Lessons for Today’s Social Movements from Gandhi’s Salt March

At the time of Mohandas Gandhi’s salt satyagraha, he was accused of a major strategic blunder. But the action was actually hugely successful—and offers lessons for movements today.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Gandhi and other Indian activists for independence from Britain on the Salt March, 1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

First post­ed at Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

That the Salt March might at once be considered a pivotal advance for the cause of Indian independence and a botched campaign that produced little tangible result seems to be a puzzling paradox. But even stranger is the fact that such a result is not unique in the world of social movements.

His­to­ry remem­bers Mohan­das Gandhi’s Salt March as one of the great episodes of resis­tance in the past cen­tu­ry and as a cam­paign which struck a deci­sive blow against British impe­ri­al­ism. In the ear­ly morn­ing of March 12, 1930, Gand­hi and a trained cadre of 78 fol­low­ers from his ashram began a march of more than 200 miles to the sea. Three and a half weeks lat­er, on April 5, sur­round­ed by a crowd of thou­sands, Gand­hi wad­ed into the edge of the ocean, approached an area on the mud flats where evap­o­rat­ing water left a thick lay­er of sed­i­ment, and scooped up a hand­ful of salt.

Gandhi’s act defied a law of the British Raj man­dat­ing that Indi­ans buy salt from the gov­ern­ment and pro­hibit­ing them from col­lect­ing their own. His dis­obe­di­ence set off a mass cam­paign of non-com­pli­ance that swept the coun­try, lead­ing to as many as 100,000 arrests. In a famous quote pub­lished in the Man­ches­ter Guardian, revered poet Rabindranath Tagore described the campaign’s trans­for­ma­tive impact: Those who live in Eng­land, far away from the East, have now got to real­ize that Europe has com­plete­ly lost her for­mer pres­tige in Asia.” For the absen­tee rulers in Lon­don, it was a great moral defeat.”

And yet, judg­ing by what Gand­hi gained at the bar­gain­ing table at the con­clu­sion of the cam­paign, one can form a very dif­fer­ent view of the salt satya­gra­ha. Eval­u­at­ing the 1931 set­tle­ment made between Gand­hi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, ana­lysts Peter Ack­er­man and Christo­pher Krue­gler have con­tend­ed that the cam­paign was a fail­ure” and a British vic­to­ry,” and that it would be rea­son­able to think that Gand­hi gave away the store.” These con­clu­sions have a long prece­dent. When the pact with Irwin was first announced, insid­ers with­in the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress, Gandhi’s orga­ni­za­tion, were bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed. Future Prime Min­is­ter Jawa­har­al Nehru, deeply depressed, wrote that he felt in his heart a great empti­ness as of some­thing pre­cious gone, almost beyond recall.”

That the Salt March might at once be con­sid­ered a piv­otal advance for the cause of Indi­an inde­pen­dence and a botched cam­paign that pro­duced lit­tle tan­gi­ble result seems to be a puz­zling para­dox. But even stranger is the fact that such a result is not unique in the world of social move­ments. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s land­mark 1963 cam­paign in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., had sim­i­lar­ly incon­gru­ous out­comes: On the one hand, it gen­er­at­ed a set­tle­ment that fell far short of deseg­re­gat­ing the city, a deal which dis­ap­point­ed local activists who want­ed more than just minor changes at a few down­town stores; at the same time, Birm­ing­ham is regard­ed as one of the key dri­ves of the civ­il rights move­ment, doing per­haps more than any oth­er cam­paign to push toward the his­toric Civ­il Rights Act of 1964.

This seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion is wor­thy of exam­i­na­tion. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it illus­trates how momen­tum-dri­ven mass mobi­liza­tions pro­mote change in ways that are con­fus­ing when viewed with the assump­tions and bias­es of main­stream pol­i­tics. From start to fin­ish — in both the way in which he struc­tured the demands of the Salt March and the way in which he brought his cam­paign to a close — Gand­hi con­found­ed the more con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal oper­a­tives of his era. Yet the move­ments he led pro­found­ly shook the struc­tures of British imperialism.

For those who seek to under­stand today’s social move­ments, and those who wish to ampli­fy them, ques­tions about how to eval­u­ate a campaign’s suc­cess and when it is appro­pri­ate to declare vic­to­ry remain as rel­e­vant as ever. To them, Gandhi’s may still have some­thing use­ful and unex­pect­ed to say.

The instru­men­tal approach

Under­stand­ing the Salt March and its lessons for today requires step­ping back to look at some of the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of how social move­ments effect change. With prop­er con­text, one can say that Gandhi’s actions were bril­liant exam­ples of the use of sym­bol­ic demands and sym­bol­ic vic­to­ry. But what is involved in these concepts?

All protest actions, cam­paigns and demands have both instru­men­tal and sym­bol­ic dimen­sions. Dif­fer­ent types of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing, how­ev­er, com­bine these in dif­fer­ent proportions.

In con­ven­tion­al pol­i­tics, demands are pri­mar­i­ly instru­men­tal, designed to have a spe­cif­ic and con­crete result with­in the sys­tem. In this mod­el, inter­est groups push for poli­cies or reforms that ben­e­fit their base. These demands are care­ful­ly cho­sen based on what might be fea­si­ble to achieve, giv­en the con­fines of the exist­ing polit­i­cal land­scape. Once a dri­ve for an instru­men­tal demand is launched, advo­cates attempt to lever­age their group’s pow­er to extract a con­ces­sion or com­pro­mise that meets their needs. If they can deliv­er for their mem­bers, they win.

Even though they func­tion pri­mar­i­ly out­side the realm of elec­toral pol­i­tics, unions and com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions in the lin­eage of Saul Alin­sky — groups based on build­ing long-term insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures — approach demands in a pri­mar­i­ly instru­men­tal fash­ion. As author and orga­niz­er Rinku Sen explains, Alin­sky estab­lished a long-stand­ing norm in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing which assert­ed that winnabil­i­ty is of pri­ma­ry impor­tance in choos­ing issues” and that com­mu­ni­ty groups should focus on imme­di­ate, con­crete changes.”

A famous exam­ple in the world of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing is the demand for a stop­light at an inter­sec­tion iden­ti­fied by neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents as being dan­ger­ous. But this is just one option. Alin­skyite groups might attempt to win bet­ter staffing at local social ser­vice offices, an end to dis­crim­i­na­to­ry redlin­ing of a par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hood by banks and insur­ance com­pa­nies, or a new bus route to pro­vide reli­able trans­porta­tion in an under­served area. Envi­ron­men­tal groups might push for a ban on a spe­cif­ic chem­i­cal known to be tox­ic for wildlife. A union might wage a fight to win a raise for a par­tic­u­lar group of employ­ees at a work­place, or to address a sched­ul­ing issue.

By eking out mod­est, prag­mat­ic wins around such issues, these groups improve lives and bol­ster their orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures. The hope is that, over time, small gains will add up to sub­stan­tial reforms. Slow­ly and steadi­ly, social change is achieved.

The sym­bol­ic turn

For momen­tum-dri­ven mass mobi­liza­tions, includ­ing the Salt March, cam­paigns func­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. Activists in mass move­ments must design actions and choose demands that tap into broad­er prin­ci­ples, cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive about the moral sig­nif­i­cance of their strug­gle. Here, the most impor­tant thing about a demand is not its poten­tial pol­i­cy impact or winnabil­i­ty at the bar­gain­ing table. Most crit­i­cal are its sym­bol­ic prop­er­ties — how well a demand serves to dra­ma­tize for the pub­lic the urgent need to rem­e­dy an injustice.

