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The Story Of Salt

By Mohinder Singh

(The writer was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) from 1950 to 1985 (Rajasthan Cadre.)

THE GERMAN SCHOLAR M.J. Schleiden in his book Das Salz contended that there was a direct correlation between salt taxes and despots. Athens and Rome did not tax salt, while China and Mexico were salt-taxing tyrannies.

Using the salt-taxation yardstick, British rule in India was patently despotic.

Salt taxation originated in China. Guanzi, the earliest written text on Chinese salt administration, was penned around 300 B.C. Its main theme was to fix the price of salt at a level higher than its purchase price so that the state could import salt and sell it at a profit. People, it argued, cannot do without salt, and in their desperation would be willing to pay a high price.

In due course, the Guanzi proposal became an accepted policy with the Chinese emperors. It is the first known instance in the history of a state-control monopoly of a vital commodity. The salt revenues were used to build not only armies but defensive structures including the Great Wall. At one time over half of the state's revenue was derived from salt. And any popular manifestation of resentment against it was dealt with an iron hand.

To Romans, salt was a necessary part of empire building. They developed salt works throughout their expanded world. The first of the great Roman roads, the Via Salaria, Salt Road, was built for transporting salt. The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression "worth his salt." In fact, the Latin Word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.

Roman government did not maintain a monopoly of salt as did the Chinese. But it would not hesitate to control salt prices when it seemed necessary. Periodically, it subsidized the  price of salt to ensure that it was easily available for plebeians. Only in the last stages of the empire did Romans manipulate salt prices to raise money for the war. A low price was still maintained in the city of Rome.

Before the British created artificial trade barriers in the late eighteenth century, India had affordable, readily available salt. With natural salt fields on both its coasts and huge rock salt deposits and salt lakes, India had an ancient tradition of salt making and trading.

On the West coast in Gujarat, salt had been made for at least 5,000 years in a 9,000 square-mile marshland known as the Rann of Kutch. The marshland gets covered by sea water and so also with flooded rivers in the rainy season. By winter the salt water begins to evaporate, leaving salt crust. Indians have always shown preference for solar-evaporated sea salt vis-a -vis rock salt; the latter's purity is often deemed suspect.

On the east coast, Orissa, with a perfect natural sea water zone, constitutes a prime salt-producing area. The salt beds, called khalaris, are flooded in spring tides, which saturate the soil with salt as the water evaporates—the salt made thereof known as kartach. A second salt, panga, was produced by salt labourers, called malangis, by mixing salty soil in sea water and boiling it. This salt was noted for its whiteness and was considered by many to be the best salt in India, yet it was also inexpensive.

The panga salt had an eager market in the neighbouring Bengal. Even the British in Bengal traded in Orissa salt. They needed large quantities of it for the manufacture of gunpowder for their wars.

Most of India, since ancient times, had a history of modest salt taxes. These were rather light levies that did not raise the price of salt to the victimization of consumers or dislocate traditional salt trading.

The British practised no such light touch; their intervention in salt was clearly ham-handed and exploitative.

In the late eighteenth century, Cheshire was increasing its salt production and aggressively hunting overseas markets. The empire was expected to provide these markets. Yet Cheshire salt could not compete with the price and quality of Orissa salt. When the British proposal to buy up all Orissa salt met with resistance, they simply banned Orissa salt in Bengal.

Since the border between Bengal and Orissa was a thick jungle difficult to patrol, the ban gave rise to large-scale smuggling. Inexpensive Orissa salt so flooded Bengal that the Cheshire salt still could not compete. In 1803, in the name of fighting contraband, the British overran Orissa and annexed it to Bengal.

On 1 November 1804, by a reclamation, Orissa salt became a British monopoly. The private sale of salt was completely prohibited. Those who had salt in their possession had to sell to the government salt department immediately at a fixed price. Within ten years, it became illegal for salt to be manufactured by anyone other than the government.

The salt department would advance money to malangis against future salt production. The malangis got deeper and deeper into debt, and eventually were forced to work for the authorities to pay off their debt—virtual slaves to the salt department.

The Orissa Zamindars, who used to gain from salt production, urged the malangis not to cooperate. The malangis began making their own salt illegally, and hundreds were arrested. They even staged an uprising but the same failed. Yet clandestine manufacture of salt continued.

Back in England it was well-known that the Indians were angry with British salt policy. But the East India Company managed to have its way.

