We left Dandi about noon on Wednesday the 7th, before the big Chalo Dandi Congress party rally. Some people looked at us in wonder. Don't you want to hear the Prime Minister, and Vilasrao Deshmukh, and Sonia Gandhi, they asked. No, we didn't much want to hear them, no disrespect intended. I'm sure they said inspiring things. But somehow, attending a political rally staged as the climax of a commemorative yatra, a march, seemed incongruous.
So we left.
Then again, that was easier said than done. For a couple of kilometres out of Dandi, we drove against -- or through -- a tide of humanity. People coming for the rally had left buses and trucks some way short of the town and were walking the last leg to the rally site. This tide had been flowing since early in the morning -- hours later, it showed no sign of subsiding, and in fact had swelled to massive proportions.
At some point, two cops waved us onto a side road, for the main road out of Dandi was choked with incoming traffic and people as far as we could see. On the side road, we were soon speeding along nicely, marvelling at the efficiency of police who would keep one road for incoming traffic and another for outgoing.
But that lasted about 5 km. Suddenly, the road ahead was choked with vehicles and people as far as we could see too, all heading towards Dandi. On this narrow track, the buses and Sumos and Qualises that made up the bulk of movement in either direction couldn't edge past each other, especially not with the floods of people who, fed up of waiting in stalled traffic, were walking towards Dandi. Near where we came to a stop behind a rusting jeep, a man on a motorbike tried to edge ahead, slipped off the tar surface of the road and down the slope into the thorny bushes there. He got up screaming, his arm broken, the shattered bone visible through his bleeding skin. The amateur nurse travelling with us used two plastic water bottles as a makeshift splint.
Nearly 90 blindingly hot and frantic minutes later, we had rolled precariously - but on purpose - down the slope ourselves, dusted across a field onto an even smaller road that led us out of the area. Luckily, this way was free of Dandi rally-goers.
That's the condensed version of our escape from Dandi. I write about it here only because through it all, I never stopped sensing irony, incongruity.
75 years ago, a man led a band of marchers to this spot as a protest against British rule. It was an act filled with symbolism on various levels. It drew attention to a crazy salt law, the absurdity and injustice of colonial rule, and the use of nonviolent protest as a powerful weapon against a powerful oppressor. But perhaps even more important, it was designed to show Indians that they could fight the British - that they did not need an army and arms, but their own will was enough.
A tremendously seductive message - and it worked. Gandhi's salt protest fired similar protests across the country. The British, reacting to these protests in the only way such an administration could - with a heavy hand - quickly found themselves at the bottom of any moral equation that might have applied to this fight for freedom. That was the genius of Gandhi's methods and his message: it provoked the British into acts that themselves promptly undermined the legitimacy of their colonial rule.
75 years later, commemorating the famous 1930 protest, 400 marchers set out from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. They keep to the original Dandi march schedule and route, reaching Dandi on the evening of April 5. Of course, this time there is no colonial administration to oppose, no silly salt tax to scorn, no British to unite a country against. No great cause, you might say.
The fire and the rose
There's Kanobhai Makwana, a 46 year old businessman from Ahmedabad: greying hair and moustache, veined hands ... and less than 4 feet tall. Walking so briskly that I can keep up only with an effort. There's 61 year old Louise Williams from heavily Republican Orange County, one-time supporter of Nixon and Reagan, "but NOT Bush!" There's 75 year old Garvin from Queensland, who wants to shame the Governments of the world to address various issues. "Can you help me shame them?" he asks. There's 89 year old Mewalal Gupta Arya, freedom fighter from Allahabad, telling me we must stop child marriage, sati is a crime, and Narender Modi did great wrong in this state. At times, this frail old man actually starts skipping, he is that charged with being on the march.
And there are at least two men in loincloths and round glasses, wielding walking sticks and walking along tirelessly: the Gandhi lookalikes, of course.
Why? Why did all these people come here?
Because cause or not, this meant something to them. This was a statement they wanted to make. In a world filled with terrorism and hatred, they wanted to reclaim Gandhi and find a place for him again. Even if only for a month, they wanted to live his message, his ideals, and discover what difference that would make in their own lives. "Be the change you want to see", Gandhi said, and more than one of the marchers told me that little aphorism had come to mean something very significant to them.
The point is, this recreation of a famous march was itself, for a lot of people, imbued with meaning and symbolism.
And yet, on the last day it was overrun by trucked-in Congress faithful, or not so faithful. I could not stop thinking about that: how that quiet symbolism was trampled by tens of thousands of men and women. How any semblance of meaning was lost in the dust and noise of the largest crowd this little town had ever seen.
Or was it really lost? The more I reflect on Gandhi, the more I think that his enduring legacy is that you can find your own message in him. Already on my return from Dandi, I've been in a friendly argument on these lines with two others. One insisted the 1930 march was an essentially libertarian stand against taxes and government. Another pooh-poohed that, saying it was about home rule and non-violence. I quoted to them someone else still, who wrote that Dandi was Gandhi's assault on British rule via the weakest link in the power structure: this absurd salt law.
All three views make sense, and that too must be the genius of the man's message.
And when you look at Dandi and Gandhi like that, the huge Congress rally doesn't seem so out of place. Because you could argue that for better or worse, the Congress chose to take from Dandi a message about political power and organization. There's no way they would ever have passed up an event like this, given the anniversary, the symbolism, the appeal even today of Gandhi. So for a party that is desperate for a political revival in Gujarat, this was a chance for a show of strength; for a reminder of the links, however shallow, to Gandhi.
Who's to say that that is any less valid than the other messages people sought in this march?
Sure, the crowds and the stalled traffic got me hot and bothered. But when I think about it, I believe Gandhi would have understood, better than I could. In the end, he had to ignite more than just minds here and there. He had to light a fire across a country. In Dandi, he did just that. 75 years later, I remember.