Dandi in the time of globalisation

Gandhiji’s march to Dandi was the beginning of the end for the British. The 75th anniversary march was a bizarre political pilgrimage with a motley mix of foreigners, Pakistanis, old Gandhians and Congress politicians

In Dandi, Gujarat.
Photographs: Ashima Narain

Meet the self-appointed masseur of the Dandi Yatra 2005, Rajkumar Jeswani. Every night, he massages the feet of his fellow marchers, shares a joke, eases their pain. “I am a poor man, but I wanted to do something for Bapu. This is my Shraddhanjali (offering) for him,” says Rajkumar, a spare parts salesman from Ahmedabad.

Rajkumar read about the march in a local newspaper and decided that he had to make the journey. He didn’t have the money for his train ticket back from Dandi to Ahmedabad, but he had the will to participate, come what may. “I had to find a way to get here. I worked very hard, travelled through many villages to sell more and when I got enough money for the ticket and to look after my family while I was away, I joined Bapuji’s march,” he says. “In this yatra, I have realised what is truth. The kind of love I have got from people on the march and in the villages along the way makes me feel that I was just drifting until now. It’s going to be very sad when we all have to go our separate ways.”

I approached the Dandi Yatra a bit sceptical, smiling at the irony of re-tracing the steps of the Mahatma’s Salt Satyagraha geared with my Nike shoes and Bisleri bottle. As we joined the last leg of the Yatra, there was a traffic jam. There seemed to be more vehicles than walkers, more chaos than rebellion. There were trucks, motorbikes, VIP cars, police vans, rickshaws, camel carts, even a convertible and a trail of plastic cups. This didn’t seem like the Dandi March, it was the Dandi Jam. A far cry from the Mahatma’s defiant march through the villages of Gujarat, which was celebrated throughout the country and shook the British Empire. But, as we trudged though the exhaust fumes in the cavalcade and finally caught up with the Yatris, I realised that the trappings may have changed today and our country may not defy imperialism, but Gandhiji still lives within several people like Rajkumar, who have left everything to be here.

The Salt March 2005 was organised to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s 386 km March from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in south Gujarat where he broke the salt laws and demanded Swaraj – complete freedom from British rule. During the 26 days of the walk, Gandhiji and his 78 marchers stopped at villages, lived and spoke with people. Government officials were asked to quit their jobs and join the Civil Disobedience movement. More than 227 did. Many people joined the march at various points. The entire country was abuzz and Satyagraha meetings were held in several places. Gandhi’s symbolic act of lifting salt from the beaches of Dandi inspired people to rebel against British rule.

Around 500 marchers in the Dandi Yatra 2005 re-traced his steps, stopping at the same places as the Mahatma. Trucks following them with tents, mattresses, cooking utensils, mobile toilets, generators and even an air-conditioned mobile internet van. Villagers lined the streets to greet them, offer them food and many fell at the feet of the Gandhi look-alike. The marchers were a motley crew – Seva Dal or Youth Congress volunteers, students from as far as Sikkim and Hawaii, freedom fighters from Peshawar, people from Australia, the US, China and die-hard Gandhi followers like Rajkumar.

Rangitbhai Baria walked the entire distance bare-foot. “I wanted to tell the world that by doing penance, you can attain anything,” said the elderly Rangitbhai, with a spring in his step and a smile in his eyes. Rangitbhai, a small farmer and social worker from Panchmahal district in Gujarat, said, “I’ve always wanted to walk in the footsteps of Bapuji and this march was the perfect opportunity.” Rangitbhai and Rajkumar became close friends during the march. “I made friends with this man, who is a gem of a person, sings such lovely songs. I don’t want to be separated from him,” said Rajkumar.

When I met him, Turab Ali Bohra (75) was searching for an ambulance at night. “I have blisters and am not feeling well. It’s too hot to eat, there’s no place to sleep,” he said. Turab, a retired plumber, travelled alone from Devas in M.P. for the march. “In my old age, there’s no better joy than being part of Gandhiji’s march. The people of Gujarat have shown us so much love, I can’t imagine there was so much violence in the state three years back.”

