Salt Satyagraha: What the History Books Don’t Teach Us

The Inland Customs Line was a system of customs barriers that was established in India by the British colonial government in the 19th century. The purpose of the line was to collect customs duties and taxes on goods that were transported between different parts of India. The line was established to generate revenue for the British government. The Inland Customs Line was an important source of revenue for the British government in India.

Salt Tax was a major Revenue for the British Government

History of Salt Tax in Bharat-

• The Arthashastra says that a special officer called lavananadhyaksa was appointed to collect the salt tax during Mauryan Time. Taxes were also imposed on imported salt. However, they accounted for 25 percent of the total value of the salt.

• In Bengal, there was a salt tax in vogue during the era of the Mughal Empire, which was 5% for Hindus and 2.5% for Muslims.

• Taxation during British India was greatly increased. 

Let’s look at the British Taxation further.

In 1759, two years after it’s victory at Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company came into possession of land near Calcutta where there were salt works. Utilizing this opportunity to make money, they doubled the land rent and imposed transit charges on the transportation of salt.

Since the introduction of the first taxes on salt by the British East India Company, the laws were subjected to fervent criticism. The Chamber of Commerce in Bristol was one of the first to submit a petition opposing the salt tax:

The price to the consumer here [in England] is but about 30s per ton instead of 20 pounds per ton as in India; and if it was necessary to abolish the Salt tax at home some years since it appears to your petitioners that the millions of her Majesty’s subjects of India have a much stronger claim for remission in their case, wretchedly poor as they are, and essentially necessary as salt is to their daily sustenance, and to the prevention of disease in such a climate.

In 1764, Following the victory at the Battle of Buxar, the British began to control all the revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive, who returned as governor in 1765, made the sale of tobacco, betel nut, and salt (apart from other accessories and essential spices and condiments), the monopoly of the senior officers of the British East India Company. Contracts were given to deliver salt to depots, and merchants were required to buy from these depots. Robert Clive, who returned as governor in 1765, made the sale of tobacco, betel nut, and salt (apart from other accessories and essential spices and condiments), the monopoly of the senior officers of the British East India Company. Contracts were given to deliver salt to depots, and merchants were required to buy from these depots. Due to outrage over this monopoly in England, Clive offered 1.2 Mn in Profits.

However, monopoly was stopped and the profits came down due to evasion of taxes.Revenue from salt trade fell to 80,000 rupees by 1780. This, along with the exploitation of the malangas or salt workers by their landlords, forced Hastings to introduce a new system for controlling the salt trade in India. New system yielded salt revenue of 2,960,130 rupees. The company received salt revenue of 6,257,750 rupees in 1784–85. The company received salt revenue of 6,257,750 rupees in 1784–85.

From 1788 onwards, the company began selling salt wholesalers by auction. As a result, the British East India Company increased the tax to 3.25 rupees a maund, and the wholesale price of salt increased from 1.25 to about 4 rupees a maund. This was an exorbitant rate that few could afford. In 1804, the British monopolized salt in the newly conquered state of Orissa. In return, they advanced money to the malangas against future salt production, resulting in the malangas becoming debtors to the British, virtually becoming economic slaves. The Orissa zamindars, who had earlier controlled the local salt trade, were alarmed at the sudden loss of income and tried to persuade the malanga not to work for the British, but to no avail.

In the early 19th century, to make the salt tax more profitable and reduce smuggling, the East India Company established customs checkpoints throughout Bengal. G. H. Smith established a “customs line”, which was the boundary across which salt transportation involved payment of high customs duties. In the 1840s a thorn fence was erected along the western frontiers of Bengal province to prevent salt smuggling. Eventually, after 1857, the thorn fence grew to be 2,500 miles long.

Sources indicate that by 1858, British India derived 10% of its revenues from its monopoly of salt. In 1878, a uniform salt tax policy was adopted for the whole of India, both British India as well as the princely states. Both productions, as well as possession of salt, were made unlawful by this policy. The salt tax, which was one rupee and thirteen annas per maund in Bombay, Madras, the Central Provinces, and the princely states of South India, was increased to two rupees and eight annas and decreased from three rupees and four annas in Bengal and Assam to two rupees and fourteen annas, and from three rupees to two rupees and eight annas in North India.

A customs line was established, which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men and petty officers… it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes, supplemented by stone wall and ditches, across which no human being or beast of burden or vehicle could pass without being subject to detention or search.

— (Strachey and Strachey 1882, 219-20)

In the first session of the Indian National Congress held in 1885 in Bombay, a prominent Congress member, S. A. Saminatha Iyer pleaded against the tax.

At the Allahabad session of the Indian National Congress in 1888, Narayan Vishnu, a delegate from Poona vehemently opposed the Indian Salt Act. A resolution was passed wherein the delegates present declared ‘That this Congress do put on record its disapproval of the recent enhancement of the salt tax as involving a perceptible increase to the burden of the poorer classes, as also the ‘partial adoption, in a time of peace and plenty, of the only financial reserve of the Empire.’

