Presbey, Gail M. “Walking with Gandhi: 100 Years of Satyagraha,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)
On this 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s first satyagraha action of September 11, 1906 in South Africa, I find myself reflecting on Gandhi’s method of walking, or marching, to his goal. Gandhi would organize and orchestrate long marches which would swell with people and arrive at specific symbolic destinations. The marches wed physical endurance with mental toughness and tenacity, making visible to the eye struggles toward ideals. They were community builders, as people walked together, meeting each other, talking, and finding fulfillment in accomplishing something together.
Does the method still work 100 years later? Peace activists still pursue marches, sometimes hundreds of miles long, to different destinations symbolic of peace and justice. My friends from the Catholic Worker and Jonah House had such a walk last year. Calling themselves “Witnesses Against Torture,” they walked across Cuba to the gates of Guantanamo, the U.S. base that holds so many prisoners in legal limbo as part of the U.S.-led ‘war on terror.’ (Read the group’s statement as they set off for their walk: http://www.jonahhouse.org/WitnessAgainstTortureStatement.htm). While the whole world does not necessarily take note when a small group walks somewhere (depending on the level of mass media publicity, which might be small), certainly the people they encounter on the road have an unforgettable experience. And the marchers themselves are changed by their walking meditation on the road.
During the Spring of 2005, I walked for two weeks with a group of five hundred marchers who wanted to re-create Gandhi’s famous Salt Satyagraha march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, in Gujarat state, India. They picked the exact dates of his march to mark its 75th Anniversary–March 12 to April 7. Of about 500 marchers, 82 were from Pakistan and 36 from the US, Europe, Australia and China. There were no marchers from Latin America. The only marcher from Africa that I met was an Indian who lives in South Africa.
My account that follows points to ‘culture clashes’ that were experienced by myself and some of the other marchers from abroad. The account tells it ‘like it was’ and is not some idealized or romanticized version of the march. In fact, if you read Australian historian Thomas Weber’s book On the Salt March you will realize that even Gandhi’s march was filled with strife, disputes, and questions about which way to go. Gandhi made certain rules for the marchers that they found very hard. Acting in unison involved enforcing some discipline which was not always accepted gladly. This strife is not necessarily bad; such is the stuff of life. Peace activists know how to roll with these punches, to communicate with each other, and to work through such problems.
On March 11, I arrived at Sabarmati Ashram, which had been founded by Gandhi, and was the place where the original march started. It was now the gathering point for those who wanted to go on this Gandhi march. The ashram is on a picturesque waterfront with a huge museum and the original house of Gandhi the way it was when Gandhi was there, with his spinning wheel in a sparsely decorated room. You really have the sense of stepping back in time when you go there. Sometimes I felt like the Gandhians were like the Amish or Mennonites of India. Their simple, non-technological lifestyle is a contrast to the bustling cities of India, and their buildings had been temporarily converted to dorms for the people who were coming for the march.
There were two large contingents of marchers from the Congress Party. Roughly they’re like the U.S. ‘Democrats’ in India. They were generally progressive but still corrupt and power hungry in part. One group was the Congress Youth Group. There were two representatives from each province in India. The other was the Sevadar, the “Army of Service” that is organized like cadets.
It was controversial among the Gandhians when Tushar Gandhi (organizer of the march and Gandhi’s great grandson) got the Congress Party’s endorsement for the walk, but the party was the only contributor for the expenses of the walk. So a large majority of marchers were from the Congress Party, walking in straight lines, dressed completely in white, some carrying flags, others barking orders like military officers. I was a little surprised about this costuming and decorum, but I found out later it was a longstanding tradition which Gandhi himself insisted upon. The rest of us, the international marchers, did not like to dress so sharply and did not like lining up. We were more like a group you’d see in Seattle protesting the WTO, grabbing an old t-shirt stuffed into a backpack and wearing it for the day. So there was a real culture clash. A few late-night meetings were called to try to bridge the cultural gap. There was also a large contingent of senior citizens in our group.
Everywhere we went there were Congress politicians coming out to greet and be greeted and garlanded, and they would get up on stages and give their political speeches. Tushar said the famous Gandhians he hoped to get to come and give us educational talks about Gandhi all bowed out once the Congress Party sponsored the march. He said he had no choice, he had many expenses. It made me feel a bit awkward about marching when I hadn’t realized there was a controversy. But maybe the Congress Party is not so bad. As one old Gandhian told me, who else is there? The communists are on one side, the communalists (reactionaries) on the other side. The Congress is the only party for progressive social and secular democracy, he said. But, when I saw Tushar put a garland around a statue of Indira Gandhi I couldn’t believe my eyes. What would the famous Gandhian J.P. Narayan think? Indira was responsible for the repression he was fighting against, back in the 1970s.