A group of 92 Pakistani students and elders from the Awami Party, a movement started by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan a.k.a. The Frontier Gandhi walked the entire distance. Shahid Alam, leader of the Pakhtoon Students Federation said that they were overwhelmed by the welcome they received from ordinary Indians. “Common people on both sides want peace. It’s only the politicians and fundamentalists that keep us apart. If both countries reduced our defence budgets and concentrated on development instead, we would both prosper,” he said. “The sacrifices our ancestors made should not go in vain. Both Gandhiji and Bacha Khan fought imperialism, and we should follow their path.”

Following the yatra on his motorbike was award-winning US director of the film Woodstock, Mike Wadleigh. “What struck me during this journey is that there are so many signs around that show the Americanisation of India. Too many people want India to become like America,” he said. “But the US is not the solution. It is the cause for so many of the problems in the world today. It consumes 30% of all the world’s products though it has only 4% of the population. If we were all to be like America, we would need eight planet Earths.”

In some sections of the media and amongst a few of the yatris, there was criticism that the Congress(I) Party sponsored the event and turned it into a massive roadshow. But the truth is that Gandhi’s yatra was political, and he was a Congress leader. The salt satyagraha was part of the Congress’ Civil Disobedience movement. The party would be foolish if it weren’t affiliated with such an event today.

The yatra may not have been held if not for the Congress(I). Tushar Gandhi, organiser of the event and also Gandhiji’s great grandson, could not find any sponsors and hence approached the Congress(I). They took care of a large part of the expenses, their volunteers and party workers arranged for food and accommodation at every stop. The Yatris, foreign or Indian, didn’t have to pay a penny.

The start and end of the Yatra were particularly chaotic since Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by heavy security, joined the march. The day after the march ended, the Congress(I) held a huge public meeting on the shores of Dandi attended by Mrs. Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The rally had an estimated two to three lakh crowd, one of the biggest ever witnessed in Gujarat, far greater than the BJP’s various Ram Yatras and Modi’s Gaurav Yatra. Only the Mahatma’s name could attract such a vast gathering. The entire road to Dandi was jammed, the beach crowded. People coming in trucks couldn’t reach in time for the meeting. In Gujarat, where the Congress(I) is weak compared to the BJP, the response to the yatra made the BJP nervous. On the day after the yatra left Sabarmati Ashram , the BJP swept and washed the ashram to ‘purify and cleanse’ it after the Congress’ yatris set foot inside.

Sonia Gandhi at Dandi 2005
“Why shouldn’t the Congress(I) be part of this march? In Gujarat, if we want to defeat communal forces like the BJP, the only legitimate force is the Congress(I),” said Tushar Gandhi. But isn’t it hypocritical that a party implementing policies that welcome imperialism should be sponsoring the Dandi March, which was held to defy foreign domination and assert independence? “Some people may call it tokenism but such marches help us focus on certain ideals. It reminds people and makes them aware of what Gandhi stood for. I couldn’t believe it when people would stop their cars on the road and rush to touch the feet of our Gandhi look-alike,” said Tushar Gandhi.

The Dandi March 2005 may have been chaotic, some might call it a Gandhian ritual, but the goodwill it generated and the crowds it attracted proves that in the hearts of thousands like Rajkumar, the Mahatma lives on.

Frontline April 23 – May 6, 2005 Also available here


In the Mahatma’s footsteps

Conversation with Shantibhai Sakarchand Shah (83), a satyagrahi from Anand, Gujarat

“I am not going to criticise this march. It’s good that new people come to know who Gandhi was. They know about Amitabh Bachchan but they know nothing about the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This march may be a drama or whatever, but at least it has triggered interest in children.

