Dandi in the time of globalisation

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

Dandi March 2005 evokes memories of the Mahatma's movement. But has it rekindled the anti-imperialist fervour of his historic march?


MEET Rajkumar Jeswani, the self-appointed masseur of the marchers in Dandi Yatra 2005. Every night, when the marchers rested, he massaged their feet, shared jokes, tried to ease their pain. "I am a poor man, but I wanted to do something for Bapu. This is my shraddhanjali (offering) for him," said Rajkumar, a spare parts salesman from Ahmedabad.

Rajkumar read about the march in a local newspaper and decided that he had to make the journey. He did not have the money for his train ticket back to Ahmedabad from Dandi, but he was determined to participate. "I had to find a way to get here. I worked very hard, travelled through many villages to sell more, and when I got enough money to pay for the ticket and to take care of my family while I was away, I joined Bapuji's march," he said. "In this yatra, I have realised what is truth. The kind of love I have got from people on the march and in the villages along the way makes me feel that I was just drifting until now. It's going to be very sad when we all have to go our separate ways."

I had approached the Dandi Yatra with scepticism, aware of the irony of retracing the steps of the Mahatma's Salt Satyagraha in my Nike shoes, a Bisleri bottle in hand. As we joined the last leg of the yatra, there was a traffic jam. There seemed to be more vehicles than walkers, more chaos than rebellion.

There were trucks, motorbikes, VIP cars, police vans, rickshaws, camel carts, even a convertible, and a trail of plastic cups. This did not look like the Dandi March, it was more like a Dandi Jam. A far cry from the Mahatma's defiant march through the villages of Gujarat in March 1930, which electrified the country and shook the British empire.

But, as we trudged though the exhaust fumes in the cavalcade and finally caught up with the marchers walking ahead, I realised that the trappings may have changed today and the country may not defy modern imperialism, but Gandhiji still lives within people like Rajkumar, who have left everything to join the march.

Dandi Yatra 2005 was organised to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's 386-km march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in south Gujarat, where he broke the salt laws and called for Swaraj - complete freedom from British rule. During the 26 days of the walk, Gandhiji and his 78 marchers stopped at villages, stayed and interacted with the people. Government officials were asked to quit their jobs and join the Civil Disobedience movement. At least 227 did - headmen of villages where Gandhi stopped on the way. Many people joined the march at various points. The country was abuzz and satyagraha meetings were held in several places. Gandhi's symbolic act of lifting salt from the beaches of Dandi inspired people to rebel against British rule.

Around 500 marchers in Dandi Yatra 2005 retraced his steps, stopping at the places where the Mahatma had stopped. Trucks followed them with tents, mattresses, cooking utensils, mobile toilets, generators and even an air-conditioned mobile van with Internet facility. Villagers lined the streets to greet them and offer food; many fell at the feet of the Gandhi look-alike who was part of the march.

The marchers were a motley crew - Seva Dal or Youth Congress volunteers, students from as far as Sikkim and Hawaii, freedom fighters from Peshawar, people from Australia, the United States and China and diehard Gandhi followers such as Rajkumar.

Rangitbhai Baria, a small farmer and social worker from Panchmahal district in Gujarat, walked the entire distance barefoot. "I wanted to tell the world that by doing penance, you can attain anything," said the elderly Rangitbhai, with a spring in his step and a smile in his eyes. "I've always wanted to walk in the footsteps of Bapuji and this march was the perfect opportunity." Rangitbhai and Rajkumar became close friends during the march. Rajkumar said: "I made friends with this man, a gem of a person, and he sings such lovely songs! I don't want to be separated from him."

When I met Turab Ali Bohra, the 75-year-old was searching for an ambulance at night. "I have blisters and am not feeling well. It's too hot to eat, there's no place to sleep," he said. Turab, who was a plumber before he stopped working, travelled alone from Devas in Madhya Pradesh to participate in the march. "In my old age, there's no better joy than being part of Gandhiji's march. The people of Gujarat have shown us so much love, I can't imagine there was so much violence in the State three years ago."

A group of 92 Pakistani students and elders from the Awami Party, a movement started by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan were part of the march. The Frontier Gandhi had walked the entire distance in 1930. Shahid Alam, leader of the Pakhtoon Students Federation, said the Pakistanis were overwhelmed by the reception accorded by ordinary Indians. "Common people on both sides want peace. It's only the politicians and fundamentalists who keep us apart. If both countries reduced their Defence budgets and concentrated instead on development, we would both prosper," he said. "The sacrifices our ancestors made should not go in vain. Both Gandhiji and Bacha Khan fought imperialism, and we should follow their path."

The American film director Mike Wadleigh, who won an award for his film Woodstock, followed the yatra on a motorbike. "What struck me during this journey is that there are so many signs around that show the Americanisation of India. Too many people want India to become like America," he said. "But the U.S. is not the solution. It is the cause for so many of the problems in the world today. It consumes 30 per cent of all the world's products though it has only 4 per cent of the world's population. If we were all to be like America, we would need eight planet earths."

The yatra might not have taken off without the Congress' involvement. Tushar Gandhi, a great grandson of Gandhi who organised the event, approached the Congress when he could not find any sponsors. The Congress organised the march in coordination with the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. The party took care of a large part of the expenses; Congress volunteers and party workers arranged for food and accommodation at every stop. The yatris, foreign or Indian, did not have to pay a penny.

The start and end of the Yatra were particularly chaotic because Congress president Sonia Gandhi joined the march, accompanied by heavy security. The day after the march ended, the Congress held a huge public meeting on the shores at Dandi, attended by Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The rally, with an estimated two to three lakh people, was one of the biggest ever organised in Gujarat, far greater than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s various Ram Yatras and Chief Minister Narendra Modi's Gaurav Yatra.

The entire road to Dandi was jammed, and the beach crowded. People coming in trucks could not reach in time for the meeting. In Gujarat, where the Congress organisation is weaker than the BJP's, the response to the Yatra made the BJP nervous. The day after the Yatra left Sabarmati Ashram, BJP workers swept and washed the ashram to "purify and cleanse" it because the marchers had set foot inside.

Sections of the media and even a few of the marchers criticised the way the Congress took over the event and turned it into a massive roadshow. It is not surprising that the Congress, which claims the legacy of the freedom movement, should seize the opportunity to strengthen that claim.

Tushar Gandhi defended the Congress' involvement in the march. "Why shouldn't the Congress be part of this march? In Gujarat, if we want to defeat communal forces like the BJP, the only legitimate force is the Congress," he said.

However, the irony of a party that ushered in foreign capital and rendered the country open to neo-colonial domination re-enacting an anti-imperialist event was not lost on political observers.

Tushar Gandhi's answer to that was: "Some people may call it tokenism, but such marches help us focus on certain ideals. It reminds people and makes them aware of what Gandhi stood for. I couldn't believe it when people would stop their cars on the road and rush to touch the feet of our Gandhi look-alike."

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