[Salt duty was raised from As. 8 to Re. 1 per maund in the Bombay-Presidency in the year 1844. This caused considerable excitement among the poorer classes. They organised demonstrations to submit a petition to express their ‘ deep resentment’. These demonstrations and hartals continued from the 29th to the 31st of August. It was estimated that more than thirty thousand people took part. On the 30th of August, ‘The crowds were exceedingly tumultous, covering the whole esplanade to the edge of the ditch of the Fort’. The people in general were ‘ not disposed to commit violence ‘ ‘ The object of the tumult was to show, in as marked a manner as possible, how strong feelings existed.* One Chaprasi was wounded while preventing the crowds from entering the Adaluts. The feeling of discontent ‘ was universal, from the lowest to the highest’ and f the city appeared to be on the verge of an insurrection,’ Troops were employed to maintain peace. The demonstrators were not prepared to listen to any one. They wanted the magistrate to receive their petition and assure them that the enhanced salt duty would not be enforced. The Agent consulted Hindu, Muslim and Parsi religious heads and requested them to persuade their followers to desist from the agitation. But they could do very little. For three days the agitation continued unabated. ‘ No disposition ‘, however, ‘on the part, of the people was evinced to commit excesses’. High officials, after discussions and negotiations were ‘convinced of the absolute necessity of the yielding to the wishes of the people.’ This course was accordingly resorted to. ‘Thousands of people acclaimed the result with great acclamations’ and ‘ in less than one hour the shops were opened and everything was going on as usual After getting report from Surat that the enhancement in the salt duty was temporarily suspended by the magistrate, the Government of Bombay issued a proclamation ‘ abolishing certain Town Duties’ and ordered the Agent to enforce the enhanced duty on salt.
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Surat was first to revolt against salt tax
Mahatma Gandhi began his historic march in March 1930 when he undertook the 390 kilometre-long journey with supporters from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the southern coast of Gujarat. Gandhi’s mark of civil disobedience of the draconian salt tax not only garnered widespread support in India but also put Indian issues on the international platform.
However, it was not the first time the Gujarati had opposed the moves of the British to levy a tax on salt, a most crucial commodity for the common man. Surat, one of the important cities under the British rule in the Bombay Presidency, had revolted against the salt tax in 1844 – one of the first resistances the British faced in the state 170-years ago.
Ashutosh Bhatt, founder secretary of Khadia Itihas Samiti and author of book 1857 Kranti Ma Gujarat (Gujarat during 1857 revolution), says that before 1857, several steps by the British administrators had irked citizens and Surat sparked the first resistance and open opposition.
In his book, Bhatt mentions that in August 1844, the British government levied Re 1 as excise and import duties on salt within territories of Bombay state. The tax was earlier 50 paise. The sudden and bizarre increase didn’t go well with Surtis as they revolted against the British from August 21 to 31 before the British administration was forced to revoke it. According to historians, every shop in Surat observed a bandh and people had beaten up the Indian officials who tried to act as intermediaries for a truce. The British magistrate even met with religious leaders of various faiths to calm the agitation but in vain.
The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, predecessor of The Times of India, had carried news of the agitation on September 4 and 7. It reported the proceedings as follows –
‘On Thursday the 29th ultimo about 3 pm nearly the whole of the inhabitants of the city having collected together proceeded to the Adawalat to represent to the judge, the misery and hardship that was entailed on themselves and families, by promulgation of the unjust and inequitus New Act imposing a double duty on salt. On their arrival some of the more exasperated of the mob began to pelt stones etc., and smashed several of the windows of the judge residences and were proceeding to do other damage, when intimation was sent to the commandant; an affray commenced on the military arriving at the Adawalat in which an old woman was killed and several people severely bruised and wounded…. From the earliest hour this day as we have before mentioned, the shops were closed and business was completely at standstill.’