Following the footsteps of the Mahatma, en route to Dandi
The metaphor of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Dandi march is potent. But the facts are no less powerful. A trek of 385.6-km.Updated: Sep 25, 2019 22:49 IST
A 60-plus man, staff in hand, mounts a mass struggle on the shoulders of 80 unarmed men. He makes an arduous trek across unmapped roads to reach the sea and make salt to challenge an unfair law, all the while keeping a hostile administration in the loop about his plan of action.
The metaphor of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Dandi march is potent. But the facts are no less powerful. A trek of 385.6-km. Across 47 villages. Over 24 days and nights. Starting from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and ending in Dandi in coastal Surat. From March 12 to April 6. The date of flouting the salt law in Dandi carefully chosen to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
No wonder then that of the many acts of courage Indian revolutionaries undertook to free India from British rule, Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march has always been among the most significant.
This was more than just a walk to protest the long-standing tax aimed at preserving British monopoly on salt — at Rs 3 per maund (1 maund being roughly 37kg), the price of the essential commodity was greatly enhanced for the ordinary Indian. The civil resistance was also a manual on how to assert oneself in the face of a bigger political enemy; a feat of performance art arrived at through years of political activism and strategy in South Africa, where Gandhi had lived for two decades before returning to India in 1915.
We retraced Gandhi’s footsteps to recount the march, and see what remains of the Dandi story in the places he walked through.
First Stop: Aslali
March 12, 1930 went according to plan. All roles had been assigned. Gandhi’s son, Manilal, was accompanying him to Dandi along with 77 other marchers (two more would join along the way). His close associate and secretary, Mahadev Desai, would stay behind and manage the press. Women and children did not join, because “he did not want to take advantage of the British sense of chivalry,” said Dinabehn Patil, who helms the work on the electronic master copy of the first series of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi at Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad. Founded by Gandhi in 1920, the Vidyapith’s students and teachers did a reconnaissance of the route shortly before the march to obtain information that would help Gandhi connect with his audience when he addressed them.
At Aslali, Gandhi made his first speech of the march. “I can understand there being a tax on such things as the hookah, bidis and liquor… but should there be a tax on salt?” he asked the crowd that had gathered to greet the marchers.
Aslali, a half-hour drive from Ahmedabad city, lies a little ahead of a multinational soft drinks godown, just off National Highway 64. A nondescript village, it has broken-down roads tramped upon by trucks. Few now know the location where Gandhi gave his speech, though a Gandhi bust commemorates the spot. Manilal, the elderly patwari of the Panchayat office that came up in place of the dharamsala that Gandhi had spent the night in, has a longer memory and spoke of the relevance of Gandhi. “There are no social boycotts of Dalits, and eating together with other castes is occasionally done.”
This could well be true for his area, even though Vadgam legislator, Jignesh Mevani, said, “The Gujarat government revealed in 2019 a 32% rise in crimes against Scheduled Castes between 2013 and 2017, and a 55% rise in crimes against Scheduled Tribes for the same period.” Ishwar Parmar, Gujarat social justice and empowerment minister, was unavailable for comment.
Navagam Tea Boycott
The bright yellow Dandi Path signage, managed by the state tourism department, led us to Navagam. Priyangbhai Shah, in his 30s, a primary school principal, said he abides by three of Gandhi’s rules: see no evil, hear no evil, and protest through non-violence.
“Gandhi baba also said, ‘no vice’.” Navagam, a village with squat houses flanked by fields, has interpreted this to boycott tea in the village. “People gather in tea shops, discuss politics, get worked up. This creates nuisance,” Shah explained. Cigarette shops — though Gandhi was expressly against smoking — make brisk business here, though.
The Gandhi Kutir, where the leader stayed the night after crossing Aslali, has a small library lined with almirahs containing collected volumes of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, the Jana Sangh ideologue, besides books on Gandhi.
Is this a case of chalk meeting cheese or did the Gandhian world view also make space for a markedly Hindu social order? Achyut Yagnik, author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat and a Gandhian, said that theorising about Gandhi’s religiosity is always a challenge because his Hinduism is catholic and the content and contexts of his words are different from ours. “The singing of bhajans during the march was not a nod to Hindu gods. Ashram bhajnavalis were being sung; tales from the Puranas, the Bible, essentially motivational songs. He had equal respect for all religions.”
