A perfect symbol of the mechanisms of British rule over India, the Salt Acts prohibited Indians from access and trade of their own resources, forcing them to buy salt from British monopolies, who taxed the mineral heavily. In 1930, in one of the defining acts of his Satyagraha movement, Mohandas Gandhi decided to defy the Salt Act with a very grand gesture—a march, with thousands of his supporters, over a distance of over 200 miles, to the Arabian Sea. Once there, following Gandhi’s lead, the crowd proceeded to collect sea salt, prompting British colonial police to arrest over 60,000 people, including Gandhi himself.
The 1930 action, the first organized act of civil disobedience after the Indian National Congress’ declaration of independence, got the attention of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, who had been directing harsh repressive measures against the growing independence movement, and in January of 1931, after his release, Gandhi and Irwin signed a pact. Gandhi agreed to end the movement; Irwin agreed to allow the Indians to make their own salt, and the Indians would have an equal role in negotiating India’s future. British officials were outraged and disgusted. Winston Churchill, for example, staunchly opposed to independence, called the meeting of the two leaders a “nauseating and humiliating spectacle,” saying “Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed.” (Churchill favored letting Gandhi die if he went on hunger strike.)
The terms of the pact, of course, did not hold, and the movement would continue until eventual independence in 1947. But Gandhi had not only succeeded in incurring the wrath of the British colonialists; he had also won many supporters in England. One of them, Muriel Lester, invited the Indian leader to stay with her in London at a community center she had founded called Kingsley Hall. “He enjoyed his stay here,” says the current Kingsley Hall manager David Baker, “and it was wise because if he had stayed in the West End the press would have lampooned him. He wouldn’t have had a life, but here he was left alone and walked around in the streets. He wanted to stay with the people that he lived with in India, i.e. the poor.” However, Gandhi wasn’t totally ignored by the press. While at Kingsley, he delivered a short speech, which you can hear above, and the BBC was there to record it.
In the speech, Gandhi says absolutely nothing about Indian independence, British oppression, or the aims and tactics of the movement. He says nothing at all about politics or any worldly affairs whatsoever. Instead, he lectures on the existence of God, “an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything,” and which “defies all proof.” Gandhi testifies to “an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives,” though he also confesses “that I have no argument to convince through reason.” Instead relies on analogies, on things he “dimly perceives,” on the “marvelous researches of [Indian engineer and scientist] Sir J.C. Bose,” and on “the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes.” It’s not a speech likely to persuade anyone who isn’t already some sort of a believer, I think, but it’s of much interest to anyone interested in the history of Indian independence and in Gandhi’s life and message.
You can read the full text of the speech here, and see footage of Kingsley Hall and a filmed interview with Muriel Lester, discussing Gandhi’s stay, here.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Very nice indeed.