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A tale of two risings

If most of us today have no idea what it’s like to live as subjects of a foreign power, it’s because of the people who fought so we’d be born free. Here’s a look at the biggest events in the freedom struggle.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2010 18:16 IST
Hindustan Times

If most of us today have no idea what it’s like to live as subjects of a foreign power, it’s because of the courageous people who fought so we’d be born free. Here’s a look at two of the biggest events in the struggle for freedom


Dandi, Gujarat:2010

Salt?” asks Gangubai, resident of Dandi, vastly amused by my question. “No, no. Salt you get in Mumbai. Here, you get fish.” I hadn’t really expected to find salt being made in Dandi. That had stopped years ago.

But I hoped some family still extracted it from the sea in commemoration of where they live. Because Dandi, a village on the Gujarat coast, was where the Salt March that Mahatma Gandhi launched in 1930, ended. It was a march to protest the tax on salt, a necessity for everyone. Extracting salt from the sea, thus bypassing the tax, was the first act of non-violent civil disobedience.

Mahatma Gandhi

Today, 80 years after Mahatma Gandhi, leading a band of 79 men from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, walked the 241 miles to Dandi, I am on the beach trying to imagine the moment when he stooped, picked up a clump of sand laden with crystals of sea salt, and stirred the whole nation.

I know this beach, which is reclaimed land, did not exist in 1930. Then, Dandi was surrounded by a creek that made it an island at high tide, and the spot where I’m standing must have been many feet under water. But still... Surrounded by fishermen, strollers and young couples, I am moved by the fact that I am in Dandi at all. Because it was here that one of the finest episodes of our history began.

And I’m not the only person today to believe that Dandi still holds meaning for every Indian. As I stroll down the beach, I come across a family from Ujjain who have come to Dandi “to see where the salt satyagraha began”.

Strength of purpose
Most people tend to think of Dandi as the end of the Salt March. In fact, in a way, it was the beginning. As a reporter for the London Times wrote on April 6, 1930, the day Gandhi ji picked up the first handful of salt: “On my way back from Dandi… I passed a rickety bridge over a creek which was almost dry.

In the bed were gathered 156 volunteers from the neighbouring village, busily engaged in scraping salt from the deposits… It was still early in the day, but the leader proudly informed me that the party had already gathered nearly 1,000 lbs of salt.”

All over Gujarat – and everywhere in the country that natural salt could be found – people from all walks of life were breaking the Salt Laws. But Dandi was too cut off to be the centre of operations for the bigger but still non-violent acts of defiance that Gandhi ji insisted would have to follow. Namely: raids on the salt works at nearby Dharasana.

So, after a few days at Dandi, the satyagrahis moved to the village of Karadi, where people gathered from all over the country in preparation for the raids. It was from Karadi that Gandhiji was arrested on the night of May 4-5, 1930, and the Dharasana raids were led by retired Baroda high court judge Abbas Tyabji, the poet and first woman president of the Congress, Sarojini Naidu, and Gandhiji’s son, Manilal Gandhi, each one being arrested in turn.

So it was actually from Dharasana that the world saw the images of satyagrahis calmly, silently, inexorably walking past phalanxes of baton-wielding policemen, being brutally clubbed, taken away for first aid and then calmly, silently, inexorably walking back for more of the same, putting up not the slightest attempt at resistance.

It was a moment in world history that remains unsurpassed as a display of what it truly means to believe in what you are doing.

A walk to remember
Gangubai might have been amused at the notion of two people from Mumbai visiting Dandi to find salt, but the locals do know about Gandhi. Or, they know at least that visitors who ask about him should be directed to the Gandhi museum, a short walk from the beach.

I’d heard of this museum. It’s called Saifee Villa, and it’s where Gandhiji stayed when the satyagrahis finally got to Dandi on April 5, 1930 – a bungalow owned by Seth Sirajuddin Vasi. In the ’60s, its owner Syedna Taher Saifuddin Shaheb, the 51st religious head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, handed it over to the nation to serve as a Gandhi museum.

The museum is temporarily closed now, because the bungalow is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India to what it looked like in 1930, according to Gopal Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, former governor of West Bengal, and chairman of the Dandi Memorial Committee (DMC).

But it was just about here that Gandhiji actually picked up that handful of salt. In 1930, the beach came right up to this bungalow. It’s hard to imagine the scene now though, because the bungalow is surrounded by fields and buildings and the beach is at least a kilometre away.

Once the bungalow is restored, says Gopal Gandhi, the DMC will work with the Sabarmati Trust on the museum displays. Meanwhile, as part of the DMC’s plans, the area around Dandi has been declared an eco-sensitive zone by the environment ministry, so the landscape and biodiversity are to be maintained, and green practices, such as solar-powered lighting, are to be introduced.

Land of the free
There are many plans to turn the area into a powerful memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the satyagrahis – Gujarat Tourism also has its own plans, says Gopal Gandhi. But even now, the landscape as seen from the road between Dandi and Navsari is pretty much laden with signs that the freedom struggle has not been forgotten.