These kinds of dilemmas are perennial. Back in the U.S., we wonder whether we should back Democratic candidates even if they aren’t clearly against war, because the Republicans seem worse. Gandhi spent many years within the Congress Party, and was even offered its Presidency in 1929 (although he declined). But at a certain point he left it in 1934, saying it was too much of a compromise with his ideals to stay within it. Despite this parting of the ways, Gandhi couldn’t stay away from the Congress Party, and he often took an active role in Congress Working Committee meetings, and addressed Congress gatherings. The Congress Party had the numbers, so if you really wanted to shape national politics, you had to work with them. And Gandhi couldn’t remain satisfied with his self-imposed marginalization on his idyllic but out-of-the-way ashrams for long. So, the Congress Party does have some legitimate claim to Gandhi being part of their heritage.
Before we marched, Tushar Gandhi gave us a talk on the details. The walk was supposed to be 240 miles and 24 days. I slept in an attic room with others, and I heard mice munching on something during the night. We woke at 4:00 a.m. on the 12th, because we had to pack our bags and have them ready for loading on a truck by 4:30. Then we had to pass through lots of security to get to the main launching event at 5:00 a.m. (a lot of Indians are early birds like this, and Gandhians are especially so). It was really quite amazing to see such a crowd so early. The Congress Party people were on stage, with Sonia Gandhi the main speaker and point of attraction for everyone. After that we all streamed out and filled the streets of Ahmedabad. Traffic had been blocked off. It was early morning and all shops were closed, but still the streets were lined with cheering crowds. Every time we got near a school, all the students in their uniforms would line the streets. There were even five elephants all painted and dressed up.
Whenever we passed a Gandhi statue in a main square, we found that someone had built steps and a platform up to it, and all these dignitaries went up there and put garlands on Gandhi. There were banners and billboards everywhere. Everyone was selling products using Gandhi’s face. We did all this marching until 10:00 a.m. with no breakfast or even tea! When we got to the Muslim part of town the housing got smaller and more makeshift, with corrugated metal roofs. People still came out to look at us, but not so much to cheer (I don’t know why). A fellow marcher speculated that, no matter how much Gandhi tried to reach out to the Muslim community, he was still considered a Hindu religious figure. Then we got to a resting spot for the hot afternoon hours and had lunch.
During lunch I met a 90-year-old man who met Gandhi in 1931 and was arrested in 1932. He is called a “Freedom Fighter” (a specific title given those who were imprisoned by the British for resisting colonial rule). He is from Uttar Pradesh, and his name is Mewalal Gupta Arya. He is a lively character who got into some verbal disputes (mostly tinged with humor) with the march organizers on occasion. In the afternoon, as we marched again from 4:00 to 6:30, I walked with Mewalal. He was leaning on me and carrying the flag of India. He was really going at a good clip for his age. After a while he got tired and took a ride (as did many of the more elderly marchers) on the camel wagon that was processing along with us. Around sunset we came into a beautiful small town with a big temple, where we stayed for the night. As with all our stops, the Congress Party had arranged for a cultural performance, with students dressed up and doing traditional dance.
The second day we marched again. Mr. Mewalal walked the whole morning at a fast clip. When we reached the resting spot there was not much rest, because we were treated like celebrities. So many boy students were there; they asked my name and where I was from, over and over again. As they crowded around me, I looked at some film cameras and felt like I was on reality t.v.! Some girls in fancy outfits showed up carrying jars on their heads.
This scenario repeated itself over and over for the five days of marching: up at 5:00 a.m., pack, breakfast at 6:00, so-called “prayer” done military style in marching orders. I learned one nice song Gandhi wrote about Hindus and Muslims being one, “Ragupati Raghave.” It is a song that insists that the core tenets of Hinduism and Islam are compatible and so there should be no strife or discrimination between members of different religions. Then we would be marching in the morning from 6:45 a.m. to about 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., when we’d duck out of the sun, and either rest or be stuck in a public program with speeches in Gujarati. Then there was lunch, and a chance to rest, but often there was not enough space among marchers to all stretch out and nap. Only a few mattresses, rare green grass, usually mud, but sometimes beautiful temples and architecture. Then at 4:00 p.m. we’d venture out into the hot sun again, and march until 6:30 or 7:30 p.m. We’d march straight into a public gathering with audience, speeches, and music performance. We’d have dinner at 8:00 and meetings until 10:00 or 10:30. We’d shower in portable showers, a great balancing act. Then it was time to get a bit of sleep, watching out for mosquitoes.
The march was always for me a curious mix of heaven and hell. The walking I liked! The scenery was interesting. One never knows what will be in store. Were we going through towns? Rural areas? Would it be quiet and beautiful, or will we be battling traffic that wants to run us down, gagging on fumes all afternoon? There was some of both. Will crowds be cute and friendly, and throw rose petals at us? They did. Will the guys get rowdy when they spot their favorite or not favorite politician en route shaking hands? When things got pushy and too exuberant I kept my distance. Sometimes people lined up and stared at us as we walked by and I didn’t know if they liked us or not. Sometimes, rarely, there were no people for a stretch. Sometimes people waved from their balconies and rooftops. I got to see all kinds of houses and buildings, from mansions to hovels. We crossed a river with the camels and carts. And the many conversations while walking were impossible to sum up.
