Leo Tolstoy once wrote back to Gandhi, who had sought advice from the aging Russian author, and pointed out the absurdity of the situation in India where 30,000 British officials and soldiers enslaved 200 million Indians. “Do not the figures alone make it clear that not the English, but the Hindus themselves are the cause of their slavery?” Gandhi searched for an issue that would unite all Indians, and when his Declaration of Independence of India failed to do so in January 1930, he subsequently embarked on a new breed of non-violent protest.
Gandhi’s symbolic flouting of the tax on salt, “the only condiment of the poor”, did not end British rule; that took another 17 years and a world war. But Gandhi’s effort revealed the absurdity of the colonial system: the British monopoly that forced locals to pay prices up to 2,000% greater than its production costs, outlawed that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government. On March 24th 1930, soon after saying his customary dawn prayers, Gandhi emerged from his ashram to greet a crowd of thousands gathered to witness the start of his most defiant protest to date. A foreign educated, and master manipulator of media, Gandhi ensured that three Bombay film teams were on hand so that his protests, well-attended to thousands, was seen by millions. A volunteer band raised its horns to play God Save the King before it realized that a rousing salute to the English sovereign was not an appropriate send-off. Their fading notes were overtaken by the sound of coconuts being smashed together, a traditional Hindu sign of devotion.
Gandhi, leaning on a lacquered bamboo staff, soon set out along the winding, dusty road. His destination: Dandi, 240 miles away, where 25 days later he would collect a few grains of salt in defiance of the salt tax. Following his lead, thousands of Indian villagers would wade into the sea to extract salt themselves. Thus marked the beginning of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign–and of the demise of the British Empire.