We pass a housing complex called Gandhi Gardens, several busts and statues of people involved in the freedom struggle, and a railway level crossing with a sign that reads: “The Gate of Mahatma Gandhi” – marking the spot where the British, having quietly arrested Gandhi from Karadi in the middle of the night of May 4-5 1930, stopped the Frontier Mail that was on its way to Mumbai, to whisk him off to Yerawada prison in Pune.

Another sign, a few feet up the track, reads “Gandhi Smriti” and that marks the place from where Gandhiji actually boarded the train. Gandhiji was arrested about a month after he broke the salt law; but he had expected to be arrested from the very beginning of the campaign.

In a speech to the crowds gathered at Dandi on April 5, the evening before he officially broke the law, he said: “When I left Sabarmati with my companions for this seaside hamlet of Dandi, I was not certain in my mind that we would be allowed to reach this place.

Even while I was at Sabarmati, there was a rumour that I might be arrested… If the government… arrest me or my companions tomorrow, I shall not be surprised, I shall certainly not be pained… What if I and all the eminent leaders in Gujarat and in the rest of the country are arrested? This movement is based on the faith that when a whole nation is aroused and on the march, no leader is necessary.

“…But the goal we wish to reach is yet very far. For the present Dandi is our destination but our real destination is no other than the temple of the goddess of swaraj.” In this speech, Gandhiji asked for a ‘darshan’ of swaraj. Me – I was born into swaraj. And it was all because of him and the hundreds of people who allowed themselves, unresisting, to be clubbed, because they defied the salt law.

Kushalrani Gulab

(All quotes in this piece are from On the Salt March: The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s March to Dandi, by Thomas Weber)

2 March:
Mahatma Gandhi and 79 satyagrahis leave Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to march 241 miles to Dandi on the coast of Gujarat, to break the law that taxed salt

6 April: Having arrived at Dandi the previous day, Gandhiji bathes in the Arabian Sea, then stoops and picks up a handful of sea salt-encrusted sand, thus symbolically breaking the law

16 April: Gandhiji and the satyagrahis move to Karadi, which is larger than Dandi and more easily accessible for the crowds of volunteers arriving to take part in the salt satyagraha

26 April: Gandhiji announces the plan to raid the salt works at Dharasana

4-5 May: Gandhiji is arrested at midnight and whisked away to Yerawada Prison, Pune

15 May: Sarojini Naidu leads the satyagrahis on a raid at the salt works. She is arrested

21 May: More than 2,000 volunteers raid Dharasana. They make no resistance to police action against them

The true meaning of the Salt March
An extract from a report by American journalist Webb Miller who witnessed the salt satyagraha at Dharasana. “Slowly and in silence the throng commenced the half-mile March to the salt depots… The salt-deposits were surrounded by ditches filled with water and guarded by four hundred native Surat police… Half a dozen British officers commanded them. The police carried lathis – five foot clubs tipped with steel.

Inside the (barbed wire) stockade, twentyfive rifle-men were drawn up. …Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently imposed regulation which prohibited gatherings of more than five people in any one place. A picked column silently ignored the warning and walked forward… scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis.

Not one of the marchers raised an arm to fend off the blows… I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at each blow. …In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes… When everyone of the first column had been knocked down, stretcher-bearers rushed up unmolested by the police and carried off the injured…

Then another column formed while their leaders pleaded with them to retain their self-control… They marched… without the encouragement of music or cheering or any possibility that they might escape serious injury or death. The police rushed out and methodically and mechanically beat down the second column… I saw eighteen injured being carried off simultaneously, while forty two still lay bleeding on the ground awaiting stretcher-bearers.

…At times, the spectacle of unresisting men being methodically bashed into bloody pulp sickened me so much that I had to turn away… I felt an indefinable sense of helpless rage and loathing…”

Quit India: The final call

Gowalia Tank, Mumbai: 2010
For most of the year, Gowalia Tank (or August Kranti Maidan, to use its official name), is, for most Mumbaikars, a place that one passes on the way to somewhere else, or a handy landmark for directions to a bookstore or restaurants in the vicinity, or a shortcut to Grant Road station.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the first thing I see as I get out of my taxi on August 9 is a troupe of Kolis dancing towards the entrance of the maidan. Above their heads is a virtual sea of political posters – at least two dozen have been tacked up on the railings – complete with heads of politicians and patriotic sentiments.

I even spot Narendra Modi’s image – only his poster seems to be asking people to ‘Quit’ the Congress. A few BJP lotus flags among a sea of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress ones bear witness to the fact that the party’s workers have indeed worked hard to ensure that the annual commemoration of the Quit India Movement at this venue is not an exclusively Congress rite.

For that is what I and hundreds of others have come here to do – mark the 68th anniversary of the day when Mahatma Gandhi, accompanied by a host of national leaders (including the then newlyweds Feroze and Indira Gandhi), issued his most famous call ever. The ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942, with its clarion call of Do or Die, was issued at a time when the United

Kingdom, and the rest of the world, was squarely in the middle of the Second World War. It was the last civil disobedience movement launched by the Mahatma, and it led, in the fullness of time, to the declaration of independence in 1947.

