Why did Gandhi march 240 miles for salt?

The Salt March was one of Mahatma Gandhi's most successful campaigns in the Indian movement for independence.
The Salt March was one of Mahatma Gandhi's most successful campaigns in the Indian movement for independence.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Salt gets a bad rap these days. Nutritionists are constantly reminding us to hide our salt shakers and eat low-sodium versions of our favorite foods. Salt is more than a spice; technically speaking, it's actually a mineral. Although too much salt is bad for us, the mineral itself is essential to a properly functioning body -- it helps us transmit electrical nerve impulses. Knowing how necessary salt is for the human body, it may not surprise you to learn that the mineral sparked one of the most significant national protests in modern history.

Long ago, people got their salt from the animals they hunted and devoured (raw meat is a good source of salt). But after they abandoned their hunter-gather lifestyles and became farmers, people replaced much of the meat in their diet with vegetables and grains; as a result, they needed supplementary sources of salt [source: Le Couteur]. Since ancient times, governments have recognized the benefits of taxing salt. Because everyone needs it, taxing salt ensures steady revenue. And because salt was also used to preserve food before the dawn of refrigeration, it was a popular commodity.

However, high salt taxes have often spurred controversy throughout history. The French tax on salt, known as the gabelle, even helped incite the French Revolution. In the 20th century, another salt tax inspired revolutionary action. This time it was in India, which was oppressed under British colonial rule. Similar to the way American colonists organized the Boston Tea Party 150 years earlier to protest British laws, Indians engaged in a peaceful and theatrical way to make their point.

One prominent leader of the Indian independence movement, Mohandas (also known as Mahatma or "great-souled") Gandhi is noted for promoting a philosophy of civil disobedience. He believed that India could gain its independence from Britain through nonviolent campaigns. Salt came to the forefront of that campaign as an important issue and symbol of British oppression.

The Raj: British Colonial Rule of India

In the 17th century, Queen Elizabeth issued a royal charter establishing the British East India Company (EIC) to trade in the East Indies. Because the Dutch already had a stronghold on the Spice Islands (consisting of the Moluccas and Bandas), the EIC turned its attention toward India's textiles, spices and opium. However, India was far from unified at this time: It was comprised of individual territories controlled by different rulers. The EIC brokered contracts with these rulers and gradually gained influence over the subcontinent.

As the EIC increased its administrative and political power in India, conditions between the Indians and their European colonizers became more hostile. The company was able to quell Indian rebellions in the 18th century, but in 1857, Indian members of the EIC militia revolted, marking the beginning of the Sepoy Rebellion, or Indian War of Independence.

After two years, the British finally succeeded in putting down this bloody rebellion. But as a result, the British government dissolved the EIC and opted for direct rule of India. Direct British rule became known as the Raj. Needless to say, this development didn't squelch the desire for self-government. In 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) formed to promote Indian involvement in the government.

By 1919, after Indians helped the British in World War I, the INC focused on attaining complete independence. It was then that Gandhi emerged. The philosophy he developed that encouraged fighting evil with peace is known as satyagraha. Under this ethos, one achieves profound insight into absolute truth by embracing nonviolence and self-scrutiny.

Those who practice satyagraha must never act in secrecy -- they must make their plans and intentions known. This explains why Gandhi wrote an open letter to Lord Irwin, the viceroy of India, requesting an end to the salt tax and explaining his intentions before setting out on a 240-mile (386.2-kilometer) trek to protest the tax. Irwin could've easily arrested Gandhi. But Gandhi was an important public figure, and Irwin knew that arresting him would spark intense backlash [source: Martin]. Instead, Irwin simply replied that he regretted Gandhi would be breaking the law and endangering public peace [source: Moraes].

With that, the salt march was set in motion.

The Salt March

Young Nationalist supporters of Mahatma Gandhi break salt laws by filling containers with sea water in Bombay, India
Young Nationalist supporters of Mahatma Gandhi break salt laws by filling containers with sea water in Bombay, India
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Britain abolished its own salt tax in 1825, when the mineral became important to the manufacturing processes emerging in the Industrial Revolution [source: Le Couteur]. Nevertheless, the tax persisted in British colonies like India, where it was illegal to collect even natural deposits of salt.

To understand why the British salt tax was so oppressive to the Indian people, it helps to know a bit about the subcontinent's climate and culture. India's hot weather promotes sweating, which drains the human body of its salt supply. And because Indians don't eat much meat -- a natural source of salt -- they rely on supplementary salt to maintain a healthy amount in the body. Taxing the mineral that Indian people relied on for survival was just one way that the British government kept Indians under its thumb.

But on the morning of March 12, 1930, Gandhi set out to change that. He and 78 followers started marching from the Sabarmati Ashram toward Dandi on the Arabian Sea. More people joined the band of protesters along the journey of 240 miles (386.2 kilometers). Covering between 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometers) a day, Gandhi reached his destination in 24 days [source: Nojeim]. During the march, he stopped in villages to convince government officials to resign in protest and to encourage people to pledge nonviolence. When he got to the sea, Gandhi collected a chunk of salt, which was against the law. The act inspired a crime wave of illegal salt collection and thousands of arrests.

The frail, 61-year-old Gandhi didn't have to walk -- he could have taken a car or train to gather salt from the sea. But he knew what he was doing. His march was a symbolic protest designed to attract media attention and inspire action more than anything else. Many historians now consider it his most powerful campaign. It soon led to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, an agreement that made it legal for people to gather and manufacture salt. What's more, the government lifted the tax a year later.

In large part due to Gandhi's campaigns of nonviolence, Britain finally awarded India independence after World War II. Gandhi's philosophy and writings have continued to inspire others, including Martin Luther King Jr., to seek change through nonviolent civil disobedience.

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Sources

  • "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
  • "satyagraha." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
  • Le Couteur, Penny, Jay Burreson. "Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History." Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2004.
  • Martin, Brian, et al. "Justice ignited." Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. (April 9, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=zGh0uddlNmkC
  • Moraes, Frank. Jawaharlal Nehru. "Jawaharlal Nehru" Jaico Publsihing House, 1950. (April 9, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=0us3TambWogC
  • Nojeim, Michael J. "Gandhi and King" Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. (April 9, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=lme8yEeWOr8C