On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi began his epoch-making Dandi March, walking 240 km in 24 days to demand that the colonial government should repeal the iniquitous salt law and to push for Indian independence.

Gandhi described the Dandi March as a battle of right against might. The larger objective of the march, he said, was to free the world of the monstrous greed of materialism.

Coincidently, on the 91st anniversary of the Dandi March this year, India was in the throes of another nonviolent movement – of farmers demanding the repeal of new farm laws. Just like the British colonial regime passed the salt law without consulting the people, the Modi regime framed the three farm laws without soliciting the opinions of farmers and other who will be affected.

The farm laws were passed by the Parliament in September, dispensing with the process of legislative scrutiny. In the Rajya Sabha, a voice vote was employed in complete disregard of the demand of some members for an actual vote as mandated by the Constitution and the rules of procedure of the House.

The government claims that the new laws will allow the farmers to earn higher prices for their produce. But farmers believe that their laws open the agriculture sector to corporate control and will undermine their livelihood.

Non-violent protest

There are notable parallels between Gandhi’s Dandi March of 1930 and the sustained protests against the farm laws.

On March 12, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Azadi Ka Amrut Mahotsav, the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, he asserted that Gandhi’s Dandi March “...gave the message of self-reliance and self-confidence”.

It was an attempt to constrict the lofty aims of the Dandi March to the two areas that Modi identified last year as India’s objectives. Modi’s statement glossed over the idea of dissent at the heart in the Dandi March: after all, it asked hard questions of an oppressive regime, demanded that an oppressive law be scrapped and educated and mobilised Indians to agitate non-violently against the legislation.

This endeavour was in keeping with Gandhi’s long-held beliefs. On January 29, 1925, almost five years before Gandhi undertook Dandi March, he wrote, “Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by education the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

Gandhi leading the famous 1930 Salt March. Photo credit: Yann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As India celebrates the 75th anniversary of Independence, its citizens cannot be oblivious of the powerful message of dissent represented by the idea of Swaraj and the manner in which the Modi government is criminalising dissent by charing farmers, students, human rights defenders and others who oppose the government with sedition.

The peaceful movement of farmers that began on Constitution Day, November 26, embodies that animated spirit of dissent.

‘Sedition is my dharma’

It is instructive to recall that Gandhi had been convicted for sedition in 1922 and sentenced to six years in prison. Eight years later, he started the Dandi March. On the sixth day of that March, he spoke at Borsad in Gujarat and noted, “... The British Empire did not deserve loyalty... it deserved sedition. Hence I have made sedition my dharma.”

He added: “Today we are defying the salt law. Tomorrow we shall have to consign other laws to the waste-paper basket. Doing so, we shall practise such severe non-co-operation that finally it will not be possible for the administration to be carried on at all. Let the government then, to carry on its rule, use guns against us, send us to prison, hang us. But how many can be given such punishment?”

On March 19, 1930, he declared that he was guilty of sedition, his dharma was to commit sedition and he would teach that dharma to the people. He candidly stated that exile for life or hanging would be a punishment fit for a person like him.

Nine decades later, the essence of Gandhi’s thoughts was echoed in the statement by environmental activist Disha Ravi before the magistrate in Delhi in February. “If highlighting farmers’ protest globally is sedition, I am better off in jail,” Ravi declared after she was arrested for allegedly helping prepare a campaign document related to the farmers’ protest.

The force of truth behind Gandhi’s statements and deeper reflections of that truth in the statement of a young woman in 2021 when India is witnessing a non-violent movement of farmers emphasise the enduring significance of Dandi March for empowering people in defence of Swaraj.

Gandhi’s observations during the Dandi March are illuminating. Reflecting on section 124A of the Indian Penal Code relating to sedition he said that it really dealt with violence. The authors of the section probably never conceived of the possibility of anybody harbouring seditious thoughts and yet having no trace of violence in them, he said.

Gandhi added that the reluctance of the British regime or even incapacity to punish heavily or even to prosecute in the absence of violence was an eloquent tribute to non-violence.

Climate activist Disha Ravi was charged with sedition for highlighting farmers’ protest globally. Photo credit: PTI

‘Partly free’

As the Modi government began the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Independence on the 91st anniversary of Dandi March, it has also described the protesting farmers anti-national.

Many others have been arrested and charged with sedition even though they have not incited or committed violence, which, according to Gandhi, are ingredients of sedition. But, as Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana, noted in his judgement granting bail to Disha Ravi, the offence of sedition is increasingly being “invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments”.

India’s rampant use of sedition and other stringent charges on critics of the government has earned the country the unenviable status of being a “partly free country” and classified as an “elected autocracy”.

The next time Modi invokes Gandhi, he should be mindful of the Mahatma’s critical observations on sedition and take decisive measures to protect India’s democracy and freedom.

SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President KR Narayanan.