Photo by Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
If the spirit of modern India has a geographic heartland it is Gujarat, the northwestern state bordering Sindh, in Pakistan. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the mahatma—Sanskrit for “great soul”—was a Gujarati, born in Porbandar, on the Arabian Sea, in 1869. The signal event of the Indian independence movement was the Salt March that Gandhi, joined by thousands, led in March 1930 across Gujarat, from the Sabarmati Ashram 241 miles south to Dandi, on the Gulf of Cambay. There Gandhi picked up a handful of salt on the beach and defied the British law prohibiting the collection or sale of salt by anyone but the colonial authorities. “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life. It is the only condiment of the poor,” Gandhi wrote. In a letter to the viceroy he argued, “I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil.”
Gandhi’s identification with the poor was intrinsic to his universalist philosophy. As he put it:
I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of 51 per cent the interests of 49 per cent may be, or rather, should be sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real dignified human doctrine is the greatest good of all.
To protect the poor against the ravages of capitalism, which benefits only the majority rather than everyone, India would adopt socialism after independence. More to the point, although the Hindus would numerically dominate, they could not ignore or trample the rights of tens of millions of Muslims. Indeed, the “greatest good” necessitated that the conscience of the new nation and the ruling Congress Party be avowedly secular.