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Could tea parties blossom into a national strike?
The story is history, very famous history at that.
How a solitary Indian lawyer took on British imperialism and won, gaining independence for India. Independence was at one time presumed impossible, with Mohandas K. Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent protest openly mocked and derided by the British. Yet not only did Gandhi carry the day and win his country’s struggle for independence, it was the Gandhi model that was later used by an American minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. to finally end the American segregation system put in place by Democrats for a century following the Civil War.
The recent spontaneous eruption of impromptu “tea parties” — demonstrations modeled after the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to protest against the Obama plan to socialize America — is the first sign that Gandhi-style rebellion against the government is in the American air.
First, a quick history.
British rule of India first took shape with the appearance on the subcontinent of the British East India trading company in 1617. After 1764 British authority was effectively asserted, with the British “Raj” or reign, beginning in an official sense in 1858. By 1876, Queen Victoria was officially proclaimed the “Empress of India.” Inevitably, Indian politics was quickly roiling with displeasure at the arrogant rule of the British. In 1885 the Indian National Congress was founded. The “Congress Party” as it became commonly known eventually emerged as the backbone of the growing movement for Indian independence.
It was Gandhi who developed what was called the strategy of “non-cooperation” with the British government. In its own way, this was a 20th-century version of the 1773 Boston Tea Party that Americans are refocusing on today in the wake of Obama’s draconian tax and spend pronouncements. In that incident Bostonians protested a British-imposed tax on tea by disguising themselves as Mohawk Indians and, under cover of darkness, boarding three tea-bearing British ships that lay alongside a local wharf. The offending 342 casks of tea, worth almost $2 million in current dollars, were unceremoniously dumped into Boston Harbor. Nothing else on the three ships was destroyed or damaged. The fuse of what became the American Revolution, already burning, burned faster after all of this, exploding finally in the Declaration of Independence three years later.
Gandhi’s version of this protest involved two Indian staples, salt and homespun cloth. Salt was a common commodity of India. Mined from salt mines, it was a necessity of everyday Indian life. It had been produced for thousands of years. Under British rule, there was a British monopoly on salt. Replicating the mistake they made with the Americans and tea (although tea was not an American commodity it was a much-cherished and imported one), the British established the India Salt Act of 1882. The tax, doubled in 1923, also made it illegal for Indians to manufacture salt themselves outside the system established by London.
Gandhi, surely unintentionally channeling Bostonian Samuel Adams, blithely informed the astonished British Viceroy, the Obama of his day, that in nine days resistance to the Salt Tax would begin. Said Gandhi of his fellow Indians to the Viceroy in language relevant to today’s Americans: “But the British system seems to be designed to crush the very life out of him. Even the salt he must use to live is so taxed as to make the burden fall heaviest on him.” The Viceroy in an uncanny imitation of the Obama “I won” style of governing, simply ignored Gandhi. He didn’t even bother to reply. So as promised, in nine days, Gandhi and 78 others began what history calls his Salt March or March to Dandi, Dandi being a small coastal village along the Indian Ocean. The march, over some 240 miles, riveted not only the country but the world. By the time he arrived in Dandi Gandhi’s march had thousands of participants who had in turn been hailed by roadside crowds of as many as a hundred thousand in one village and fifty thousand in another and so on.
With cameras rolling, Gandhi approached the Indian Ocean shoreline, dropped to his knees and scooped up a clump of salty mud. “With this,” he said, “I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” Then he boiled a pan of seawater — thus making illegal salt. A nation of oppressed Indians went wild. Villagers up and down India’s seacoast began making their own salt by imitating Gandhi. Businessmen made salt. Politicians made salt. Teachers made salt. Students made salt. So many Indians of all kinds were making salt the police were forced to make mass arrests of the rich and poor alike. Historians say that between 60,000 and 80,000 Indians were sent to jail for the “crime” of making salt. And just as Gandhi predicted, the grasp of Great Britain on its Indian colony began to slip.
So too did he have the effrontery to challenge the British control of the economy with the importation of fine cloth. Taking another shot at the ruling Viceroy, Gandhi launched a campaign for Indians to spin their own cloth — khadi — out of Indian cotton, a crop that was abundant. Gandhi himself took up spinning, the work of making homespun cloth from cotton with a wooden spinning wheel. He saw to it that the cameras saw him performing what once was seen as not only a woman’s task but an art that was well on its way to extinction in the machine-age of mass production. Once again so many Indians took up spinning, undercutting the government’s importation of refined cloth and silk. Khadi became such a symbol of resistance to the government that, when independence finally arrived in 1948, the spinning wheel was at the center of the Indian flag, where it remains today.
So what’s the point? How in God’s name does Gandhi have anything to teach American capitalists from small business owners to the big boys and girls running major corporations?
Answer: Gandhi understood he had to work outside the box of parliamentary democracy at the same time the Congress Party was doing all the usual things political. He had to defy the British government by making injustices visible both to millions of Indians and to world opinion. This was, of course, exactly what Sam Adams and all those Bostonians were doing when they tossed a couple million dollars worth of tea into the harbor. It is also exactly what Martin Luther King was doing as he made injustice visible by having his always peaceful marchers provoke the police to such eye-catching displays of violence as displayed with police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham and a police riot at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. In all three cases this approach brought Boston, India, and the American South to a state of such chaos that the iron grip of the British (in Boston and India) and the segregationist Democrats in America began to loosen. And finally fall away altogether.
SO WHAT COULD American capitalists do to ignite a Gandhi-like revolution that will vividly illustrate their cause? Picture this.
The first clue is the radio.
House by house, as morning alarms go off to awaken 300 million Americans, the only sound they hear is …silence.
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