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Thousands begin re-enactment of Gandhi protest march

Sat Mar 12, 6:23 AM ET

AHMEDABAD, India (AFP) - Thousands of people began the long march across a vast expanse of arid western India to honour the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, India's independence hero and apostle of non-violence.

The re-enactment of Gandhi's famous "salt march" of 1930 from Ahmedabad to coastal Dandi village in western Gujarat state, was flagged off amid much pomp and show by ruling Congress party president, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

Similar marches to mark the 75th anniversary of one of the first acts of defiance in India's fight for independence from Britain were to be held in 15 cities around the world including in Durban, South Africa where Gandhi took his first political steps.

Amid the burst of camera flashes and the blare of prayer songs, Sonia Gandhi led the first batch of marchers, walking with them for a distance of about five kilometers (three miles) on a freshly washed road strewn with flowers in this major Gujarat city.

Cries of "Long Live Mahatma Gandhi" broke the early-morning silence at Sabarmati Ashram, a cluster of huts on the banks of Sabarmati river which once served as Gandhi's hermitage and is now a museum.

Before setting off, Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by several federal ministers, administered a pledge to those assembled to carry forward the Mahatma's message of "peace and non-violence."

Cheered by schoolchildren waving national flags, she and her followers reached the city main square where she garlanded a statue of the freedom fighter before seeing off the batch of marchers who will trek all the way to Dandi.

The 388-kilometre (241-mile) journey was undertaken by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also called "Mahatma" or "a great soul," to protest the monopoly of the British colonial authorities over the production of salt in India.

After traveling through numerous villages and small towns, sleeping under the open sky and eating frugal meals, Gandhi, then aged 61, reached Dandi, a natural salt-producing beach, on April 6.

Watched by thousands, he picked up a lump of salt and broke it in defiance of a ban on Indians producing salt. The act sparked mass civil disobedience across India, leading to thousands of arrests including that of Gandhi.

But it is credited as having marked the turning point in the independence movement, with the British administration eventually being forced to open formal talks with Indian freedom fighters and granting independence in 1947.

Seventy-five years later, however, Congress leaders lamented that not much had changed since 1930.

"Why do we need a Dandi march today? Because his (Gandhi's) dreams have yet to be fulfilled," said federal Sports Minister Sunil Dutt.

"I have done three trips to Dandi for this march and I was pained to see that much has not changed since 1930," said Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi who now runs the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, a co-organiser of the march.

"The villages are perhaps as poor as they were in 1930. We have not been able to provide the poor even basic sanitation facilities," he said.

Several foreigners from countries such as Australia, Britain, China and the United States joined in the march.

"I believe in Gandhi's philosophy and I have come to walk in this march which I see as a spiritual cleansing exercise," said Linda Kataley, a Florida-based builder.

The 26-day journey will break overnight at all the same places where Gandhi stopped. Food will be simple and beds will be piles of hay under the open sky or on mats inside tents.

Keeping in mind the sensitivities of conservative rural India, foreign nationals particularly women have been asked not to wear shorts or thin fabric tops.

But in a distinctly modern twist, a makeshift Internet cafe on a cart drawn by camels will accompany the marchers so they can send off emails and journalists can file stories, organisers said.

"It's wrong to say that this is a hi-tech yatra (journey)," said a Congress leader, Pankaj Shankar.

"The purpose of this march is to spread awareness about Gandhi among the younger generation. If it is taking place at a time when everyone has a mobile phone then it is not our fault."

Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy but married into the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, which is not related to the famed freedom fighter.

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