Mohandas Gandhi had written his first article on the salt tax in 1891 in the periodical The Vegetarian. While in South Africa, he wrote in The Indian Opinion:

The tax levied on salt in India has always been a subject of criticism. This time it has been criticized by the well-known Dr. Hutchinson who says that ‘it is a great shame for the British Government in India to continue it, while a similar tax previously in force in Japan has been abolished. Salt is an essential article in our dietary. It could be said that the increasing incidence of leprosy in India was due to the salt tax. Dr. Hutchinson considers the salt tax a barbarous practice, which ill becomes the British Government.

The 1892 session at Allahabad concluded thus: ‘…  We do not know when the tax will be reduced. So that there is every necessity for our repeating this prayer in the interests of the masses, and we earnestly hope that it will be granted before long’. A similar sort of protest was also issued at the Congress session at Ahmedabad.

The salt tax was also protested by eminent people like Dadabhai Naoroji. On 14 August 1894, he thundered in the House of Commons:

Then the Salt Tax, the cruelest Revenue imposed in any civilized country provided Rs. 8,600,000/- and that with the opium ‘formed the bulk of the revenue of India, which was drawn from the wretchedness of the people… It mattered not what the State received was called – tax, rent, revenue, or by any other name they liked – the simple fact of the matter was, that out of a certain annual national production the State took a certain portion. Now it would not also matter much about the portion taken by the State if that portion, as in this country, returned to people themselves, from whom it was raised. But the misfortune and the evil were that much of this portion did not return to the people and that the whole system of Revenue and the economic condition of the people became unnatural and oppressive, with dangers to the rulers. So long as the system went on, so long must the people go on, living wretched lives. There was a constant draining away of India’s resources, and she could never, therefore, be a prosperous country. Not only that, but in time India must perish, and with it perish the British Empire.

In 1895, George Hamilton stated at a session of the House of Commons that:
Time has, however, now come when the Government finds itself in possession of larger surpluses and it is, therefore, its duty as guardian of public exchequer, to reduce taxation on salt.

In 1900 and 1905, India was one of the largest producers of salt in the world, with a yield of 1,021,426 metric tons and 1,212,600 metric tonnes respectively.

In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his Hind Swaraj from South Africa, urging the British administration to abolish the salt tax.

In 1923, under the viceroyalty of Lord Reading, a bill was passed doubling the salt tax. However, another proposal made in 1927 was subsequently vetoed. It was one of Finance Member Basil Blackett’s first deeds when producing his first budget in February 1923. When the salt tax was doubled in the year 1923, it was sharply criticized in a report by the Taxation Enquiry Committee which was published two years later. This raise also evoked sharp reactions from Indian nationalists.

Successful Bardoli Satyagraha under the leadership of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel undertaken. Gandhiji merely gave his blessings when Sardar Vallabhai Patel raised the concerns of the villagers to him. The movement was planned and  strategically executed as a result of which it was successful. It’s success gave rise to Patel becoming one of the main leaders of the independence movement.

In 1929, Pandit Nilakantha Das in Odisha demanded the repeal of the salt tax in the Imperial Legislature but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

At the historic Lahore session of the Indian National Congress on 31 December 1929 in which Purna Swaraj was declared, a passing reference was made to the infamous and oppressive salt law and resolved that a way should be found to oppose it.

In 1930, Orissa was close to open rebellion.                                                                                                 On 12 March 1930, Gandhi embarked on a satyagraha with 78 followers from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi on the Arabian Sea coast. This march, known as the Dandi March, was sensationalized by the international press; film clippings and pictures of Mahatma Gandhi were relayed to distant corners of the world. Gandhi reached Dandi on 5 April 1930. 

Key Takeaways

At one point Salt Tax was 10% of the total British Revenue. 

 A rough snapshot of loot by the British under the garb of tax:

YearRs (million)£ (million)
1880 7

Salt became so costly due to the tax, that the consumption dropped. Health deteriorated, which even resulted in deaths. Even Gandhi mentioned the implication on health in his article in The Indian Opinion in 1891. These deaths are not accounted for while counting the casualties of the British atrocities. 

Gandhi knew about it since 1891. But he waited until March 1930 (3 months after the Lahore Congress session where “Poorna Swaraj” Resolution was passed), a year after the successful Bardoli Satyagraha (Refer to the Case Study to understand the brilliance of Patel while executing a truly non-violent Satyagraha, no violence even towards Indians) which gained immense popularity to a true patriot like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in National Politics. 

If Bardoli was a success without violence, why was Salt Satyagraha a major failure even with so many deaths and violence against Indians and so much unnaturally vast media coverage worldwide, that too overnight? 

If Salt Satyagraha had created “pressure” on British Government, 

o Why was Gandhi unsuccessful in seeking pardon for Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev? 

o Why was the salt tax not abolished?

o Why did British not care about killing Indians(lathi-charge) if there was so much media coverage?

o Why was ONLY Gandhi a part of the Second Round Table Conference?

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1 Response to Salt Satyagraha: What the History Books Don’t Teach Us

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