Blazing a Trail

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Mohandas K. Gandhi, who lived from 1869 to 1948, could be said to have anticipated Marshall McLuhan, who lived from 1911 to 1980. McLuhan was the so-called prophet of the electronic age; he contended that an image can convey much more than reams of words, that the message is purveyed by the medium itself. Many of us have forgotten the innumerable speeches made during the war in Iraq, but certain images are permanently etched in our minds, such as the statue of Saddam Hussein toppling in Baghdad, or U.S. President George W. Bush standing in a military flight suit on an aircraft carrier before a banner that proclaimed the mission in Iraq accomplished. Many such images are propagated by people skilled in the power of advertisement. But of Gandhi there are spontaneous images, as natural as the man himself, that many Indians must even now carry in their heads. One such image is of a small, frail, slightly crooked man, dressed in a neat white dhoti and wearing cheap, wire-framed spectacles, trudging through a mud village on the Salt March of 1930.

In that year, the Indian National Congress launched a campaign for all-out independence from the British Empire. But it lacked an issue around which it could rally the people. Mahatma Gandhi (mahatma means "great soul"), who never held any political office but served as a sort of spiritual father of the movement, was instructed by his "inner voice" to lead a Satyagraha—a "soul force" or "truth force" campaign of civil disobedience—against the salt laws, which had been in place long before the British arrived in India. He had first led such a campaign against anti-Indian legislation in South Africa in 1906, and had continued to perfect his Satyagraha methods after he returned to India in 1915. The government, which enjoyed a monopoly in mining and producing salt, levied a tax on it and forbade Indians to make their own salt. Yet for Indians, as Gandhi knew, salt was as essential as air and water: most of the country's cultivators labored long hours in the fields like bullocks, in kilnlike heat, and ate only bread with lentils and salt. Gandhi had come to look upon the salt tax as a tax on Indian sweat and blood. Early in 1930, he began his campaign against the levy by dispatching a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, charging that such "iniquities" were "maintained in order to carry on a foreign administration, demonstrably the most expensive in the world. Take your own salary ... You are getting over 700 rupees per day against India's average income of less than two annas [one eighth of a rupee]." He received a perfunctory acknowledgment from one of the Viceroy's underlings.

On March 12, Gandhi set out from Ahmedabad in Gujarat on foot, like an ancient sadhu, making it known that his destination was Dandi, a coastal town 390 km south, and that he planned to flout the salt laws by extracting salt from the sea. He vowed that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, where he had made his home since 1917, until the government had repealed the salt laws. Followed by disciples and tagalongs, Gandhi would walk about 16 km daily, camping in hamlets and villages along the way. In the evenings he would sit for an hour at a spinning wheel produced for him—spinning being a form of protest against British mill-made cloth. Afterward, he would conduct a prayer meeting, invoking Hindu, Muslim and Christian texts while expatiating on, among other things, the potency of nonviolence. In the mornings he would set out again, some villagers sprinkling water on his path to settle the dust of the day. Many compared his journey to that of Jesus to Jerusalem, and Gandhi himself thought he might die in Dandi, as Jesus had on Calvary.

The salt marchers arrived in Dandi on April 5. The next morning Gandhi walked into the sea to bathe and purify himself, collected some seawater in a pan, put it on the beach in the sun, and watched the water evaporate.

Gandhi and his followers spent a month near Dandi, making and selling small quantities of contraband salt and waiting to see how the government would respond to their criminal acts. No doubt, the authorities expected that Gandhi's bizarre campaign would spend itself, but his Salt March was reported around the world, and people throughout India undertook symbolic salt marches of their own.

On May 5, the authorities arrested Gandhi in the middle of the night; and by midsummer most of the Congress leaders were also in jail. But the government didn't seem to know what to do with its detained quarry, so they were all released in January 1931. Lord Irwin invited Gandhi to New Delhi for talks. Gandhi had eight meetings with the Viceroy, conferring with him for a total of 24 hours, and thereby scandalizing Conservative politicians in the U.K. like Winston Churchill, who wrote of "the spectacle of this onetime Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy's palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."

The Salt March transformed the relationship of the British government with its Indian subjects. Some have argued that the campaign was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Since India's independence, in 1947, Gandhi's example has been emulated in many countries where poor people have been pitted against oppression and injustice: the American civil-rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr., who marched from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965; the long struggle of Nelson Mandela against apartheid in South Africa; the Gdansk shipyard strike of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland—all can be traced to Gandhi. His methods—of marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes—have been abused by, among others, violent Hindu, Sikh and black leaders. But their attempts have always failed, in contrast to Gandhi's brilliant successes.

The Salt March, whose 75th anniversary is being celebrated this year, has served as a powerful precedent even in independent India. In 1975, for instance, the country was reeling from a series of devastating economic blows, with uncontrollable inflation exacerbated by drought, famine and a fourfold increase in the price of oil. As a result, there were worker strikes and student strikes—general unrest throughout India. On June 12, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to the mahatma), who had been embroiled in a court case for corrupt electoral practices in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, was convicted in the state court. Although, on appeal, the Supreme Court would grant her a conditional stay, allowing her to continue in office, the opposition leaders saw blood in the water. They redoubled their agitation, calling for her resignation along with that of her government, with one leader going so far as to imply, in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi, that India's soldiers would be justified in not obeying the orders of an unlawful government.

The constitution had vested in the government sweeping emergency powers, on the grounds that India was so big, so diverse and so poor, with such a long history of internal wars and foreign conquests, that in an emergency its government would have to be armed with extraordinary prerogatives if the nation was to survive at all. Invoking that provision, Mrs. Gandhi proclaimed such an emergency and arrested leaders of almost all the opposition parties, including some of the most prominent followers of Mahatma Gandhi. At the same time, she clamped down on all foreign and domestic journalists. The press blackout was so swift and complete that it was weeks before the newspaper-reading public became aware of the extent of the coup. Two years into the emergency, she surprised everyone by lifting it—releasing the political prisoners; suspending press censorship; and calling a general election, either because she felt guilty at having taken a dictatorial course or because she was confident that the election would endorse her emergency and so solidify her power. Throughout the campaign, the opposition used Mahatma Gandhi as its touchstone, and, on March 20, 1977, Mrs. Gandhi and her entire government were ignominiously thrown out of office. It was a testament to the enduring moral example that the saintly barrister had set when, almost half a century earlier, urged by the "truth force," he had marched to the sea.

Ved Mehta is a former staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and the author of more than two dozen books, including Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles