Narmada Bachao Andolan: The longest living Gandhian ‘Satyagraha’

Led by Medha Patkar, Narmada Bachao Andolan is perhaps the longest living Gandhian movement in the history of the world. The river is witness to a struggle of ordinary people using forgotten methods

Narmada Bachao Andolan: The longest living Gandhian ‘Satyagraha’

Amit Sengupta

“A Tamil poet says that man’s life is as transient as words inscribed on water. This needs to be pondered over repeatedly.”—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi is both right and wrong.

In the Narmada valley, as across the planet, man fails to realise that his life is transient and ephemeral, that death is inevitable and immortality is impossible.

However, words inscribed on water, can become eternal as in this valley. As eternal as the Gandhian satyagraha, and the way of life he showed, in everyday living, in thought, text and action.

Led by Medha Patkar, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is perhaps the longest living Gandhian non-violent movement in the history of the world.

The river is witness to a great struggle of ordinary people using forgotten Gandhian tools and reinterpreting them.

In ‘Words on Water’, Sanjay Kak’s classic documentary on the NBA, it is the music by the band, ‘Indian Ocean’, which touches the deepest core of the soul. In this discovery, the movement is like a river, and the river is like the movement.

The river lives in the eyes of children and young, in the slogans and songs of the women who are ready to sacrifice everything for it, in the rustic hands of the farmers; it is in their smile and easy laughter, with its simmering moistness between their fingers, inside the lungs and intestines, as life’s most precious and tangible liquid.

The gates of the 138.68 m high Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia in Gujarat might be shut, and the entire State apparatus might be backing it, but the river moves in ripples, inside the mind, across the oral traditions, in memories, stories, folk narratives.

On September 17, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a grand ceremonial gesture to mark his 67th birthday, inaugurated the gigantic structure of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Kevadia, Gujarat. Almost 3,500 people doing peaceful Satyagraha at Kevadia colony were forcibly picked up by the police after a lathi-charge and left in distant locations, while several were detained

It travels ceaselessly, deep inside the lost and buried Vishnu temples drowned in the waters of the dam, or in the little Shiva temple at Chota Barda with a bright red Gulmohar flower waiting to drown one day, and, then, emerging suddenly on a full moon night as the backwater recedes. These words on water move inside the lush green fields of the Narmada valley, soaking the valley with its life-giving substances. Vast stretches of corn fields, banana and cotton plantations, soya, dhan and rice, sway with the cool winds of the river, while the sky remains transparent and blue. It is difficult to believe that this fertile land will one day disappear under water.

People are still refusing to move. “Non-violence is our creed. We will not move. We will resist,” is the unanimous opinion. At least 35,000 people are still to be rehabilitated, while hundreds have refused to move to the new, officially marked ‘rehab sites’ as in the empty and desolate landscape of Karman Basahat in Badwani. Over 200,000 people have been displaced because of the dam.

Medha Patkar quotes Gandhi: “My life is my message.” While doing her PhD from TISS in Mumbai, and working in the tribal areas of Gujarat, her life changed once she had an encounter with the river, and the gigantic, medium and small dams which were out to ravage it.

It has been 33 years since then, and the movement remains as relevant as ever, including the ideals of ‘Small is Beautiful’ and decentralised, small scale models of development, with the typical Indian village as the epicentre, as propounded by Gandhi.

The movement is at once a critique of the western and capitalist model of development, as much as a belief that the synthesis of nature and humanity can alone save the world.

On September 17 this year, Medha Patkar led a huge rally of people affected by the dam. It was called the ‘Pol Khol’ rally. People came from MP, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The rally moved to Anjad in Badwani, led by women, the driving force of NBA. ‘Nari Shakti Ka Samman’ is one of the most significant slogans of the movement, with women leading all forms of struggles. Indeed, the NBA has coined many unique slogans, while reinterpreting songs from the folk narratives around Narmada, as much from the popular songs of struggle in the Left movement and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). However, the most significant paradigm shift in the Gandhian method, which they have improvised, is the Jal Satyagraha and Jal Samadhi. The samadhi inside the waters is the last ritual of sacrifice when drowning and submergence is inevitable. The river reaches to their eyes, but they remain steadfast, often fasting for days inside the water. Finally, the police enter and drag them out by force.

On September 17 this year, Medha Patkar led a huge rally of people affected by the dam. It was called the ‘Pol Khol’ rally. People came from MP, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The rally moved to Anjad in Badwani, led by women, the driving force of NBA. ‘Nari Shakti Ka Samman’ is one of the most significant slogans of the movement, with women leading all forms of struggles

On September 17, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a grand ceremonial gesture to mark his 67th birthday, inaugurated the gigantic structure of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Kevadia, Gujarat. Almost 3,500 people doing peaceful Satyagraha at Kevadia colony were forcibly picked up by the police after a lathi-charge and left in distant locations, while several were detained.

Modi declared the big dam as a great beginning of progress in Gujarat, whereby water will come as a bonanza and permanently change the life of farmers and people in Gujarat, especially in Kutch and Saurashtra. It was also designed to seduce people before the Gujarat assembly elections in December. One year later, all his promises have proved to be false. First, most of the canals have not been constructed. Second, it was a drought year in 2018 summer, with water scarcity and low rainfall. Third, the Gujarat government banned the farmers from even touching the water for irrigation in a few canals which had water. Fourth, many farmers had already sowed their seeds in anticipation of the bonanza. Fifth, without water, it was a massive agricultural and financial crisis for the farmers of Gujarat who lived downstream of the dammed river. And, sixth, Kutch and Saurashtra are still waiting, while the farmers are alleging that the water is being diverted to big industry and urban areas. “So was it another jumla, or was it a transparent lie,” asks Medha Patkar. “If the dam can’t give water to the thirsty land of farmers, why did they build this gigantic monument? Will it be now declared as a mere monument of tourism, after the destruction and havoc it has caused? What is the cost and benefit analysis of the dam? Is this model of development not an abject failure?”

On September 17, at 3 am, women led by Medha Patkar entered the water, while a huge posse of police, district officials and two small boats of the National Disaster Management Authority watched from a distance. For five hours, they remained inside the river, their faces visible, shouting slogans, singing songs, listening to speeches.

As darkness descended, Medha said, “Don’t forget the poorest of the poor. The Dalits, fishermen, adivasis, minorities, small traders, farmers, the landless, the exploited and crushed. Reject caste and religious divides. Unite for the sake of humanism. They have forgotten Gandhi, but we have not forgotten him. This Jal Satyagraha is a warning. Next time, it will be Jal Samadhi.” The lighted diyas float in the darkness. Her words, too, moved on the water.

The writer is a senior journalist

This article first appeared on National Herald on Sunday; it was edited at 5.53 pm on October 2, 2018 to add the opening quote

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.

Published: 2 Oct 2018, 9:30 AM