I was coming to India for business last January and decided to retrace Gandhi’s salt march to deepen my understanding of non-violence. Gandhi developed a brilliant model of non-violence that has inspired key actions in my life, be it studying the role of non-violence in revolutionary settings in Central America or providing training in non-violent strategies to leprosy patients resisting state efforts in Hawaii to take over their hospital home, and such others. Yet, I had come to believe that his brand of non-violence had a big hole in it – it wasn’t clear where the rights of women and children fit in within the principle of non-violence. That’s why I decided to walk the Dandi Trail backwards. I’d end at the Sabarmati Ashram and start at the salt flats of Dandi - places on a map, yes; but salt also lives in human tears, and in the cries of girls and women in India and throughout the world, still struggling to be free. Here are some aspects that touched me along the journey:
Warmth and hospitality
At 71, I was three years past the average life expectancy in Gujarat, an American woman travelling alone, walking, not riding, in the company of two, much younger Indian men (potential business colleagues) - one Muslim, one Hindu.
Flowers, tea (lots of tea), a bed or mat would suddenly appear for me to rest a bit before going on, presentations by school children – this was the grand, rural hospitality I witnessed in every village and town in Gujarat. No one told me to expect a spectacular, rural landscape blessed with beauty and bounty. I was astounded to see the brilliant flowers and agricultural abundance in the western state. How smart to supply so much of the country’s food and cotton internally - but why tobacco? Who profits from growing a cancer agent? So also sugarcane, which takes a lot of water and dangerous chemicals to grow. In our driver’s village, I asked young boys, “If you could change one thing about your lives, what would it be?” He translated their answer: “That our land be clean.”
The unmistakable absence and unforgettable presence of women
Women were missing from every formal delegation that greeted us as we entered Gujarat’s villages. Women were absent from where I had tea in the elder’s homes, though when I went to use the bathroom, a woman was invariably on her knees, hurriedly scrubbing the floor for me. But girls and women were also present in unexpected places. I watched an older woman in full sari, masterfully wielding a machete with other tribal workers in the sugarcane field. I responded to a shy hand signal from a window and met a 100-year-old woman, her daughter and granddaughter. We squatted together on the dirt in front of her tiny home. No words were exchanged. We spoke heart to heart. Then she touched my feet, a sign of respect. She did not understand why I felt so compelled to do the same to her, to bow down before such grace and strength and that magnificent smile.
The creativity, potential and suffering of children
Much of my life’s work has involved working to end violence against children, especially physical and sexual abuse; but also the number one source of trauma to children worldwide: poverty. The girl I saw fashioning cow dung into figurines she displayed at the side of a road might be an example of abject poverty in rural India. But that day, I saw it differently - a testament to the human potential for creativity. I wished for her a future as an artist. I also wished a little more poverty for many American kids, a challenge to create their future, not simply consume it.
My favourite moment was at Asmita school, where mentally challenged kids, dressed up like Gandhi, his wife and followers, marched with me, singing and dancing through the streets of Tralsa village in Bharuch district. A surprisingly large number of children in this rural area have Down’s syndrome, developmental delays and behavioural disorders. Is this the cost of poison in the land, in the water? Of the poisonous violence of pervasive sexual and physical assault?
I’ve read about the terrible religious hostility between some Hindu groups and Muslims. In Gujarat, I saw the opposite. One example: Two guys on a motorcycle, one in western clothes, one in long white robes, stopped us and asked us to come to their village, Kapletha, to meet Mr. Gulam, the elder, whose father had been there when Gandhiji came. It was strange to be a lone white female in a room of bearded Muslim men offering tea and stories. It was heartwarming as well.
They told me how when Gandhiji and his followers had reached Kapletha, they had no way to cross the river to continue to Dandi. With great ingenuity, Muslims and Hindus together took their wooden oxcarts – minus the oxen – and strung them together to make a floating bridge! Temple and mosque still co-exist peacefully in this village. But now the river they have lived alongside for so many generations is being poisoned by polluted runoff. And the future of Muslims and Hindus together is jeopardised.
Two sides of the human equality-inequality equation
Two weeks into the journey, I started feeling weird. I felt as if an elevator had landed on my chest and parked itself there. I put it down to dehydration. Two days later, on my doctor’s strongly worded advice on email, our driver took me to Ahmedabad to see a cardiologist. We arrived late in the day. He scheduled an angiogram first thing in the morning, and told me not to be alone before then. We went to the Fern hotel - fancier than we were used to - where I asked that our driver be given a room on my floor, in case I needed to go to the hospital in the night. At first they quoted a price 50% higher than that of my room. When I agreed to pay, they refused to rent a room to my Muslim driver at all, insisting he stay in the driver’s dormitory. They had accepted my money, with a picture of Gandhi on every rupee, but did not respect the values that Gandhi stood for: human equality beyond class and caste. By contrast, at the CIMS hospital, staff who first resisted a driver being my support companion, ultimately accepted my reminder that Gandhi would see us all as one. They then treated him with the same great respect that they showed me at every turn. Treatment fit for Gandhi himself.
The big “both/and”
My big take away after a memorable 220 miles walking the Dandi Trail (I missed 20 miles due to the heart thing) is that this giant country, or at least the small part of it I saw, is truly a study in the paradox of both/and: Both rich in natural resources, and poor in protections for them. Both spiritually enlightened enough to find it unacceptable to beat a cow, but not so enlightened as to see it as wrong to beat a wife or child. Both promoting social equality through constitutional guarantees, and intensifying economic inequality through legal business practices that hurt farmers, labourers and the earth.
As for me, what new thing did I learn about non-violence? That if it doesn’t include non-violence toward the earth and water, in the long run, it can’t save women or children. The work that Gandhi began is still unfinished.
(Alice Ray heads Ripple Effects, where she creates technology programs that develop in children and youth the skills to build their strengths and thrive despite adversity)
Photos courtesy: Sushil Bharati