Chronicle of a struggle retold

The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. Numbers alone cannot make sense of it because it demands a different kind of storytelling

Updated - March 29, 2016 01:34 pm IST

Published - August 06, 2015 02:57 am IST

If you were to ask a middle class person today what the most significant act of history in the India of the last 20 years is, most would say this — the rise of Narendra Modi. But to me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam.

Symbolically, Mr. Modi and the dam stand as contending symbols. When the struggle against the dam began, he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and an advocate of raising the height of the dam. Now, he is the Prime Minister who sees nuclear energy as the dawn of the second modernity. And he sees civil society and non-government organisations as potential agents of sedition. As an act of memory, of remembrance, as a battle against forgetting, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) needs to be analysed and celebrated.

A collective history

Calendars are symbolic favourites of regimes. In fact, revolutions love to create new calendars to reset the time of history. Yet, occasionally, time produces inversions, and the defeated, unable to stand the silence of defeat, produce their own mnemonic of resilience. The Narmada Bachao calendar for 2015 is one such act and deserves to be talked about.

But first the background — in brief. The Narmada traverses three of India’s north-western States: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The Indian government’s plan, with World Bank assistance, has been to build a complex of dams along the river as part of the “Narmada Project”. It has been a project that has focussed on so-called “collective good”, without paying attention to environmental degradation. In due course, the project has faced mounting opposition from a variety of sources, but chief among them has been the one under the leadership of the principal figure associated with the movement, Medha Patkar, and the NBA. Alongside Medha Patkar, social activist Baba Amte provided moral leadership to the cause to preserve the river.

The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. Numbers alone cannot make sense of it because it demands a different kind of storytelling. This struggle is about a collective history of a people challenging the official history of a nation state. It is symbolic of all marginal struggles of the displaced, the landless, and that which is tribal. The calendar becomes an invitation to this new citizenship of memory. Because of the new ‘enthusiasm’ for development, which borders on fetishism, one forgets that the Narmada dam is an act of sacrilege across one of the most sacred of India’s rivers. This calendar is about both a visual protest and a peoples’ history created as footnotes to be inscribed over an official history. Protest notes mingle with dates of committee decisions to create a mix that reminds you that the dam is, was and will continue to be a site of contestation.

Law and development

Merely citing the dates creates a particular poignancy. On January 5, 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Yet, in three decades, a wave of protest met the dam, providing a litany against the standard chorus of development. Dates can be read like a crossword puzzle just as one reads the ‘five across’ and ‘six down’ of history. Fourth Saturday, 1993 — “An Adivasi woman of a village being submerged was stripped and gang raped by the police”. January 16, Thursday, 1992 — “a 500-strong police force with bulldozers and guns enter Manibeli on the pretext of shifting 18 houses. Police rape two Adivasi girls”. Suddenly one senses that in the hegemonic mind of authorities, rape is a correlate of displacement and development. Sunday, January 7, 1990 — Sharad Pawar visits the Narmada dam site and declares that not a single inch of land would be submerged without satisfactory rehabilitation, which makes one wonder what goes into the creation of such Teflon-coated political statements.

May 1995 is a month that brought about a temporary respite when the Supreme Court restrained further construction of the dam. One must pause here for a moment to ponder over the philosophical and ethical role of the Supreme Court. At one level, the highest court of the land, with its green tribunal and its trusteeship of human rights, is an institution to be proud of. Its judges, as its Krishna Iyers and its Khannas, have been stalwarts of freedom. But as the discourse shifts to development and science, the court, because of its dependency on official expertise, gets into a problem area. It is strange that a confederation for development calls the dam an example of sustainable development. If that is an act of contempt of the court’s judgment, so be it because it violates the life-giving assumptions of justice.

