Monday, March 12, 2007

This Day in History


On March 12, 1930, Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi begins adefiant march to the sea in protest of the British monopoly on salt,his boldest act of civil disobedience yet against British rule inIndia.Britain's Salt Acts prohibited Indians from collecting or sellingsalt, a staple in the Indian diet. Citizens were forced to buy thevital mineral from the British, who, in addition to exercising amonopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also exerted a heavysalt tax. Although India's poor suffered most under the tax, Indiansrequired salt. Defying the Salt Acts, Gandhi reasoned, would be aningeniously simple way for many Indians to break a British lawnonviolently. He declared resistance to British salt policies to bethe unifying theme for his new campaign of satyagraha, or mass civildisobedience.On March 12, Gandhi set out from Sabarmati with 78 followers on a241-mile march to the coastal town of Dandi on the Arabian Sea. There,Gandhi and his supporters were to defy British policy by making saltfrom seawater. All along the way, Gandhi addressed large crowds, andwith each passing day an increasing number of people joined the saltsatyagraha. By the time they reached Dandi on April 5, Gandhi was atthe head of a crowd of tens of thousands. Gandhi spoke and led prayersand early the next morning walked down to the sea to make salt.He had planned to work the salt flats on the beach, encrusted withcrystallized sea salt at every high tide, but the police hadforestalled him by crushing the salt deposits into the mud.Nevertheless, Gandhi reached down and picked up a small lump ofnatural salt out of the mud--and British law had been defied. AtDandi, thousands more followed his lead, and in the coastal cities ofBombay and Karachi, Indian nationalists led crowds of citizens inmaking salt. Civil disobedience broke out all across India, sooninvolving millions of Indians, and British authorities arrested morethan 60,000 people. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 5, but thesatyagraha continued without him.On May 21, the poet Sarojini Naidu led 2,500 marchers on the DharasanaSalt Works, some 150 miles north of Bombay. Several hundredBritish-led Indian policemen met them and viciously beat the peacefuldemonstrators. The incident, recorded by American journalist WebbMiller, prompted an international outcry against British policy inIndia.In January 1931, Gandhi was released from prison. He later met withLord Irwin, the viceroy of India, and agreed to call off thesatyagraha in exchange for an equal negotiating role at a London conference on India's future. In August, Gandhi traveled to theconference as the sole representative of the nationalist IndianNational Congress. The meeting was a disappointment, but Britishleaders had acknowledged him as a force they could not suppress orignore.India's independence was finally granted in August 1947. Gandhi wasassassinated by a Hindu extremist less than six months later.

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