The events that day
Vasant Pradhan, Gandhian and president of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sanghralaya, does not remember that the Allied and Axis powers were pitted against each other on the day that he walked to Gowalia Tank to learn what Mahatma Gandhi and the other leaders of the freedom struggle had in mind for the people of India.

That was August 8, and Pradhan recalls standing on the footpath along with a huge crowd of people opposite Gowalia Tank, watching Congress members enter the shamiana erected on the maidan.

“I was there from the afternoon to around 7 pm,” says 86-year-old Pradhan. “Those were exciting days and every event of that time was inspiring. We didn’t think of whether we would live to see an independent India, but we kept on moving forward. We were steadfast in our resolution.”

Another curious visitor to the ground on August 9 in 1942 was Dr Madhavdas Thackersay. The 91-year-old was a member of the Vanar Sena (an organisation created in March 1930 that used children to aid the freedom fighters in their cause) and was also lathi-charged by police on that day.

Pradhan, who was then an 18-year-old matriculation student, also remembers heading to Shivaji Park the next day where Kasturba Gandhi was scheduled to address a meeting. But she was arrested and taken to Arthur Road Jail before she got there. “That was my first taste of tear gas and a lathi charge,” he says wryly.

A few days later, he and thousands of students plunged headfirst into the Quit India movement, inspired by the Mahatma’s rousing speech and the mass arrests of leaders that quickly followed the events of August 9.

Pradhan recalls that thousands of people rallied to the cause of freedom, including many like him who had never been actively involved in the movement before. He credits the words ‘Quit India’ and the ‘Do or Die’ slogan as being instrumental in his conversion to an active satyagrahi. “I was arrested three times,” recalls Pradhan.

“I was first rounded up before October 2 in 1942, then for picketing the bullion exchange and finally for distributing bulletins, for which I received a five-month sentence.”

The aftermath
After leaving Gowalia Tank, Mahatma Gandhi headed to Birla House on Malabar Hill, where he was arrested in a pre-dawn raid. Jawaharlal Nehru was picked up from Sakina Mansions on Carmichael Road, the home of his sister Krishna Hutheesing. In addition, all members of the Congress Working Committee were also rounded up.

Nehru was taken to Ahmadnagar Fort with other members of the Congress Working Committee, while Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and Sarojini Naidu were held at the Aga Khan’s palace in Pune.

Despite these arrests, the Quit India movement got into high gear. In the days that followed, in Mumbai itself, Congress workers and students began protests, distributed pamphlets in violation of the law, started an underground radio station and caused curfews to be clamped in areas like Girgaum, Mahim and Prabhadevi.

Across the country, workers went on strike, government buildings were targeted and transport links were severed. All this led to what American writer Katherine Frank (in her book Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi) called the “most serious challenge to British authority since the Great Rebellion of 1857”. By the end of 1942, Frank records, over 60,000 people had been arrested.

The end
New none of these facts (well, perhaps just the bare bones of them) when I set out to write this story. But over the course of two weeks, after many trips to Mani Bhavan (once one of Gandhi’s favourite places to stay in Mumbai) and one reconnaissance trip to August Kranti Maidan before August 9, I found myself being slowly drawn into those stirring times.

I met two survivors (Mr Pradhan and Dr Thackersay) and found myself speechless as they recounted their stories. I found myself even more speechless when Dr Thackersay’s daughter Jayashree told me that her father had never worn store-brought clothing after he started spinning his own yarn from the age of 14 (he still spins every day).

I even found myself in the middle of a de facto political rally at Gowalia Tank on August 9, 2010, watching present-day political workers greet present-day leaders as they arrived for a flag-hoisting ceremony and laid innumerable wreaths at the memorial erected at the ground. As I watched, I couldn’t help contrasting those two meetings, separated by 68 years.

The police still carry batons, but if they had used them, it would have been the stuff of breaking news headlines rather than something played down by the official press. This time there was no tear gas, but there were no tears either, not for the sacrifices made by the people who fought for freedom or for the fact that their high ideals have been compromised again and again, as the Gandhians I met for this story sorrowfully told me.

On August 10, Gowalia Tank went back to being forgotten, except by schoolboys wanting a quick game of football. But for me, it’s now no longer on the way to something else.

— Mignonne Dsouza

How the slogan was chosen
Mahatma Gandhi conferred with his colleagues about an appropriate slogan for the movement calling for the British to leave India. One suggested ‘Get Out’, which was rejected as being impolite. C Rajagopalachari said ‘Retreat’ or ‘Withdraw’. That too was not acceptable.

Freedom fighter Yusuf Meherally (later elected as mayor of Bombay in 1942 while still in jail) then presented Gandhi with a bow bearing the inscription ‘Quit India’. Gandhi said ‘Amen’.
Courtesy: Mani Bhavan

Let that be your pledge. Keep jails out of your consideration. If the Government keeps me free, I will not put on the Government the strain of maintaining a large number of prisoners at a time, when it is in trouble.

Let every man and woman live every moment of his or her life hereafter in the consciousness that he or she eats or lives for achieving freedom and will die, if need be, to attain that goal. Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it.
— Extract from Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India speech

First Published: Aug 14, 2010 14:55 IST