I interviewed three freedom fighters arrested during Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement in 1942. It is really complex. Almost all committed some acts of violence, even though they knew in some sense that Gandhi was for nonviolence. They each had a reason or rationale for what they did. Some noticed the tension between their acts and Gandhi’s philosophy, and others seemed oblivious to the contradiction. It is as if “Either A or not-A” just doesn’t apply for them. Maybe Joseph Campbell would say I am trapped by the rules of Western rationality! Of course Gandhi had plenty of contradictions himself. One woman I interviewed was Rukshmani Bhatia, who began getting arrested at age 14 for challenging the British and demanding India’s independence. Born in 1928, she was a real spunky youth and a joy to interview. Then there was “Shanti Dada,” who at the age of nine walked for two miles in the original march in 1930, accompanying his father. He was not marching the whole march this time, only one day. He told me that the march was a drama of dust and noise, with no ahimsa, no truth here. It was all a political stunt, he said. He had devoted his life to poverty and serving the poor.
There were others. Durabai Naik addressed a small group of us. He knew Gandhi since childhood. He is now 89 and insists on doing as much of the march as he can. He started to break down and cry when he remembered his meetings with Gandhi, how he nursed Gandhi when he was ill. Another woman also cried when talking about Gandhi, as if the beloved Mahatma had just got shot yesterday, her emotions were so raw. Other conversations with younger marchers in their 60s, like Kumar, or Venkatra Mayya, were very insightful. Then there were some other folks I couldn’t quite figure out, like the three Gandhis. There were three old men who dressed up just like Gandhi, had the round glasses, the dhoti and shawl. They carried walking sticks and liked to strike poses in front of cameras on stage. It was like the Indian version of the Elvis impersonators. I didn’t know what to think. These guys would get garlanded while we walked. I even saw people bowing and touching the Gandhis’ feet. Every so often they would group up just so people would really do a double-take. But mostly they were independent. And then there were times when people in the town would dress up some of their kids as miniature Gandhi’s. They were so cute.
One day we ended up at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram. It had very interesting architecture. All piled in, and the Congress folks did some om-ing, singing, and acclaiming of Gandhi, which I thought was interesting considering Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo had a lifelong debate about the use of violence in independence struggles. It’s another example of that great Hindu tolerance, just add another god and don’t worry. Gandhi’s right, Aurobindo’s right, what’s your problem?
On the 17th we had a so-called “rest day,” because Gandhi originally rested one day per week. But the day was filled with activities. We went first to a cooperatively run dairy that Sardar Patel helped to organize. We then went to the university and heard four speakers on Gandhi. Two spoke in English, two in Gujarati. One professor was interesting; he covered the context of the original salt march, why Gandhi chose salt, and why he went to that part of the country. But we were whisked into the Vice Chancellor’s office for tea and introductions, and then whisked off to the next venue, with no time for questions or discussion of the issues. The next venue was a beautiful temple where we heard women singing, got prasadam from a guru dressed in orange, and then went to a fancy auditorium with a beautiful garden named after Gandhi’s close associate, Sardar Patel. There several freedom fighters got awards from Tushar Gandhi, along with garlands and scarves.
I mentioned that there were a lot of press around. They all flocked around us internationals, wanting to know why we bothered to come to India to go on this march. A young man named Greg from Hawaii, tall and good looking (like he would win on “Survivor”) was chosen for a daily column in one of the newspapers. Several people interviewed me and filmed me with t.v. cameras. I have no idea if they ever printed or showed the material. At first I really wanted to avoid them. But others said this is part of our work of spreading Gandhi’s message and showing that the march is not only about the Congress party wanting to win elections. So I agreed to be interviewed.
Sometimes it is upsetting to get filmed or photographed in your daily life. Once they came into our tent and said they wanted to film us setting up our beds! Once Sheena from Australia wanted to teach us reflexology foot massage; several of us set up and were following her instructions when the t.v. cameras arrived. The next day we ended up on the front page of the paper, a big photo of us getting our feet massaged. I didn’t like all this special attention just because we were from abroad. But some have used it to our advantage. One U.S. activist said people all over the world were fasting from sunrise to sunset to protest genocide in Darfur, and he got over 20 of us to agree to do so. Basically this meant skipping lunch. I said I would try. By 5:30 pm after 11 hours of fasting, and walking in the sun, I felt shaky, so I had to break down and eat a protein bar. Oh well, 11 hours for Darfur. He got the Sudan issue in the papers.
