Our Independence and the Salt March

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) chose the 12th March 1968 as the day on which the independence of Mauritius would be proclaimed because the date coincides with the anniversary of the beginning of the Salt March by Mahatma Gandhi on 12th March 1930. The March is an important milestone in the struggle waged by Gandhi for Indian independence. However, despite its association with the most important day in the calendar of the Mauritian nation, most people in this country do not know anything about the Salt March, and are unable to see how it is of special significance to Mauritius. Consequently, as a contribution to the process of nation building, the political heirs of SSR must explain why the achievement of our independence was designed to be a homage to the Salt March and Mahatma Gandhi.
On 27 February 1930, Gandhi, already World renowned for his non-violent struggle against the injustices of colonial administration in South Africa and India, announced that he was going to challenge British rule by collecting salt at the seaside. Initially, many scoffed at the idea but the events that eventually unfolded shook the British and forced them to open negotiations with Gandhi on Indian independence. Gandhi’s announcement was a follow up to a resolution adopted by the Indian National Congress for the start of a civil disobedience campaign that would lead to the complete independence (Purna Swaraj) of India. In order to mobilise mass support for the campaign, Gandhi decided to associate it with the defiance of an Indian law that gave the colonial government a monopoly on the collection, manufacture, and distribution of salt across India. The price of salt charged by the government had a built-in levy, which for a labourer with a family amounted to two weeks wages a year. There was, therefore, a universal grievance against the salt law.
The Salt March began on the morning of 12 March 1930 when Gandhi and seventy eight of his followers left his ashram at Sabarmati for the seaside at Dandi on the west coast of India. People on the way festooned and decorated their settlements with India’s national colours, and gathered to hear the messages of Gandhi on the wearing of locally spun cloth, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, abandoning child marriage, and keeping clean. They marched a distance of 241 miles reaching their destination on 5 April 1930. The following morning, Gandhi dipped into the sea, came back to the beach and picked up some salt left by the waves. As a result, Gandhi had broken the British law which made it a punishable crime to possess salt not obtained from the British government salt monopoly. Gandhi’s action encouraged the illegal manufacture and trade of salt all across India, a defiance which soon turned into a mass insurrection. Louis Fischer, Gandhi’s biographer, wrote that after the Salt March “it was inevitable that Britain should someday refuse to rule India and that India should someday refuse to be ruled.”
The Salt March strengthened Gandhi’s fame across the World. Newspapers in many countries and newsreels gave daily coverage to the event that was a challenge to the might of the most powerful empire on earth. Deeply moved after reading accounts of the March, Albert Einstein, then of German nationality and one of mankind’s most brilliant scientist, declared that Gandhi was the greatest figure in history. Twenty years later, Martin Luther King, the American civil rights activist, said “Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts.”
The Salt March is just one episode in the life of Gandhi who; according to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India; will occupy a place in history similar to that of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. It is therefore not surprising that he is revered by myself and the section of the Mauritian population with a cultural attachment to India. However, I find no relationship between the Salt March and our independence. Consequently, compelling the rest of the population, who do not have a similar esteem for Gandhi, to pay homage to him and to the Salt March is not acceptable, the more so when we take note that for Gandhi, all compulsion is evil, justified only when an individual’s actions has grave social consequences and cannot be prevented in any other way1.
In view of the foregoing, the political heirs of SSR owe the whole Mauritian population an explanation on why our independence was specifically made to coincide with the anniversary of the beginning of the Salt March. A satisfactory answer will clear misunderstandings in between various sections of the Mauritian population and will consequently be a significant contribution towards nation building. It could also be a first step towards a Labour revival without the son of SSR.