by Pamela Toler
The American Revolution had the Boston Tea Party; the Indian independence movement had Gandhi’s salt march.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British government in India had a heavily taxed monopoly on the production and sale of salt. It was illegal for anyone to make or sell salt. If a peasant who lived near the sea picked up a piece of natural salt, he could be arrested.
In 1930, Gandhi used the issue of the salt tax to turn non-violent protest against British rule into a mass movement. The Indian independence movement had long focused on British laws that concerned middle and upper class Indians, such as discrimination against Indians who applied for government jobs. Gandhi argued that the salt tax was an example of British misrule that affected all Indians.
Gandhi began his campaign against the salt tax on March 2 with a letter to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, announcing his intention of breaking the salt laws. Ten days later he began a 240-mile march to the sea with seventy-eight followers–carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of India.
Crowds gathered along the route to cheer the marchers on. The international press followed them, reporting their progress each day to a watching world. More protestors joined the march each day. By the time Gandhi reached the shore, twenty-five days later, several thousands protestors marched with him.
Gandhi spent the night of April 5th in prayer with his followers. Early the next morning, he waded into the surf, then walked along the beach until he found a place where the evaporating water had left a thick crust of salt. He picked up a lump of natural salt and urged Indians to resist the tax by manufacturing their own salt.
People across India responded to the Mahatma’s call for civil disobedience. Villagers all along India’s coastline went to the beach to make salt. Volunteers from the nationalist movement openly sold illegal salt in the cities and distributed pamphlets telling people how to make salt. Over the course of a month, the police arrested tens of thousands of people for salt-related crimes and protests. True to Gandhi’s principles, his followers did not resist arrest, even when the police beat them with clubs. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 4 and held without trial or sentence until January. News of the Mahatma’s arrest led to more protests–and still more arrests.
With salt protests breaking out all over India, the British government was forced to negotiate with Gandhi. On March 5, 1931, Lord Irwin signed the Gandhi-Irwin pact, ending the salt protest. Indians were now allowed to collect salt for their own use. Gandhi and other political prisoners were released. More important, the British scheduled a conference in London to discuss changes in Britain’s rule of India.
Gandhi’s 240 mile march had brought India one step closer to independence.