About ecocide

Let me get back to the calendar. On May 30, 2003, a Friday, Medha Patkar began a fast in Nasik demanding the immediate resettlement of 3,000 families who would have been affected by raising the dam height to 100 metres. The calendar, innocuously but subtly, reminds one of the Argentine writer, Julio Cortazar’s classic work, Hopscotch, later made into a brilliant movie. The power of Hopscotch, as a novel about a murder is that it defies linearity. The book can be read even by skipping chapters or by shuffling them. In this case, the Narmada calendar is not about murder but about ecocide, which is the “destruction of the natural environment, especially when deliberate”. The only similarity is that the shuffling of dates creates a similar effect. It is the same litany of committees, experts and promises condoning great acts of ecological/livelihood devastation and portraying them as great acts of development.

The Narmada story continues when a series of committees and judges visited the area, listening to tales of distress and corruption. On Friday, June 11, 1993, the first house, of Bhubhai Tadvi, in Vadgam, Gujarat, was submerged. Have those who are for development ever pondered over the fact that a house is a fact of memory, and that when a house submerges, a way of life disappears? Committee reports like those of Asia Watch (1992) and the Morse Commission sound like helpless footnotes being swept away by a new riverine history.

In the Narmada calendar, the days of protest are even more poignant and desperate when juxtaposed with committee reports and political promises. Who can forget some of the visuals that emerged in this period — of posters, superbly sketched, demanding “Free Narmada, stop the dams”.

Roll-call of resistance

Let me move to the July page of the calendar. What happened then only adds to the roll-call of resistance. In this month, what was striking was a photograph that showed a defiant Medha Patkar rousing people to battle. On July 15, 2000, Admiral (retd.) L. Ramdas inaugurated the satyagraha in Domkhedi, Maharashtra. On July 9, 2001, Baba Amte invited President K.R. Narayanan to visit the Narmada valley to understand the extent of displacement and submergence. On the same date, a satyagraha was launched. All this makes one wonder whether civil disobedience, reason and satyagraha, as weapons of struggle, are effective against the dogma of development. This sounds even more poignant today as the Modi government seems intent on erasing sustainability for security and dubs civil society’s every critique of development as an act of sedition. In majoritarian India, suffering can only speak the language of sedition — which is the sad aspect of a democracy.

And now to the next month. On August 17, 2001, Sadhana Amte flagged off the ‘Jeevan Yatra’ as hundreds of displaced children marched from Kasaravad village to meet the President of India. August 19, 2001 — “Despite the non-availability of land, the NCA [Narmada Control Authority] decides to increase the height of the dam to 100 metres.” The scale of suffering increases almost exponentially with every metre of increase in the dam’s height. October 31, 1997. There is a flicker of hope as oustees celebrate three years of stoppage of the SSP’s construction. But in the Narmada story, hope is ephemeral as on October 31, 2000, there was a padayatra to Delhi to protest against the Supreme Court verdict to resume dam construction.

I come to the last month, December, which is almost like a scrapbook filled with examples of repression. On December 25, 1990, the Narmada Sangharsh Yatra, from Rajghat to the SSP dam site, is stopped at the border village of Ferkuva in Gujarat. On December 12, 1992, one witnesses a physical attack on NBA activists during a debate in Jamnagar, Gujarat. On Wednesday, December 13, 2000, more than 350 people are arrested during a dharna in front of the Supreme Court, while trying to present a memorandum to the Chief Justice of India.

Thus, this calendar chronicles a festival of resistance, of protest, a people’s history of what they think development should mean. As one comes to the last page of the calendar, one feels both hopelessness and a sense of what can be called the poetry of resistance. Today, the movement faces defeat as the new India confronts it with indifference, silence and erasure. Why? This is because development has become the new religion of a middle class, yet the question of the dam — as a problem for science, ethics, history and democracy — stands as an act of defiance, and no matter how weak, resurrects its perpetual questions.

This calendar is a small statement — about memory and defiance. Yet, I wanted to celebrate it because it speaks memory to silence, conscience to indifference and truth to the centrality of power. May be it sounds quixotic, even romantic. Yet, one hopes that every secretariat and every room in the Prime Minister’s Office and his revitalised Planning Committees will carry it. It will be a small reminder of what we have done to our own people. Also, this article is a small ‘thank you’ to all the groups that created this act of memory as a reminder that conscience is not dead in India.

(Shiv Visvanathan is Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University.)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.