The sandy beach of Chowpatty at the start of Mumbai's Marine Drive is a popular hangout during weekends. But few of the revelers who go there know that in the April of 1930, this stretch of sand was taken over by hundreds of women, who as an act of defiance against the British, set up impromptu stoves to extract salt from the waters of the Arabian Sea. Those were the heady days of Mahatma Gandhi’s 'Salt Satyagraha', and the women of Bombay were at its forefront here.
– The India Salt Act of 1882 allowed the government to have a monopoly on the manufacture of salt and to tax it
In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi decided to take up cudgels against the British for taxing the most basic ingredient in any meal - salt. The India Salt Act of 1882 not just allowed the government to have a monopoly on the collection and manufacture of salt, it also allowed them to tax it. To mark his protest, Mahatma Gandhi initiated the famous Dandi March, from his home in Sabarmati near Ahmedabad to Dandi, a small coastal village. The idea was to produce salt from the seawater in defiance against the British.
The idea caught on and spread fast. On 6th April 1930, a group of women led by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a noted freedom fighter, marched to Chowpatty and started making salt from sea water on makeshift stoves or chulhas. Huge crowds had gathered at Chowpatty to witness the scene, some even climbed up trees to watch what was happening. Things however turned rough, when the police attacked and lathi-charged the protestors. The leader of the movement, Kamaladevi herself fell into the hot coals of her stove as she was hit by a police lathi. She suffered severe burns but refused to call off the protest and go to the hospital. Soon, despite police attempts, the crowds grew and hordes of housewives carrying pots and pans joined the ranks.
– A group of women marched to Chowpatty and started making salt from sea water, on makeshift stoves
Later, all the salt that had been collected was put in small packets and sold in small kiosks outside the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Bombay High Court. The BSE remained closed to mark its solidarity with the movement! The first packet prepared by Kamaladevi was auctioned for the huge sum of Rs. 501!
The 'Salt Satyagraha' went on for days in Bombay. Salt pans were created on the terrace of the Congress House, the headquarters of the Congress party located in the Opera House area of Mumbai. When police raided the Congress House, the women there formed human shields to block their path.
On 13th April 1930, a mass meeting was organised at Chowpatty which was attended by about 50,000 people. The speakers included Sarojini Naidu, Mrs. Perin Captain (grand-daughter of Dadabhai Naoroji) and Mr. Abid Ali Jafferbhai, among others. They encouraged people to manufacture salt in their homes and in their localities and boycott government salt. Despite barricades, hartals and lathi-charge, crowds kept coming to Chowpatty.
– In Mumbai, 500 people led by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay marched to the Wadala Salt Depot
After concluding the Dandi March, as phase two of the 'Salt Satyagraha', Mahatma Gandhi had planned a non-violent raid of the Dharasena Salt Works in Gujarat, but he wasn't able to make it there. The British arrested him even as others took the fight on. In Mumbai, 500 people led by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay marched to the Wadala Salt Depot on 16th April 1930. They collected natural salt and sold it to people. This was followed by an even bigger march on 18th May 1930, when more than 20,000 people marched to Wadala and collected salt. There was exceptional police brutality on the marchers and as a result, the Bombay Stock Exchange and all other business establishments remained shut the next day in protest.
The 'Salt Satyagraha' was a significant event in the political consciousness of Mumbai. It brought its women, mostly ordinary housewives, to the forefront of the struggle for India’s Independence. As Kamaladevi wrote in her book Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom,
‘The salt satyagraha must stand out as not only unique but as an incredible form of revolution in human history. The very simplicity of this weapon was as appealing as intriguing. So far as women were concerned it was ideally tailor-made for them. As women naturally preside over culinary operations, salt is for them the most intimate and indispensable ingredient.’
Today, while Chowpatty is just a public getaway, the Wadala salt pans await an uncertain future. In the midst of all this, few remember the history that was made here.