In the early nineteenth century, to make the salt tax more profitable and stop the smuggling, the East India Company established customs check points throughout Bengal.

One G.H. Smith, during his twenty-year tenure as the head, expanded the system into a "Customs Line" around Bengal. Salt had to pay duty to cross this line. By the 1840s, the Company had constructed a 14-ft-high, 12-ft-thick thorn hedge on the Western side of Bengal to prevent entry of contraband salt. Later, after 1857, the Customs Line grew until it snaked some 2,500 miles across India from the Himalayas to Orissa. The hedge was expanded into a spiky gnarl of prickly pear and acacia.

The people of Orissa were forbidden from any activity connected with salt. Even scraping salt off the surface of the flats was a severely punishable offence. Many malangis starved or migrated to other parts of the country in search of work.

The first public meeting in India to protest salt policy took place in Cuttack in February 1888. It was pointed out that impoverished Indians had a tax burden several times greater than did the people of England. The tax on salt was termed "unjust," because the taxed salt was all imported from abroad.

In 1923, the government proposed doubling the salt tax to balance the budget. The Legislative Assembly refused to support the proposal. But it became law by a decree from Viceroy Lord Reading. Another proposal of the Legislative Assembly in 1927 to have the salt tax was vetoed.

In 1929, Pandit Nilakantha Das, a member of the Legislative Assembly from Orissa, demanded the revival of salt making in Orissa and a repeal of the salt tax. The government argued that salt tax was the only contribution to the state that poor people ever made.

Voices were even raised in British Parliament that the salt tax was causing serious hardship in India and provoking popular discontent. Others suggested that the revenue from the salt tax was not worth the threat that unrest posed.

In 1930, Orissa seemed near open rebellion on the salt issue.

And, so contrary to popular belief today, it was not an entirely original idea to focus rebellion on salt, when the idea was seized upon by an extraordinarily original man, Mahatma Gandhi.

Orissa was the most aggrieved region about the rulers' salt policies. Gandhi, however, chose the West coast for his salt protest. He said he felt closest to the salt makers of Gujarat.

While salt was a burning issue in a few regions, more so a smouldering rebellion in Orissa, it was not at the time a national issue. Most of Gandhi's colleagues were barely aware of it. Many in the Congress were baffled by his idea of focusing the independence movement on salt. Yet Gandhi argued that salt was an example of British misrule that touched the lives of all Indians. Everyone ate salt, he said, except Gandhi himself. He had renounced the eating of salt years earlier—since as a non-European prisoner in a South African jail he had to do with a salt-less diet.

On 2 March 1930, Gandhi wrote to Lord Irwin, the viceroy: "If you cannot see your way to deal with these evils and my letter makes no appeal to your heart, then on the twelfth day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram I can take, to disregard the provisions of the salt laws."

The viceroy expressed his regret at Gandhi's decision to break the law. On 12 March 1930, Gandhi left the ashram with 78 selected followers for a 240-mile walk to the sea at Dandi, where they would defy the law by scraping up salt. He refused to allow women marchers out of "a delicate sense of chivalry." His explanation: "We want to go in for suffering and there may be torture. If we put the women in front the Government may hesitate to inflict on us all the penalty that they otherwise might inflict."

They would walk 12 miles a day, starting each morning at 6.30. Some grew too tired or their feet too sore and took to carts. A horse was kept nearby for Gandhi, but he never used it.

The Anglo-Indian press ridiculed him. The Statesman said that he could go on boiling seawater indefinitely till Dominion Status was achieved. But the foreign news media was fascinated by the spectacle; a frail little man marching against a mighty empire.

Lord Irwin, who was being informed by secret agents, was convinced that Gandhi would soon collapse. He even wrote to the Secretary of State for India that Gandhi's health was poor and that if he continued his daily march, he would die and "it will be a very happy solution."

On 5 April, after 25 days of daily marching, Gandhi reached the sea at Dandi. With him were now not only the original 78 followers but thousands. And that included intellectuals, elite, as well the poor. Many women were there, too, with a fair sprinkling of affluent ones from cities.

Gandhi said a nightly prayer at the shore washed by the Arabian sea. And with the break of dawn next day stepped up to the beach where a crust of salt was cracking. He bent down and picked up a chunk of the crust.

In doing so Gandhi broke the British salt law.

Source: Gandhi Marg, October-December 2002, Vol. 24, No. 3