On March 12, 1930, when Gandhi began his journey to Dandi village in Gujarat, the European press was dismissive of the “half-naked fakir” peacefully protesting the salt tax levied by the British. By the end, nearly 60,000 Indians courted arrest for their association with the non-violent satyagraha.
A black and white photograph from the time shows a mass demonstration that took place in Bombay, while Gandhi marched 240 km from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi. Taken from the archives of the National Gandhi Museum in Delhi, the photograph is part of an exhibition titled Gandhi’s Vision: Freedom and Beyond. The exhibition of archival material is on at Delhi’s India International Centre till August 21.
“Gandhi had a very specific strategy,” said Dr Aparna Basu, curator of the exhibition and chairperson of National Gandhi Museum. “He didn’t just start walking and expect people to follow. His initial satyagraha was done at a local level and before each he spent many days with the people to understand the problem. Only when he was convinced that they had a case would he take up the cause of getting their grievances addressed.”
The exhibition of 200 photographs follows Gandhi from the first protest march he led in Champaran in 1917 to the Quit India Movement in 1942. It covers the Ahmedabad mill workers’ strike, the non-cooperation movement, Bardoli satyagraha, Dandi march and his last days in Bihar and Noakhali.
“The freedom struggle was not a political movement alone, it was also a mass struggle,” said A Annamalai, director of the National Gandhi Museum. “Many of the photographs at the exhibit might not show Gandhi himself, but portray his ability to mobilise the masses.”
In his book, Gandhi’s Technique of Mass Mobilization, author Madan Mohan Verma analyses why the masses related to Gandhi’s ideals:
“Hitherto, the Indian leaders…were mostly educated in the western world, wore western dress, and enjoyed talking in English. And between these westernised leaders and the people, there existed a gulf which had to be bridged. On the other hand, from the very beginning, Gandhi ventured to identify himself with the masses of India.”
Gandhi’s clarion call was not restricted to men. “It was not about bringing together just a group of people, but also about bringing together different section of the society,” said Annamalai. The multitudes one sees in the photographs are made up of all cross-sections of society.
A photograph at the exhibit features a serpentine line, which extends all the way out of the frame, of women in saris participating in the Quit India Movement.
The inclusion of untouchables, or harijans as Gandhi referred to lower and backward castes, at the Sabarmati Ashram was a step towards creating a sense of inclusion.
In the book This Was Bapu, writer RK Prabhu mentions an incident where a Brahmin asked Gandhi what more could be done for the inclusion of harijans. According to Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin, Rameshwari Nehru, Gandhi promptly asked the man if he was married.
“On the member’s replying in the affirmative, Gandhiji’s face brightened up, says Shrimati Nehru, and with great force he declared, ‘Well then, you should get your son married to a Harijan girl. Do you now understand what more I expect you to do?’”
According to Basu, Gandhi understood the need for peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic country. “It was imperative to him that no person should think they possess the ultimate truth,” she said.
His declaration during the Quit India Movement speech at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay, asking the British to leave India once and for all resonated with every community. He is quoted as having said: “In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all… Once you realise this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence.”
“Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, all had a deep respect for Gandhi’s satyagraha,” said Basu. “He was not just fighting the British rule. He had a method of fighting that could be emulated all over the world for any fight.”
Gandhi established himself as an integral part of the All India Congress Committee. A picture at the exhibit shows Gandhi flanked by AICC members Jawaharlal Nehru of the socialist view on one side and Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel of the conservative view on the other. He often acted as mediator between the two factions within the AICC.
Selected texts from Gandhi’s writings – letters and books – accompany the images at the exhibition to highlight his ideals. According to Annamalai, Gandhi’s ideals have remained relevant over the years. “Whatever he said about upliftment of the downtrodden is something we need to put in practice even today,” said Annamalai. “We are still struggling to bring Dalits into the mainstream, neglecting villages and agriculture and focussing only on the urban centres.”