The British Raj in India led to various atrocities and policies that would call for global shame against Britain today but are often downplayed or completely left out of global discourse on the effects of colonial rule in South Asia. A major policy that has been left out is that of the ‘The Great Hedge of India’, a 10 ft high hedge spanning almost 1200 miles from North West Frontier Province (Khyber) to Odisha, that was built to prevent salt smuggling from coastal regions.
After the conquest of Bengal, the British authorities deemed salt to be an attractive source of revenue considering it was a primary ingredient in Indian cuisine. Keeping this in mind, Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India brought all salt manufacturing in Bengal under East India Company’s monopoly in 1772. The salt producers had to sell the salt to the Company at a fixed price, who then sold it in the market at huge premiums. Given the sudden rise in the price of salt, the desperate populace of Bengal started resorting to salt smuggling from nearby kingdoms like Odisha which were not under British Rule at the time. In order to curb this mass evasion of salt tax by people, the authorities started putting a series of custom houses along the Bengal border. As other provinces came under British rule, local custom lines started being drawn on the Indian map with the same purpose, albeit without any coordination and thus resulting in chaos.
Following the Sepoy mutiny in 1857, the British government took over the administration of India and thus began the process of streamlining the various existing custom lines. In 1869, the administration decided to form a single inland customs line, spanning almost 2500 miles. To ensure that smuggling doesn’t occur between the custom posts, it was decided to put in place a hedge. The mastermind behind this idea, Allan O. Hume, the commissioner of Inland Customs and a botanist by training, experimented with various plants keeping the varying soil and rainfall conditions in mind. Ultimately, the barrier was built using Indian plum trees, bamboo, prickly pear and other local plants. It helped to counter not just salt smuggling but also the smuggling of sugar, opium and cannabis.
However, the intention didn’t really materialise fully with the rising corruption among British officials with revenue rising but still staying below expected levels. In Fact it became a barrier to free trade and thus, became financially unviable. Eventually as taxes became equalised across the country through various reforms, smuggling became infeasible. As this happened, the hedge was left on its own with custom officials and guards being located to other places and complete stoppage in the maintenance and up-keep of the hedge. In 1879, the line and hedge were completely abandoned once the British gained control of the Sambhar Salt Lake in Rajasthan. The Salt Tax, being applied at the point of manufacture, remained in place till 1946.
After being abandoned, the hedge and its history got lost until Roy Moxham, a book conservator, found an old memoir of a British era civil servant in India who mentioned the Inland customs line and the hedge it was fortified with. Moxham traveled across India to piece together the missing pieces and published his findings in a book titled ‘The Great Hedge of India : The Search for a Living Barrier that Divided a People’.
A wall that divided Indians, and led to health issues due to salt deprivation that likely had a large effect on aggravating the famines that were frequent in the 19th century, remained absent from public consciousness. It was also a horrendous attack on the freedom of Indians vis-a-vis movement and trade. Infact some high-level British officials were clear in their disdain against the evils that were inherent in the policy. However, despite the abolition and all the commentary against the policy, the British Raj went ahead and brought in the India Salt Act of 1882 which explicitly prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt and continued the policy of limited access to salt at affordable prices. Salt continued to remain a big part of the freedom struggle with the Dandi March being an important milestone in the journey to India’s independence. The salt tax was finally abolished by the Interim Government of India, led by Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1946.
Across the last 20 years since the book got published, many people have discovered about this erstwhile ‘Great Hedge of India’ that was completely absent from the history texts. However, it calls to the fact that history is easily forgotten if there is nobody to remind it. If a 2100 mile shrubbery can disappear not just from the face of the earth but also from recorded history and public conscience, it points to the scary reality that the world could forget anything, even the most atrocious and dangerous acts in history, the consequences of which could prove to be severe. Thankfully, Roy Moxham rediscovered the story of the Great Hedge of India and hopefully, more and more people continue to learn and remain aware about their history and the long-lasting implications of it.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.