Gandhi Leads the Salt March Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mahatma Gandhi organized the Salt March in 1930 to protest British actions in India and to start a mass campaign of noncooperation that would inspire many future leaders, including American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summary of Event

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was released from prison in 1924 after having been incarcerated for nearly two years for his part in the illegal activities of the noncooperation movement, which he started in 1920 in a successful attempt to arouse opposition to British rule. Gandhi (known as Mahatma, or “Great Soul”) retired from politics upon his release and returned to his ashram (a spiritual retreat or commune) to devote himself to spinning khadi (homespun cloth) and to fostering Hindu-Muslim unity and the moral and economic uplift of village life. As a result, politics in India entered a lull and the Indian nationalist movement, which had gathered strength during the last part of the nineteenth century and became strong during the early twentieth century, was left without an active national leader. Nevertheless, all members of the Indian National Congress, Indian National Congress the most important political party in India, knew that Gandhi was the most widely accepted leader in the country. Even during his period of retirement, political leaders constantly kept in touch with him and exchanged a voluminous correspondence. Party officials urged him to return to active politics and to resume leadership of the nationalist movement. New leadership was taking control of the Congress party: Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose wanted to start a new noncooperation movement, but Gandhi was the only person who could lead such a movement. [kw]Gandhi Leads the Salt March (Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930) [kw]Salt March, Gandhi Leads the (Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930) [kw]March, Gandhi Leads the Salt (Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930) Salt March (1930) Noncooperation movement (India) Imperialism;India India;noncooperation movement Nonviolent resistance [g]India;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [g]South Asia;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] [c]Independence movements;Mar. 12-Apr. 5, 1930: Gandhi Leads the Salt March[07560] Gandhi, Mahatma [p]Gandhi, Mahatma;Salt March Bose, Subhas Chandra Halifax, Lord (Edward Frederick Lindley Wood) Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Motilal

The nationalist movement had not been very vigorous since Gandhi’s retirement from politics, and many Indians had cooperated with the British and now served in government legislatures and agencies. As a result of this lack of active opposition by Indian politicians, the British continued to ignore Indian rights. Indians did not, for example, have control of the legislative councils that the British had introduced in 1923; instead, the councils were dominated by the British and their appointees. British judges controlled the legal system, and all the senior police and army officers were British. On a daily basis, the British continued to show disrespect to Indians by barring them from almost all British social clubs and by shunning their company except on special occasions. In short, Indians were treated as foreigners in their own land and kept down by a British raj (rule) that was backed up by a strong police force and army that Indians had to finance through taxes.

The situation would change only if Indians actively opposed it. The occasion for the resurgence in the nationalist movement came with the appointment of the Simon Commission Simon Commission in 1928. The commission was made up entirely of British politicians who had been sent to India to assess how the constitution of 1919 was working and to decide how the next step of reforms should take place. The British had sparked Indian anger by not appointing a single Indian to the commission, an action that was perceived as a racist slight. To show their disapproval, members of the Indian National Congress refused to attend the first session of the Round Table Conference, Round Table Conference which was held in 1930 in London in order to allow Indians of various religious and other interest groups to discuss with the British how a new constitution should be written. In the meantime, the Congress party had, in fact, produced its own draft of a constitution (Motilal Nehru’s Nehru Report of 1928) and threatened that if the British did not give India dominion status—which would have made India as free as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—India would demand complete independence. These developments were on many Indians’ minds when Gandhi resumed active participation at the end of 1928.

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The Congress party and Gandhi met in December, 1929, and decided to start a civil disobedience campaign similar to the noncooperation movement of 1920. This campaign would, they hoped, force the British to take notice of Indian demands for rights and freedom. It was left to Gandhi to decide how and when the campaign would start, and he decided that the central issue would be salt. Many were amazed that Gandhi chose this as the issue over which to oppose imperial rule, but salt was a heavily taxed government monopoly, and therefore all Indians would understand protests against its taxing. Before Gandhi began the movement, he offered peace to the government through his Eleven Points, a series of demands that included social reforms and economic reforms such as reduction of military expenditures. The British rejected these demands.

On March 5, Gandhi announced to his ashram that he and a group of his followers would march to the coast carrying copies of the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu holy book). Once they arrived at the sea, they would break the law by making salt, deliberately undermining British rule in India. Gandhi informed the viceroy, Lord Irwin (also known as Lord Halifax), that he proposed to start a civil disobedience campaign based on the issue of the salt laws, and on March 12, he and seventy-nine followers began their trek to the sea. They made the 240-mile trip in twenty-five days, arriving at Dandi, on the Indian Ocean, on April 5, 1930. Early the following morning, they went to the beach and picked up some salt-encrusted mud and boiled it to make salt, thus breaking the salt laws. Salt had now become the symbol of India’s fight for freedom.

The salt campaign that began with Gandhi’s monthlong march lasted another two months, until the beginning of the monsoon season. At first the British did not respond to Gandhi’s breach of the law, but when he wrote to the viceroy and informed him of plans to raid the nearby Dharsana Salt Works, Gandhi and all the Congress leaders were arrested on May 5. Gandhi was incarcerated under an 1827 regulation that did not require a trial or a fixed sentence. He was held in prison until January 26, 1931.

The Salt March and the noncooperation movement that followed coincided with the commencement of a worldwide depression. Importers could not sell their stocks, tenant farmers could not earn enough from their crops to pay their rents, landlords and cultivating owners could not cover their land revenue, and even the government had to cut back staff and reduce salaries. The Salt March inspired a civil disobedience movement that was joined by large numbers of these disaffected people.

The Salt March, also known as the salt satyagraha (nonviolent civil disobedience campaign), affected almost every province in the country. People even went to local rivers to boil the water in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with Gandhi. The government was put on the defensive; volunteers surrounded the people making salt so that it became impossible to arrest the lawbreakers without resorting to great violence, and the Congress party publicized any violent event in great detail. As a result, a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the movement and contempt for the government were generated through this campaign. Gandhi had once again seized the political initiative for the Congress party, and all of India was motivated to fight for freedom.

Salt was the symbol of the campaign, but it was not the only part of the civil disobedience movement. The salt campaign was localized along the coast, but the boycott of foreign cloth gathered steam across the entire country. Protesters pressured vendors and buyers by sealing foreign cloth stocks and by using their bodies to block merchants who attempted to move them. The major centers of India’s foreign cloth trade came to a virtual halt for most of the year, and there was a dramatic drop in imports.

The salt movement catalyzed a number of smaller campaigns, which varied from province to province and were related to local grievances. In the west of India, in Gujarat, people refused to pay their land-revenue tax and started a social boycott of government workers. Many of those workers resigned from their positions. In the central provinces, people burned trees and cut grass in defiance of forestry regulations, and in Bihar people broke liquor laws. In the city of Bombay, the Congress party practically took control of the city. As the government official responsible for domestic affairs noted, “The numbers, the discipline, the organization and the brushing aside of the ordinary functions of police control of traffic have combined to produce a vivid impression of the power and the success of the Congress movement.” The British administration hovered on the brink of collapse for months.

Significance

Gandhi had inspired and started a mass movement in a manner never before seen in India. The British imprisoned sixty thousand people, but millions more heard of the campaign, avoided buying foreign cloth, made donations to the Congress party, or attended one of innumerable meetings. Some soldiers in the army refused to obey orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators. The government was concerned that, for the first time, protest had become a rural movement as well as an urban one. They also saw great significance in the fact that Gandhi’s campaign had inspired upper-class and educated women to participate in politics for the first time in history. Women continued the work of husbands or male members of the family who went to prison. Some of them even went to prison themselves. This reflected an incredible change in attitude: Before Gandhi led the nationalist movement, going to prison would have been a mark of terrible shame, but now people were willingly defying the police and committing crimes in the name of freedom. Further, the movement involved people of all ages, including children, who became active participants in the movement.

With the involvement of so many people of all classes and ages, the prestige of the Indian National Congress grew immensely, and people proudly called themselves followers of Gandhi. The public began to sense that independence was near, and Indians began to talk about what would happen after the British left. Those politicians who had not supported the movement and who were cooperating with the British to reform the constitution were embarrassed to be seen as collaborators and were pushed—often against their will—into opposition to the British. At this juncture, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, one of the most important Muslim leaders in the country and one who had always opposed Gandhi’s tactics, left India and settled in England.