I had no private life on the march. Even the tent had eight people. Two nights we were put up in big halls with thirty women. Two women got sick and were vomiting; imagine they had to vomit in front of 30 people. But then I guess there are plenty of hospitals in the world like that. Over the course of the march I saw seven of the international marchers taken to the hospital, mostly from the heat, stomach problems, or fever; some with foot or leg problems. I had to take a break. On March 18 two women were in the hospital and another three were too sick to walk. They were going to ride the camel wagons. So after 56 miles I decided to take the train back to Ahmedabad. The only train at that local stop was the unreserved train. That’s how Gandhi always preferred to travel. It was kind of like taking the subway from the Bronx. Half the people were neatly dressed on their way to work. The other half were street children and women from the rural areas. Lots of litter was strewn over the unclean cars. But in general it was fine, because people were polite, and I loved watching the scenery out the window.
In Ahmedabad, I attended a very good workshop on Conflict resolution held at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, a university begun by Gandhi especially to help the Harijan (low-caste) and indigenous non-caste students. The workshop was run by Dr. Devavrat N. Pathak, an inspiring Gandhian academic. He is 84 years old, but still very sharp, animated, and up to date on all the latest issues in international politics. He was assisted by Dr. Sadhana Vora, an astute elder philosopher who has written a thesis on the ethics of the Bhagavad-Gita. Speakers talked a lot about India-Pakistan tensions. I also used this time to go to their library, which had about 5000 books on Gandhi, a most amazing collection. I highly recommend this center to those who wish to pursue a scholarly study of Gandhi. It was there that I had a chance to read Thomas Weber’s study of the Salt March, which gave me a new perspective on the march I was walking in 2005. He had walked the entire march in 1983 to find people who had remembered the first march of 1930. I found out that Shanti Dada, whom I had met on the march, had been Weber’s guide through most of the walk.
Gandhi was always emphasizing spinning thread the old fashioned way (on a “charka”) as a kind of prayer. At Gujarat Vidyapeeth the students and some of the teachers and administrators spin every day for half an hour. It is quite a sight for an American professor to see a room full of hundreds of university students spinning thread as a communal prayer. So I figured I would try it. I knew from watching the students that it’s not easy, that the thread breaks a lot. Either you pull it too fast, it gets weak and breaks, or you spin it too much, and it gets too tight. I figured I will not be very perfect in the beginning but why not try anyway. So I had a spinning lesson, and then I did the daily spinning. Not very well, but I did it! I tell you, prayer time whizzes by faster when all your attention is on a string breaking or not.
While in Ahmedabad I also stopped by the St. Xavier’s Social Service Society run by Fr. Moses, who is a Jesuit. They have been doing a lot of charity work with slum dwellers who camp out along the Sabarmati River. And they did a study which implicates the government in the Gujarat riots of 2002 (where Hindus killed about 2,000 Muslims). While the “official” version of the story is that some individuals got swept up in anger, the study alleges that the killings were planned. For example, there was a shortage of gasoline canisters for the two weeks prior to the riots, because someone was hoarding them. Then, these canisters were used to ignite shops owned by Muslims. Fr. Moses thinks that someone in the government may be implicated, because shops that had a Muslim business partner but seemed to the public to be owned by Hindus were also burned. This means that those who targeted the shops likely had access to property or tax lists (see the 2002 book, Racial Hegemony: Gujarat Genocide, by Paul Mike S.J. and Aloysius Irudayam S.J.).
Part of this serves as a background for why the Congress Party was sponsoring the Gandhi march. They used to win the elections in Gujarat, but a few years ago they lost and were replaced by BJP. Some Congress members will be frank and say that the Congress politicians had slipped up and become corrupt, and that’s why they lost. But, the BJP is very intolerant toward Muslims and is pushing a right-wing agenda. So Congress wants to win Gujarat State back. This march helped their party regain the limelight. Interestingly enough, during the days I was in Ahmedabad, an international “situation” flared up. Governor Modi had been invited to come to the United States to be keynote speaker at a conference for South Asian Hoteliers (many of whom are from Gujarat State). But the U.S. Government denied Governor Modi a visa, citing his role in the Gujarat riots in 2002. Modi was angry. Headlines one day said “Modi Declares War on America.” It was a little odd to be an American walking around the streets of Ahmedabad while the Governor was “declaring war” on your country. Reading some news articles, I found that it was my own Congressman from Detroit, John Conyers, who played a big role in having Modi denied a visa. I was proud that my own country, and my Congressman, were doing something right, to defend the human rights of others.
Then I rejoined the march in the city of Surat. When I got there at 9:00 p.m. on the 1st of April, everything was especially in disarray. I found Katie who told me that the march into Surat had been the hardest of the whole march, because there the crowds were thickest and very chaotic. The police escorts were not controlling the enthusiastic crowds who wanted to mob the marchers. One contingent got separated from the others and ended up getting lost. Marchers were in shock sharing stories of how crazy it was. All the food was already gobbled up, but Katie told me a group went off to an air conditioned hotel for dinner, to celebrate Archana’s birthday. So we tried to catch an autorickshaw to catch up to them. But crowds of curious teen boys gathered around us, so many that they became a traffic obstruction and we couldn’t even see the vehicles approaching on the road. I thought, what am I getting myself into? Sure it’s great that so many people want to turn out to greet the march, but do they have any conception that it’s about Gandhi, or what Gandhi stands for, or is it just a novelty?
