Salt started being taxed in China, around 300 B.C. Salt being essential to daily sustenance, the proponents of taxation argued that people would be willing to pay a higher price to ensure this vital commodity would remain available.
Revenues derived from the salt tax at one point represented half of the State income, and over the years were used to build armies, as well as defensive structures including the Great Wall. In 9th Century Canton, the main sources of revenue were the duties on tea and salt.
In Ancient Rome, the Via Salaria, Salt Road, was built to ensure that a constant supply of salt could be transported to the soldiers and horses of the Roman armies. According to many sources, that are now disputed, salt was also used to pay soldiers, and the latin word sal is at the origin of the English word salary, the French word solde, from which the word soldier is derived. Rather than taxing salt, the Romans actually subsidized it so that it would be available to plebeians.
India had an ancient tradition of salt making and trading. The West Coast Gujarat marshland is famous for its solar-evaporated sea salt, while two kinds of salt are found in Orissa, on the East Coast: the naturally evaporated kartach and the much sought after panga, a salt produced by the malangis (salt labourers) by boiling salty soil in sea water. Orissa salt had a large market in neighbouring Bengal.
Salt taxation existed in India from early on, with differences in the way it was imposed. In Bengal, during the time of the Mughals, it was not uniformally applied: while Muslims paid a 2.5% tax, Hindus were imposed at 5% of the cost.
Starting in 1759, the British East India Company repeatedly tried to derive income from salt and to bring its trade under the Company’s control. Orissa salt was in high demand, including to manufacture gunpowder that was necessary for the British army.
In 1780, a new tax system was introduced. The malangis would sell their salt to Agents, who managed Agencies, under which the salt works were now placed. The buying price was set at two rupees a maund, while a maund would in turn be sold with an additional tax of 1.1 to 1.5 rupee per maund. With the new tax, the Company saw its revenue increase from 80,000 rupees in 1780 to over 6 million rupees for the period 1784-1785. The tax was later further raised to bring the price of a maund to about 4 rupees.
Meanwhile, in Cheshire, England salt was also being produced in large quantities and new markets had become necessary. There was however no comparison between the Cheshire salt and the higher quality and cheaper Orissa salt: to ensure a market for the Cheshire product, the British banned Orissa salt from Bengal. Smuggling of the better salt ensued, which eventually resulted in 1803 in the annexion of Orissa by the British. The goal was to control smuggling, and on 1 November 1804, Orissa salt became a British monopoly. Salt could only be sold by the government at a fixed price.
With no direct source of income, malangis had no choice but to work for the British authorities who would pay them in advance for future salt production. Paying their debt became a heavy burden for the malangis, many of whom ended up leaving.
Custom checkpoints were established throughout Bengal to stop smuggling activities, and gradually, a thick thorn hedge was built. This eventually grew into the Great Hedge of India, covering more than 2,500 miles and guarded by close to 12,000 men.
It had become illegal to engage in any activity related to salt: even scraping salt for private consumption was considered a punishable offence.
The British Raj took over administration of the salt trade, which by 1880 was bringing in seven million pounds, representing close to 10% of the nation’s income.
Indian rupees and sea salt
In 1878, it was decided to impose a uniform salt tax of two rupees and eight annas to the whole of India, resulting in certain cases in a decrease.
The taxation on salt had a serious impact on the health of the population of India, who for the most part could not afford the high price of the iodine rich commodity. More than in other countries, the high temperatures that can be reached in India made it imperative for people to increase their salt intake.
Protest against the salt tax started in India with a mention during the first session of the Indian National Congress, in 1885 in Bombay. In February 1888, the first public meeting to protest the salt tax took place in Cuttack. From 1888 forward, the tax was discussed in various sessions of the Congress.
It is while he was in South Africa, in 1891, that Mohandas Gandhi wrote first against the salt tax: according to him, ”salt is an essential article in our diatery. It could be said that the increasing incidence of leprosy in India was due to the salt tax.”
Thanks to Gandhi, protest against the salt tax became part of the Indian National Congress strategy in its fight for independence. On 31 December, 1929, in Lahore, the Indian National Congress had raised the flag of India, and on 26 January, 1930, the Congress issued the Purna Swaraj, a Declaration of Independence from the British Government. “We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth.”
As a sign of independence, a symbolic act of civil disobedience had to be planned. Gandhi suggested to target the Salt Act, in a nonviolent protest, the Salt Satyagraha, which was based on his previous attempts at using strength through nonviolence.
In a highly publicized campaign, which reached out to the world, Gandhi prepared a 23-day march that was to leave from his ashram on March 12, pass through 48 villages and reach the coastal village of Dandi, in his native Gujarat.
Gandhi gave ample time to the British authorities to grant his 11 demands, one of which was the abolition of the salt tax. He would stop the march were his demands to be met. Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, ignored Gandhi’s letter.
On March 12, as scheduled, Gandhi left his ashram. He was accompanied by 78 male satyagrahis: the decision had been made not to include women, as the risks were too high. He was met on the way by growing crowds, and by the time they reached Dandi, thousands had joined the march, including women, and thousands more were waiting for them.
International media coverage was sustained throughout the march. Gandhi was well aware of the impact such coverage would mean for their cause, and as the satyagrahis were about to reach Dandi, he declared: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.”
Gandhi, Union Square, New York
On April 6, Gandhi walked to the sea and picked up salty mud from which he produced illegal salt. He then asked his fellow Indians to follow his example. Millions listened to him who made or bought illegal salt. The movement was rapidly joined by women of all ages, a turning point in the fight for independence.
By the end of April, the British authorities had arrested over sixty thousand people. The salt satyagraha then turned into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, with British goods, including cloth, being boycotted, and Indians refusing to pay taxes all over the country. The Indian National Congress was declared illegal.
As part of Gandhi’s plans, the fight against the salt tax was to continue with a raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Again he informed Lord Irwin who this time reacted by having him arrested on May 4. Gandhi’s arrest did not stop the plans, even though more leaders - including Gandhi’s own wife, Kasturba - were arrested on the way to Dharasana. The march was then led by a woman, Sarojini Naidi, who reminded the marchers that they were neither to resist nor to try to protect themselves. Marchers were repelled by British soldiers armed with steel tipped wooden clubs.
From Dharasana again, the world media reported on the protest. The British authorities unsuccessfully tried to censor United Press Webb Miller’s story, which got picked up in 1,350 newspapers around the world. Time Magazine compared Gandhi’s Dandi march “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied a British tea tax” with the Boston tea party.
The British authorities finally gave in to the civil disobedience campaign, and in early 1931, Gandhi, along with all other political prisoners, was released from prison and invited, as the sole representative of the ndian National Congress, to attend a conference in London. They were to discuss the issue of Indian independence.
It took close to another 17 years before India would become independent following World War II, on August 15, 1947. The salt tax was only abolished in October 1946 by the Interim Government led by Jawaharlal Nerhu.