The Salt March and the movement it started were an enormous success. The British government increasingly had to use force to maintain law and order, and this use of force put it more and more in the wrong with the Indian people. Slowly, the British lost all moral authority in the land. The Congress party increasingly came to be identified as the nation’s most representative political body. The Salt March also had a major impact on the nation’s psychology. Indians of all classes and ages became willing to stand up for their rights. Large numbers of women were involved in a political movement for the first time in history. The whole nation had been mobilized, and the image of Gandhi marching to the sea in defiance of the British Empire became front-page news in all the major newspapers of the world. Gandhi became a hero to nationalists everywhere; even in England, he received the admiration of many people.

By 1931, the movement had exhausted both the British and the Indians. After Gandhi and the leaders of the Congress party had been released from prison, Gandhi wrote to the viceroy, asking for a meeting and a truce. Lord Irwin agreed, and the result was the Gandhi-Irwin Pact Gandhi-Irwin Pact (1931)[Gandhi Irwin Pact] (also known as the Delhi Pact) Delhi Pact (1931) of March 5, 1931. As a result of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Gandhi was invited to attend the Second Round Table Conference. Second Round Table Conference He did so as the sole representative of the Congress party. Although Gandhi ultimately considered the conference a failure, the Government of India Act of 1935 Government of India Act (1935) (which emerged from the meeting) gave virtual independence to the provinces and foreshadowed the arrival of national independence. The British still ruled India, but Gandhi had mobilized the Indians to such an extent that the days of foreign dominance over this vast land were clearly numbered.

Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance would live on in other major human rights and civil rights campaigns. It was perhaps most successful in the American Civil Rights movement, in which Martin Luther King, Jr., employed Gandhi’s tactics in the 1960’s. These tactics were less successful, however, in the 1989 Tianamen Square protest in China, which was brutally repressed. Salt March (1930) Noncooperation movement (India) Imperialism;India India;noncooperation movement Nonviolent resistance

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Judith M. Gandhi and Civil Disobedience: The Mahatma in Indian Politics, 1928-1934. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. For the most detailed account of the Salt March available, this is the book to read. It is an almost week-by-week chronicle of Gandhi’s activities during the period 1928-1934.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. This is not a detailed account of the Salt March, but it does discuss the period and places it in broader context. Brown has dedicated her academic career to studying Gandhi, and her book is an authoritative and fundamental work on his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copley, Antony. Gandhi: Against the Tide. London: Basil Blackwell, 1987. To place the accounts of the Salt March in context and within an understanding of Gandhi’s life work, this is a short and handy reference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erikson, Erik. Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Gandhi’s aim during the Salt March was not only to mobilize Indians against the British but also to raise the people’s level of consciousness and to give them a psychological lift. Erikson is a psychoanalyst who describes Gandhi’s attempts during the Salt March to change the psychology of Indians and to make them less passive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Richard G. Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Gandhi was aiming not only at freedom for Indians; he also wanted to influence India’s cultural and social life. Fox is an anthropologist who discusses the cultural dimensions of Gandhi’s work during the Salt March.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. Gandhi stops his autobiography when he reaches the year 1920, but this book is essential to understanding Gandhi’s ideas as he developed them in his early life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haksar, Vinit. Rights, Communities, and Disobedience: Liberalism and Gandhi. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A discussion of Gandhi’s influence on modern philosophy. Focuses on the relevance of the Salt March and other events as models for resolution of conflicts between individual and group rights and between the rights of competing groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nehru, Jawaharlal. Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. 1941. Reprint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Nehru, an internationalist who was considered a radical, was very different from Gandhi, yet for a variety of reasons he became one of Gandhi’s most devoted followers. This autobiography reveals the remarkable power Gandhi had over Indians and how modernists such as Nehru were flabbergasted when Gandhi came up with the idea of the Salt March. Later, however, they conceded that Gandhi had chosen the exact symbol with which to arouse opposition to the British. This is a classic, firsthand account.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. More of a history of the anticolonial and independence movements in India than a biography. Wolpert places special emphasis on exploring Gandhi’s interest in nonviolent resistance.

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