The dinner was fun because I got to see a bunch of the marchers I hadn’t seen during the two weeks I was in Ahmedabad. On the way back from the restaurant the rickshaws got lost and took us up and down the streets of Surat, where so many people were lined up sleeping on the sidewalk and curbs. It was mind boggling.
Luckily, the next morning in Surat the crowds were still big and enthusiastic, but pleasant. As usual, people lined up to greet us, and others waved from their balconies. A really off tune band played songs that I identified (to the incredulity of my fellow marchers) as “We shall overcome” and “Jingle Bells.” We passed an ice factory, and some textile mills where workers came out to greet us. Later in the day, some great drummers accompanied us with a mobile amplifier that broadcast a singer’s voice. I enjoyed marching with them, although it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. We were showered with flower petals and handed roses as we walked. Mike, who had often commented on the irony of having armed police with rifles accompany our peace march, was able to stick a flower into the barrel of one policeman’s gun.
Some of the days blur into others, but this is what I remember from snippets of the march. At one stop we were shown the huge tree that Gandhi camped under, which is a kind of shrine now. At the same camp in the evening, the municipality decided to spray our camp to kill the mosquitoes. Other campers said this was the third or fourth time it was done. I never saw anything like it. Men carried machines that whirred like loud vacuums and shot out huge white clouds of foggy insecticide. The whole camp was covered in the dense fog. I didn’t know what to do. So I ran into the internet truck to escape from the fumes. Several other people did the same. We watched through the windows at the surreal landscape outside. It took about 20 minutes for the clouds to dissipate. We were all wondering what breathing in such clouds might do to our health. By the way, yes there was an internet truck! The connection (via mobile phones), however, was usually painfully slow, because we were not often camped near a big city with mobile phone towers. While I am on the topic of challenges to the environment, I remember that at one stop we were served lunch on paper plates. Then as we were marching in the afternoon, a truck filled with our paper plates pulled up to the side of a hill and emptied its contents, to join the other scattered pieces of who knows what blowing around in the area.
As we were marching, sometimes it would be in the peaceful rural areas, and then sometimes the traffic would heat up, and we marchers would be pushed everywhere on the road, sometimes by our own support vehicles, which would have Congress flags pasted all over them, but which would nevertheless honk and push us marchers off the road so they could pass. Whatever town we stopped in we would always be greeted by VIPs, so when the cars got really aggressive we figured, ‘there go the VIPS, running us over on their way to get to the town ahead of us to greet us so warmly and with a big smile.’ And the same on the way out of town.
Mealtime was always an amazement, because not only were we 500 marchers fed, but often times also members of the community. Huge vats of food were prepared and dished out to people sitting in rows on the ground. Often, colorful tents were set up to shade people from the sun’s scorching rays. I forgot to mention that temperatures often climbed to 42 degrees centigrade, which is somewhere around 110 degrees according to the chart in my travel book. If you were out in the sun it felt like your clothes were being freshly ironed on your body. That’s why we would stop marching somewhere between 10:00 to 11:30 a.m., and resume at 4:00 p.m. It was still hot at 4:00, but by 5:00 it was starting to be cooler. The high temps were no doubt behind the problem some marchers had with heat stroke and dehydration. On top of it, our bottled water supply was not as constant as one would like. Sometimes there were no bottles in sight. So when bottles finally showed up, I would want to stock up, which means carrying 2 or 3 bottles of water in my backpack while we’re walking five miles. But that’s better than dehydrating! The last two days I just had to buy bottles from grocers because the supply for marchers seemed not to be there. And the food! I was strict and would not eat uncooked vegetables or fruit salad that our cooks prepared. We had a special catering crew to cook non spicy food for our “international” contingent, but they had to cook on the move and did not have good facilities or clean water. Everyone uses their hands to serve food, and our caterer kept taking off his head scarf and scratching his head a lot. Not to mention the flies.
We started getting closer to the ocean. The air started getting damp and salty. Then finally came the day to walk the last stretch to Dandi. That was the day Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party) was supposed to walk the last four miles with us in the evening. We internationals decided to have a press conference to explain the reason why we were marching. Several felt the need to explain this because the march had been so dominated by the Congress Party. We wanted to say that we were there because we wanted World Peace. We were inspired by Gandhi’s message of nonviolence. Some from our group noted that while Congress was getting a lot of political mileage out of saying they were sponsoring the march, they were still purchasing F 16’s in an arms race with Pakistan. So we worked the day or two before on a common statement. We expected this common statement to be read at the press conference. To our surprise it was not read. Seems one member of the group still wanted one sentence changed the night before, and the guy who was typing it got fed up and said never mind, let everyone just give their personal statements. Well, such things happen when you have a lot of personalities and not much time to hash out an agreement. We had picked six spokespersons who now gave their personal statements, which were all great and covered a lot of the same ground as the common statement anyway. Several women from our group decided this was the day to wear saris. They had bought them along the road. So they all dressed up in their saris, which was a real photo opportunity for the journalists who gathered.
