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LJ Idol Week 28: Salt of the Earth
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Satyagraha




On March the Twelfth, seventy-nine men began to walk.

It was 291 kilometers from the ashram in Sabarmati to the village of Dandi in Gujarat and the coastline there.

In every village, more and more walkers joined them.



One man bent down.  He picked up a pinch of earth.


That pinch of earth came from the salt flats that were plentiful around Dandi. The man who took it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That lone action signaled the beginning of one of the most successful nonviolent resistance movements the world has ever seen.

When Gandhi picked up that piece of salt-encrusted earth on April 6, 1930, he committed a crime under British law.

When he took that earth and boiled it to produce salt, he broke the law yet again.

In India in 1930, only the British government was legally allowed to harvest, refine, or sell salt. Even though many people along the coasts of India lived on land where salt was plentiful and easy to acquire, a person could be arrested even for gathering salt from the salt flats, even for his or her own consumption. The British maintained control over the salt trade in India, and had done so in one form or another since the eighteenth century. But beginning in the 1820s, the British government instituted a tax on salt that was so exorbitant that a year's supply of salt could cost the average Indian family half of their yearly wages. Then, in 1882, the Salt Act was passed, which made it illegal for ordinary people to make their own salt by boiling seawater. Everyone in India was forced to buy their salt from the British at exorbitant rates.

On April 1, 1930, at Surat, in the midst of his pilgrimage to Dandi, Gandhi said of the tax,

There is no alternative but for us to do something about our troubles and sufferings. And hences, we thought of the salt tax...

...I have gone through the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. All these state that women and the poor should at no time be taxed. Muslims, Hindus, Parsis-- all conume salt in equal quantities. The government has, however, found a device whereby all have been taxed. This is an inhuman law, a Satanic law. I have not heard of such justice anywhere in the world; where it prevails, I would call it inhuman, Satanic. To bow to an empire which dispenses such justice is not dharma but adharma. A man who prays to God every morning at dawn cannot, must not pray for the good of such an empire.


With this in mind, Gandhi had embarked upon his satyagraha, a phrase which he coined himself to describe his preferred form of nonviolent protest. Satyagraha is a combination of two Sanskrit words: Satya, or Truth, and Agraha, or Firmness.



Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha.”


Many of the political issues in India at the time didn't affect people equally across all religious or ethnic groups. But everyone needs salt. It is not only a staple of any Indian diet, but it's necessary for livestock and for many common household purposes. It was because of this that Gandhi chose it as the focus for his first major satyagraha after the Declaration of Independence issued on December 31, 1929. And it was because of this that Gandhi's satyagraha gained broad support among many people across India. Salt was a common touchstone that could bring people together against the insidious and unjust policies of the British Empire.

On March 2, Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, and appealed to his better nature, explaining that he and the disciples at his ashram in Sabarati would be enacting an exercise in civil resistance. He detailed the plans for the march from the ashram, and their plan to defy the Salt Act. Therein he said,


I know that in embarking on non-violence, I shall be running what might fairly be termed a mad risk, but the victories of truth have never been won without risks, often of the gravest character. Conversion of a nation that has consciously or unconciously, preyed upon another far more numerous, far more ancient and no less cultured than itself is worth any amount of risk.

I have deliberately used the word conversion, for my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own. I believe that I have always served them. I served them up to 1919 blindly...If I have equal love for your people with mine, it will not long remain hidden...If people join me as I expect they will, the sufferings they will undergo, unless the British nation sooner retraces its steps, will be enough to melt the stoniest hearts.

The plan through civil disobedience will be to combat such evils as I have sampled out.


But Lord Irwin did not even respond to Gandhi's appeal in person. And the Satyagraha went forward, and Gandhi spoke to the people in each village and city where the marchers rested, and at each stop, they gained more marchers. By the time they reached Dandi, over one hundred thousand people had stood at the road to watch them pass, to voice their support and solidarity for the Satyagraha. Over fifty thousand people met them in Dandi to join on the last leg of their journey.

When Gandhi lifted that piece of salt in Dandi, he rallied the people of India to boycott British-made salt and to make their own salt, or to buy salt from other Indians rather than give in to British tyranny.

Other regions began their own satyagraha against the British, and soon the Indian people were not only boycotting salt, but many other British-made goods. They broke not only the Salt Act, but other laws that hurt the Indian people at the benefit of the British government. Ordinary people refused to pay their taxes.

Around India, the British government responded with censorship, violence, and oppressive force: firing into crowds of nonviolent protesters, beating and arresting people engaged in peaceful protesters. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 4. And while the efforts of the Satyagraha did not bring forth any change in policy from the British, the struggles of the Indian people through the Satyagraha gained monumental international attention. There was no one who could rightly justify the British laws in India. There was no going back to the time before the Satyagraha.

Gandhi's words proved prophetic.






This post was written for therealljidol Week 28: Salt of the Earth


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Yeah. I don't know how it is in Australia but here, unless you specifically take classes in things like civil liberties or humanitarian history or colonialism outside the Americas, you don't really learn Indian history, and you might only learn about Gandhi in reference to how he inspired the leaders of the black civil rights movement here in the US. Which is frustrating because you don't learn about how British government and British business systematically and systemically oppressed the people of pretty much any country they colonized in the name of money. And I think it's important to have that perspective and context.

I don't even know if it is possible to take classes that related to Indian history in Australia. Maybe in university if you're doing an Asian studies course? It does sound like the British f'ed up big time, though, and after reading rattsu's post, too, has some very important lessons that would be worth teaching to high school students.

All of my history classes in Australia related to either Australian history, or European history between 1900-1945. Except this one semester that the class decided to learn about South African history, which, to be honest, was probably more important than the other stuff we learned, besides Nazi Germany.

In the US, every state has their own history curriculum, so your mileage will vary. In NY, you take two years of "Global Studies:" in ninth grade, you learn about Africa and Asia and in tenth grade you learn about Europe, South America, and Australia. But it's a very brief overview. Then in eleventh grade, you study American history in-depth, and in twelfth grade you study American government, with a little bit about the history of different forms of government, for the first half of the year, and then a quick overview of basic economic principles in the second. So we learned who Gandhi was and what he did, but it was sandwiched in in the one week that we studied the whole history of India. I did learn more in my Humanities class, but that course is an elective, and my year we focused specifically on modern civil rights history-- we studied everything from women's suffrage to the Holocaust.

I also had a special program in my school where you could take a lot of social studies electives, so some gaps got filled in that way (we had one on Vietnam, for example), but even most of those were on American or European things-- I had a course on Mussolini and one on the Bolshevik Revolution. But yeah, I think it is really important not only to learn about where we live in the world but also to understand how white European privilege was constructed on a global scale over many years.

With regards to the white European privilege, I think it's interesting to see how that was constructed differently in various parts of the world. The salt tax in India feels like a completely different issue from, say, apartheid in South Africa. It really outlines the depths those people went to create and build their privilege in more than one area.

I have a feeling people are lucky to live in New York to even have that much detail in their classes. It's certainly more than I would've expected in general in the US. Even a week on Indian history is more than we got in my school.

What's interesting is that a lot of what motivated Gandhi's civil rights work in India was the time he spent living in South Africa-- the first satyagraha actually took place in Johannesburg in 1906 after the government demanded that Indians living in South Africa subject themselves to a racist registration policy.

I think the thing in South Africa is that originally, the reasons for European settlement and oppressive law were similar to those in other places that Europeans colonized-- for example, the laws that demanded Africans to dress in a particular way when they did business in the Dutch settlements caused a large trade in the appropriate fabric...from, of course, Europe. The Europeans instituted taxes on the Africans that forced them to go into day labor in mines instead of keeping up their previously agrarian society-- and thus giving the Dutch miners in South Africa a cheap source of labor for their own industry. But I think the history in South Africa from that point forward progressed very differently-- you had the war between the Dutch and the English and I think the result put them on a very different course than many other countries from that point on.

I must say, I'm very impressed with your knowledge on world history! You're even aware of the Boer War! I figured the only reason we learned about that (in both English and History classes) in school was because the British recruited Australians for it. You're making me wish we'd learned more of the trade type policies as well as the racism and wars we were introduced to. Because, honestly, racism and war seemed to be the major issues we focused on in our history classes... except, of course, racism in Australian law. As I said to whirled in one of her early Idol posts, I wasn't even aware of the White Australia Policy until then. The closest we got to learning about racism in Australian history was Aboriginal slaughtering upon settlement and the British hating the Chinese during the gold rushes - all of which was pre-1901. I suppose our history might not have been "as bad" as black slavery, apartheid in South Africa (which ended later than Australia's racist policies), or the Holocaust, but don't you think we should've still been made aware of our own country's inherited racism? Instead of focusing on the boring crap we did learn about?

I know about the Boer War from the Shirley Temple version of A Little Princess! But I'm never sure whether Boer is an appropriate term, as some places I've read that it's the preferred term of people who identify as Boers and other places I've read that it's a racial epithet.

To be completely fair, I read quite a lot of Gandhi's writing this weekend so the South African problems at the time of his writing were fresh in my mind. If you asked me about Australian history I would know a lot less!

I think it happens in most places, that they try not to focus on the ugly parts of your own history. I know slavery is taught very differently in the American South where it was an everyday reality than it is in the American North.

That's interesting, I wasn't aware of the racial epithet aspect. That's just what they called it when we learned about it.

LOL, well, to be fair, Australian history is probably not so interesting or relevant as the other histories ;) But maybe they just teach the really dull aspects in Australian schools.

Yeah, I think Germany is the only place I'm aware of that really goes into depth about their racist past. Maybe other places figure racism is an issue that's easier to grasp but less confronting when it's not discussed about your own backyard? Personally I think it'd be more important to go into your own local history about it to make sure history doesn't repeat. Otherwise it's easier to brush off and say something to the effect of "that would never happen here," even if it already has.

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