Narmada protest is on Gandhian lines
By Anil Singh
MUMBAI: The magnitude and manner of opposition to large dams in the Narmada valley leaves little room for doubt that it is the country's biggest ongoing civil disobedience movement on Gandhian lines.
Where else can every home boast of a satyagrahi, often with scars to show from police blows? Where else do village women confront the district collector for dishing out untruths? Where else do people put up boards warning dam officials not to enter their villages?
This correspondent witnessed several such scenes as an observer of the `Rally for the Valley' campaign group which spent four days in Madhya Pradesh recently, touring the submergence zones of the Maheshwar and Sardar Sarovar dams.
The 400 rallyists, led by Booker prize-winner Arundhati Roy, received a tumultuous welcome wherever they went. Entire villages turned up with drums, cymbals and banners to welcome the rallyists while womenfolk showered petals on the guests and applied `tilak' on their foreheads.
These were no starstruck simpletons who had come to gawk at a beautiful and famous writer or the foreigners in tow but veterans of a 14-year-old non-violent agitation.
Among the hundreds of women who waited for hours along the route of the rally to welcome Arundhati was the greying Godavari Patidar, a resident of Karnal village, 170 km from Indore. In a region where most men have not travelled beyond Madhya Pradesh, the agitation has taken her to Delhi, where she was arrested following a satyagrah.
Twenty-two-year-old Suresh Patidar of Pathrad village in Khargone district could have whiled away time in Indore, where he did his M.Com. But he prefers to be a volunteer with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) even if it means being caned. Suresh spent four days in hospital last year when the police beat up satyagrahis at the Maheshwar dam site. According to him, several women were also hurt in the police action in which mounted police was used.
The resentment of the village women at the police repression was evident later that day at Ahilyabai Holkar ghat at Maheshwar town when Khargone collector Bhupal Singh told journalists that the police had never used force on the protesters. The 30-odd women `gheraoed' the collector and shouted him down.
The anger against the establishment also surfaced in slogans raised by children in Chhota Barda, a village 150 km from Indore: ``Sarkar hamse darti hai, police ko aage karti hai. (A cowardly government resorts to repression by the police).'' Anti-government slogans and boards were as common as road signs in the fertile Nimad plains.
There is widespread resentment here over the February supreme court decision permitting the height of the gigantic Sardar Sarovar dam to be raised from 83 to 88 metres.
Several local leaders criticised the judgment at a public rally at Nisarpur village, unmindful of attracting the wrath of the supreme court, which had sent contempt notices to Arundhati Roy and the NBA. The lead in this matter was taken earlier that day by veteran Gandhian Baba Amte, who termed big dams as ``a contempt of the people''.
The defiance of the state was apparent from the slogan that Medha Patkar herself raised at a public meeting at Domkhedi, a tribal hamlet on the banks of the Narmada that was facing submergence this monsoon, ``Sarkar walo sunlo aaj, hamare gaon mein hamara raaj (The villagers, not the government, will decide the fate of their villages).
According to Devaki Jain, a former planning commission member and one of the rallyists, Medha's leadership of the agitation against big dams is remarkably similar to that of Gandhiji. ``Like the Mahatma, Medha has the vision to raise a struggle against injustice to a higher plane,'' said Ms Jain, who has done a comparative study of Gandhiji's six major satyagrahas.
The NBA leader's contribution is acknowledged by everyone in the valley. In the words of Arun Kumar Pancholi, former panchayat president of Chikhalda village, 160 km from Indore, ``The struggle against the dams was always there but it was Medha who really educated us about the larger issues involved and forced the government to reveal whatever little it had about the project.''