It was said that the sun never set on the British empire. Gandhi didn’t even use a stick, but the British feared him. He instilled the thought that man is born free and that we will take Swaraj, our birthright, there is no need to ask for our rights.
When I was six years old, Bapu came to our village in 1928. My sister went and garlanded him to welcome him. In 1930, he went for the Salt Satyagraha. Our mother took us on the bullock cart to watch him pass by. We all dressed up in khadi and went.

I enrolled as a satyagrahi when I was 16. When I was 20, I came home from the college where I was studying. My mother was surprised to see me back home halfway through the term. She asked me, ‘What happened?’ I asked her for her blessings to go to Gandhi’s ashram. Everyone in the village told her, ‘You are sending your young son to die’. She said, ‘they are not doing anything wrong’.

I went to Bardoli, where Bapu and Sardar had come to register people. He said, ‘From now on, you won’t have any land or home. Our nation is very poor, our people don’t have anything. You will have to teach children, make sure people don’t fight amongst themselves. And, what they give you, you will eat. Wherever they put you up, you will sleep.’

I was at Gowalia Tank in Bombay when the Quit India resolution was passed. It was Do or Die. Nothing else. I was put in jail.
We were not freedom fighters. We were people who followed the leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel. We are satyagrahis.

I don’t believe in isms. I don’t think of myself of a Gandhian or anything like that, I follow the path of truth. Gandhi said, ‘I have come to teach people nothing new, truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.’ There’s nothing to teach, everyone knows that is truth and what isn’t.

Gandhi wanted to teach people to say no, to give them courage. That they could do things. But how? Gandhi showed the road that the entire country could follow. Boycott British goods, give up government jobs, refuse to go to court. There was new hope that we can fight. When he broke the salt law, people got strength, courage to break the law all over the country. In every house, people were making salt. The atmosphere was transformed.

Only when the poorest are happy, then we can be free and life begins.

When people ask me, where do you stay, I say I am nowhere. It has two meanings: nowhere and now here. I left home when I was 20 and since then have never had a home.”

Frontline April 23 – May 6, 2005 <a href=”http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2209/stories/20050506002211400.htm
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The Salt Satyagraha, 12th March to 6th April 1930.

On 26th January 1930, the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru issued a Declaration of Independence and decided to launch a mass Civil Disobedience movement. Gandhi decided to make the salt tax the rallying point for the satyagraha, as salt was an essential commodity and the salt tax on it affected all classes, especially the poor. The salt tax gave the British government a monopoly on the production and sale of salt. It was a criminal offence for anyone else to produce salt. Even though salt was readily available on the coast, people could not pick it up and consume it.

Before setting out on his march, Gandhiji sent the Viceroy a letter asking him to revoke the law, but it had no effect. On March 12, 1930, he set out from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad with 78 other male satyagrahis on a 386 km walk to Dandi. Hundreds joined them while they walked. En route, they stopped at villages and mobilised people for the civil disobedience movement. They encouraged government employees to quit their jobs, students to leave school and college and join the revolution. In villages along the way, 227 villages headmen resigned from their jobs. Gandhiji told them that the salt satyagraha was only one battle on the road to Swaraj (self rule). All over the country, meetings were held in response to the march, salt was produced, British goods were boycotted.
Photo: Mahatma Gandhi Foundation
“Today we are defying the salt law. Tomorrow we shall have to consign other laws to the waste paper basket. Doing so we shall practise such severe non-cooperation that finally it will not be possible for the administration to be carried on at all. Let the government then carry on its rule, use guns against us, send us to prison, hang us. But how many can be given such punishment? Try and calculate how much time it will take a lakh of Britishers to hang 30 crore persons,” said the Mahatma.

On 6th April, they reached the shores of Dandi where Gandhi picked up a handful of sand and salt and said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” His satyagrahis then boiled sea water to make salt, which was later auctioned for the cause.

The British government spent weeks deliberating whether they should arrest Gandhi. Finally, he was arrested in Karadi, a village near Dandi on 4th May.

(Sources: www.mahatma.org.in, www.mkgandhi.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page)

Frontline April 23 – May 6, 2005 Also available here


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