Congress Party vice president Rahul Gandhi with the salt pan workers of Kharaghoda, Gujarat.
This morning I chanced upon what I can only call Rahul Gandhi’s own salt making moment. The last time during another era when another Gandhi made salt an empire was shaken to the core. But those were very different times and that was a very different Gandhi. Also, it is India’s own democracy now and Indians are in charge. One can only protest so much against oneself.
Rahul was on a visit to the Kharaghoda salt pans of Surendranagar district of my home state of Gujarat. The visit was webcast live on Gandhi’s Congress Party website. Some 100,000 salt pan workers barely scrape an existence out of this work but their lives have been corroded by the harrowing conditions and injustice of what they do. As one of the workers pointed out, after spending years standing in the intensely saline water as part of their work, their feet get so badly damaged that after death when they are cremated the whole body burns except their feet. They have to be soaked in kerosene to finish the cremation. This at once macabre and tragic image summed up the terrible hardship of their lives.
The interaction between Rahul and the salt pan workers, locally known as agarias, began with one of them symbolically welcoming him with a cloth bundle of raw salt in its crystalline form. I am pretty sure at the back of Gandhi’s mind was the powerful and eventually defining Salt March of 1930 that Mohandas Gandhi led in protest against the British colonial masters who were unfairly taxing salt-making in this very state and elsewhere. Of course, other than salt there was hardly anything in common between Rahul’s interaction with the salt pan workers and Gandhi’s Salt March.
It is commendable that Rahul chooses to interact with ordinary Indians involved in a vast array of mostly unglamorous professions. I am sure he would do his best to redress some of the salt pan workers’ grievances while forming policies on land acquisition and other related issues. That said, it is troubling that for Rahul all such visits end up being a personal study tour where he learns about things which his otherwise highly controlled existence would not let him learn.
However, a point must come in a politician’s life when it should stop being just a journey of learning and become a destination of doing. It is anybody’s guess whether the general election in April/May will give Rahul’s party enough numbers to make him prime minister and give an opportunity to address problems he learned about on his many study tours.
While the salt pan workers pointed out many problems unique to their specific profession, the overall theme still remains of the marginalized getting more marginalized in India. Perhaps the biggest issue for them is about not being able own any part of the land on which their families have lived for over a century. They cannot build proper homes because until 2012 the land belonged to a state-owned enterprise that owned the land lease for 99 years. Now, even though that lease has ended, the Hindustan Salt Works reportedly continues to collect taxes from them and forbid them from building homes. That was one of the complaints.
One has a sinking feeling that for those on the margins—and that is a vast number in India—what may have changed from the time of the British is merely the constitution of the ruling class. A lot of the policies still feel heavily loaded against them. I could see that Rahul is genuinely sympathetic even while trying to subtly establish that despite the federal government, where his party dominates, doing its best the state government, headed by his nemesis and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, upends things.
I am sure such interactions have some positive implication but it is hard to define exactly what it is that is gained by either party. Grievances are aired, rants are gone through, sympathies and outrage are expressed, assurances are given and that’s that. I sincerely hope that is not the case.