[Reader-list] The fight that's left

Ananya Vajpeyi anya at bgl.vsnl.net.in
Sat Apr 8 13:42:07 IST 2006

On Wednesday April 5, my colleagues at the Nehru Memorial Museum and 
Library (NMML) and I went to join the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) 
protest going on at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. Five of us decided to 
fast for one day, to express our support for Medha Patkar's hunger 
strike, now in its eleventh day. About a month ago the same group of us 
fellows at the NMML had joined a march at more or less the same venue, 
protesting George Bush's visit to India and the agreements signed 
between India and the US. Both occasions proved most instructive. I 
have already written at length about the anti-Bush demonstration in an 
open letter ("Ambushed": www.esocialsciences.com), and am noting, 
below, my impressions of and difficulties with the NBA's dharna. As 
this is not meant to be a detailed description of the dharna or a 
blow-by-blow account of the goings-on there, I will confine myself to 
what has been troubling not just me, but also my colleagues who were 
there and fasting on April 5.

The NBA has very few people sitting at the protest site in Delhi -- 
perhaps no more than 150 men and women (some of them quite old, I 
gathered in conversation). This tiny attendance is a reflection of 
several factors: the NBA'S diminished credibility and popularity in the 
Narmada Valley at the present time, the fact that this struggle is 
twenty years old and has suffered many losses, set-backs and 
fragmentations since its inception, Delhi's physical distance from the 
locations of displacement and rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh and 
Gujarat, Medha 's dwindled stature as the one leader of a truly 
broad-based mass movement, and of course the reality that big and small 
dams already exist on the river Narmada: the only thing at issue now is 
whether the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam can or should be 
increased, and if it is, then what happens to the large numbers of 
people who will lose their villages and fields to the rising waters. 
These people -- tens of thousands of them -- ought to be moved and 
resettled prior to their properties being submerged, according to the 
Supreme Court; however, while such anticipatory and incremental 
resettlement has not happened, construction is nevertheless all set to 
proceed apace.

One of my senior colleagues, Shekhar Pathak, has long been involved in 
several movements to do with rivers, forests, land and livelihood in 
the Himalayas. He edits the Hindi journal "Pahaad" that reflects on 
every aspect of Himalayan cultures and histories. He was the one among 
us with the greatest personal experience of as well as the long-term 
perspective on the temporality of environmental movements. Needless to 
say, he was the one who could remain the most calm through that day 
during which we did not eat and instead sat near Medha observing, 
undisturbed, the comings and goings of political leaders, media persons 
and sundry activists, writers, scholars and students from the city at 
large. There was probably nothing happening there that Shekhar has not 
seen elsewhere, say in the Chipko Andolan.

For me, however, as a novice to such situations, many unanswered 
questions caused upset. Why were there so few of the citizens of Delhi 
present? Why had this movement failed to prevent, over two decades, 
some of the most wrong-headed development strategies since independence 
from becoming actualized in the Narmada Valley? Why does a hunger 
strike by no less a personage than Medha Patkar fail to oblige the 
government of India to come to the negotiating table? What are we 
seeing --  the end, in Indian political life, of the possibility of 
Gandhian methods of protest? Or is it the end, in defeat, only of this 
particular movement, on account of its own peculiar problems and 
constraints? No one in this country seriously wants to put Medha's life 
at risk, but then how will we will live the fact that thousands of 
other lives, of all the Narmada displaced, have been or will be 
irrevocably hurt by the construction of the dams?

The conduct of both the state and the media was, as usual, strange. 
Everyone has seen how the police descended on the protesters and took 
Medha away by force; everyone has seen how these developments were 
reported by mainstream newspapers and television channels. I am 
beginning to come to the conclusion that there  usually three players 
in the game of dissent: the state, the media and the organized and 
unorganized left. Each one deserves the others. On occasion the courts 
will play a role as well, but the three principal players invariably 
wreak such comprehensive damage on any given issue, that even judicial 
intervention cannot save the day. As P. Sainath and Randeep Ramesh have 
written in their recent pieces in the Hindu and the Guardian, 
respectively (both circulated and discussed on this very list), in a 
country giddy with growth, no one has time for the poor.