After all that, Tushar and the other Indian man overseeing the press conference started inviting others up. They brought up Alison who was 82 from Australia and who had marched the whole way. Tushar had the folks from Ireland stand up. And then there was a photographer from the U.S. who had joined the march (on his motorcycle) to take photos for the last few days. He took the opportunity to make a speech. He began by stating that he had won Oscars, Emmys, etc., for his photographs and that he had visited 100 countries. He then told Indians that everywhere in India were advertisements for American products. But he said that America is not the solution, it is the problem. And then he repeated it a few times for emphasis. I was a bit upset. Sure, there was some truth to what he said, but I thought he said it uncarefully. Yes, consumerism is a bad thing, but it doesn’t only come from the U.S., and not everyone in the U.S. is part of the problem. There were a lot of people working for peace and poverty eradication and against consumerism. Just a few minutes before that, one man from India had introduced Thea as an American who does not even have a t.v. set in her house. And, if we want world peace, don’t we have to work together to change America? What good does it do to demonize America, act as if since America is the problem, the rest of us were innocents or victims who must now gang up on the problem? It’s fine if the target is the “system” of exploitation, but a whole culture from A to Z and all their people? I told the photographer this later. He said I had a point. But he said he felt so strongly that he had to say what he said, because he thought Indians worshiped America in a sick way, so they had to be shocked out of it by saying an exaggeration in the other direction. (Hmm, kind of like Malcolm X saying whites were devils with no souls?)
Well, from my limited perspective, I don’t think Indians idolize America so much. Their country was adamant in pursuing nonalignment all during the Cold War. Their industry is based on self reliance, making in India the products that Indians consume. The streets are not filled with American cars; they’re all made by Tata motors, an Indian company. (Unless you say that the idea of the car is American, in which case I add, why not include the American idea of fuel emission controls?). The clothes are made in India according to Indian fashion style (except maybe for the teenagers and college students). The t.v. set is filled with Indian t.v. shows, and the theatres are filled with Indian films starring famous Indian actors. O.K., every so often there is an “Uncle Sam’s Pizzeria” but that is an exception, not the rule.
And I guess I should not neglect the fact that so many Indians want to go abroad and live where they can make money and send it back to India. (Even Gandhi did that, but he felt guilty about it: “We go abroad in order to make money, and in trying to get rich quick, we lose sight of morality and forget that God will judge all our acts. Self-interest absorbs our energies and paralyzes our power of discrimination between good and evil. The result is that instead of gaining anything, we lose a great deal by staying in foreign countries.” (Introduction to Ruskin’s “Unto this Last”). However we should note that he was talking about Indians in South Africa 100 years ago. Indians have gone to England, Kenya, Uganda, the Caribbean and South America in search of job opportunities. Well, perhaps more go to the U.S. than other countries, but is that evidence of a sick love of America? Perhaps I am being too defensive.
Just after the press conference, poor Alison, the 82-year-old marcher, collapsed. Turns out it was heat stroke. She had to be rushed to a hospital and hooked up to an i.v. She did not make it the last four miles to Dandi, imagine! Well she did make it to Dandi in a vehicle, so she was with us in the end.
Someone told me that sometimes when marathon runners see the finish line they collapse, just short of their goal. Interesting, because Alison had been a marathon runner! Sheena, her daughter, was horrified. She thought her Mom had just had a heart attack or something. But Alison revived later the same day.
So later that afternoon Sonia Gandhi showed up to lead the last stretch of the march, four miles. She was surrounded by large numbers of police, and a jubilant crowd that was running and pushing. We were told to wait five minutes before following. At the end of the day’s walk was a huge statue of Gandhi reaching down and picking up salt. Everyone was jubilant. We had been carrying our “World Peace” signs that we made for the press conference. Some people were adding their own slogans. Josh’s said “Salt the World with Peace.” Some of the Pakistanis changed their signs to say “Atoms for Peace.” I didn’t understand. They explained that they wanted nuclear power for peace, and they should be allowed to build their reactors. I wasn’t thrilled about this idea. One tricky group of Pakistanis got me to pose for a photo with them before I knew that was what their sign said – he had actually flipped his sign over the second before the photo was shot. For all I know, now there could be a photo of me advertising nuclear power in Pakistan.
