Dandi March revisited

The Salt Stories points out uncomfortable truths about Gandhi’s relevance
in today’s India, writes Shoma A. Chatterji

HOW relevant is Mahatma Gandhi in today’s India within the ambience of shopping malls and multiplexes and skyscrapers with helipads? Do younger Indians, chewed up, swallowed and consumed by that giant dragon called globalisation, know about his contribution to non-violence as a means to political freedom of the country from British rule? Is his famous Dandi March just a small insertion in History textbooks? These questions get raised twice a year, once on his birth anniversary and once on the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. Normally, the only way we remember Mahatma Gandhi is from his mug shot printed on currency notes.

The Salt Stories, an 84-minute documentary by Lalit Vachani under Wide Eye Film banner, points out uncomfortable truths about Gandhi’s relevance in today’s India, in general, and Gujarat in particular. It is a road movie that follows the trail of Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march of 1930. Set against the backdrop of Gandhi’s original journey, through telling visuals and one-to-one interviews, the film comments on how globalisation of Gujarat has effectively equated Gandhi’s ‘salt’ to a metaphor on poverty, forced migration, joblessness and injustice. Secularism, the film clearly points out, is conspicuous by its absence. Not one person from the majority community, the film shows, has a kind word to say about minorities. Except, of course, the people of Nepa village, where Gandhian ideals are lived and cherished in practice.

In March 1930, Gandhi announced that he would launch a civil disobedience movement by breaking the Salt Law. His plan was to walk from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, a deserted village on the seacoast, 241 miles away, to make salt on the beach there. As Gandhi walked towards Dandi, people were waiting on the way to greet him and to hear him speak. At Abhrama on April 10, 1930, he had an audience of 5000 people of which 2000 were women. He did break the Salt Act with his followers. The police beat up the gathered crowds and Gandhi had to court arrest. The Salt Act, however, was withdrawn, marking a milestone in non-violence as a movement of rebellion to gain freedom from foreign rule.

As The Salt Stories moves through time and space, people and events, we encounter cruel truths about people in Gujarat, the historic setting for the Dandi march. One wrinkled old woman who dares to tell the filmmaker that she does have faint recollections of the march as a little girl, and points out to a shanty in a crowded slum where Gandhi rested for a night, is at once silenced by a younger woman who lives in the shanty for fear that if the place is earmarked as a memorial to Gandhi, she might lose the only roof above her head.

Vachani submitted In Search of Gandhi, a proposal that was selected by Steps International within a package of 10, 52-minute, international films, a part of a global broadcast of TV documentaries on democracy. The Salt Stories is the director’s cut and a longer version. The film meanders through time and space, intercutting the present scenario, shot in colour, with the past, with archival footage in black-and-white and without a soundtrack, courtesy Gandhi Films Foundation in Mumbai. This gives the film a sense of history, putting time, place, people and events in perspective and setting values old and new, against each other to give an objective view of how relevant the salt march is in today’s India.

Vachani and his small team set off on their journey on the rickety road to Dandi via the small towns, talking to people. We see shots of Ellis Bridge, once crowded with people watching Gandhi leading the march, intercut with shots of the present where people who live in shanties under the same bridge, talk about the constant threat to their lives and livelihoods by politicians, land sharks, the police and the state administration that want to build shopping malls or spanking new market places there.

As the film opens, the camera closes on the solemn and sad face of Mohammedbhai, standing in the debris of his bangle factory where the number of workers have dwindled to a handful and one machine remains, of what was once a flourishing business destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists during the communal riots. We meet Ketanbhai, Dalit leader of Navagam village, forced to resign later because high caste members would not allow him to go on. 102-year-old Gordhanbhai Bakhta, the sole living survivor of the Dandi March, who passed away soon after, recalls his experience.

If Gandhi took us closer to Independence, today’s factionalised politicians and administrators have used globalisation to impose long-term poverty, homelessness and unemployment among the very people Gandhi fought for. "In 2002, I was completing The Men in the Tree that revisited the RSS and Hindu fundamentalism when the Gujarat massacre happened. I was horrified and shocked. How could this happen in Gandhi’s Gujarat? On the other hand I surmised that this could happen only in Gujarat. This is one state where the ideology of Gandhi has been completely erased. The Men in the Tree explored RSS’ attitude to Gandhi. I tried to show how the RSS denigrates and neutralises Gandhi and his ideology, yet appropriates him when they feel he is convenient for the Hindu right. This is what motivated me to revisit the Salt March trail and find out how things are," sums up Vachani, elaborating on his motivation to make this film.