Salt And Its Significance In India’s Freedom Struggle
Image Credit: Salt is an essential ingredient in food | Image Credit:

Khane mein namak kam hai!” is one the phrases we often hear in our households. Salt is not a mere ingredient but a necessity, one that has enormous ritual significance as well. 

We take it for granted because salt has been around as a vital part of our food for ages. The initial mention of salt in Indian scriptures takes us back to just after the Vedic era. It is among the six Rasas of Indian foods that stimulate “pitta” and “kapha”, and reduce “vata”, all three of which are part of the three bodily humours or “Tridoshas” as mentioned in the Ashtanga Ayurveda. According to Ashtanga Ayurveda, the body is constituted of five elements, also known as the Panch Mahabhuta -  space, air, fire, water and earth. To maintain good health, vitality and to protect the body from foreign invasions, a balance of the three doshas is a vital necessity. Despite knowing the centrality of salt in Indian homes (or perhaps because of it), the British Raj - beginning in the 1830s - imposed increasingly harsh laws and taxes on this important commodity. The salt tax was nearly 8.2% of the overall British tax revenue by the 20th century.

Such inequitable laws provided inspiration for the Indian independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi witnessed the effects of these laws and decided to push back against the exploitation using civil disobedience, which ledto the Salt Satyagraha in 1930. Also known as the Dandi March, it was an act of nonviolence that lasted twenty-four days, from 12 March to 6 April 1930. Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers and covered 385 kilometres from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, earlier known as Navsari, in what is present-day Gujarat state. The salt march ended with a growing number of Indians joining Gandhi in breaking the loathed salt law at 8:30 am on 6th April. It was based on his principle of non-violent protest or“Satayagraha”, which roughly translates to “truth-force”. 

Initially, Gandhi's choice of the salt was met with incredulity by the Working Committee of the Congress. The Statesman, a prominent newspaper, wrote about the choice: "It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians."The British administration remained unperturbed by these plans of resistance. Lord Irwin, the British viceroy in India at the time, did not take the threat of a salt protest seriously, writing to London, "At present, the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night."

However, Gandhi was determined. His choice of using salt as an emblem of protest was a demonstration of his tactical wisdom. An item of daily use can resonate more with the masses than just a notion or idea for greater political rights. Explaining his cause, he said, ”Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”Several other members and prominent statesman of the Indian Congress backed Gandhi’s viewpoint and perceptions had shifted.

After the protest started garnering popularity and attention, many freedom fighters comprehended the full power of salt as a symbol of fundamental rights. The first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, commented on this unconventional and unprecedented movement saying, “…it seemed as though a spring had been suddenly released."

The Salt Satyagraha did not prove to be the immediate solution to British oppression - there was no change in India’s status as a colony or a major shift in policy. It would go on for nearly 4 years and proved a strong kick-start to the idea of civil disobedience. It proved to be an eye opener to the imperialists. They understood that their control of India depended on the consent and willingness of the Indians, and Salt Satayagraha was a significant step in antagonising the native population. The entire movement can be explained beautifully with Israelmore Ayivor’s wise words “You are the salt of the earth. But remember that salt is useful when in association, but useless in isolation.” 

More importantly, the Dandi March united the masses of India on a fundamental issue in a way that created ripples across the world. American civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr wrote about it some decades later: “I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.