Later the same evening we were supposed to have our photo taken with Sonia and Tushar Gandhi. We were arranged in groups of twenty. After waiting forever, Sonia came out, and she and Tushar quickly sat in the middle of each group for a quick snap. I don’t know how we were ever supposed to get a copy of these photos. Then it was time to have dinner with Sonia. All 500 marchers were invited, but the gate where people entered was small, and there were guards checking to make sure all who entered had their ID from the march. There were several crashers who wanted in anyway, either because they thought they were very important people who must meet Sonia, or because they were young men with nothing better to do but try to get a free meal, I guess. So there was a huge ruckus of pushing and shoving and shouting. Those who were denied entrance refused to vacate and tried to block the entrance for others. Several of us just hung back, reluctant to try to enter until things calmed down.
Finally Tushar personally took up the job of being at the gate and allowing people in or not. We got in and were served the most delicious meal of the whole trip! It went on and on with so many delicious foods. And there was a kind of “shrine” to Gandhi in the middle of the room, with lots of candles burning.
The next morning was the day, April 6, when Gandhi went to the beach, took a dip, then picked up a handful of salt and declared that he had broken the salt law. So at 6:30 a.m. a contingent of us went with Tushar for a dip in the ocean. It was hazy and warm. Myself, Katie and Catherine from England, and Sheena from Australia were the women from our group who went in. Otherwise it was only the men of the march swimming. Afterwards Katie was writing “Peace” and “Shanti” with a stick on the beach.
Now the 6th was the day of the huge rally where 300,000 people were expected to join Sonia at Dandi. Each town had been given four trucks to fill up. So most of us marchers were afraid to go to the rally.
The camp was surrounded with wall-to-wall people. Our evening destination was Karadi, the town where Gandhi went after Dandi and the place where he was arrested. Some people wanted to catch a vehicle, but I knew I wanted to walk. So I went walking with Nicole from Ireland and Aueriel from Spain. We waited for Sonia’s helicopter to land at 11 a.m., then took off walking. It was the most strenuous walk of the entire journey in some ways because we faced a never ending sea of pedestrians and vehicles flooding in the other direction, on their way to the huge rally. It was a nonstop row of trucks bursting to the brim with passengers as far as the eye could see. The good thing was, since we were near the ocean, there was a good breeze the whole way so I didn’t really have to smell any of that truck exhaust. When the vehicles were all in one row it was not so bad, but sometimes the VVIP’s would honk their horns and pass up all the trucks, meaning all us pedestrians had to get off the road, hanging onto a footpath in order not to end up in a ditch.
Right in front of my eyes I saw two people hit by vehicles badly enough to push them a few feet. I think they were mostly okay, but who knows what bruises or maybe broken bones they could have gotten? I really wonder what goes through the minds of VVIP’s when they’re willing to mow down members of their constituency on their way to commemorate the nonviolent Gandhi. But I am sure nothing has gone through their minds. Their drivers just drive as they have always been taught to drive, as ‘professionals’ who get there fast. As we were crossing a bridge, just about to enter the town of Karadi, a gust of wind came and blew my hat off and over the bridge, down into some tall reeds next to a river. There was no way I could see how I could get down there to rescue it. I was just grateful that it happened so close to the end of the march.
Auriel, Nicole, and their friend Swamy and I stopped to get cold sodas at a little shop, and they played with a cute little girl. Then we ran into others who had just hitched a ride with a truck and ended up at the same spot. Here we turned left and went the last mile or so to the place in Karadi where Gandhi spent his last night before arrest, a place that is now a museum. It was so peaceful, next to a small lake. The ‘museum’ was a display of old photos. The floor in the big room sagged in the middle. There was the little thatch building, just as it had been when Gandhi stayed there. We rested up as stragglers came in over the next few hours, all with their tales of how they coped with the crowds. By now our group was small, only about 100. The Congress marchers were going home after the rally, and the Pakistanis also took off. So there were us internationals and about fifty Indian marchers who had not been associated with Congress.
The evening program included the presentation of a play on the life of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s close friend and personal secretary. It was a good play, over two hours long! One got the impression that, for better or worse, devotion to Gandhi took over Mahadev Desai’s life. He ignored his family members and his own need for rest in the non-stop struggle for freedom through nonviolence. His example is encouraging in some ways, but disturbing for its workaholic excess. I am always struggling with what to take from Gandhism as a healthy model, and what to reject as unhealthy for myself.
The next morning we were very unceremoniously given our souvenirs of the march – a gaudy, large and clunky trophy of Gandhi’s hand holding salt. It reminded me of ‘Thing’ – the hand that used to come out of a box on ‘The Addams Family’ t.v. show. Someone else said it reminded her of the last scene of the film ‘Carrie’ where the hand reaches out from the grave. In any case it was not designed by people who thought about the fact that marchers were travelers who had to manage this heavy, breakable trophy in their luggage. All jokes aside, it was wonderful to receive such a souvenir. Tushar and others praised it as a beautiful work of art.