Supposing we were to rule out, momentarily, sheer greed, corruption and 
venality as adequate explanations for the gross mistakes committed in 
our national life -- the case in point being the "development", which 
is in fact the ruination, of the Narmada Valley. In this instance, we 
find many different sorts of small mistakes, which can be attributed to 
different constituencies. Together these lead to the current pass: a 
figure like Medha -- the closest we have come to Gandhi in fifty years 
-- on her death-bed, a once-influential people's movement in disarray, 
and large-scale ecological and economic changes that do more harm than 

Let's try to set out, in a rough and ready fashion, this mosaic of 
mistakes, together with their authors. As I see it, we have a state 
that is insincere about the rehabilitation and resettlement of dam 
oustees; a press that is more interested in the drama of conflict 
rather than in the resolution of the crisis at hand; left parties that 
have made too many compromises for the sake of power to have a moral 
basis from which to criticize or question state action; and an 
intellectual class -- broadly left, let us say -- that is more wedded 
to rhetoric, emotion and ideology than a respect for the facts or the 
ability to analyze, describe or critique dispassionately what is 
unfolding on the ground. Each sector is failing its duties, and the 
poor of the Narmada Valley are paying the price.

Ideally, reporters would travel to the Narmada Valley to see whether 
people have in fact been rehabilitated or not, politicians would open a 
dialogue with the NBA, the NBA leadership would multiply, diversify, 
and be at its fighting best, and the police would be present in this 
picture only to protect citizens in the event of a law and order 
problem. Besides, writers would write fiction and non-fiction about 
social realities, professors would teach classes about the pros and 
cons of development, and no one would go on indefinite hunger strike to 
end up on a stretcher or a soap box -- both politically rather useless 
vantages -- when there is real work to be done.

Social scientists -- like Jean Dreze, Ramachandra Guha and Amita 
Baviskar, to name just three of many -- have done empirically grounded 
and logically sound research on major environmental problems and the 
social movements around them in post-independence India. Now is the 
time for the public to turn to these sorts of (admittedly scholarly) 
resources to educate themselves and disseminate knowledge about the 
dams, the NBA, and the human costs of big development projects like 
this one.

Once the immediate danger to Medha's life is over -- and it remains to 
be seen how she will be brought out of purgatory by a government that 
has pushed her to the brink -- the debate on the Narmada issue needs to 
move up several notches. From its current state -- I dare say its nadir 
in the last twenty years -- the discussion has to shed the dross of 
exaggerated gestures, shrill discourse that is neither factual nor 
persuasive, political expediency, and ideological naivete. Medha's fast 
unto death has nothing to do with Advani's latest Rath Yatra. The 
forced association of these two symbolic actions in many quarters of 
the media, simply because they happen to be occurring simultaneously, 
misunderstands their utterly divorced intentions, meanings, and 
histories. It smacks of poor comprehension, to read these two political 
campaigns as being of a piece. Let journalists and commentators go back 
and do their homework before ignorantly and inexcusably lumping Medha 
with Advani or the NBA with the BJP, and misleading the public with 
false analyses and analogies.

"Narmada ki ghaati mein / Ab ladaai baaki hai", chanted the NBA 
activists on the evening of April 5th. "There's still a fight left, in 
the Narmada Valley". Indeed. The NBA has some fight left in it yet. The 
fight has to be fought where it genuinely affects the life of people: 
in the Narmada Valley, not necessarily on the pavements of Delhi. And 
there's still the real fight left to fight -- the fight to keep the 
rudder of this nation in our own hands, the hands of the people, and 
make of our future what we will.

Ananya Vajpeyi, Ph.D.
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Teen Murti House
New Delhi 110011 INDIA

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: text/enriched
Size: 9180 bytes
Desc: not available
Url : http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/attachments/20060408/df1cc323/attachment.bin 

More information about the reader-list mailing list