Think of the Dandi March and you see an image of Mahatma Gandhi striding along in protest, aided by a tall lathi or walking stick and a crowd of supporters at a slight distance behind him. When he picked up a fist of salt at Dandi, a coastal town in Gujarat, on 6th April 1930, Mahatma Gandhi symbolically broke the salt tax, and launched the Civil Disobedience Movement that would end in Indian Independence and send cracks through the British Empire.
That story is well known. But there is another story few know about. The story of the famous lathi that the Mahatma carried through his March and how he got it.
On 12th March 1930, as the 60-year-old Mahatma was setting out on his historic march from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, a colleague and friend, Kaka Kalelkar, thought a walking stick might come in handy. So he handed to the Mahatma the lathi that Mahatma Gandhi used on his long march, spanning 240 miles, from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in South Gujarat. The Mahatma walked ten miles a day for 24 days, lathi in hand.
Thousands marched with him, and images of the Dandi March circulated around the world. While the Mahatma used many walking sticks in his lifetime, the one he used during the Dandi March was special – it became the symbol of this campaign, even iconic as ‘Gandhiji’s Lathi’.
This tall lathi was a simple bamboo pole, 54 inches high, with an interesting connection to Karnataka. It was light and strong, and made of a variety of cane called 'Nagara Bettha' (Calamus nagabettai), whose every knot is marked by a natural black spot. This variety of cane grows in the Malnad region in coastal Karnataka.
This lathi had a very interesting provenance and passed through several hands before coming into the Mahatma’s possession. It originally belonged to noted Kannada poet M Govind Pai (1883- 1963), who lived in Manjeshwar village near Mangaluru (erstwhile Mangalore) in coastal Karnataka. Pai was a noted poet, author and research scholar of his time. He was a staunch nationalist and through his writings, also challenged regressive practices such as untouchability.
It was because of his strong nationalist leanings that Pai chose to write in Kannada, even though he was awarded a gold medal in English by Madras University. He was a polyglot, a renowned scholar of history and is also the first author to be conferred the Rashtrakavi Award, the highest poet laureateship in Kannada.
While Pai is known for his literary contribution in Kannada literary circles, his role in the freedom movement is not so well known. His tryst with Gandhi's lathi is one of these fascinating anecdotes.
In his biography, Mahakavi Govinda Pai, Kannada litterateur Kayyara Kinhanna Rai says that since Pai was greatly influenced by Gandhi, he set off for Navsari in Gujarat when he was in his 30s, to offer his services for the cause of national education at Ganganath Sarva Vidyalaya set up by a nationalist Keshavrao Deshpande under the inspiration of Aurobindo Ghose. Here, Pai met noted freedom fighter and scholar, Kaka Kalelkar, who was the principal and they struck up a friendship that would endure throughout their lives.
Dattatreya Balakrishna Kalelkar, popularly known as ‘Kaka Kalelkar’, was a Gandhian nationalist, a scholar, litterateur, journalist, educationist and social reformer. Born Maharashtrian, he became such a noted writer in Gujarati that the people of Gujarat call him 'Savai Gujarati' – ‘a better Gujarati than a native Gujarati’. His Gujarati travelogue Himalayno Pravas is considered a classic in Gujarati literature. Kalelkar also worked with the nationalist Marathi newspaper Rashtramat and is credited with a large volume of literature in Marathi as well.
He also played an important role in the freedom movement and was imprisoned many times for his participation in the struggle. He helped Mahatma Gandhi set up the Gujarat Vidyapith and was its Vice-Chancellor from 1928 to 1935. In 1935, Kalelkar became a member of the Rashtrabhasha Samiti, a committee whose aim it was to popularise Hindi as the national language of India.
During one of his many nation-wide tours in the late 1920s, Kalelkar was in Mangalore and decided to make a detour to Manjeshwar to visit his old friend. It had been a while since they had met and on seeing his friend, Pai was overwhelmed. In the words of Kalelkar himself, quoted from Govind Pai by N Thirumaleshwara Bhat (1993), “It was during one of my whirlwind journeys throughout the country for the cause of the national language that I visited Govind Pai at his home in Manjeshwar. We spent only a day together but into these few hours we crowded the reminisces of a lifetime. Oh, the intensity of his affection and the depth of his devotion to literature.” Pai was so moved on meeting his friend that when they said their goodbyes, he took out a walking stick that had been used by his grandfather and gifted it to Kalelkar.
As it turned out, this was the very cane that Kalelkar would later hand over to Gandhi to assist him on his famous Dandi March. It remained in the Mahatma’s possession till his death. After his assassination on 30th January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s disciples gathered his possessions from various places across India and had them displayed in various museums.
But none was more famous than this simple bamboo cane that accompanied the Mahatma on his historic Dandi March. The lathi was taken to the National Gandhi Museum and Library at Rajghat in New Delhi, where it can still be seen on display, along with other lathis that the Mahatma had used. It is a simple piece of cane that became the unlikely symbol of the Salt Satyagraha. And of Bapu himself.