Hundreds injured – two killed – as Gandhi’s followers are beaten with lathis
[ 21 May 1930 ]
Since the British had begun to extend their rule over India in the eighteenth century, they had relied on various forms of local taxation to pay for the soldiers and administrative apparatus, which ensured that India remained part of the Empire and that wealth continued to flow westwards to London, where by the twentieth century all key political and economic decisions were taken. One of those taxes was on salt, paid by rich and poor Indians alike, and which for years had been an unwelcome reminder of their subjugation to Britain.
Mahatma Gandhi was by 1930 already the key architect of a growing non-violent campaign for Indian independence. Regarded with contempt and suspicion by the British, millions of Indians looked up to him for inspiration, calling him “Mahatma” or “great souled.” He soon realised the importance of the salt tax as a symbol of repression, and appealed to his followers – satyagrahi – not to pay it. It quickly became a hugely popular form of resistance and the British responded by arresting hundreds, although Lord Irwin, the viceroy, was reluctant to detain Gandhi himself for fear of turning him into a martyr. Gandhi, meanwhile, knew he had to continue to escalate the protests if they were to gain the critical momentum needed to exert pressure for real change. So, on 4 May he declared that some of his most disciplined non-violent satyagrahi would occupy the Dharasana Salt Works, 150 miles north of Bombay. He was immediately arrested, but the planned day of action still went ahead.
Two thousand six hundred of Gandhi’s volunteers, all determined not to raise even a hand in resistance, gathered at dawn on 21 May in front of the works, watched silently by a crowd of several thousand spectators. A journalist reporting in the Daily Herald noted that ‘they advanced steadily in small companies of disciplined, white-clad and white-hatted figures,’ and that a non-Indian witness had assured him that ‘he saw no single incident in which the volunteers resorted to violence. At the end of the day, however, several hundred of them had received injuries from police lathis (bamboo staves) and a (field) hospital, improvised by the volunteers in preparation for the day’s casualties, was full of recumbent figures.’1
Possibly the most detailed and harrowing report was from an American United Press correspondent, Web Miller. He noted that ‘at a word of command, scores of native policemen’ charged at the satyagrahi wielding their lathis, adding that ‘not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like nine-pins. From where I stool I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.’ He counted 320, some of them unconscious, of whom two later died. 2
- ‘Dharasana Raid: No violence by Gandhi volunteers,’ The Daily Herald, 23 May 1930, p. 7.
- Webb Miller cited in Asha Rani, Gandhian Non-Violence and India’s Freedom Struggle, Shree Publishing House, The University of Michigan, 1981, p. 199 and Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, Hutchinson, London, 2008, p. 340.
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