That pinch of earth came from the salt flats that were plentiful around Dandi. The man who took it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. That lone action signaled the beginning of one of the most successful nonviolent resistance movements the world has ever seen.
When Gandhi picked up that piece of salt-encrusted earth on April 6, 1930, he committed a crime under British law.
When he took that earth and boiled it to produce salt, he broke the law yet again.
In India in 1930, only the British government was legally allowed to harvest, refine, or sell salt. Even though many people along the coasts of India lived on land where salt was plentiful and easy to acquire, a person could be arrested even for gathering salt from the salt flats, even for his or her own consumption. The British maintained control over the salt trade in India, and had done so in one form or another since the eighteenth century. But beginning in the 1820s, the British government instituted a tax on salt that was so exorbitant that a year’s supply of salt could cost the average Indian family half of their yearly wages. Then, in 1882, the Salt Act was passed, which made it illegal for ordinary people to make their own salt by boiling seawater. Everyone in India was forced to buy their salt from the British at exorbitant rates.
On April 1, 1930, at Surat, in the midst of his pilgrimage to Dandi, Gandhi said of the tax,
There is no alternative but for us to do something about our troubles and sufferings. And hences, we thought of the salt tax…
…I have gone through the holy books of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. All these state that women and the poor should at no time be taxed. Muslims, Hindus, Parsis– all conume salt in equal quantities. The government has, however, found a device whereby all have been taxed. This is an inhuman law, a Satanic law. I have not heard of such justice anywhere in the world; where it prevails, I would call it inhuman, Satanic. To bow to an empire which dispenses such justice is not dharma but adharma. A man who prays to God every morning at dawn cannot, must not pray for the good of such an empire.
With this in mind, Gandhi had embarked upon his satyagraha, a phrase which he coined himself to describe his preferred form of nonviolent protest. Satyagraha is a combination of two Sanskrit words: Satya, or Truth, and Agraha, or Firmness.
Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha.”
Many of the political issues in India at the time didn’t affect people equally across all religious or ethnic groups. But everyone needs salt. It is not only a staple of any Indian diet, but it’s necessary for livestock and for many common household purposes. It was because of this that Gandhi chose it as the focus for his first major satyagraha after the Declaration of Independence issued on December 31, 1929. And it was because of this that Gandhi’s satyagraha gained broad support among many people across India. Salt was a common touchstone that could bring people together against the insidious and unjust policies of the British Empire.
On March 2, Gandhi wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, and appealed to his better nature, explaining that he and the disciples at his ashram in Sabarati would be enacting an exercise in civil resistance. He detailed the plans for the march from the ashram, and their plan to defy the Salt Act. Therein he said,
I know that in embarking on non-violence, I shall be running what might fairly be termed a mad risk, but the victories of truth have never been won without risks, often of the gravest character. Conversion of a nation that has consciously or unconciously, preyed upon another far more numerous, far more ancient and no less cultured than itself is worth any amount of risk.
I have deliberately used the word conversion, for my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own. I believe that I have always served them. I served them up to 1919 blindly…If I have equal love for your people with mine, it will not long remain hidden…If people join me as I expect they will, the sufferings they will undergo, unless the British nation sooner retraces its steps, will be enough to melt the stoniest hearts.
The plan through civil disobedience will be to combat such evils as I have sampled out.
But Lord Irwin did not even respond to Gandhi’s appeal in person. And the Satyagraha went forward, and Gandhi spoke to the people in each village and city where the marchers rested, and at each stop, they gained more marchers. By the time they reached Dandi, over one hundred thousand people had stood at the road to watch them pass, to voice their support and solidarity for the Satyagraha. Over fifty thousand people met them in Dandi to join on the last leg of their journey.
When Gandhi lifted that piece of salt in Dandi, he rallied the people of India to boycott British-made salt and to make their own salt, or to buy salt from other Indians rather than give in to British tyranny.
Other regions began their own satyagraha against the British, and soon the Indian people were not only boycotting salt, but many other British-made goods. They broke not only the Salt Act, but other laws that hurt the Indian people at the benefit of the British government. Ordinary people refused to pay their taxes.
Around India, the British government responded with censorship, violence, and oppressive force: firing into crowds of nonviolent protesters, beating and arresting people engaged in peaceful protesters. Gandhi himself was arrested on May 4. And while the efforts of the Satyagraha did not bring forth any change in policy from the British, the struggles of the Indian people through the Satyagraha gained monumental international attention. There was no one who could rightly justify the British laws in India. There was no going back to the time before the Satyagraha.
Gandhi’s words proved prophetic.