Sunday, 9 August 2015

The struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Project and the history that is less known

It is natural for having been an activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and subsequently a resident of the Narmada valley, to be happy at the following Statement of Professor Shiv Visvanathan in his article in The Hindu dated 6-August 2015: “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.” 

Mass program at Kasravad, Narmada Bachao Andolan. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary

At the same time however, I would like to express my concern that much of the media reportage and other documentation have focused on either the issues, or major events or the handful of prominent faces of the movement. The role, contribution and the vision of the local leaders, activists and the common people who have formed the backbone of the struggle have hardly been recorded/reported.One other problem is that while much is known or written about the more recent developments of the Narmada movement, the history of its origin and evolution as also its early years is not fully known. What is not known well is that the earliest resistance against the project dates to 1961 when the foundation stone of the project was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. From then onwards the Narmada valley has seen protests and movements around the project, some spontaneous and unorganized, others more structured and organized. These protests prepared the ground for the emergence of the subsequent struggle in the form of the NBA. Thus the protests against the Sardar Sarovar Project have a history that spans over five decades and has many players.

Senior Adivasi leaders of the NBA (L-R):  Vesta, Kemat, Raniya daya, Noorji. Source of photo: From the collection of Shripad Dharmadhikary.

In India it is often the case that a mass movement/people’s resistance increasingly gets identified with handful of names. It is often that the more articulate middle class leaders become the public faces of a movement and many times at the cost of the local leaders who are farmers, adivasis and from the marginalized communities. The sustained struggle of the marginalized communities and their resilience against great odds against powerful forces are less noticed as compared to the dramatic acts of a few personalities. As a result sometimes a powerful people’s movement with a vibrant collective leadership and an awe inspiring struggle of the masses turns into a personalized crusade. What is worrying is that the marginalized communities that are fighting the battle of their own survival every single day of their lives often turn into mere faceless- nameless followers or crowds. Worse still, they are deprived of a rightful place in the history of their own resistance/movement/struggle. 

Senior leaders of NBA: L to R- Poonjabhai, Bhurikaki, Mahesh Patel, Ambaben , Bhagvatibhabhi, Mansarambhai and Vaniya. Photo source: From the collection of Maheshbhai Patel

Senior leaders of NBA in talks with the Government (L-R): Muljikaka, Vaniya and Mahesbhai. Source: From the collection of Shripad Dharmadhikary.

In the article “I am Sharmila’, by Kalpana Sharma in the Hindu dated 16 March 2013, she writes- “In India, we elevate individuals and forget the cause. We need heroes and heroines, more so at a time of visual media. But in fixing on individuals, the issue, the cause, the reason for protest sometimes gets forgotten, or under-played.” I would further add here that by creating icons in a mass movement, we do a disservice by not recognizing the strength of the collective and undermine the power of mass resistance. By focusing on individuals, we make it easy for the adversaries and those sitting on a fence to dismiss the cause as a matter that concerns only a few persons and not the masses. 

The movement in the Narmada Valley that began in the year 1961 when the foundation stone of the project was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has grown and sustained for over five decades precisely because of the fierce and sustained resistance by the people of the Narmada valley and a diverse and collective leadership. It is time we unfold this history of the struggle in the Narmada valley and of its people that is less known.