The Viceroy was seriously seized of the political atmosphere in the country. It was indeed a developing political problem which occupied much of his attention. He began to consider 'Gandhi and Co.' being too much troublesome and in a telegram to the Secretary of State on 17th March, 1930, he explained, 'The lull in open political activities reported therein has continued in most parts of India .... The official programme (of Gandhi) is to develop the campaign in successive stages. The first stage has begun with Gandhi's march; the second is to begin after his arrest with a widening of the campaign, and the third stage is to be a mass campaign on a wide scale.'1
The senior government officials and the experts of the Government of India did not take the breach of salt tax seriously. They did not expect any kind of result damaging to the working of the British Government. George Richard Frederick Tottenham, a member of the Central Board of Revenue, described it 'as Mr. Gandhi's somewhat fantastic project.'
Frederick Sykes, the Governor of Bombay showed much concern about Gandhi's march on the political situation in his Presidency. He informed the Viceroy that Gandhi's march promised to be a long drawn affair and he could not surmise when a crisis might arise in his Presidency. He, therefore suggested action to be taken against him during the march. But the Viceroy wished to gain time and did not favour the idea of precipitating a crisis. In a telegram to the Secretary of State on 24 March 1930 he stated2.....so far Gujarat is concerned, local effect is considerable, though possibly transient.....As regards the rest of India, the present effect seems to be comparatively small, and the Government of India are inclined to the view therefore that Gandhi should not be arrested unless matters so develop that there is no reasonable alternative or unless Government of Bombay feel the requirements of the local situation urgently demand such action'. He also apprised the Archbishop of Canterbury and his friend, G.R. Lane-Fox, of his sentiments, 'I discussed it all with Sykes and Hailey a few days ago and we were all agreed that it was right to avoid arresting him as long as one could on his silly salt stunt, but that we should probably find our hands forced pretty soon.'3
Section 117 of the Indian Penal Code, under which Gandhi's arrest was proposed, being bailable, there was nothing to prevent him from continuing to march if he chose to be bailed out. In the event of his arrest, the government of Bombay had always been disposed to think that a long sentence would be preferable. 'If Gandhi should go on hunger strike, he must be released rather than allowed to die in custody. A short sentence would have no value.'4
During the week, prior to the historic march, The Times of India had assumed a hard line on Gandhi similar to that of Irwin and Sykes.5 Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's arrest on 7 March was applauded and quoted favourable from British press statements calling for Gandhi's arrest.6 However, the call for severe legal action against Gandhi, including his immediate arrest, was not nearly as affirmative and unanimous as the above accounts might indicate, either in the Government or in the English language press. In many circles, there was ambivalence and confusion. Lord Irwin obviously had not made up his mind, for he did not order Gandhi's arrest until almost two months after his Dandi march.
In Bombay, Sykes expressed much concern about Gandhi's march with the passage of time. He requested Lord Irwin for a meeting in Delhi to discuss possible options and the time of action to be considered and adopted about Gandhi. They met on 27 March and Sykes prepared an extensive 'Draft Note' for discussion.7 He noted that the march had caused 'great excitement', substantial resignation of Patels, and recruitment of volunteers in Ahmedabad, Kaira, Broach and Surat. It had attracted large crowds on the route. To him land revenue resistance seemed imminent. He, therefore, outlined a few options open to the government from arrest and long imprisonment of Gandhi to indifference towards the whole campaign. He laid stress on the urgent need for a firm statement of Government's intentions as he was convinced that Gandhi's action would soon undermine government's authority in Bombay.
Lord Irwin's preference was however to postpone Gandhi's arrest until the Legislative Assembly had concluded its session. After that there would be no objection to arrest him at any time. Therefore, he sent Sykes back to Bombay with rather cryptic instructions to inform him immediately if the situation deteriorated fast, but not to arrest Gandhi until he had reached Dandi.
Thus the government intended to leave Gandhi to himself at the moment as he was simply preaching sedition but had not participated in any criminal act. Its plan was that Gandhi should be ignored and allowed to 'destroy himself by ridicule'.8
In this autobiography, Sykes stated, 'Both, Master, the Collector of Kaira, and Garratt, the Commissioner of the Northern Division, were anxious to put an end to the march altogether. From the outset they thought that Gandhi was being given too much rope and that the policy of allowing him to make himself ridiculous was based on a fallacy.