There was a program in the morning, attended by students from the elementary school nearby. I noticed up front was Shanti Dada, who I hadn’t seen since I interviewed him earlier in Boriavi. I got to give him the photos I developed of him and to accompany him the rest of the day. It is funny because, in the meantime, since having met him, I was able to read Thomas Weber’s book on the Salt March. In that book Weber says that Shantilal was driving him crazy in a hundred different ways, because Shanti Dada was always trying to do it his own way instead of the way Weber wanted it done. So I knew of the background of the strife between them, but I didn’t mention any of this to Shanti Dada when I met him. Of course he didn’t bring it up either but acted as if he and Weber were best of friends!
At this point, marchers got into two buses and headed for the Dharasana Salt Works, where the big satyagraha action took place in May 1930 (just after Gandhi’s arrest) in which so many people were hit by police with steel tipped lathi sticks. They had a memorial there, which we visited. Many people had died in that confrontation, where protestors remained nonviolent in the face of police brutality. There was a public program and we marchers were put on stage with Tushar. The music was great, a singer with a beautiful voice. Then we were fed. We got back on the bus. The landscape changed and was very barren. They said this is where the soil is full of salt. It reminded me of Utah. Then we went to a train station. This was a new station constructed on the historic site where Gandhi was put on a train by the British during his arrest. The story was explained to us, and we were given plaques commemorating our participation in the march. Then we got onto a train, one car was reserved for us, and we went to Mumbai. The march was finished!
After going back to Pune, where I was living, it dawned on me that it would be fitting if I went to visit Yerwada Jail in Pune, where Gandhi was taken after he was arrested at Karadi and put on the train to Mumbai. I figured the only reason Tushar didn’t bring the whole group here was because people’s international flights were from Mumbai. So the next morning, I found it. The jail was made of that usual British grey brick, but with brightly painted blue and yellow trim. I asked the police if I could take a photo. I realized it was a long shot, and they said no photos allowed, but they asked me if I wanted to see the cell that Gandhi was kept in. I said yes! I explained I had just been on the Dandi march. The guy said another marcher had just been there – and he pointed over a ways and I saw Robert, one of the marchers from the Netherlands. I was really surprised. I was not the only one who had that idea that morning. So we were both let in to the prison, where first we had to meet the head warder for permission. Above his large desk was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. (On each side was Indira and Rajiv Gandhi). There were also portraits of Sardar Patel, Nehru, and others imprisoned in the jail. It is not every day you see a prison where the former prisoners are displayed as famous heroes.
Another jailer took us to the yard for political prisoners. There was a big mango tree that Gandhi used to sit under. There was a statue of Gandhi in the courtyard. The trees and plants were well kept and beautiful. Along one side were the prison cells. In each cell was a big portrait of which prisoner used to be kept there. Then there was a book for visitors to sign. So obviously they had preserved this whole wing especially for visitors. As they explained, this yard of the prison only held political prisoners. I thought it was interesting that the guards with us were so proud of the fact that they worked in a place that had imprisoned these great leaders of India (or maybe I have somehow misunderstood). I guess it’s a sign that Gandhi and Nehru and others were imprisoned to free India from the British, and now the jail is run by Indians, not the British. But as I remarked to Robert, there seems not to be a critique of the idea of prisons themselves. Prisons go on, imprisoning the criminals, and I know Gandhi had a critique of treating criminals that way. He thought that so-called ‘criminals’ were marginalized by society, and that they needed more acceptance and trust from others, rather than ostracization.
It was a nice coincidence that Robert was there at the same time. He is an anthropologist who studies a matrilineal community in Sumatra. He’s been to India twice before. He wanted to see Mahatma Gandhi Road, even though I warned him that it was just a shopping street. He was going back to Mumbai, and then the Netherlands the next day. All of us marchers have been dispersed, back to our homes. But several of us have had our paths cross again, or have kept in touch. In Mumbai, Louise’s flat served as a meeting place for several of us marchers, from India, Netherlands, and the U.S. But the most remarkable paths-crossing story happened to me in Mexico a few months later. I was attending a conference on Women and development in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and met an Indian participant there. She told me that she recently met an American who said she had gone on the Gandhi march. That woman, Joyce, had shown her the newspaper that had our pictures on it (the famous “foot massage” photo), and she recognized me as one of the persons in the picture. That’s how I found out Joyce lived in San Miguel. We had a very happy reunion.
Since then several of us marchers have met up at the annual Gandhi conference at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. Each one of us is still active in peace projects in our home communities. Our work continues, but of course we are forever changed, and strengthened, by the many miles we traveled on Gandhi’s road.
Articles by Gail M. Presbey also appear in Constellations, International Studies in Philosophy, International Philosophical Quarterly, Journal of Value Inquiry, Human Studies, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, and Philosophy and Social Criticism, among others. She also has a longstanding involvement in Peace and Justice Studies and is Executive Director of CPP.