Like con­ven­tion­al politi­cians and struc­ture-based orga­niz­ers, those try­ing to build protest move­ments also have strate­gic goals, and they might seek to address spe­cif­ic griev­ances as part of their cam­paigns. But their over­all approach is more indi­rect. These activists are not nec­es­sar­i­ly focused on reforms that can be fea­si­bly obtained in an exist­ing polit­i­cal con­text. Instead, momen­tum-dri­ven move­ments aim to alter the polit­i­cal cli­mate as a whole, chang­ing per­cep­tions of what is pos­si­ble and real­is­tic. They do this by shift­ing pub­lic opin­ion around an issue and acti­vat­ing an ever-expand­ing base of sup­port­ers. At their most ambi­tious, these move­ments take things that might be con­sid­ered polit­i­cal­ly unimag­in­able — women’s suf­frage, civ­il rights, the end of a war, the fall of a dic­ta­to­r­i­al régime, mar­riage equal­i­ty for same-sex cou­ples — and turn them into polit­i­cal inevitabilities.

Nego­ti­a­tions over spe­cif­ic pol­i­cy pro­pos­als are impor­tant, but they come at the endgame of a move­ment, once pub­lic opin­ion has shift­ed and pow­er-hold­ers are scram­bling to respond to dis­rup­tions that activist mobi­liza­tions have cre­at­ed. In the ear­ly stages, as move­ments gain steam, the key mea­sure of a demand is not its instru­men­tal prac­ti­cal­i­ty, but its capac­i­ty to res­onate with the pub­lic and arouse broad-based sym­pa­thy for a cause. In oth­er words, the sym­bol­ic trumps the instrumental.

A vari­ety of thinkers have com­ment­ed on how mass move­ments, because they are pur­su­ing this more indi­rect route to cre­at­ing change, must be atten­tive to cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive in which cam­paigns of resis­tance are con­sis­tent­ly gain­ing momen­tum and pre­sent­ing new chal­lenges to those in pow­er. In his 2001 book Doing Democ­ra­cy, Bill Moy­er, a vet­er­an social move­ment train­er, stress­es the impor­tance of socio­dra­ma actions” which clear­ly reveal to the pub­lic how the pow­er-hold­ers vio­late society’s wide­ly held val­ues[.]” Through well-planned shows of resis­tance — rang­ing from cre­ative march­es and pick­ets, to boy­cotts and oth­er forms of non-coop­er­a­tion, to more con­fronta­tion­al inter­ven­tions such as sit-ins and occu­pa­tions — move­ments engage in a process of pol­i­tics as the­ater” which, in Moyer’s words, cre­ates a pub­lic social cri­sis that trans­forms a social prob­lem into a crit­i­cal pub­lic issue.”

The types of nar­row pro­pos­als that are use­ful in behind-the-scenes polit­i­cal nego­ti­a­tions are gen­er­al­ly not the kinds of demands that inspire effec­tive socio­dra­ma. Com­ment­ing on this theme, lead­ing New Left orga­niz­er and anti-Viet­nam War activist Tom Hay­den argues that new move­ments do not arise based on nar­row inter­ests or on abstract ide­ol­o­gy; instead, they are pro­pelled by a spe­cif­ic type of sym­bol­i­cal­ly loaded issue — name­ly, moral injuries that com­pel a moral response.” In his book The Long Six­ties, Hay­den cites sev­er­al exam­ples of such injuries. They include the deseg­re­ga­tion of lunch coun­ters for the civ­il rights move­ment, the right to leaflet for Berkeley’s Free Speech Move­ment, and the farm­work­er movement’s denun­ci­a­tion of the short-han­dled hoe, a tool that became emblem­at­ic of the exploita­tion of immi­grant labor­ers because it forced work­ers in the fields to per­form crip­pling stoop labor.

In some ways, these issues turn the stan­dard of winnabil­i­ty” on its head. The griev­ances were not sim­ply the mate­r­i­al kind, which could be solved by slight adjust­ments to the sta­tus quo,” Hay­den writes. Instead, they posed unique chal­lenges to those in pow­er. To deseg­re­gate one lunch counter would begin a tip­ping process toward the deseg­re­ga­tion of larg­er insti­tu­tions; to per­mit stu­dent leaflet­ing would legit­imize a stu­dent voice in deci­sions; to pro­hib­it the short-han­dled hoe meant accept­ing work­place safe­ty regulations.”

Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, the con­trast between sym­bol­ic and instru­men­tal demands can cre­ate con­flict between activists com­ing from dif­fer­ent orga­niz­ing traditions.

Saul Alin­sky was sus­pi­cious of actions that pro­duced only moral vic­to­ries” and derid­ed sym­bol­ic demon­stra­tions that he viewed as mere pub­lic rela­tions stunts. Ed Cham­bers, who took over as direc­tor of Alinsky’s Indus­tri­al Areas Foun­da­tion, shared his mentor’s sus­pi­cion of mass mobi­liza­tions. In his book Roots for Rad­i­cals,” Cham­bers writes, The move­ments of the 1960s and 70s — the civ­il rights move­ment, the anti­war move­ment, the women’s move­ment — were vivid, dra­mat­ic, and attrac­tive.” Yet, in their com­mit­ment to roman­tic issues,” Cham­bers believes, they were too focused on attract­ing the atten­tion of the media rather than exact­ing instru­men­tal gains. Mem­bers of these move­ments often con­cen­trat­ed on sym­bol­ic moral vic­to­ries like plac­ing flow­ers in the rifle bar­rels of Nation­al Guards­men, embar­rass­ing a politi­cian for a moment or two, or enrag­ing white racists,” he writes. They often avoid­ed any reflec­tion about whether or not the moral vic­to­ries led to any real change.”

In his time, Gand­hi would hear many sim­i­lar crit­i­cisms. Yet the impact of cam­paigns such as his march to the sea would pro­vide a for­mi­da­ble rebuttal.

Dif­fi­cult not to laugh

The salt satya­gra­ha—or cam­paign of non­vi­o­lent resis­tance that began with Gandhi’s march — is a defin­ing exam­ple of using esca­lat­ing, mil­i­tant and unarmed con­fronta­tion to ral­ly pub­lic sup­port and effect change. It is also a case in which the use of sym­bol­ic demands, at least ini­tial­ly, pro­voked ridicule and consternation.

When charged with select­ing a tar­get for civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, Gandhi’s choice was pre­pos­ter­ous. At least that was a com­mon response to his fix­a­tion on the salt law as the key point upon which to base the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress’ chal­lenge to British rule. Mock­ing the empha­sis on salt, The States­man not­ed, It is dif­fi­cult not to laugh, and we imag­ine that will be the mood of most think­ing Indians.”

In 1930, the instru­men­tal­ly focused orga­niz­ers with­in the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress were focused on con­sti­tu­tion­al ques­tions — whether India would gain greater auton­o­my by win­ning domin­ion sta­tus” and what steps toward such an arrange­ment the British might con­cede. The salt laws were a minor con­cern at best, hard­ly high on their list of demands. Biog­ra­ph­er Geof­frey Ashe argues that, in this con­text, Gandhi’s choice of salt as a basis for a cam­paign was the weird­est and most bril­liant polit­i­cal chal­lenge of mod­ern times.”

It was bril­liant because defi­ance of the salt law was loaded with sym­bol­ic sig­nif­i­cance. Next to air and water,” Gand­hi argued, salt is per­haps the great­est neces­si­ty of life.” It was a sim­ple com­mod­i­ty that every­one was com­pelled to buy, and which the gov­ern­ment taxed. Since the time of the Mughal Empire, the state’s con­trol over salt was a hat­ed real­i­ty. The fact that Indi­ans were not per­mit­ted to freely col­lect salt from nat­ur­al deposits or to pan for salt from the sea was a clear illus­tra­tion of how a for­eign pow­er was unjust­ly prof­it­ing from the subcontinent’s peo­ple and its resources.

