The sight of tears in your eyes on the television the night of the judgement prompted this letter. Reacting to the Supreme Court judgement with a clearly broken heart and in a broken voice, you were saying "andolan ko marne nahin dena hai" (the movement must not be allowed to die/be killed). The tears did not convey any helplessness; that drop reflected both the anguish of Narmada and the resolve of a true satyagrahi. The tremendous dignity with which you have stood up to such heavy odds is an ennobling and enhancing sight for those millions who would have watched you that night. But there was also something unsaid there and in your statements since then, that causes alarm. It is as if you are taking on the moral responsibility of the 'defeat' and planning a major step with a sense of finality. Hence this letter. And it is addressed to you, as the one who stands for the hundreds of activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan [NBA] whose dedication has turned this movement into one of the legends of post-independent India.
It might well seem as if the establishment in Gujarat has won the case. But for how long can the powers that be cloud the truth?. The fifteen year old satyagraha for Narmada has challenged the established notions of 'victory' and 'defeat'. Your clip on television was followed by the reactions of the Gujarat CM and a minister. While they mouthed something about the decision having given a hope to the dry regions of Saurashtra and Kuchch, their eyes betrayed the truth. The supreme court decision has given a ray of hope to the BJP government in Gujarat, up against the wall of popular unrest. How else does one view the official celebrations, crackers and all, but as a ploy for political encashment? How else does anyone interpret the public holiday except as a decision of an ecstatic state to release the people from its subjugation for a day? Lakhs of viewers must have seen how ridiculous and obscene power can be. Those who did not, will surely see that in days to come. An honest audit of who 'won' on the 18th October can only be done 25 years from now. It might show that the true victors of this verdict were the contractors, engineers and the middlemen.
You did not lose on the 18th. The Supreme Court did. When the NBA decided to approach the Supreme Court, fresh winds were blowing in the corridors of courts. PILs had opened the doors of the Supreme and the High Courts for the ordinary citizens. There was a hope that the highest court of the land may not remain the battleground for the legal-technical contestations between the well-to-do and instead occasionally be a site for meaningful social struggles. These hopes did not quite materialise. There has been a lurking suspicion in the minds of many for some time that while the judges are deeply concerned about pollution in the big cities, the life of its labouring classes doesn't touch them in the same way; while they worry about the tigers in jungles, the adivasis that share the same space do not matter in the same way. October 18th will lend credence to these suspicions. Legal minds will debate the rationale and the logic behind the majority judgement. They are already surprised that the same court that did not permit arguments on the general merits or otherwise of the big dams has deemed fit to make statements on this issue in their judgement. Civil rights activist and NBA lawyer Prashant Bhushan has already expressed his concern that the learned judges may have allowed their private biases to affect their judgement. He regrets having persuaded a reluctant NBA to repose its trust in the Supreme Court. His regret will resonate far and wide. In future no grassroots movement will make the mistake of knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court. That surely is a defeat for the Supreme Court and for all those who hope to use the judicial process for common citizens.
You did not lose. Your satyagraha is not merely against a single dam, it never was merely a legal battle. You said in one of your letters three months ago "The struggle for the last 15 years on the banks of Narmada is not an opposition to one big dam; it is a struggle for the right water and development policy….We have moved forward in a quest to find people-centred and participatory ways to ensure the utilisation of water, land and forest products … It is necessary today for the entire society, not just the powers that be, to listen to the story of the common people … you have to be a moral adjudicator." And you have won that adjudication in that difficult court, ever so long ago! Your unparalleled movement has shaken the conscience of our nation sensitive citizens arrived at the valley to see the truth for themselves and went away convinced of the disaster in the name of development. The letter Baba Maharia, the unlettered son of his mother 'Motli Bai' Narmada, wrote to 'Diggi Raja', the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, will survive as one of the most moving testimonies of our time. The NBA has done much more than simply oppose the SSPit has exposed the big lie that all the big dams in our country have been so far. You had won the day the Gujarat government had to expand the official definition of 'damages' that qualify for compensation to the victims. Actually, if even a drop of Narmada water ever reaches the parched lands of Kutch or Saurashtra, it will again be a victory for you. The NBA's real victory will become evident only in the coming century. No new Sardar Sarovars will be dreamed up. SSP or no SSP, the inheritors will live to tell the tales of this extraordinary struggle of the valley and the flag of the NBA will fly higher than a ninety or a hundred and thirty eight meters.
All this is not to soothe your anguished heart, nor to bolster the spirit of the rest of the satyagrahis but merely to recall a fundamental lesson of history. No great movement can be measured by its immediate consequences. Just think of it, Gandhiji failed to realise the immediate demands of any of the movements he led with the exception of Champaran. Institutionalised racism continued long after he left South Africa. The main demands of the workers in the Ahmedabad mills remained unfulfilled when the agitation was called off. Neither the Non-cooperation, the Civil Disobedience nor the Quit India movements were successful in bringing to an immediate end the British rule in India. But each of these movements irretrievably altered the equations of the exploiter and the exploited. That is the mark of a great movement. That is what distinguishes a satyagraha from any other ordinary movement.
Gandhiji was also heart broken by each of these 'failures', he too shed many a tear. But on each such occasion, he determinedly created new sites while expanding the scope of the struggle, rather than trying to take the immediate struggle to its logical and fatal conclusion. And this is where the worry liesreading your press statements and your face on the television, it seems that you are thinking of taking the struggle of the valley to its logical conclusion. Perhaps Gandhiji would have thought otherwise. The model of 'development' that your satyagraha has sought to oppose has its roots in politics. If the state implements such policies in a cavalier fashion, it is only because the entire mainstream politics shares this model. Governments and ruling parties change but the policies don't. In the last instance colossal political follies and vested interests underwrite the established model of development of which SSP is but an instance. That is why a movement for an alternative model of development must be a part of a movement for an alternative politics. This is the time when your carefully forged alliance of the victims of 'development' in the form of the National Alliance for People's Movements needs to be suffused with a new political energy. It is only when you take this challenge that this satyagraha of the Narmada will be the creative force of a new yuga-dharma. And who else but you, Medha behan, will take up this challenge?