Of Protest, State Apathy and Media: A Note from Jantar Mantar

By Saurabh Sinha,

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) held a huge 2-day protest in the capital on the 17th-18th of October 2013. A few teams based in Delhi had decided to get involved in helping them organize the protest – as and when required. I had met people who were involved with the NBA in the past – and they all committed to that having changed their life in small little different ways. It could possibly be the single biggest event in their lives till then, or could mean nothing for a few people. But it has been there – fighting, living on for close to three decades now, and it has redefined ‘protest’ in the country.

Picture by Mukul Dube
Picture by Mukul Dube

Almost a thousand people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam from the three states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh had marched in to the national capital. They came in crowded train compartments, standing for the major part of their journeys. They were aware of the roads around; they had been here many a times before. They ate, slept and drank on the roads of the Jantar Mantar – to register their protest, all to ask to not raise the dam height by 12 meters without proper implementation of laws and orders of the Supreme Court; and demand lawful rehabilitation – nothing more.

With the magnanimous nature of the NBA among the few surviving people’s movements, it was bound to catch attention. However, it was probably not enough. The media was scarce and uninterested. They did come however, to catch a glimpse of this big an event. That was a spectacle not to be missed, and they reached well in time.

The NBA has redefined the scope of how people see ‘development’ today; and of how decades of struggle has filled people with emotions, and the political consciousness to connect their issues with the larger socio-political realities – to Special Economic Zones, power subsidies to multinational companies, to the improved resettlement and rehabilitation policies. It has forced international institutions to reconsider their support to big dams, and the close importance of the community in the planning of any kind of ‘development projects’. The evaluation of the movement has been done at several points by several people and groups, and it has had its share of critiques, criticisms and allegations. Notwithstanding where you stand on it, the movement cannot be ignored. The voices are not going to die out. They cannot be suppressed anymore. It needs ears, and eyes and voices in support – and the state being made to listen to it.

A small team of around 50 people were organized before the Ministry of Water Resources. People held hands in hands, took flags in their raised arms and wore placards stating their demands. They did no more, they blocked no gate, they did not prevent anybody from doing their duty – from the gatekeeper who panicked and locked the gates to the worried Senior Inspector of the area. They all were doing their duty and the people assembled there were doing theirs. It was probably more than duty, for there was no other choice for them. Their lands and houses were about to be submerged, and those who had lost their lands today see no other hope, than to contain the damage to where it is.

Two bus-full of police, including one full of women constables came and surrounded the place. They said nothing, did nothing – just stood and watched these people. I could see acknowledgement of the issue in a few of them, while they waited for orders to use the tear-gas shells and lathicharge, if ordered. It did not come to that, which would have probably then interested the media, and a few other people in the capital – it was not deserving enough otherwise. Or that is what occurred to me.

The delay was in the fixing of an appointment with the Ministry official. After hours of intimidation and bargain, a small panel was allowed to go and meet. 5 people from the community were selected to present themselves as the delegation. None of them were allowed entry a minute later, citing security reasons – for the placards they were wearing were disallowed upon entry. This caused people to remove their clothes and sit down for a few other hours. There was no response from the administration except weaning out ways to delay any possible meeting. Only after the realization that these people were going nowhere, did the meeting happen; and only an appointment for a few hours later, and not an actual meeting happened immediately.

Not everywhere was the same story. A few other meetings turned out to be easy. Some ministers listened to the delegation. They were not easily dismissed. Assurances were made and the officials at many other places told them that no laws would be flouted when it comes to the issue of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. I am just wondering if this would have been the same if slogans earlier had not been raised, or the panic in the administration in the form a huge bandobast was not exposed. This does not mean that the issue was solved, it was merely listened to – several times before has the same thing happened. What remains to be done is a matter of deliberation, and of action.

All of this has a long history. The fact that many of the people from the Narmada Valley were charged in the past with violating Section 144 (of unlawful assembly), when they had tried to cross closed gates, and many of them are still fighting cases in Delhi courts against themselves, with the meager monies that they; has given them strength, not hopelessness. Perhaps the repression for almost three decades has taught generations the value and power of struggle. There is no fear in their eyes of the lathis and tear gases, there is no hopelessness to officials and elected representatives pretending to treat them as a potent threat – there is disappointment, yes; but not a living soul there has lost all their trust in their state – or in their governments.

I wonder today if this was the exact same State I have entrusted to protect my basic rights; that when I am wronged I will get justice; that when I seek it to solve my issues, it will not shy away from it. I have entrusted this state to use the rule of law, and I have entrusted the state to wield power on my behalf. Probably it will faintly listen to me when the time comes, for I probably do not belong to the margins. The mighty state yields to nobody. It is the all-powerful, it is the overarching idea of life in a nation-state. How can anything but contempt for protest be seen in the state, which exercises itself through governments, judiciaries and through institutions like the police? It is condemned, it is banned, it is suppressed – with all the might. Is hearing voices so difficult – isn’t it time now then for the state to ponder on the plight of its citizens, isn’t it time for the state to understand their concerns as real concerns and not as hurdles in ‘development’? What trajectory of ‘development’ and ‘growth’ are we really talking about – if the apathy to pains of people is paramount? The state cannot be a mute spectator, it is supposed to be the arbitrator of rights. Rights probably need a bigger name to be approved for, it is just not for everyone. Next time, you better come in a queue!

There was nothing unusual that happened that day. Nothing that the state did that day could possibly create any kind of public outrage. But it was an outrage for me. I saw disappointment in the eyes of the people. It was a disappointment for me. All of this is accepted as part of the protest. It probably is no big deal after all, we have all learnt to understand that it is alright for the same state to dole out subsidies for the poor, and snatch their lands at the same time. But when women and men marched together, breaking boundaries and shackles of culture, traditions and taboos, it liberated a few of them – or most of them. I possibly see the hopefulness in that disappointment, probably now is the time to understand its reason, and prove to the world that an ugly nexus runs the world, and makes decisions in place of billions of people across the planet – and destroy their lives for profit.

The on-lookers will continue to cross in buses and in cars, expressing their opinions to the next seat passenger or they will come home and tell their families, of how they saw a few people blocking the traffic – or shouting slogans. But that will be the end of it. Nobody would know who these people were; ever.

They were just people, with hope in their disillusioned eyes.

Saurabh Sinha works at Society for Rural Urban and Tribal Initiative (SRUTI), and is based in New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected].