with the Chinese foreign ministry-linked China Institute for International Studies (CIIS, on the web at

So what are and CIISS?

According to TNN’s Saibal Dasgupta, the websites are run by one Kang Lingyi, and are a private initiative unconnected with any official body. Mr Kang says that it was a mere coincidence that his website had a name similar to the official think-tank, and that he has since changed it to China Center for International and Strategic Studies “to avoid confusion”.

FT reports that Mr Kang’s website is called China International Strategy Net and that he “took part in hacking into US government websites in 1999 following US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sites such as his are part of the Communist party’s strategy to allow nationalism to grow to strengthen its political legitimacy.” (An issue of TIME magazine dated June 20th 2005 has more about Mr Kang and his patriotic initiatives online.)

What is truly remarkable—and this is China—is that Mr Kang was allowed to operate websites for several years with domain names similar to CIISS, the “official think-tank”. Because that is no ordinary think-tank—as Brahma Chellaney pointed out today, CIISS is a unit directly under the Second Department of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Second Department is the PLA’s apex military intelligence department and, according to David Lampton “superior to all other civilian and military organs as a source of national and defence intelligence and military-related strategic analysis for the senior leadership”. Mr Lampton writes that “most Second Department researchers use a “front” affiliation when interacting with foreigners, notably China Institute of International Strategic Studies”. Its chairman is Lieutenant-General Xiong Guangkai, who is quoted as having threated a nuclear attack on Los Angeles in 1995.

There is nothing to connect Mr Kang’s CIISS with General Xiong’s CIISS. But the latter’s signals need to be taken a lot more seriously. Given the scope for confusion, the general would do well to ask Mr Kang to get a different domain name. Unless, of course, the reason not to is stronger.

God save the US from its pundits

Don’t they read the news?

A certain Nirav Patel from the Center for New American Security—a newish think-tank—argues that “President Bush should quickly dispatch the necessary high-level authorities to mediate and resolve the current Kashmir crisis before it becomes a reason for war” leveraging its “economic and military co-operation with both countries”. (linkthanks Pragmatic)

Mr Patel is not reading the daily news. It turns out that the economic and military co-operation—the tens of billions of dollars of it—is not even allowing the United States the leverage to prevent the Pakistani military establishment from using the Taliban to shoot at American soldiers in Afghanistan. That apart, Mr Bush’s envoys have too many things on their hands in Pakistan to expend what little leverage they have out there on defusing the situation in Kashmir.

But it’s clear Mr Patel is not referring to Pakistan. He is more concerned about what India might do. “Nationalist sentiment in India”, according to him, “is quickly transforming pragmatic policies toward Pakistan into hard-line and reactionary approaches. India is unlikely to sit on the sidelines much longer.” Now, how did Mr Patel arrive at that conclusion? Without supporting facts, such conclusions can only be described as fanciful.

That’s not all, actually. He actually fears a breakdown in nuclear deterrence. Because “Rational leaders in both countries have thus far successfully managed ethno-nationalist impulses. However, as India continues to feel cornered by and vulnerable to terrorist threats originating in Pakistan, it will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the impulse to attack.”

Perhaps Mr Patel could point to a single credible voice from any part of India’s strategic establishment or indeed from a political party, that is advocating a military attack on Pakistan. So his opinion is nothing more than mere presumption. And if he would only begin to read the daily news, he will notice that it is the Pakistani army that is routinely violating the ceasefire. What can the United States do about this? Precious little.

If India asks America to run Kashmir

Some more departures into the unthinkable

If their mandate is to think the unthinkable, then Frederick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon are making a good job of it over at the Brookings Institution. In November last year, they wrote an op-ed in the New York Times outlining how the United States might have to confiscate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and fly them to New Mexico. And now, in a policy brief arguing for the US to increase the size of its armed forces, they construct a scenario wherein American troops may have to enter Kashmir.

Responding to War over Kashmir What if war breaks out between Pakistan and India over Kashmir? U.S. interests in Kashmir are not great enough to justify armed intervention on one side in such a war, and no formal alliance commits us to step in. There are other ways in which foreign forces might become involved, however. If India and Pakistan came close to using, or actually used, nuclear weapons, they might consider what was previously unthinkable (to New Delhi in particular)—pleading to the international community for help. For example, they might ask the international community to run Kashmir for a period of years in order to prevent a nuclear war that would kill tens of millions, shatter the tradition of nuclear non-use so essential to global stability, and make Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal vulnerable to extremists.

What might a stabilization mission in Kashmir entail? The region has about half of Iraq’s population and area. That suggests initial stabilization forces of about 100,000, with a U.S. contribution of 30,000 to 50,000. The mission would make sense only if India and Pakistan blessed it, so there would be little point in deploying a force large enough to defeat one of those countries. But, robust monitoring of border regions, as well as counter-insurgent and counter-terrorist strike forces, would be necessary. [Brookings]

Now, Kagan and O’Hanlon are entitled to think of far out challenges, even if they are too far out and contain too many leaps of logic. But it is remarkable that they should think that a force of just 100,000 troops is sufficient for stabilisation, even of the ‘initial’ kind. There are far more than that number today just on India’s side of the Line of Control. And what about troop levels after the initial period? They don’t say. Perhaps that’s because doing so will not fit their conclusion—that the US needs at least another 100,000 active duty soldiers and marines. Indeed, that’s the greatest weakness in their analysis: for the kind of global policing role they envisage for the US, they grossly underestimate the numbers of troops required. For all the advances in military technology, the business of holding territory is a numbers game. To acquire the capability to match its intentions, the US needs to put many times more than number in uniform.

The irony is if Kagan and O’Hanlon were to argue for, say, 300,000 more troops, no one will take them seriously. For that is truly unthinkable in America.

On recrafting Australia’s relations with India

It’s as much about institutional capacity as it is about issues of the day

Rory Medcalf from Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy wrote an open letter to Australia’s new foreign minister. Excerpts:

Your Government has the opportunity to ensure that Australia becomes permanently serious about India, and to manage any ill-feeling that might arise in New Delhi from ruling out uranium sales.

Early reassurance, at the highest level, that Australia wants qualitatively improved ties with India. Any misperception that Australia might focus on China at India’s expense needs to be scotched.

Proper resourcing of Australia’s diplomacy with India: this has several facets. India is not just another country. The billion-plus scale of its population is echoed in its cultural and geographic diversity and the size and complexity of its mass media, political and business interests. In this context, and if your agenda is ambitious, the tradition of representing Australia’s interests in India with modest diplomatic, bureaucratic and financial resources cannot last. It is time to consider a full India branch in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and a diplomatic presence beyond New Delhi. If Canberra sees fit to deploy diplomats (rather than narrowly-focused trade representatives) in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, why not Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata? Finally, DFAT has not cultivated a single Hindi-speaker in a decade. Yes, India’s elite speaks English. But much of the political life of the country uses the vernacular, and to consider it not to be worth schooling a single Australian diplomat in that language is a false economy, not to mention an insult to a major world civilisation. (Hindi is also a backdoor to Urdu, and Australia’s diplomatic and security agencies desperately need talent in that language.) [Lowy Interpreter]

Medcalf’s arguments echo what this blog wrote during the Mohammed Haneef imbroglio: Australia must invest in institutional capacity that to engage India. Mr Stephen Smith would do well heed the contents of Rory Medcalf’s memo.