Since the tax affect­ed every­one, the griev­ance was uni­ver­sal­ly felt. The fact that it most heav­i­ly bur­dened the poor added to its out­rage. The price of salt charged by the gov­ern­ment, Ashe writes, had a built-in levy — not large, but enough to cost a labor­er with a fam­i­ly up to two weeks wages a year.” It was a text­book moral injury. And peo­ple respond­ed swift­ly to Gandhi’s charge against it.

Indeed, those who had ridiculed the cam­paign soon had rea­son to stop laugh­ing. In each vil­lage through which the satya­grahis marched, they attract­ed mas­sive crowds — with as many of 30,000 peo­ple gath­er­ing to see the pil­grims pray and to hear Gand­hi speak of the need for self-rule. As his­to­ri­an Judith Brown writes, Gand­hi grasped intu­itive­ly that civ­il resis­tance was in many ways an exer­cise in polit­i­cal the­ater, where the audi­ence was as impor­tant as the actors.” In the procession’s wake, hun­dreds of Indi­ans who served in local admin­is­tra­tive posts for the impe­r­i­al gov­ern­ment resigned their positions.

After the march reached the sea and dis­obe­di­ence began, the cam­paign achieved an impres­sive scale. Through­out the coun­try, huge num­bers of dis­si­dents began pan­ning for salt and min­ing nat­ur­al deposits. Buy­ing ille­gal pack­ets of the min­er­al, even if they were of poor qual­i­ty, became a badge of hon­or for mil­lions. The Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress set up its own salt depot, and groups of orga­nized activists led non­vi­o­lent raids on the gov­ern­ment salt works, block­ing roads and entrances with their bod­ies in an attempt to shut down pro­duc­tion. News reports of the beat­ings and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions that result­ed were broad­cast through­out the world.

Soon, the defi­ance expand­ed to incor­po­rate local griev­ances and to take on addi­tion­al acts of non­co­op­er­a­tion. Mil­lions joined the boy­cott of British cloth and liquor, a grow­ing num­ber of vil­lage offi­cials resigned their posts, and, in some provinces, farm­ers refused to pay land tax­es. In increas­ing­ly var­ied forms, mass non-com­pli­ance took hold through­out a vast ter­ri­to­ry. And, in spite of ener­getic attempts at repres­sion by British author­i­ties, it con­tin­ued month after month.

Find­ing issues that could attract wide sup­port and main­tain the cohe­sion of the move­ment,” Brown notes, was no sim­ple task in a coun­try where there were such region­al, reli­gious and socio-eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences.” And yet salt fit the bill pre­cise­ly. Moti­lal Nehru, father of the future prime min­is­ter, remarked admir­ing­ly, The only won­der is that no one else ever thought of it.”

Beyond the pact

If the choice of salt as a demand had been con­tro­ver­sial, the man­ner in which Gand­hi con­clud­ed the cam­paign would be equal­ly so. Judged by instru­men­tal stan­dards, the res­o­lu­tion to the salt satya­gra­ha fell short. By ear­ly 1931, the cam­paign had rever­ber­at­ed through­out the coun­try, yet it was also los­ing momen­tum. Repres­sion had tak­en a toll, much of Con­gress’ lead­er­ship had been arrest­ed, and tax resisters whose prop­er­ty had been seized by the gov­ern­ment were fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial hard­ship. Mod­er­ate politi­cians and mem­bers of the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty who sup­port­ed the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress appealed to Gand­hi for a res­o­lu­tion. Even many mil­i­tants with the orga­ni­za­tion con­curred that talks were appropriate.

