The story of our independence: The Mahatma as Satyagrahi

  • Saudamini Jain, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 11, 2015 15:06 IST

The Mahatma As Satyagrahi

This unassuming walking stick became an unlikely symbol of the Dandi March, the Salt Satyagraha that launched the Civil Disobedience Movement and propelled Mahatma Gandhi to global prominence. It originally belonged to the Kannada poet Govind Pai, who passed it on to Kaka Kalelkar, the principal of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth School. Kalelkar in turn gifted the 54-inch-long, bamboo stick to the Mahatma.

And so, stick in hand, on March 12, 1930, Gandhi led the salt march from the Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad, through the villages of Gujarat, to the coast at Dandi to break the Salt Act. The Act gave the government monopoly on making salt and by taxing it, increased the price of a daily necessity. Gandhi called it "the most inhuman poll tax that ingenuity of man can devise." His progress over the next 24 days was printed in newspapers across the country and covered extensively by the international press.

Satyagrahis going to prepare salt during the march. (Photos courtesy: National Gandhi Museum and Library, Delhi.)

On 6 April, Gandhi picked up a handful of salt – announcing, "With this salt I am shaking the foundations of the [British] empire" – and inaugurated the Civil Disobedience Movement. It spread so rapidly and so widely, that within a month, in May, the Viceroy had ordered the arrest of the Mahatma.

The Salt Satyagraha, however, went on. Gandhi’s next plan was to take possession of the salt beds of Dharasana, near Dandi. Sarojini Naidu, among other leaders, led a band of 2,000 towards the Dharasana salt works – they were beaten by the police, 320 were injured, two died and hundreds were arrested.

At Wadala, in Bombay, 15,000 people broke the police cordon and carried away salt. Thousands of people in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and Orissa participated in the Salt Satyagraha, faced the police and in some centres managed to manufacture ‘illegal’ salt.

Simultaneously, the boycott of foreign goods continued. By the 1930s, women – and even young girls – had become active participants in the freedom movement. They would stand outside shops selling foreign cloth and liquor, asking both customers and shopkeepers to boycott foreign-made goods.

After Gandhi’s arrest, poet Sarojini Naidu (below), the first woman president of the Congress, carried on with the Salt Satyagraha at Dharasana. The 2,000 satyagrahis she led were beaten by the police so brutally that Webb Miller, an American journalist, reported, "I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharasana" (Photo: Corbis)

The Do Or Die Ultimatum

The Congress session in Bombay in August 1942 was unprecedented. In the midst of the Second World War, the British were not willing to discuss any real Constitutional changes, and Congress leaders realised that a struggle was inevitable. Anti-British sentiment was very strong, and the impact of the Second World War (like food shortages) also added to the discontentment with the government.

A massive crowd waited outside Bombay’s Gowalia Tank where the session was held. When Gandhi made a speech announcing the Quit India Movement, in which he said: “I am not going to be satisfied with anything short of complete freedom. Maybe, he [the Viceroy] will propose the abolition of salt tax... etc. But I will say: ‘Nothing less than freedom’... The mantra is, ‘Do or Die’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt: we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery” – there was pin-drop silence among the crowd.

The front page of The Hindustan Times (July 15, 1942). At a meeting in Wardha on July 14, the Congress accepted the idea of ‘Quit India’ (Photo: HT Archives)

In the early hours of 9 August, before the Movement was formally launched, all top leaders of the Congress – including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad – were arrested. But the Movement did not peter out, nor did it get postponed.

The Congress resolution – anticipating possible arrests – had stated, “A time may come when it may not be possible to issue instruction or for instructions to reach our people, and when no Congress committees can function. When this happens, every man and woman who is participating in this movement must function for himself or herself within the four corners of the general instructions issued. Every Indian who desires freedom and strives for it must be his own guide.” And that’s what people did. As the news of the arrests spread, so did the Movement.

The huge crowd outside the historic All India Congress Committee meeting in Bombay where the Quit India resolution was formally adopted on August 8, 1942. (Photo: HT Archives)

Lakhs of people – men, women, students, children – joined in demonstrations in various parts of the country. People in cities and villages protested against the Raj, shouting slogans such as Gandhi ka charkha chalana padega, goron ko London jaana padega; Quit India; Bharat Chhoro.

Within a week, 250 railway stations were damaged, more than 500 post offices and 150 police stations attacked. The government repression was merciless. By the end of 1942, more than 60,000 people had been arrested.

Four unknown women, most probably students, demonstrate against the government during the Quit India movement in August 1942. (Photo courtesy: The Raj At War by Yasmin Khan, Gandhiserve Foundation)

On 10 February 1943, Gandhi went on a 21-day fast in jail, despite his failing health – as a “penance for deadlock” between the Viceroy and Indian leaders. The government went as far as to begin preparing for a “generous” funeral for the Mahatma. But Gandhi’s fast was not fatal. It was fundamental in adding vigour to the Movement. It angered the people even more, and resulted in an overwhelming number of hartals.

On 6 May 1944, Gandhi was released from prison on medical grounds. By the time Congress leaders were released from jail in the middle of 1945, the Quit India Movement had ended. But the masses were not disheartened, and they were far from being done. And perhaps the realisation had finally dawned, that the end of British rule was inevitable – and that freedom must and would be achieved.


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From HT Brunch, August 9
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