Gandhi’s Salt March Campaign: Contemporary Dispatches (1/2)

Webb MILLER (Special UP Correspondent for India), The New York World-Telegram, Dharasana Camp, Surat District, Bombay Presidency, May 22, 1930.

Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when more than 2,500 Gandhi ‘volunteers’ advanced against the salt pans here in defiance of police regulations. The official government version of the raid, issued today, stated that ‘from Congress sources it is estimated 170 sustained injuries, but only three or four were seriously hurt.’

About noon yesterday I visited the temporary hospital in the Congress camp and counted more than 200 injured lying in rows on the ground. I verified by personal observation that they were suffering injuries. Today even the British owned newspapers give the total number at 320 …

The scene at Dharasana during the raid was astonishing and baffling to the Western mind accustomed to see violence met by violence, to expect a blow to be returned and a fight result. During the morning I saw and heard hundreds of blows inflicted by the police, but saw not a single blow returned by the volunteers. So far as I could observe the volunteers implicitly obeyed Gandhi’s creed of non-violence. In no case did I see a volunteer even raise an arm to deflect the blows from lathis. There were no outcries from the beaten Swarajists, only groans after they had submitted to their beating.

Obviously it was the purpose of the volunteers to force the police to beat them. The police were placed in a difficult position by the refusal to disperse and the action of volunteers in continually pressing closer to the salt pans.

Many times I saw the police vainly threaten the advancing volunteers with upraised lathis. Upon their determined refusal to recede the lathis would fall upon the unresisting body, the volunteer would fall back bleeding or bruised and be carried away on a stretcher. Waiting volunteers, on the outskirts of the pans, often rushed and congratulated the beaten volunteer as he was carried off the field. It was apparent that most of the injured gloried in their injuries. One leader was heard to say, ‘These men have done a great work for India today. They are martyrs to the cause.’

Much of the time the stolid native Surat police seemed reluctant to strike. It was noticeable that when the officers were occupied on other parts of the line the police slackened, only to resume threatening and beating when the officers appeared again. I saw many instances of the volunteers pleading with the police to join them.

At other times the police became angered, whereupon the beating would be done earnestly. During several of these incidents I saw the native police deliberately kick lying or sitting volunteers who refused to disperse. And I saw several instances where the police viciously jabbed sitting volunteers in the abdomen with the butt end of their lathi….

Once I saw a native policeman in anger strike a half-submerged volunteer who had already been struck down into a ditch and was clinging to the edge of the bank. This incident caused great excitement among the volunteers who witnessed it.

My reaction to the scenes was of revulsion akin to the emotion one feels when seeing a dumb animal beaten: partly anger, partly humiliation. It was to the description of these reactions that the Bombay censorship authorities objected among other things.

In fairness to the authorities it must be emphasized that the Congress volunteers were breaking laws or attempting to break them, and that they repeatedly refused to disperse and attempted to pull down the entanglements with ropes, and that the volunteers seemed to glory in their injuries.

In eighteen years of reporting in twenty-two countries, during which I have witnessed innumerable civil disturbances, riots, street fights and rebellions, I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes as at Dharasana. The Western mind can grasp violence returned by violence, can understand a fight, but is, I found, perplexed and baffled by the sight of men advancing coldly and deliberately and submitting to beating without attempting defense. Sometimes the scenes were so painful that I had to turn away momentarily.

One surprising feature was the discipline of the volunteers. It seemed they were thoroughly imbued with Gandhi’s nonviolence creed, and the leaders constantly stood in front of the ranks imploring them to remember that Gandhi’s soul was with them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It is difficult to imagine now the brutality of the British efforts to repress Gandhi’s nonviolence campaigns, in India or South Africa. The 1930 press release given above must surely put us in mind of the recent police suppression of various Occupy sites worldwide. A number of sources quote news dispatches about the Salt March. This extract is representative and is taken from Richard B. Gregg, The Power of Non-violence, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1934, pp. 34-37.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:  Webb MILLER (1891-1940) was one of the most renowned war correspondents of his day. In his Justice Ignited (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), Brian Martin credits Miller’s reports of the Salt March as being instrumental in changing public opinion in favor of Gandhi. Miller was also the original for the journalist in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982). The extract here is quoted verbatim in the movie. The literature on Miller is extensive. A good place to begin is with the Wikipedia article about him.

See also a news dispatch written by Negley Farson in June 1930.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi