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Retracing Gandhi's steps

241 miles. 26 days. Hundreds reenact the mahatma's 1930 salt march

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 3, 2005

KANKAPURA, India

It can seem, when passing before weathered hands clasped in prayer or beneath rose petals tossed overhead, that the only pressure comes from the sun’s high heat, that the only needs are shade and a mattress for midday rest.

Even among the marchers, this reenactment of the salt march, first led by Mahatma Gandhi 75 years ago to challenge a strict salt tax, and with it British rule of India, often rings more of commemoration than revolution.

Smiling schoolgirls in colorful local costume press red dye on marchers’ foreheads. Tobacco farmers hurry from tumble-down huts to offer tin cups of water. Several hundred Indians, from Tamil Nadu in the south and Sikkim in the north, Assam in the east and Rajasthan in the west, trade chants with men and girls, mothers and sons along crowded highways and dusty lanes:

“Mahatma Gandhi! Amar rahe!” (“Great Soul Gandhi! Lives forever!”)

Yet chant after chant, mile after mile, this 26-day, 241-mile journey, begun March 12 and ending Wednesday by a lonely monument near the Arabian Sea, travels deeper into this country’s problematic present.

In India, 57 years after Mohandas K. Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu, democracy thrives and education and technology have vaulted many to the front of the modern world. But much of what the mahatma hoped to improve remains unchanged: Caste often defines social relations; religions, at times, battle with words and weapons; more than 250 million people live in poverty.

One foreign marcher, a Dutch lawyer turned wanderer, gave a personal reason for joining this new ''Dandi Yatra," as the march is called in the Hindi language. The Dutchman had come to India, he said, ''to try to find Mr. Gandhi."

For Indians, citizens of a nation of 1 billion people -- Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus separated into thousands of subcastes -- the quest looms larger.

''One part we are missing from Gandhi is that he was a mass mobilizer," said Chandan Kumar Yadar, a Hindu who had traveled to Gujarat state from Bihar, in the east. ''Who has got that magnetic personality? Who can cross all divides?"

In the years leading to Indian independence, it was a short, slight man dressed in homespun cotton and wearing spectacles that framed searching eyes whom the people called ''Bapu," or father.

Gandhi, trained as a lawyer in London, had gained international attention with his fight for the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa. After returning to India in 1915, he preached the importance of personal discipline and refined his policy of ''satyagraha," or soul force, as the key to fighting for freedom from British rule.

In March 1930, Gandhi, then age 60, surprised others in the foundering freedom movement when he chose 78 followers and walked stick in hand for 241 miles from the Sabarmati Ashram, his retreat in the city of Ahmedabad, across southern Gujarat, flat, fertile terrain set at the top of the Arabian Sea. In the seaside village of Dandi, with the eyes of India and the world upon him, he stooped to harvest salt in violation of British law.

Gandhi had put his plan in a letter to Lord Irwin, the British viceroy: ''My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India."

Among his own people, Gandhi also used the march to challenge deeper divisions within Indian society, earning him critics then and now.

During a midday halt in the town of Gajera, Gandhi sat silently beneath the arcing branches of a banyan tree and faced a crowd of some 5,000 that had been segregated by caste. He threatened the upper castes: If the Untouchables, outcasts traditionally seen as impure by birth, could not join the gathering, Gandhi would move to a nearby hill and address the Untouchables alone. Village leaders conceded and the Untouchables came closer to hear Gandhi speak.

After cheers subsided on a recent morning, Gajera residents gathered beneath the same banyan tree and placed garlands of flowers and homespun cotton around the neck of Tushar Gandhi, the mahatma's great-grandson and leader of this year's march. Across a dry creek and down a narrow lane, families lingered in a segregated neighborhood, still home to Gajera's Dalits, as Untouchables are called.

A hundred yards from a two-room temple in which Dalits worship at a shrine to Gandhi, women sat on a stone walkway and separated newly picked cotton. At the center of a nearby crowd of men, Rameshchandra Parmar, a 32-year-old lawyer dressed in a neatly pressed oxford shirt and dark trousers, described how education and employment had improved for him and other Dalits since caste discrimination was outlawed in the Indian Constitution.

Parmar's wife carries ornately engraved copper pots to the town well and tends a house neatly appointed with wooden furniture and portraits of their family members and of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a hero among Dalits who fought for the rights of his caste during Gandhi's lifetime.

But in Gajera and other villages, when a private employer learns an applicant's name, and the lower caste it denotes, opportunities often dissolve. Most in this neighborhood fuel fires with patties made of cow dung. They live side-by-side with the cattle and tend fields owned by others.

One angry man pressed in close to Parmar and told of days cleaning toilets and doing odd jobs for those above him.

''If they want something from me, then they'll let me into their kitchen," he said. ''But if they don't, they won't let me three feet past their front door."

Another man, Pravin Patel, who changed his last name from Mekwana in hopes of getting a job in chemistry, which he studied in college, could find work only harvesting cotton.

''They want the people below them to stay below them," Patel said. ''If I become an upper-class member, then it's direct competition. And they'll have to ask favors from me, instead of me from them."

Gokal Bhai, a 90-year-old who watched years earlier as Gandhi addressed the crowd beneath the banyan tree, quietly said that after Gandhi walked on to the next village of Ankhi, Gajera's upper castes hurried to a nearby pond for a cleansing bath.

''On the surface, everything seems to be equal. But in people's hearts, it's not," said Parmar. ''After Gandhi left, so did his ideas."

Those ideas are marching back this year cloaked in the orange, green, and white of the Indian flag and heralded in speeches and on banners hung in Gujarat's teeming cities and calm villages.

In the weeks before the March 12 departure, Tushar Gandhi, lacking funds for his vision of providing food and shelter for all who wished to join the march, turned to the support of the Indian National Congress, the political party that Gandhi had helped shape during the freedom struggle.

The Congress fielded 78 young activists from around the country to lead several hundred marchers, including a few dozen foreigners from Australia, England, and the United States, among other countries.

With politicians have come rallies on city squares and along rural roads, quick visits from government ministers in bulletproof Mercedes, and speeches by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader, and her son, Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, free India's first prime minister, but no relation to the mahatma.

Opposition parties have criticized the march as political opportunism, and the Indian press has treated it as grand spectacle.

Yet along the route, marchers have kept up Gandhi's steady call for religious harmony among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, no small challenge in Gujarat, which was rocked three years ago by riots that left an estimated 2,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead.

That violence began when a train was set on fire, allegedly by a group of Muslims, killing 58 Hindus on board. In the following days, retaliatory Hindu mobs burned Muslim families alive in houses. Teenagers were stabbed to death in train stations and on city streets.

While this year's marchers took a midday rest beneath wide tents in the town of Ras, Kashiben Shomabhai Patel, age 105, rocked at the edge of a bed set in a small colonial-era house, her shoulders covered in a white cotton sweater despite a temperature near 90 degrees.

Her grandson, Rajeshbai Dineshbai Patel, leaned an inch from her ear and shouted: ''Ba!"

Kashiben Patel sparked to life, her head turning toward his: ''Oh-ah!"

The 105-year-old relayed shouted confirmation that, yes, she had been imprisoned by the British in 1921, and, yes, she had joined the original march the day Gandhi passed through Ras. Gandhi had even honored her with the gift of a shawl.

''He was a God-sent man," the old woman said, ''sent to help us."

Then she returned to her time-stopped world, guarded by near-deafness, fading eyesight, and bad legs that confine her to the bed. She sang a protest hymn common among marchers of her day, seemingly oblivious to the conversations around her.

When asked about the 2002 riots, Rajeshbai Patel, who is Hindu, shrugged. The attacks against Muslims, Patel said, were tit for tat, payback for the killing of the Hindus on the train.

Three blocks away, on a shaded corner, a small group of Muslim men, among only 100 in this town of 11,000, declined to discuss modern Hindu-Muslim relations. A teenager wearing the traditional Muslim dress of a flat brown cap and long shirt left for prayer at a nearby mosque. Another man explained in a whisper: Were local Hindus to overhear the conversation, they would attack the Muslims as they slept that night. There had been no violence in Ras during the 2002 riots, but perception, at least, trumped reality.

On the road to the mosque, a plaque on a doorway noted that on March 19, 1930, Gandhi had stopped for midday rest at the community hall before continuing toward Dandi. The entry foyer led to an empty yard. The old building had been razed. Only its brick foundation remained.

The next day, Tushar Gandhi took his own midday rest in a leafy courtyard in the village of Kareli, where a man sang out ''Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare," as he massaged marchers' feet.

Tushar Gandhi is a big man, with broad shoulders and a full belly that casts a long, flowing shirt before him as he walks. He has thick black hair and a patchy beard. He is quick with e-mail and a cellphone. Yet in a conversation interrupted only to receive the greetings of well-wishing passersby, Gandhi the great-grandson played a familiar role: Look from the outside, push from the inside.

He told how several temples have opened recently with Mahatma Gandhi as the central deity, and agreed that Gandhi may one day be seen, like Jesus or Buddha, as the founder of a religion.

''It's worthless," Tushar Gandhi said. ''People are making him a god and then saying, 'What he did was because he was a god, so we can never be able to do that.' "

Tushar Gandhi decried modern religious divisions and a society in which executives live in luxury high-rises while millions live in shanties in the shadows.

''The emancipation effort hasn't reached the results that Bapu wanted," Gandhi said. ''Electoral politics have created a lot of mischief in India. The famous divide-and-rule doctrine of the old imperialists has been adopted by the new imperialists, who are the democratic parties."

That morning, Gandhi had led the march during a sunrise crossing of a wide estuary. Bare foot followed bare foot for more than an hour, as the marchers, toes spreading wide in slippery mud, focused on the measured progress of single steps. They climbed to a one-lane road caked at times in six inches of dust, and passed a cotton farm set a few hundred yards from the estuary's bank.

Near a small lean-to that served as a family home during growing season, Lalita Raman, a young mother who didn't know her age, wrapped her arms in the fine cloth of her pink shawl as her husband, squatting beside her, turned a ball of cotton in his fingers, spinning a long, fine thread. When the parade had passed, Raman placed flowers around the neck of Rahul Gandhi, unaware that the Harvard-educated parliamentarian was not a blood relative of the mahatma.

Raman said she supported the Congress Party over the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose member Narendra Modi continues to serve as chief minister of Gujarat despite accusations he stoked the 2002 Hindu violence against Muslims, then did little to stop the carnage.

''When Congress ruled, sugar only cost 16 rupees [37 cents] a kilo," Raman said. ''Now it costs 20."

The sun rose toward its noontime ferocity. Raman pulled her shawl across her shoulders as she stood with her back to the rutted lane walked by the Gandhi procession.

''The road is difficult to walk on," she said. ''They've walked on it one day. Imagine walking on it every day."

The walk will continue for three more days until marchers reach the beach in Dandi. Along the way, there will be T. Venkat Ramayya, 72, son of a freedom fighter and a political activist himself, wearing worn cotton robes and floppy leather sandals, hoping the young will move again toward a more spiritual world. There will be Alka Lamba, 29, a rising star in national Congress politics, who said before pumping a fist and leading a cheer among a crowd of children in the village of Utshat, ''Gandhi never died!"

They will be there, in Dandi, at the break of dawn, most likely surrounded by a crowd of thousands near the monument that marks Mahatma Gandhi's defiant breaking of the British salt law.

They will celebrate as they have all along:

''Mahatma Gandhi! Amar rahe!"

The salt harvest will continue 5 miles south, where eight young men live in a one-room shack and each earn $1 a day raking salt from the flats. Beyond, the world will be at war, in nearby Afghanistan and Iraq, and farther, in Sudan, and Colombia. Race, class, and culture will be dividing people in cities such as Bombay, a few hours south of Dandi, and Boston, half a world away.

The Indians, from a nation where half of all people are younger than 25, will know the urgency.

They will chant to a long-dead man and his old ideas, looking, still, for a new mahatma to take them further.

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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