In 2018, farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra had undertaken a long march from Nashik to Mumbai to draw attention to agrarian distress. Through a very physical display of their abject conditions, which have lead to high numbers of farmer suicides, they were said to have been successful in communicating the trauma induced by flawed governance.

A few years later in March 2020, migrant workers undertook long arduous walks to their hometowns from major cities after an unplanned nation lockdown was imposed following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Commentators called it a moral protest that revealed the callousness of the regime. It was argued that the Indian state has long stripped migrant workers of welfare rights and had failed to address inequality and redistribution through policy.

In both cases, the hardship caused by walking long distances was seen as an act that raised a moral critique of the state. The legacy of Gandhian tactics was frequently invoked, but others also brought up the memory of the trauma of Partition refugees walking across the newly drawn up border.

This year, too, around mid-March, farmers from Nashik set off on foot for the Maharashtra legislative assembly in Mumbai to highlight agricultural distress following unseasonal rainfall and a glut of onion produce. The foot march was halted on March 23 after government assurances that the demands of the farmers would be met.

Gandhi and the Dandi march

National cultures – essentially, residents of a nation – across the world maintain stories of landmark events that define them. Post-colonial historians of India recognise Mohandas Gandhi’s Dandi March as one such pivotal moment in the anti-colonial movement of India.

In 1930, Gandhi walked to the coastal village of Dandi, over 300 km away from his ashram in Sabarmati, with the express intent to break the British Salt Law. This event was meticulously planned – the routes, halts for meals and sleeping. Nationalist newspapers published persuasive articles and photographers and movie cameras were on standby. The group he walked with swelled as the journey progressed over the next 24 days. A staggering 60,000 people were arrested for breaking the law that heavily taxed a crucial commodity like salt.

While the marchers were yet to reach Dandi, Time magazine reported in its issue dated March 31, 1930, that “the showing of newsreels taken as St Gandhi set out on his march is barred in all theatres in the Bombay Presidency”.

The salt tax was not the most pressing problem caused by imperial rule. However, Gandhi thought deeply not only about the ethics of the means and ends of protest strategies, but also their cultural symbolism and communicative potential.

Taking a fistful of natural salt from the Indian coast was an invocation of loyalty to the nation, and the long and arduous march was meant to remind the participants of religious pilgrimage. This symbolism framed anti-colonial protest as a moral, spiritual duty.

Credit: Time Magazine, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Satyagraha, South Africa to India

In the decade preceding the Salt March, Gandhi had already been experimenting with his strategy of passive but moral resistance in South Africa and had found confirmation for it from the ideas of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and American philosopher Henry Thoreau.

Gandhi was jailed in South Africa several times for leading the Indian community into a movement using civil disobedience or satyagraha (“waging” truth or insisting upon truth). When he arrived in India in 1915, he had already written the anti-colonial text Hind Swaraj that was banned by the British government in India.

Not restricting his critique of colonialism only to violent repression and extraction, Gandhi considered European modernity and its trappings as immoral. He said, “railways, machineries and the corresponding increase of indulgent habits are the true badge of slavery of the Indian people, as they are of Europeans”.

In 1920, Gandhi launched a non-cooperation movement to insist on self-rule – Swaraj. The immediate trigger was the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. But it was the Rowalatt Act, which suspended the rights of political prisoners accused of sedition, that made Gandhi clearly articulate his position on loyalty to the modern state as contingent upon the morality of the state. Further, Gandhi gestured towards satyagraha as not only protest but a strategy to exercise independence.

Satyagarha protests, thus, constituted India as a nation, and in this repertoire of protest tactics, a long distance march was both a communicative and mobilisation tool.

From the lonely figure of a pilgrim on foot, long marches became a collective exercise infused with nationalistic meaning. A new tradition was invented – marches as a demanding and gruelling difficult ritual tradition to assert “a truth”.

Gandhi’s strategy of satyagraha had impressed Indians before he himself reached India. Even writer of the Constitution BR Ambedkar, who had trenchant disagreements with Gandhi for his views on caste oppression, had called for several satyagrahas against the dehumanising practice of untouchability.

Ambedkar’s Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, for access to common water sources denied to “untouchable” castes, included an impromptu march after a conference to a water tank in Mahad from which they were forbidden to draw water from. Ambedkar and associates drank from the water tank but the movement drew a severe backlash from upper castes and had limited success.

Ambedkar’s project, though certainly moral, failed to mobilise wider caste society. For one, unlike the Dandi March, it was not planned carefully as a communicative strategy but was an impulsive expression of demand for equality. It may be argued that it was not long enough for the issue to gain traction and mobilise a larger gathering. But more importantly, the Mahad Satyagraha targeted an oppressive native institution. This meant that it could not be placed within the nationalist, anti-colonial framework.

A bronze sculpture of the Ambedkar's Mahad Satyagraha. Credit: JAIBHIM5, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Politics, protests and walking

Walking as a moral protest has a higher chance of being a successful strategy if it addresses the attention of publics to the critique of a regime. The regime itself is framed as one that has lost the moral right to rule and represent the Indian people, and the larger framing needs to use nationalist vocabulary.

This is why other instances of protests in Independent India that involved walking have come to be regarded as moral protests.

Though not in the same way, shorter walks can be political too, An offshoot of this invention were the shorter neighbourhood processions called prabhat pheri, or morning rounds. Invoking circumambulations at a sacred site, the prabhat pheri were a way for children and young people to march autonomously and “awaken” (literally) people to their political message.

As truncated versions of Gandhian satyagraha march, the prabhat pheri also sought to mobilise opinion and persuade people to a social and political viewpoint. Door to door visits – singing, cajoling and persuading people to join – has the effect of bringing opponents (people with diverse viewpoints) together.

A historian of colonial Mumbai, Jim Masselos, has argued that they were successful in “metaphorically rendering the space they covered, the space of free India”. The tradition of using short neighbourhood rounds to espouse communal harmony after violence or communal tensions continue in the tradition of prabhat pheri.

However, when a point had to be made about excessive oppression and injustice, the onerous performance of a long march was deemed necessary for a spectacular expression of the truth about being oppressed or trauma.

Imprint of Partition

After the Dandi March, Gandhi never returned to his ashram in Sabarmati. He went into a self-imposed “exile”, again invoking the spiritual-religious imagery of a moral protagonist banished or uprooted from the state – like the departure of the Hindu deity Ram, or Gautam Buddha from their kingdom and palaces.

In further resonance of his quest for a moral state, Gandhi invoked the Islamic concept of Hijrat, or Muhammad’s migration from Mecca with his followers, as a moral protest. Hijrat – the voluntary exile from one’s community due to an authoritarian regime where the practice of truth freely is not possible – was also co-opted by Gandhi into the meaning of satyagraha as a spiritual addition to the moral-political passive resistance.

This co-option indicates Gandhi’s recognition of the Muslim anti-colonial impulse in India and other parts of the world – like the Khilafat Movement – and transnational network building. But further, it also indicates a tool by which Gandhi sought to facilitate the inclusion of Muslims into Indian nationhood.

Gandhi’s opposition to the Partition of India is well known. But for the purpose of examining walking as a method of satyagraha it is important to note that when he was remonstrating against the partition violence, his frenzied rounds to different parts of India where violence was raging felt ineffective to him. He eventually chose to go on a fast until death as a moral response.

Gandhi with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Prime Minister of Bengal, during a 73-hour fast in Calcutta to stop religious violence after independence in 1947. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This same violence and its threats made millions of people cross over the newly created borders of the partitioned nation – a majority of them in foot caravans.

The Partition refugees added a sense of hurt and trauma to the meaning of walking as a moral-political protest. The foot caravans of the partition refugees can be read as exposing the very immorality of dividing communities into separate, discrete nations. Immoral because of its inherent violence and consequent devastation of the national psyche.

The trauma was “national”, not only in the sense of being experienced by the national community, but also because it was caused by the appearance of two states as “nations-in-becoming” through violence. Gandhi had utter irreverence for the modern nation-state and was a votary of local self-governance. Arguably, the experiences of the Partition refugees in foot caravans confirm his worst criticism of the modern nation-state.

The indelible imprint of the Partition of India on the subcontinent has been the subject of an entire canon of literature. However, here I am concerned with the impact of the foot caravan walkers and their experiences on the existing iconography of long walks as a moral protest in the Indian subcontinent.

The invocation of the Partition foot caravans by commentators writing on the long walks by migrant workers in the lockdown reveals the trauma inscribed by Partition into the legacy of long protest marches.

Legacy of the long march

An important caveat should be repeated here that long walks and marches continue to be moral-political strategies, but they are not available to all citizens in the same manner as equal members of the political community. In a way, each long march in post-colonial India may be studied as a narrative of the perception of Indians regarding the moral health of the regime governing them.

In the period immediately following independence, political life in India involved placing immense faith in the post-colonial state as a caretaker of the welfare of the Indian people.

Consequently, the Bhoodaan movement by one of Gandhi’s disciples Vinoba Bhave – also called a “walking saint” – involved on foot a journey across India to persuade landed elites to part with their land in favour of the tillers and poor labourers. It did not address the state.

This framing of walking persists in other literature too as a conceptual tool. The kanwar yatra – a ritual involving a physically demanding foot journey performed mostly by poor Hindu male pilgrims – has been analysed as a moral protest against the vagaries of neo-liberal economy and adverse job markets by anthropologist Vikash Singh.

But since protest is not the express political expression of the kanwar yatri, they remain subjects of class derision as well as denounced for their regressive, communal politics.

Not all marches are allowed to complete their planned course – some end up being disrupted by legal or violent machinations. However, they almost always succeed in exposing the nature of a regime for interested observers.

The Congress in January finished a nationwide foot march, the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), to oppose what it alleges is flawed governance and sectarian divide by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government.

It can only be hoped that the collective aspiration for an inclusive and prosperous nation has not been so fully defeated as to render the method completely ineffective. Otherwise, as a diverse national community, we are doomed to walk in circles lurching from economic distress to the trauma of fractured cultural fabric.

Ghazala Jamil is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.