On March 12, 1930, at 6.30 in the morning a 61-year-old man, much fitter than what his bearing might suggest, picked up his bamboo stave and began an epic walk.
Walking along or slightly behind him was a clutch of 78 people dressed in white coarse khadi clothes. They walked 12 miles a day and completed the 240-mile journey from Ahmedabad on April 6. The destination of their journey was a beach near a village called Dandi in Gujarat where the man with the bamboo stave symbolically picked up a fistful of salt-rich sand. He had, in fact, made salt in a spectacularly imaginative defiance of the colonial English rulers’ policy of heavily taxing saltmaking under the Salt Act.
When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (MKG)bent that April 6 morning and collected a handful of salt, the blood pressure of the British rulers went up soaring. There was something to that simple little act that was loaded with historic consequence. If Gandhi had done nothing else but just led that one ‘Salt March’ in his career, he would have gone down in history as a political campaigner of extraordinary imagination. Of course as we know, the Dandi Salt March was just one of the many enormous political campaigns that he created and led.
To see in salt the unmaking of the British empire was the quintessence of Gandhi’s political genius. With the benefit of hindsight the connections and the logic of his thinking are so obvious. Just as taxing salt was a sinisterly clever economic strategy of the world’s greatest colonial power, defying to pay that tax was an equally powerful political counter to it. Gandhi knew that salt was so intrinsic to the survival of every Indian that any movement around it would find instant resonance and passion. It did. The Dandi Salt March is regarded as one of the world’s great political protests which set in motion a process of corrosion that eventually upended the British raj.
It would be excessive to call the Salt March as having caused the fall of the British empire because another 17 years passed before India gained her freedom. However, in so much as it concentrated the national mood against the British, the Salt March did play a decisive role. It was so much more than just symbolically making salt. It was about assertively dismantling the foundation of the colonial edifice. It could not get any more colonial than taxing salt, the most basic of human needs. As colonizers the British needed to do it and as the colonized India needed to reject it. It was interesting that for probably the world’s greatest empire and its most prized possession it came down to a chemical compound that can at once preserve and destroy.
As human history’s greatest ever admirer of sodium chloride (NaCl), I think it is salt that lifts the world a little above the level of farce (With apologies to the great Steven Weinberg who memorably said, “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”) Of course, I have the high blood pressure to show for this admiration. In my defense though, it is more congenital and debt-induced than salt-induced.
One of my many unfulfilled dreams has been to make a movie on just the Salt March, the kind that would dramatically examine what went on behind-the-scenes and in MKG’s mind before he embarked on it. It is so cinematic from every angle. White salt, white khadi, white colonial masters and dark times.