From Aslali, the Dandi satyagrahis left for Anand, crossing Nadiad, where Gandhi addressed a gathering estimated to be in excess of 40,000 people, according to Ramachandra Guha’s biography, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World 1914-1948. At Dabhan, village headmen submitted their resignations as a mark of their non-cooperation with the government. The march was clearly having the effect Gandhi wanted.
Boat Rides at Midnight
On March 19, 1930, Gandhi reached Kankapura in Anand district. In the afternoon, Jawaharlal Nehru crossed the Mahi river the marchers had crossed at midnight, to meet Gandhi and discuss the agenda for the next Congress Working Committee meeting.
Farmer Ponambhai Parmar pointed out the Mahi, glistening like a silver ribbon under the afternoon sun. He showed the way out of the village, past 100-year-old trees and dirt tracks.
By dusk, we reached Bharuch, a city where Kasturba Gandhi met her husband at the bungalow of a dentist, Chandulal Desai, on March 26. Virag Thakore, a fourth-generation trustee of the Sevashram Hospital, took us up the teak staircase that Gandhi would have climbed to retire for the night. Standing before large displays of black-and-white photographs of the crowds who greeted the marchers in Sevashram, Thakore said, “Gandhiji did not mention ‘salt’ more than five times in his speeches... they were mainly about education, upliftment of the marginalised, communal harmony. But how much of him has Gujarat or India followed?”
Watch: Retracing the historic Dandi March | Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary
City of Glass
It was night when we reached Surat, a steel-and-glass urbanscape where saffron-clad young people were frenziedly drum-beating Ganesha idols into town on the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi. Mahendrasinh Sutaria, a veteran Congress leader, said Gandhi’s ideas were followed in his state for “at least two generations after his death”.
“Panchayati Raj draws from his concept of Gram Swaraj. The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, giving Indian women property rights for the first time, was enacted by a Congress government to continue his legacy.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims Gandhi too. Navsari Member of Parliament, CR Patil, listed a Rs 700-crore memorial made by the BJP in Gandhinagar as well as the new National Salt Satyagraha Memorial (inaugurated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Dandi village this January) as examples of how the BJP has preserved Gandhi’s legacy, besides enforcing a 50% reservation of women in all panchayats in Gujarat.
Dinkar Desai, a former Congressman, was seven years old when he saw Gandhi pick up a fistful of salt at Dandi on April 6. He heard Gandhi proclaim, “I want the world’s sympathy for right against might.” Desai and other boys his age added a cry of their own: “This is not salt, it’s as good as a bomb, which will blow up the empire!”
A Sea and a Salt Bed
Dandi is now an NRI town. A contingent of 30 tourists makes its way to the swanky new memorial. Faculty members of the Industrial School of Design, IIT Bombay, have contributed to its technical and aesthetic aspects, Raja Mohanty, principal investigator of the Dandi Memorial Project at IIT Bombay, said. The memorial sits on a 16-acre plot; its centrepiece is a 17-foot silicon bronze Gandhi statue.
Most visitors don’t stop by the Prarthana Sabha, where Gandhi held a meeting on April 5 after reaching Dandi, or the Saifee Villa (both just outside the new memorial), where Gandhi stayed the night before he walked up to the beach to flout the salt tax. The villa has been converted into a museum too, and includes a smiling statue of Gandhi on the charkha. Outside, a large white board warns visitors to take their shoes off before entering.
The Dandi march spurred actions of breaking the salt law across India, including in Bombay, Bengal and other parts of Gujarat. When the British government did not budge on the salt tax, Gandhi sent a second letter to Viceroy Irwin, stating his intention to carry on the march to the Dharasana Salt Works. However, Gandhi was arrested on May 5, before he embarked on this journey, and the onus fell on Abbas Tyabji, Sarojini Naidu and Kasturba Gandhi. The satyagrahis, their numbers running into thousands, were beaten with steel-tipped lathis when they attempted to storm the Salt Works on May 21, 1930. “Not one of the marchers raised an arm to fend off the blows... I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls,” wrote United Press International journalist, Web Miller, in his reports that flashed around the world.
The remains of that day in Dharasana, a one-horse town, is a white memorial in the middle of an unkempt garden. At the Panchayat office next door, a Gandhi figurine crowns the roof. Trucks trundle down the road past the memorial filled with boys yelling with abandon and cossetting the Ganeshas they have in hand. It was just beginning to rain; the mud pools would have salt by night
First Published: Sep 16, 2019 01:28 IST