Accord­ing­ly, Gand­hi entered into nego­ti­a­tions with Lord Irwin in Feb­ru­ary 1931, and on March 5 the two announced a pact. On paper, many his­to­ri­ans have argued, it was an anti-cli­max. The key terms of the agree­ment hard­ly seemed favor­able to the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress: In exchange for sus­pend­ing civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, pro­test­ers being held in jail would be released, their cas­es would be dropped, and, with some excep­tions, the gov­ern­ment would lift the repres­sive secu­ri­ty ordi­nances it had imposed dur­ing the satya­gra­ha. Author­i­ties would return fines col­lect­ed by the gov­ern­ment for tax resis­tance, as well as seized prop­er­ty that had not yet been sold to third par­ties. And activists would be per­mit­ted to con­tin­ue a peace­ful boy­cott of British cloth.

How­ev­er, the pact deferred dis­cus­sion of ques­tions about inde­pen­dence to future talks, with the British mak­ing no com­mit­ments to loosen their grip on pow­er. (Gand­hi would attend a Round­table con­fer­ence in Lon­don lat­er in 1931 to con­tin­ue nego­ti­a­tions, but this meet­ing made lit­tle head­way.) The gov­ern­ment refused to con­duct an inquiry into police action dur­ing the protest cam­paign, which had been a firm demand of Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress activists. Final­ly, and per­haps most shock­ing­ly, the Salt Act itself would remain law, with the con­ces­sion that the poor in coastal areas would be allowed to pro­duce salt in lim­it­ed quan­ti­ties for their own use.

Some of the politi­cians clos­est to Gand­hi felt extreme­ly dis­mayed by the terms of the agree­ment, and a vari­ety of his­to­ri­ans have joined in their assess­ment that the cam­paign failed to reach its goals. In ret­ro­spect, it is cer­tain­ly legit­i­mate to argue about whether Gand­hi gave away too much in nego­ti­a­tions. At the same time, to judge the set­tle­ment mere­ly in instru­men­tal terms is to miss its wider impact.

Claim­ing sym­bol­ic victory

If not by short-term, incre­men­tal gains, how does a cam­paign that employs sym­bol­ic demands or tac­tics mea­sure its success?

For momen­tum-dri­ven mass mobi­liza­tions, there are two essen­tial met­rics by which to judge progress. Since the long-term goal of the move­ment is to shift pub­lic opin­ion on an issue, the first mea­sure is whether a giv­en cam­paign has won more pop­u­lar sup­port for a movement’s cause. The sec­ond mea­sure is whether a cam­paign builds the capac­i­ty of the move­ment to esca­late fur­ther. If a dri­ve allows activists to fight anoth­er day from a posi­tion of greater strength — with more mem­bers, supe­ri­or resources, enhanced legit­i­ma­cy and an expand­ed tac­ti­cal arse­nal — orga­niz­ers can make a con­vinc­ing case that they have suc­ceed­ed, regard­less of whether the cam­paign has made sig­nif­i­cant progress in closed-door bar­gain­ing sessions.

Through­out his career as a nego­tia­tor, Gand­hi stressed the impor­tance of being will­ing to com­pro­mise on non-essen­tials. As Joan Bon­durant observes in her per­cep­tive study of the prin­ci­ples of satya­gra­ha, one of his polit­i­cal tenets was the reduc­tion of demands to a min­i­mum con­sis­tent with the truth.” The pact with Irwin, Gand­hi believed, gave him such a min­i­mum, allow­ing the move­ment to end the cam­paign in a dig­ni­fied fash­ion and to pre­pare for future strug­gle. For Gand­hi, the viceroy’s agree­ment to allow for excep­tions to the salt law, even if they were lim­it­ed, rep­re­sent­ed a crit­i­cal tri­umph of prin­ci­ple. More­over, he had forced the British to nego­ti­ate as equals — a vital prece­dent that would be extend­ed into sub­se­quent talks over independence.

