Survival on the Narmada: An epic struggle

The history of the struggle against the Narmada dam has been one of the great narratives of democracy in India. One can criticise the activists, lampoon Medha Patkar, agree with the World Bank and yet when all is said and done, one will salute it as one of the great acts of protest, non-violence and citizenship in modern India. I want to state this as clearly as possible because this regime, like the previous one, has created a wall of complete indifference and contempt for the struggle of the Narmada. The sadness is that our media, toeing the line of the regime, has no place for what is happening at Dharmapuri and other villages on the Narmada. Today what is news, what is an epic struggle of history, hardly appears as news. The Narmada has been written off by our middle class desperate for the litany of development. When I record this both with shame and despair, I am reminded of a beautiful story by late Mahasweta Devi, the Pterodactyl.

It is a tale told by a journalist, a good modernist like you and me, who moves around the arid famine-ridden areas of Pumae, covering drought and starvation in Bihar. As people are dying and as rumour spreads, the journalist hears a strange story of the arrival of a large bird, an evolutionary throwback. It is a Pterodactyl, a creature which disappeared a million years ago. The bird sets huddled in a cave waiting to die. A tribal recognises in the bird his cousin and ancestor, and keeps it company. There is a caring and a companionship between the two, which is amazing to watch. The two sit with ease, and wait with ease, for the bird to die. The smell of death does not bother the tribal, who feels privileged to be a part of the ritual.

The journalist ponders, moved by the pair. He then realises that the tribal and the Pterodactyl are contemporaries, kinsmen. In fact, a million years separate the journalist as modernist from the pair.

Reading Mahasweta’s story, I was touched by the sense of affinity and companionship, of primordial memory that tied the tribal and the bird together. I then saw the bleak contrast between that fable and what is happening today on the Narmada. The newspapers suffer from amnesia. One has to tap into the archives of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), which has been serving as a memory and conscience to the nation.

What one is witnessing is an act of eviction — a mass-scale forced eviction — by a government that has failed to keep its promises of relief and rehabilitation. When one looks at the 88 sites for relief and rehabilitation, one hears that none are ready for settlement.

The response of the regime is always the same. It adds lies, threat and violence to the original lie. Today the police and the Army are ready to enact another great tragedy of eviction. It is only a small fragment of civil society, a few activists and a few students who stand in solidarity with the villagers. Development has become a process of erasure and indifference where the word citizenship for marginal groups is a travesty. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has insisted that its struggle will be a peaceful one. However, one is not looking to create a romantic fragment of narrative memorialising the struggle. What one wants to emphasise is the arguments it is putting forward as government intransigence and hysteria mount are a few simple but poignant points.

The tribal begins by pointing out that their social contract, which is of a more sacramental rather than utilitarian kind. The tribal compact is with land and ancestors. Together the three form a dwelling creating a sense of home and responsibility. It captures the notions of citizenship and civics that the regime is illiterate about. The tribals respond with a simple statement that they would rather choose to drown than abandon a valet which has been life-giving.

Ms Patkar and the NBA, while echoing this heroic act of civics, only amplify the argument. She points out that the government has not been able to build these 88 sites for resettlement over the last three decades. How then does it plan to do anything within the next few weeks? The deadline for the forced eviction of these villages is July 31. Sometimes, when one faces this illiteracy of governance, one has to ask what is the law and order problem — the government threatening forced eviction or a disciplined people arguing about their right to a way of life.

There is something disturbing about the responses of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. At Mandsaur, he accused peasants fighting for fair prices of being insurgents. Here his indifference to the valley, his refusal to meet a people makes one wonder what his sense of citizenship and responsibility is. Does law and order and the emptiness of development exhaust the idea of governance and ethics? Or is Mr Chouhan part of a new mentality that has declared war on the agricultural and tribal way of life, fetishing the cow while celebrating the extinction of the tribe? Contemporary India can pretend to be silent about it but these are questions the future as a tribunal will ask.

The regime in its devious way is playing the numbers game. It has reduced the ambit of eligibility for rehabilitation from 40,000 to 18,800. Such a magical accounting has been the ban of development projects. It also reveals a blatant contempt of Supreme Court judgments.

The lie proceeds as a spectacle. Mr Chouhan’s politics has already been called “nautanki” politics by over 60 peasants’ organisations. Today he enacts the BJP’s favourite tactic, the yatra, as a sign of false acclamation. Such political yatras overadvertised in newspapers as if they are the new kumbh for development. They insult the sense of sacred, of place, which yatras as an act of pilgrimage should have.

To the obscenity of indifference and the spectacle of the lie, they add the violence of submergence. Activists point out that lakhs of trees and acres of pristine forest will disappear.

Yet despite such courage of conscience, the battle of Narmada no longer appears to be news to the media. It is as if India has lost its memory or feels that the tribal and the nomad are fated to die. It is the genocidal impetus of development that haunts the Narmada valley.

As a citizen, one begins to witness storytelling, appealing to the memory as conscience. As you read this piece, all I ask you is to salute this battle and spare a moment in prayer to one of the epic struggles of conscience being enacted in India. It is the least one can do as development and the waters submerge memory and destroy a way of life and living.

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