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Gandhi’s dialogue with the nation

Wednesday 6 April 2005

For Mahatma Gandhi, the Dandi March was not just a non-violent weapon of struggle. It was also a means of dialogue and communication with the people along the route.

AT THE 44th session of the Indian National Congress held on the banks of river Ravi at Lahore, a resolution demanding complete independence was passed on December 31, 1929. Jawaharlal Nehru presided over the session and Mahatma Gandhi made a memorable speech while moving the main resolution. However, Gandhi did not rest content with merely delivering a speech. He led the famous Dandi March starting from the Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930, culminating in the Salt Satyagraha at Dandi, a coastal village in Gujarat, on April 6, 1930.

Gandhi had a definite strategy and perspective about the Dandi March and the Salt Satyagraha. He did not want the march to be too massive to remain under control. At the same time, he did not want it to be too small to have any perceptible impact. These considerations made Gandhi reject Vallabhbhai Patel’s suggestion of a massive march to Delhi. He also did not approve of the romantic idea of Nehru to set up a parallel government. Gandhi proposed a march of 78 dedicated and disciplined satyagrahis from Sabarmati to Dandi village to offer Salt Satyagraha.

Gandhi chose salt as the symbol of satyagraha because it was the lowest common denominator of the food consumption of the nation. The rich needed salt for a change of taste and the poorest of the poor needed it for mixing with water so that they could dip their dry and stale bread in the mixture as an alternative to the rich man’s spicy curry.

During the Dandi March, some overenthusiastic admirers of Gandhi brought for him and his fellow pilgrims large quantities of fresh fruit and wholesome milk from dairies. Gandhi, however, humbly refused to accept them on the ground that those who were involved in the noble cause of fighting for the poor through their march must not avail themselves of such lavish hospitality.

Gandhi looked at the Dandi March not only as a non-violent weapon of struggle against injustice but also as a medium of dialogue and communication with the people along the route of the march. On their way to Dandi, Gandhi and his satyagrahis halted for night rest at various villages. He used this interlude to speak to the satyagrahis, the residents of the villages and accompanying journalists about the background of the Salt Satyagraha and wider issues of national importance. He treated the Dandi March as an educative process. He continued this dialogue with the people during all the 25 days of the march. Thrilled by the march, several journalists sent elaborate reports every day. These were well displayed by newspapers and journals. Thus what Gandhi said during the Dandi March became a dialogue with the nation.

The Dandi March brought out the fact that Gandhi was not only a crusader and an activist but also a thinker. He said: "Dandi March was a pilgrimage. The whole conception rests on unbounded faith in the unfailing power of non-violence. The satyagrahi always acts in the spirit of atonement. He believes that he shares in the sins of the ruler or ruled."

About the satyagrahis he observed: "I saw in their eyes no anger against British rulers or British rule ... But joy born of the confidence that complete freedom was at hand." On the pilgrimage of the satyagrahis he commented: "I repeat that ours is a sacred pilgrimage and self-examination and self-purification are essentials, which we cannot do without." Exhorting the satyagrahis, Gandhi said: "Our ambition is to lay the foundations of the edifice of Swaraj, inasmuch as ours will be the first sacrificial offering. It should be as unsullied as possible."

Pronouncing his views on the Dandi March, Gandhi stated: "The inner spiritual rules have a greater effect than the external and material factors. Such is the idea behind this march." He strongly deplored the repressive policies of the Government saying "to approve the policy of the Government is to commit treason against the poor."

Claiming to be a revolutionary, Gandhi declared: "I have become a revolutionary, when politeness and persuasion proved infructuous. I find peace in describing myself as a revolutionary and I practice my dharma to some extent. In a revolution which is calm, peaceful and truthful, you should get yourself enrolled regardless of the religion to which you belong." On the objective of Civil Disobedience, Gandhi stated: "The objective of Civil Disobedience is double - the repeal of the tax and the repeal of the British bondage of which salt tax is but an offshoot." Paying a glowing tribute to C.F. Andrews, he remarked: "The reader knows that C.F. Andrews became a convert to independence before I came to it. I hugged the belief that Dominion status was superior to Independence. But Deenbandhu knew his England better than I did."

Yusuf Meherally met Gandhi during the Dandi March and the following dialogue took place between the two. Meherally asked: "Would you suggest any method by which the Muslims could be still more attracted to the Congress fold and protected from the pernicious propaganda of communalists?"

Gandhiji replied: "Congressmen must serve the Muslims to get their representation to the Congress. ... Soon the Congress will stand higher in the affection of Muslims than it ever did before. The masses are sound at heart. They only require a correct and courageous lead. I repeat that the best way of winning over the Musalmans is by seeking occasions of service and assuring them that the resolution of the Congress on the communal question means what it says."

Regarding complaints of Muslims about ignoring their villages during the Dandi March, Gandhi said: "He heard that some Muslim friends had complained that he and his party did not pass through their villages. If he was invited he would surely have included such villages in his programme. But his present tour was such that he could not go to any village uninvited and he could not force the villagers to receive him.

"In Dandi, a Muslim has invited me. I will be putting up in his bungalow. Satyagraha (Dandi) will commence from the Muslim friend’s house ...

"... Muslims and Hindus both want that this tax should go as both consume equal quantity of salt and both feel the pinch."

The spark of Salt Satyagraha ignited at Dandi on April 6, 1930, spread like wild fire to different parts of the country. The extent of the spread of the satyagraha can be gauged from the fact that 60,000 satyagrahis were arrested in various States. Gandhi was arrested on May 5, 1930. After his arrest, the most memorable event was the Satyagraha on May 6, 1930, in front of the Dharasana Salt depot in Gujarat. This was led by Sarojini Naidu and was a demonstration of courage and discipline of the satyagrahis in the face of a brutal lathicharge by the police. Batches after batches of satyagrahis marched to the salt depot, braving the lathicharge. Most of them were seriously wounded and were given medical aid by women volunteers. The satyagraha went on and on. The lathi-wielding policemen, who mercilessly beat up the satyagrahis, must have been exhausted but not the unbending satyagrahis who had taken all that steel and cruelty can give.

Some critics have observed that the description of repression against the satyagrahis at Dharasana was a gross exaggeration. Pyarelal, secretary to Mahatma Gandhi, has confirmed the eyewitness account of brutalities of the police against the satyagrahis. But more than that Webb Miller, Correspondent of the New Freeman, has given the most fitting reply to these critics. He wrote:

"In eighteen years of reporting in twenty-two countries during which I have witnessed innumerable civil disturbances, riots, street fights and rebellions, I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharasana."

The History of the Indian National Congress (Vol. I Page 398-399) mentions: "The Government denied that excessive force had been used against the satyagrahis but eye-witness accounts told a different tale. Hussain Tyabji, a Bombay Judge, K. Natrajan and G.K. Devdhar went to Dharasana to see things for themselves. In their statement subsequently they declared that they had seen with their eyes how, after the satyagrahis had been driven out of the Salt boundary, mounted Europeans rode at full gallop with lathis in their hands, beating the volunteers. They galloped through the village scattering men, women and children and making them scamper for safety."

The Dandi March, which stirred the soul of the nation, is distant memory for many. But its lessons hold good even today.


(The quotations used in this article are from the Collective Works of Mahatma Gandhi - Volume 48.)

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