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Little Davids against
Goliath in the Narmada

Mumbai, August 29
Constant government repression and police arrests failed to dampen the spirits of villagers and human rights activists in the Naramada valley
As the sun rose over the hills, with the serene and glistening Narmada in the foreground, there was a moment of pure spiritual stillness. A local tribal girl, who speaks English with fair fluency, asked the assembly squatting on the rough plastic mats spread on the earth under a large open tent to swivel towards the east. We all did so and obeyed her request to observe silence for a full four minutes or more. The girl recited an invocation to the river.

It was only then, virtually for the first time that some of us from outside the Narmada valley had had a moment's respite from the dramatic incidents over the previous 24 hours, that we caught a glimpse of the majesty and grace of this people's movement. While the media does portray the Narmada Bachao Andolan as a feisty popular struggle against a heartless state government, hell-bent on completing a monstrous dam, it hardly captures the deep-felt earnestness of purpose such interaction alone can reveal.

We had been aroused minutes earlier by the sounds of people stirring under the tent. This was the tribal village of Domkhedi, on the Maharashtra side of the Narmada valley, which is an Andolan stronghold. Medha Patkar was dressed before all the others, a cup of tea in her hand, fussing like a benign mother hen over her unkempt brood. While some went down to the river to wash, others simply splashed a handful of water over the faces to ready themselves for yet another gruelling day ahead.

This was to have been the day after a triumphant event the Andolan had planned for the monsoon when the valley is at its most munificent. The hills are verdant and green; mists hover constantly over them. It is in many ways deceptive - a calm before the tumult of the dry and bitter months ahead. No one would imagine that these gentle undulating hills, with the river meandering between them, are the scene of one of the world's most heroic struggles against a big dam.

The "Saga of Narmada"
satyagraha planned for the previous day, August 24, was virtually aborted when the Gujarat government detained Justice (Retd) Rajinder Sachar, and several other human rights activists from leaving Baroda. This columnist was one of several journalists and others who had also arrived from Mumbai early that morning and were told that several of the Andolan full-timers who man the Baroda office had been arrested and let off late the previous day in order to foil the event.

That morning, Justice Sachar was to address a press conference in the guesthouse where he was staying. There were nearly a hundred people, including a few Indian and foreign TV crews, swarming over the guesthouse when we got there. Sachar announced, in no uncertain terms, that he was sure that he and others would be detained and he was prepared to face the consequences.

In the chaos that ensued, as a portly police official tried his best to maintain his decorum while insisting on detaining the satyagrahis due to "orders from above", Sachar clambered on to a police van after insisting on being handed a written order, which several others insisted upon likewise. Others followed in threes - groups of four would have invited the attention of Section 144 - and were taken away as well. Several local journalists were sure that we would not be able to proceed much further, despite brandishing our press cards and remonstrating with the police.

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