In their own fash­ion, many of Gandhi’s adver­saries agreed on the sig­nif­i­cance of these con­ces­sions, see­ing the pact as a mis­step of last­ing con­se­quence for impe­r­i­al pow­ers. As Ashe writes, the British offi­cial­dom in Del­hi ever after­wards… groaned over Irwin’s move as the fatal blun­der from which the Raj nev­er recov­ered.” In a now-infa­mous speech, Win­ston Churchill, a lead­ing defend­er of the British Empire, pro­claimed that it was alarm­ing and also nau­se­at­ing to see Mr. Gand­hi… strid­ing half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace… to par­ley on equal terms with the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the King-Emper­or.” The move, he claimed, had allowed Gand­hi — a man he saw as a fanat­ic” and a fakir” — to step out of prison and “[emerge] on the scene a tri­umphant victor.”

While insid­ers had con­flict­ed views about the campaign’s out­come, the broad pub­lic was far less equiv­o­cal. Sub­has Chan­dra Bose, one of the rad­i­cals in the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress who was skep­ti­cal of Gandhi’s pact, had to revise his view when he saw the reac­tion in the coun­try­side. As Ashe recounts, when Bose trav­eled with Gand­hi from Bom­bay to Del­hi, he saw ova­tions such as he had nev­er wit­nessed before.” Bose rec­og­nized the vin­di­ca­tion. The Mahat­ma had judged cor­rect­ly,” Ashe con­tin­ues. By all the rules of pol­i­tics he had been checked. But in the people’s eyes, the plain fact that the Eng­lish­man had been brought to nego­ti­ate instead of giv­ing orders out­weighed any num­ber of details.”

In his influ­en­tial 1950 biog­ra­phy of Gand­hi, still wide­ly read today, Louis Fis­ch­er pro­vides a most dra­mat­ic appraisal of the Salt March’s lega­cy: India was now free,” he writes. Tech­ni­cal­ly, legal­ly, noth­ing had changed. India was still a British colony.” And yet, after the salt satya­gra­ha, it was inevitable that Britain should some day refuse to rule India and that India should some day refuse to be ruled.”

Sub­se­quent his­to­ri­ans have sought to pro­vide more nuanced accounts of Gandhi’s con­tri­bu­tion to Indi­an inde­pen­dence, dis­tanc­ing them­selves from a first gen­er­a­tion of hagio­graph­ic biogra­phies that uncrit­i­cal­ly held up Gand­hi as the father of a nation.” Writ­ing in 2009, Judith Brown cites a vari­ety of social and eco­nom­ic pres­sures that con­tributed to Britain’s depar­ture from India, par­tic­u­lar­ly the geopo­lit­i­cal shifts that accom­pa­nied the Sec­ond World War. Nev­er­the­less, she acknowl­edges that dri­ves such as the Salt March were crit­i­cal, play­ing cen­tral roles in build­ing the Indi­an Nation­al Con­gress’ orga­ni­za­tion and pop­u­lar legit­i­ma­cy. Although mass dis­plays of protest alone did not expel the impe­ri­al­ists, they pro­found­ly altered the polit­i­cal land­scape. Civ­il resis­tance, Brown writes, was a cru­cial part of the envi­ron­ment in which the British had to make deci­sions about when and how to leave India.”

As Mar­tin Luther King Jr. would in Birm­ing­ham some three decades lat­er, Gand­hi accept­ed a set­tle­ment that had lim­it­ed instru­men­tal val­ue but that allowed the move­ment to claim a sym­bol­ic win and to emerge in a posi­tion of strength. Gandhi’s vic­to­ry in 1931 was not a final one, nor was King’s in 1963. Social move­ments today con­tin­ue to fight strug­gles against racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion, eco­nom­ic exploita­tion and impe­r­i­al aggres­sion. But, if they choose, they can do so aid­ed by the pow­er­ful exam­ple of fore­bears who con­vert­ed moral vic­to­ry into last­ing change.

Mark Engler is a senior ana­lyst with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus, an edi­to­r­i­al board mem­ber at Dis­sent, and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Yes! Mag­a­zine. Paul Engler is found­ing direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Work­ing Poor, in Los Ange­les. Their new book is This Is an Upris­ing: How Non­vi­o­lent Revolt Is Shap­ing the 21st Cen­tu­ry.
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