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Monday, August 9, 1999

Narmada tide maroons Gujarati settlers

Rohit Bhan  
PATHRAD, Aug 8: Their antecedents are undeniably Gujarati. The language they speak bears traces of Gujarati and their cuisine reveals the sweet tooth common to all Gujaratis. But Narmada seems to be carrying them away from Gujarat and its people.

They are the people of Chota Barda, Pathrad and Novagaon, on the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh; their forefathers came from Chhota Udepur and Dahod, but that's an identity they'd be happy to forgo today.

``My great-grandfathers were from Dahod; they migrated from there some 200 years ago. Till the (Narmada) issue cropped up, we used to feel good about it, but now we seem to be drifting away from the people of the State. The Narmada has changed it all'', laments Shankar Lal of Pathrad.

Widening the chasm even more are the anti-dam protests that echo in the serene Narmada valley these days. Some villagers say that every time anti-dam supporters move across the dusty village roads, all pro-Gujarati feelings are relegated to the back-burner. ``The euphoria and the message they convey makes one wonder if we should be proud of having our roots in Gujarat'', says Chota Barda villager Pawan Kumar.

Some elderly villagers find it hard to reconcile themselves with the hate their progenies nurse in their hearts for the State of their forefathers. ``How can I hate a State where my father was born and where I spent part of my childhood? I know we are right on this issue, but how can I hate my roots'', asks an elderly villager of Pathrad.

Many villagers find themselves on the same boat. ``It is a difficult thing. We know our stand is justified, but how can we ignore the millions of thirsty throats. The irony is that it is a battle between submergence and survival'', says Pathrad villager Sohan, adding that he felt unhappy every time he heard about the drought situation in Kutch and Saurashtra.

But the younger generation seems to be more swayed by the frenzy raked up by the anti-dam protestors. ``Why don't the people of Gujarat realise that it is the fear of losing our land that forces us to join the struggle. There are others ways for getting rid of the water scarcity in Gujarat'', fumes Pathrad teenager Pritam. The hatred for Gujarat is evident as he adds, ``I feel bad when I am told my roots go back to the State which wants us submerged.''

Aghast elderly villagers blame anti-dam activists for widening the divide. ``Their campaign is not restricted to the dam, and at times, forces us to hold the common people of Gujarat responsible for our sufferings'', says a Chota Barda villager, complaining that he had been labelled a `traitor' for toeing a moderate line.

Not only the villagers, but Madhya Pradesh politicians, too, have taken a diametrically different stand on the issue from their Gujarat counterparts. ``It is a pity that the BJP government in Gujarat is supporting the pro-dam concept. We have been telling our senior leaders to tell them in clear terms to stop playing on this issue,'' says Yuva Bharatiya Janata Party vice-president for Anjad taluka, Deepak Kumar Sen.

These villagers might survive the submergence, but it remains to be seen if they can withstand the strong wave of anti-Gujarat sentiments currently engulfing the Narmada valley.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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