The Story of Salt

by Mohinder Singh

Map of Gandhi’s salt march courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Gandhi’s Salt March was one of his most significant nonviolent civil resistance campaigns, yet without knowing some of the historical significance of salt his symbolic gesture of gathering a handful cannot be understood. For further reflections on Gandhi and salt see also the article ”Salty Gandhi” by William J. Jackson posted here. The note at the end has further information and acknowledgments. JG

The German scholar M.J. Schleiden in his book Das Salz (Leipzig, 1875) contended that there was a direct correlation between salt taxes and despots. Athens did not tax salt, but China and Mexico were salt-taxing tyrannies. Using the salt-taxation yardstick, British rule in India was patently despotic.

Salt taxation originated in China. The earliest known written text on salt regulation is the Chinese Guanzi: On Weighing and Balancing Economic Factors (c. 300 B.C.). It argued that people cannot do without salt, and in their desperation would be willing to pay a high price; it states ‘Coastal states dependent upon the resources of the ocean should cautiously and reasonably establish a tax on salt.’ In due course, this proposal became the adopted policy of the Chinese emperors and the first known instance of a state-controlled monopoly of a vital commodity. The revenues from salt taxation were used to build not only armies but also defensive structures such as the Great Wall. At one time over half of the state’s revenue was derived from salt. Any popular manifestation of resentment against it was handled with an iron fist.

For the Romans salt was a necessary part of empire building. They developed salt works throughout their expanded world. One of the first of the great Roman roads, the Via Salaria or the Salt Road, was built for transporting salt between ports on the Adriatic coast overland to Rome, a distance of about 240 kilometres (150 miles). The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses. The Roman salarium was the money allotted to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, and is the origin of our word salary and the expression ‘worth his salt.’ Salad is also from the Latin word for salt. The Romans did not have salad dressings, but spiced raw vegetables with sea salt. Sal sapit omnia was also a popular Roman saying, meaning literally ‘Salt flavours everything’, but referring to good conversation over dinner.

The Roman government did not maintain a monopoly on salt as did the Chinese. But the Roman emperors did not hesitate to control salt prices when they deemed it necessary. Periodically, they also subsidised the price of salt to ensure that it was readily available. Only in the last stages of the empire did Romans manipulate salt prices to raise money for their wars, although a low price was still maintained in the city of Rome and considered essential to keep the peace.

Before the British created artificial trade barriers in the late eighteenth century, India had affordable, readily available salt. With natural salt marshes on both its east and west coasts and huge rock salt deposits and salt lakes, India had an ancient tradition of salt making and trading, continuing to the present day.

On the west coast, in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat, salt had been made for at least 5,000 years in a 9,000 square-mile marshland known as the Rann of Kutch. The marshland becomes covered by seawater at high tides or because of flood surges during the rainy season, and when the waters recede and evaporate a salt crust is left. Indians have always shown a preference for this solar-evaporated sea salt over rock salt; the latter’s purity is considered suspect.

The east coast Indian state of Orissa is a prime salt-producing area. The salt beds are flooded by the spring tides. They saturate the soil with salt and it is gathered as the water evaporates. Salt from evaporation is called kartach, but a second salt, panga, was produced by boiling the brine. This salt was noted for its whiteness and was considered by many to be the best salt in India, yet it was also inexpensive. The panga salt had an eager market in the neighbouring Bengal. Even the British in Bengal traded in Orissa salt. They used large quantities of it in the manufacture of gunpowder for their wars.

Most of India, since ancient times, had modest salt levies that did not victimise consumers or disrupt traditional salt trading. The British practised no such light touch; their manipulation of the salt market was exploitative.

In the late eighteenth century, Cheshire was increasing its salt production and aggressively hunting overseas markets. The empire was expected to provide these markets. Yet Cheshire salt could not compete with the price and quality of Orissa salt. When the British proposal to buy up all Orissa salt met with resistance, they simply banned Orissa salt from being sold in the adjoining state of Bengal. Since the border between Bengal and Orissa was a thick jungle difficult to patrol, the ban gave rise to large-scale smuggling. Inexpensive Orissa salt flooded Bengal to such an extent that Cheshire salt could not possibly compete. In 1803, in the name of fighting contraband, the British took control of Orissa from the local princely rulers and annexed it to Bengal.

On 1 November 1804 the British colonial government passed legislation making Orissa salt a British monopoly. The private sale of salt was prohibited. Those who had salt in their possession had to sell it directly to the government salt department at a fixed price. Within ten years, it became illegal for salt to be manufactured by anyone other than the government.

