Many people, both contemporaries of Gandhiji, as well as the generations coming after, have wondered why he picked on salt as the major focus of protest, and the Dandi March became a major milestone of the Freedom movement.
With his deep empathy for the life of the poor in India, and his masterly understanding of symbolism and communication, Gandhiji understood that salt was the common factor that touched the life of each and every person, and that the criminal level of taxes imposed on salt made life of poor Indians that much more difficult. And the protest worked.
But the contentious history of the British colonizers and salt goes back long before the Dandi March. It is one of the not-much-discussed atrocities, and almost unbelievable. I first learnt of it when I came across a book titled ‘The Great Hedge of India’ by Roy Moxham about 15 years ago.
The Great Indian Hedge or the Inland Customs Line was a green, growing impenetrable hedge about 8 ft tall, which at its peak traversed about 4000 km, from Punjab, through the middle of India, all the way to Orissa. About 14,000 people were employed at one stage in maintaining and patrolling it.
And no, it was not any English love for gardens and greenery that prompted this hedge. It was in fact a defense put up against the movement of salt across the country. To step back and explain: The East India Company took over Bengal and brought all salt manufacture under its control. And they raised the tax on salt over ten times in this territory. The quantity of salt involved and the revenue associated can be gauged from some estimates which say that in 1784-85, the revenue to the Company from just the salt tax was over Rs. 62 lakh (that is equivalent to thousands of crores today!) . On the other hand, ordinary people were paying about 2 months’ salary every year to buy salt.
Seeing the revenue that salt taxes brought in, as the East India Company took over more and more territories, it extended the salt tax to these areas also. The hardship and the health impacts on the ordinary Indian were immeasurable
This obviously resulted in attempts to smuggle salt into these areas from princely states which were outside of the dominion of the Company, apart from efforts to make salt and ‘steal’ it from Company warehouses. The biggest threat came from salt transported across the borders, and to prevent this, the Company set up Custom Houses. But obviously, these did not help much as they were scattered.
Which is when it struck someone to build a wall. The ‘wall’ took the form of a hedge. First it was a dry barrier–dry, thorny bushes were piled up along the borders. But these required a lot of maintenance. In the meantime, in some parts, the dry branches took root and started growing. And so the idea of a living hedge was born. A lot of effort went into building an impenetrable hedge–from bringing in fertile soil where the earth was not so supportive, to identifying water sources and ensuring the hedges were watered, to experimenting with different species which would serve the purpose in different terrains. Roads were built along the hedge to facilitate inspection, watering, etc. Obviously well worth it, for the amount of revenue salt resulted!
While one wonders whether a hedge can really be so effective in stopping smuggling, Allan Hume, at one time in charge of the hedge, opined that where it was well maintained, the hedge was ‘utterly impassable to man or beast’.
The hedge persisted even after the British Raj took over, and it was only in 1879 that it was abandoned. Not out of any great sympathy for those burdened by the salt tax, but through tax reformswhich increased salt taxes in other parts of the country, thus making smuggling uneconomical.
So way before someone wanted to build walls across national borders, the British in India had done it! So what if it was not brick and mortar, but plants and shrubs! The thinking was as diabolical, and the impacts as devastating!
PS: Why have hedges been on my mind? Because my own hedge is looking so sparse and growing weaker by the day. Local cats don’t even have to try to find a hole through which to pass—the hedge is a series of holes. This is not a trivialization of the seriousness of the issues raised by the Inland Customs Line. Only an explanation of why I did this piece today.