April 20, 2021

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When Gandhi’s Salt March Rattled British Colonial Rule

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Since the late-1910s, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had been at the forefront of India’s quest to shake off the yoke of British colonial domination, otherwise known as the “Raj.” The thin and abstemious former lawyer had led civil disobedience against colonial policies, encouraged Indians to boycott British goods, and had served two years in prison on charges of sedition.

Gandhi’s philosophy of “satyagraha,” which sought to reveal truth and confront injustice through nonviolence, had made him the most polarizing figure on the subcontinent. While the British regarded him with suspicion, Indians had begun calling him “Mahatma,” or “great-souled.”

When the Indian National Congress redoubled its efforts for independence in January 1930, many assumed Gandhi would stage his most ambitious satyagraha campaign to date. Yet rather than launching a frontal assault on more high profile injustices, Gandhi proposed to frame his protest around salt.

As with many other commodities, Britain had kept India’s salt trade under its thumb since the 19th century, forbidding natives from manufacturing or selling the mineral and forcing them to buy it at high cost from British merchants. Since salt was a nutritional necessity in India’s steamy climate, Gandhi saw the salt laws as an inexcusable evil.

Many of Gandhi’s comrades were initially skeptical. “We were bewildered and could not fit in a national struggle with common salt,” remembered Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister. Another colleague compared the proposed protest to striking a “fly” with a “sledgehammer.” Yet for Gandhi, the salt monopoly was a stark example of the ways the Raj unfairly imposed Britain’s will on even the most basic aspects of Indian life. Its effects cut across religious and class differences, harming both Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor.

On March 2, he penned a letter to British Viceroy Lord Irwin and made a series of requests, among them the repeal of the salt tax. If ignored, he promised to launch a satyagraha campaign. “My ambition,” he wrote, “is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India.”

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