The salt department also lent money at high interest rates to salt gatherers (malangis) against future salt production and sales. The malangis got deeper and deeper into debt, and eventually were forced to work for the authorities to pay off their debt—virtual slaves to the salt department. The local Orissa rulers, who had grown wealthy through salt production, urged the malangis not to cooperate with the British and the malangis began harvesting and producing their own salt illegally, but hundreds were arrested. They even staged an uprising but it was brutally quashed. The clandestine manufacture of salt nevertheless continued.

In England it was well known that the Indians were angry with British salt policy. But the East India Company managed to have its way. In the early nineteenth century, to make the salt tax more profitable and stop smuggling, the East India Company established customs check points throughout Bengal. A certain G.H. Smith, during his twenty-year tenure as the head of the Company, expanded the system into a ‘Customs Line’ around Bengal. Salt had to pay a duty to cross this line. By the 1840s, the Company had constructed a fourteen-foot high, twelve-foot thick thorn hedge on the Western side of Bengal to prevent entry of contraband salt. Later, after 1857, the Customs Line was extended until it snaked some 2,500 miles across India from the Himalayas to Orissa. The hedge was also expanded into a spiky gnarl of prickly pear and acacia.

The people of Orissa were forbidden to engage in any activity connected with salt. Even scraping salt off the surface of the flats was severely punished. Many malangis starved or migrated to other parts of the country in search of work.

The first public meeting in India to protest salt policy took place in Orissa’s main city, Cuttack, in February 1888. It was pointed out that impoverished Indians had a tax burden several times greater than did the people of England and the tax was deemed ‘unjust,’ because the taxed salt was imported from abroad when Indian salt was readily available.

Yet, in 1923, the government proposed doubling the salt tax to balance the budget. The Indian Legislative Assembly refused to support the proposal. But it became law by a decree from Viceroy Lord Reading. In 1929, Pandit Nilakantha Das, a member of the Legislative Assembly from Orissa, demanded the revival of salt making in Orissa and a repeal of the salt tax. Voices were even raised in the British Parliament that the salt tax was causing serious hardship in India and provoking popular discontent. Others suggested that the revenue from the salt tax was not worth the threat that unrest posed. In 1930, Orissa was close to open rebellion over the salt issue. And, so contrary to popular belief today, it was not an entirely original idea to focus rebellion on salt, when that extraordinarily original man Mohandas Gandhi seized on the idea.

If Orissa, on India’s East coast, was the most aggrieved region over British salt policies, Gandhi, however, chose the West coast for his protest. He said he felt closest to the salt makers of Gujarat. While salt was a burning issue in a few regions, and a smouldering rebellion in Orissa, it was not at the time a national issue. Most of Gandhi’s colleagues were barely aware of it. Many in the Congress were baffled by his idea of focusing the independence movement on salt. Yet Gandhi argued that salt was an example of British misrule that touched the lives of all Indians. Everyone ate salt, he said, except Gandhi himself. He had renounced the eating of salt years earlier—since as a non-European prisoner in a South African jail he had to do with a salt free diet.

On 2 March 1930 Gandhi wrote to Lord Irwin, the viceroy: ‘If you cannot see your way to deal with these evils and my letter makes no appeal to your heart, then on the twelfth day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram I can take, to disregard the provisions of the salt laws.’

The viceroy expressed his regret at Gandhi’s decision to break the law. On 12 March 1930, Gandhi left the ashram with 78 selected followers for a 240-mile walk to the sea at Dandi, where they would defy the law by scraping up salt. He refused to allow women marchers out of ‘a delicate sense of chivalry.’ His explanation: ‘We want to go in for suffering and there may be torture. If we put the women in front the Government may hesitate to inflict on us all the penalty that they otherwise might inflict.’

They would walk 12 miles a day, starting each morning at 6.30. Some grew too tired or their feet too sore and took to carts. A horse was kept nearby for Gandhi, but he never used it. The Anglo-Indian press ridiculed him, but the foreign news media were fascinated by the spectacle; a frail little man marching against a mighty empire. Lord Irwin, who was being informed by secret agents, was convinced that Gandhi would soon collapse. He even wrote to the Secretary of State for India that Gandhi’s health was poor and that if he continued his daily march, he would die and ‘it will be a very happy solution.’

On 5 April, after 25 days of marching, Gandhi reached the sea at Dandi. With him were now not only the original 78 but thousands of followers, including women, intellectuals, the Indian political elite, the Indian poor, and the foreign press. Gandhi said a prayer at the shore washed by the Arabian Sea. And with the break of dawn next day he stepped up to the beach where a crust of salt was cracking. He bent down and picked up a pinch of the crust. In doing so, in this simple gesture, Gandhi broke the British salt law, and immortalised the Salt Satyagraha.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mohinder Singh was a member of the Indian Administrative Service for Rajasthan (IAS) from 1950 to 1985. The article is courtesy Gandhi Marg, October-December 2002, Vol. 24, No. 3.

“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