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Non Violent Protest - Then And Now

By Anuja Mirchandaney

05 March, 2006

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is the oldest surviving mass based movement in the country. The March '06 Relief and Rehabilitation Group's decision to further raise the Sardar Sarovar dam's height to 121.64 metres prompted NBA activists to go to Delhi and undertake a hunger strike. On 17 April the Supreme Court passed an unsatisfactory interim order of permitting a conditional raise provided that rehabilitation measures are completed within 3 months. The fast has been called off but the crisis facing the NBA continues.

The Gandhian legacy of non violent protest - which is the NBA's chosen mode of protest - is perhaps facing its biggest test ever. The current scenario played out in drawing rooms through out the country throw up these dilemmas facing the movement. Why did the Central Government only swing into action when Medha Patkar, and other representatives from the Narmada valley, Jamsing Nargave, Bhagwati Devi Jatpuria were into their twelfth day of fasting? Are the voices of non-violent protest only heard when celebrities like Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy (and now Aamir Khan), are involved? In this day of marketization, and consumerism, how many from the middle class will devote their lives to mass based movements and non violent protests ? Is non violent protest as a tool of upholding civil rights becoming ineffective, and so is violence the only mode of action left that will bring any results?

'For the NBA, non violent protest is a strategic as well as a moral stand', points out Shashank Kela, Khedul Mazdoor Shetna Sangath, who has been closely associated with the NBA for over two decades. The Movement has consistently used the Gandhian tactic of Satyagraha. In the past, fasting has been used to evoke moral pressure by the NBA, notably during the Sangharsh yatra and the Bombay Dharna of 1993. Civil disobedience
methods such as non cooperation with the Project officials, and on one occasion blocking traffic on the Agra-Delhi national high way, have also been employed.

Kela is well aware of the challenges facing the NBA, and other progressive movement today. The bulk of any mass movement must be the rural people who are getting increasingly atomized and fragmented due to the agrarian crisis that has led to a steady defection to the cities. Even in the given bleak scenario, Kela opines that mass non violent protest has not been fully explored and there is "still plenty of life left in it". Not a view that is shared by Jagadeesh BN, Advocate, Bangalore who was part of the NBA struggles in the valley in the late 90's. He firmly believes that non violent protest has not been effective with regard to the people displaced in the Narmada valley. He says point blank, "take the gun and fight against the authoritarian state - thats the only way the Government will respond". He cites two examples of other displaced tribals. On the one hand, of those in the Western Ghats, who due to Naxalite intervention, were given the option by the Government to leave and relocate in return for a ninety two crore compensation package, and on the other hand, tribals in Nagarhole whose nonviolent struggle has left them with nothing.

Why is it that non violent protest that was effective in the days of yore does not seem to exert the same kind of pressure now? In the case of the ongoing NBA agitation, the government has shown its callousness yet again when activists going on fast were dragged to AIIMS and others involved in a dharna were brutally attacked by the police. FIRs have been registered against those going on fast on charges of Attempt to Commit Suicide. The government through its actions has trivialized the extraordinary acts of courage of the activists, and more importantly violated the more fundamental Right to Freedom of Expression.

Non violent protest rests on moral foundations such as purity of means, and the belief that there is good in every human being. It places its faith in the logic, that if one willingly accepts suffering, whether through another's violent action, or else self-inflicted e.g through fasting, this will appeal to the good in people and bring about a moral transformation- a 'change in heart'.

One of the basic conditions for undertaking a successful non violent action is that there must be a 'just grievance'. While the validity of NBA's ecological and social justice concerns are clear to its supporters, there are powerful interests that are attempting to obfuscate the issue. The hon'ble chief minister of Gujarat, Modi, has managed to twist the focus of the debate - politicize it to say that the Congress at the Centre is targeting the BJP in Gujarat, and is making the raising of the dam height a matter of 'Gujarati pride'. The justness of the NBA claim can therefore be made questionable, and this impacts public opinion - a factor that the success of any non violence protest depends.

The public needs to be informed about the issue by an unbiased media. Then only is it possible to bring about pressure on the government . While NBA are now past masters at engaging with the media, there are a couple of obstacles to the media being able to highlight issues which matter to a large majority of people in this country.

The 'public' that puts pressure on the government to change its policies in effect means the opinion of the middle class- a fact that was reiterated by the recent Jessica Lal case. They are the target audience of the English news channels. Unfortunately, "development related displacement remains a 'non middle class' issue" to quote Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, currently executive director, HAQ. It will not bring in advertising revenue, and subsequently gets less space on news channels. One saw the fickleness of popular news channels, which covered the story only when there was high drama with activists fasting.
Even if the non violent protest of the Andolan were given more coverage, the Gujarat government has resorted to calumnies - local administration in Gujarat has fed stories to the press to discredit the Andolan. Media's access to important information also faces governmental hurdles. With the true facts being reported sketchily and some times contested with government promulgated false hoods, public opinion to pressurize the government does not have a chance to form to the extent necessary. In the circumstances the future of non violent protest stands seriously imperiled

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