Seventy five years ago on April 6, a deceptively frail 61-year-old put the exclamation mark to a month-long journey he and several dozen others had done on foot. Early that morning, he and his companions walked across a wide beach and into the waters of the Arabian Sea. Later that day, he picked up a bit of salt.
This little act was Gandhi's protest against British rule, but really against the stupidity of British rule. They actually had a law in place that, in effect, made it illegal to bend down and pick up a bit of the ground Indians walked on, if that bit was salty. Now Gandhi knew how fundamental salt was to life; but more than that, he knew how effective it would be to attack British rule via this almost insane law.
So how did a colonial administration react to the salt protests? In the only way such an administration could react: with arrests and beatings. (Not at Dandi, but later at Dharasana and elsewhere). Which were painful to bear, sure; but they immediately reaffirmed to the world Gandhi's point about the absurdity and immorality of colonial rule. Think of it: where is the legitimacy of a regime that would beat people savagely for gathering salt?
The genius in Gandhi's methods, like the salt protest, was simple: they made the British use their might in ways that themselves promptly undermined British rule. In other words, picking up salt at Dandi was infinitely more effective than picking up a gun, which other freedom fighters might have done, which ignorant critics advocate even today Gandhi should have done. Freedom from the rule of the British did take another 17 years to come. But on that day, on that beach, in the beatings and arrests that followed, the bells began tolling for British rule. Freedom was guaranteed. In salt.
Move forward 75 years: April 6 2005. I'm with a small group of marchers, all of whom have just finished the same month-long journey, along the same route, that Gandhi's band did in 1930. (Not me: I joined the marchers only for the last two days). Early this morning, led by Gandhi's great-grandson, we too walk across that wide beach and into the gentle waters of the Arabian Sea. "This is the symbolic end of our yatra", says the great-grandson as the waves wash smoothly over our feet.
Later that day ... no, nobody picks up salt. But over 150 miles away in Bombay, a thousand or so Indians assemble at Azad Maidan.
Nothing to do with Dandi or salt or the sea. They have come to protest the demolition of their homes, not by a colonial administration, but by their own democratically-elected Government. They want to focus your attention on a few things: the absurdity of deciding legality by picking a date off a calendar; the perversity of a city that generates jobs and needs people to fill them, but is indifferent to what those people do to house themselves; the crassness of destroying the homes of nearly half a million citizens to make this city "more livable for its citizens"; the futility in this approach to tackling slums; and the sheer injustice in this entire exercise.
Absurdity, perversity, crassness, futility, injustice. Attributes of this democratically-elected Government.
So how did this democratically-elected Government react to this protest at Azad Maidan by some of its poorest constituents, all now homeless? Just as a colonial administration did, 75 years ago. With arrests and beatings. Bones were broken, including some belonging to children, including a 9-month old.
Painful to bear, sure. But think of it. What does this say to you about this Government's policy on slums; this Government that would beat people savagely for gathering to protest the destruction of their homes? What does this say about this India that Indians marched to Dandi to free from the British, 75 years ago?