'Though I personally was uneasy about the propaganda effect of the march, it was essential that we should act in conformity with the wishes of the Central Government. I accordingly issued confidential orders to the officials through whose districts Gandhi and his followers were to pass. I pointed out that in the opinion of the Government of India, the ordinary law did not permit any interference with the march, provided that it was undertaken in a peaceful and orderly manner. Even though salt making was illegal, the offence was so trifling as to be unworthy of serious notice. The premature arrest of Gandhi would merely give him the spectacular martyrdom which he was courting, and would, in addition, probably lead to an outbreak of violence among his followers. The maximum term of imprisonment to which Gandhi would be liable, if arrested during his march, would be much less than if we held our hand until an offence was actually committed.'9
After about a month of the historic march, Gandhi addressed a letter to Lord Irwin on 4 May 1930 and apprised him of his programme of setting out for Dharasana along with his companions, demanding possession of the salt works. The daily reports of brutal police assaults on satyagrahis in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, U.P., Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Peshawar and Karachi prompted him to state, 'Bones have been broken, private parts have been squeezed for the purpose of making volunteers give up, to the Government valueless, to the volunteers precious salt....Paddy fields are reported to have been burnt, eatables forcibly taken. 10
'But I would fain avoid the further step. I would therefore ask you to remove the tax which many of your illustrious countrymen have condemned in unmeasured terms and which, as you could not have failed to observe, has evoked universal protest and resentment expressed in civil disobedience. You may condemn civil disobedience as much as you like...
'If, therefore, you cannot see your way to remove the salt tax, and remove the prohibition on private salt making, I must reluctantly commence the march adumbrated in the opening paragraph of my letter.11
Under these circumstances, Gandhi's arrest seemed imminent. The Viceroy had no intention to allow a legend to grow up that Gandhi could be arrested. He knew that it might soon have to be done, but he was anxious to defer it as long as possible. He informed the Secretary of State, in month of April, 'I am quite certain that we have been right so far not to arrest Gandhi and I am equally certain that he and his friends are greatly disappointed that we have not done so.'12 He was, however, conscious that his action in not arresting Gandhi was 'very illogical' but he was sure that it had helped the Government. He thought that Gandhi's plans at that time were uncertain but it was evident that he did not intend to remain immobilized on the sea-shore.13 He therefore, wrote to the Governor of Madras on 14 April 1930. '....we must constantly be on guard against allowing the legend to establish itself that we were afraid of him or that he is unarrestable.'14
The Secretary of State expressed his concern at the political developments in India in his letter to Irwin On 22 April. He was sure that '... if Gandhi were arrested and disorder followed, it would become merged in the terrorist organization and thereby strengthen it.'15 Two days later, the Viceroy informed the Secretary of State, '.....we are consulting Sykes and other local Governments again as to what they think about it....On the whole.....the situation is difficult, but not critical.'16
Irwin's ambivalence on the issue of Gandhi's arrest was resolved, it seems, by Sykes' increasing alarm and Malcolm Halley's intervention.17 The latter was perhaps the most trusted adviser in the small group that Irwin liked to call his 'wise men'. At first, he himself had been ambivalent on the question, offering as he later recalled, 'a compromise of differing views'. However, he supported Irwin's reluctance to arrest Gandhi and Irwin cited Hailey's support in his correspondence home. But on 25 April, with the unrest increasing rapidly, Hailey finally came down hard for Gandhi's arrest, and, in a letter to Irwin, advised that they had already waited too long and should act speedily now.18
This advice finally removed Irwin's ambivalence. He informed the Secretary of State on the same day. 'My own mind is moving, I think, towards arrest.'19 He also informed C. F. Andrews, .....I cannot bring myself to understand how he (Gandhi) has been right to throw away what seemed a golden opportunity for men of goodwill to work together in favour of this movement with all its inevitable consequences.20 It was at length decided that Gandhi should be apprehended under Regulation XXV of 1927 which allowed persons engaged in unlawful activities to be placed under surveillance at the discretion of the authorities.21 By this means it was expected that the excitement, anger, agitation and demonstrations engendered by a public trial would be avoided.
On 5 May, the District Magistrate reached Gandhi's Camp at Karadi along with the Superintendent of Police and a party of twenty armed constables at 12-45 A.M. when he was asleep. He woke him up and told him, 'I have a warrant for your arrest, Mr. Gandhi'. Gandhi was found smiling when the warrant was being read out to him. 'Whereas the Government view with alarm the activities of Mr. M.K. Gandhi, they direct that he should be placed under restraint under Regulation 25 of 1827 and suffer imprisonment during the pleasure of the Government and be immediately removed to the Yeravda Central Jail'. At this Gandhi said, 'I am prepared to accompany you, but will you allow me to have a wash and clean my teeth? 'with pleasure', said the magistrate.
In the meantime, the whole ashram was up, and everyone was anxious to have a parting darshan of their leader. Having finished his wash, Gandhi came out of the cottage to say his prayers. The whole ashram knelt down to recite the prayers while the police officers watched. Gandhi himself led the chorus. He then collected his papers and gave them to a volunteer whom he had chosen as 'Captain' during his incarceration.