A lone man walks forward and picks up a handful of salt, letting it fall into a boiling pot in front of him. Behind him, hundreds of followers do the same. Without context, these actions would be meaningless. It is only after we realize that this man, Mohandas Gandhi, was leading his followers in a peaceful march towards freedom and quietly rebelling against one of the strongest governments in the world that these actions have meaning. In response to this march against a tax on salt, Gandhi was arrested and his followers were beaten down by the British government- who used violence against a people whose intent was the opposite. However, it was this violence that publicized Gandhi’s march toward freedom and sparked an international protest movement that led to countless victories against oppression. Was violence truly necessary in creating a “successful” peaceful protest, or were these actions unnecessary to accomplish Gandhi’s goals of freedom and peace?
Nonviolent protests like Gandhi’s salt march need three things to become successful, none of which are violence: a large supporting group of people, attention from local sources, and the ability to spread across international boundaries. Gandhi, at the point of his life when he led the march, had the ability to accomplish all three. With other peaceful actions such as fasting and giving speeches, Gandhi was able to accomplish these three goals, making him one of the most successful peaceful protestors of all time.
To reach his goals of peace and liberty for the Indian people, Gandhi first needed a large supportive group to assist him in carrying his message. Throughout his life, Gandhi became known as a “friend of the people,” as demonstrated by his helping of the indentured servant Balasundaram. Gandhi was able to help Balasundaram, whose master beat him severely, by transferring him to another master through his knowledge of the legal system. Because of this, Gandhi became regarded as a friend of the indentured laborer; a connection Gandhi “hailed with delight,” in his autobiography “My Experiments with Truth” (Gandhi). As Gandhi addressed in a 1947 speech, “the Viceroy calls me his friend. How can I be a friend of his? I am a friend of the sweepers, of the poor.” The answer Gandhi gives to his own question is vague, but firm: “the only way is for us even now to take to the path of non-violence. Therein alone lies our good and that of the world,” (Gandhi 19). Gandhi saw that the violence in India was deeper than the British rulers that had been there, it had been woven into the culture- and it was this violence he sought to end by amassing a large group of supporters. By saying he was “friends” with the Viceroy, Gandhi demonstrated to his people that even the worst of enemies can become friends when fighting for something deeper than both parties; in this case the nature of violence. Using this philosophy of love, peace, and understanding of all, Gandhi gained a mass following of people willing to help him achieve his goals.
To accomplish the second goal of attracting local attention, Gandhi had to pick a topic to protest that would mean something to the most people. Deciding what cause to take on in his 1930 essay “What It Is Not,” Gandhi wrote, “Surely all are equally interested in securing repeal of the salt tax. Do not all need and use salt equally?” (Gandhi 413). The salt tax had been a major issue in Indian politics in the months before the march and Gandhi knew that “resistance to the salt tax [could] hurt no communal interest,” (Gandhi 413). Gaining local support for the issue would not be a problem, as everyone wanted the tax gone- but this did not mean the struggle would not be hard. Gandhi knew there would be resistance, possibly even in the form of violence, but this resistance was not necessary for him to create a successful protest by attracting locals. Acting against the tax in a peaceful manner, in this case, would attract as much local attention as a violent revolution. In his march against the salt tax, Gandhi led the people down the coast, encouraging the coastal towns to make their own salt and avoid paying the government. In a part of the protest in a salt mine, hundreds of followers were beaten down by armed guards who were not afraid to injure as many people as they had to. This led to an international outcry towards the abuses these peaceful protestors faced- but it was not the violence that led them to success. Instead, it was the sheer number of dedicated followers and local attention that allowed the protests to occur and eventually become successful in their efforts.
Gandhi knew the only way he would be able to achieve his goals completely would be to push them into the international spotlight. The easiest way to do this would be to cause violence, as was the case with the salt march, but this was not necessary to accomplish the goal of reaching the world. In a personal protest against the violence caused by the goondas (thugs) in Calcutta, Gandhi decided to fast until there was peace in the city. As he put it in a 1947 letter to C. Rajagopalachari, “a satyagrahi must hope to survive his conditional fast by a timely fulfillment of the condition,” (Gandhi 319). This attracted the world’s attention by showing the reaction to this action- peace in the city. The world watched as the people of Calcutta stopped their violence to keep Gandhi alive- an act of peace which did not require violence to spread. Because Gandhi had accomplished the first two steps of a successful protest, having a supportive following and attention from local sources supporting an issue they wanted to stop, he was able to personally end a city-wide struggle against violence simply by threatening his own life. Directly, these actions put Gandhi into the international spotlight by demonstrating the impact a single man could have on the well being of a large group of people.
Gandhi was not a strong leader because he had a following or because he had ideals that were worth believing in- Gandhi was strong because his entire life represented his ideals. Every word he spoke and action he took was ultimately devoted to his goals of world peace and equality among people. When a person turns their life into a cause, it becomes more than a life, but rather a symbol. Gandhi, an extremely skinny man of modest appearance and quiet manner, completely embodied the ideals he sought to represent- blurring the lines between poverty and wealth and seeking external peace through internal peace. To say it was the violence used against this man that made him successful would be a denial of the most basic truth about Gandhi’s life: the peaceful revolution that Gandhi led was one of his creation, not anyone or anything else’s. And now, as we look back on this life half a century in the future, it is up to us to take these lessons and learn from them how to fill our own lives with happiness, love, and inner peace.
Gandhi, Mohandas. “An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1925; Ed. by Mahadev Desai, 1940.” An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1925; Ed. by Mahadev Desai, 1940. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00litlinks/gandhi/index.html#index>.
Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. 48 + 96. Dehli: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Government of India, 1958. GandhiServe. Web. <http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/VOL048.PDF>.
Slate, Nico. “Gandhi Videos.” Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. Michael Pisano. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <https://vimeo.com/74726290>.