Sheela Bhatt

  The Dam... and its damned politics
Let me, dear people, share with you my long day on the sands of River Narmada.

The believers often quote a shloka that runs like this: "A bath in Ganga, a taste of Yamuna and a look at Narmada is enough to attain nirvana."

We know that on October 18 the Supreme Court ordered the resumption of work on the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat.

The state government thought of extracting the maximum benefit from this judgment. It invited Union Home Minister and MP from Gujarat L K Advani to re-start the construction, which was stayed on the apex court's order.

The judgment was in response to the public interest litigation filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. For the last 15 years, Medha Patkar, the iron lady of NBA, has been fighting a historic battle over this dam. Hundreds of studies, scores of litigation, innumerable demonstrations and seminars have been arranged to debate this magnificent work of engineering.

I remembered the moment when Medha cried after the SC judgment. When I looked into her tearful eyes, she told me in a hushed tone:

"I am not weak. I'll take this issue to its logical end. This is not the end of the matter."

At the dam site, I took a seat in the place reserved for journalists.

That's one thing that needs mention. In any function organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party, journalists are looked after well. So we sat there in the shade, comfortable, while saffron-clad sadhus and the public sat on the riverbed under the scorching sun.

By 1100 hours IST there were some 100,000 at the site. As we waited for Advani to fly in by chopper, Satya Barot, a local journalist told me a story.

On April 5, 1961, he said, when Jawaharlala Nehru came to lay the foundation stone for the project, he met a sadhu, Tatiya Maharaj.

Maharaj blessed Nehru, but said: "Maiya nahi bandhegi. [Mother Narmada will not surrender.]"

Of course, now the sadhu is about to be proved wrong.

The dam on Narmada is stupendous.

Imagine a 25-storey concrete building with huge shutters. Think of taking a stroll on the terrace of that broad, 188-meter tall grey mass.

It takes 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. At that height, with water all around and the chill in the air, it is intimidating -- and also spectacular.

Who can remain unaffected by the majestic beauty of this flowing mystic?

The meeting began with a blow below the belt. From entrepreneur Karsanbhai Patel, he of the Nirma fame.

"I doubt whether we should call her Medhabahen or just Medha. She doesn't deserve any respect... How would Medha know the pangs of delivery?" (Medha is a childless divorcee).

Once Advani arrived, the function took on a new spirit. Here was a politician who came prepared. He equated the importance of the judgment with Pokhran and the Kargil war.

Pokharan, he said, displayed the determination of the rulers, and the Kargil war the bravery of the defence forces, while the judgement on Narmada is an example of the vision of the Indian judiciary.

"It is the victory of developmental nationalism," he said.

After the event, as it happens in all the public functions in India, the VIPs left first in comfort.

Advani and Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel flew away. So did Narmada Development Minister Jaynarayan Vyas.

As for the rest of them, escorted by security personnel, they too left in air-conditioned cars.

And the people? They, the commoners, the praja, some of whom had travelled overnight to reach the site on the BJP's behest, scorched under the sun.

As I hit the road leading to Kevadia colony, I saw a sea of people. They walked towards the dam site. They were agitated.

I drove ahead, but was soon stopped. Someone told me to take shelter. I preferred to press ahead.

There were scores of buses on the road, all with posters of Keshubhai Patel and the Sardar Sarovar dam. The crowd was made up of rural folks and BJP supporters. Every bus carried more than 70 passengers, from far-off places.

Obviously, the people had fallen for the freebies offered by the government to participate in what was termed the Lokotsav or festival of people.

Travel was free. And the government's propaganda machine had appealed to their soft, religious side, reminding them of Devi Narmada -- would they not come to pay Her homage?

As expected, people arrived. Four thousand buses conveyed them in less than 24 hours. In addition, VIP cars and private vans, and some 1,000 trucks brought another 250,000 to the site.

When you play with the people's passion, you run a terrible risk. The BJP realised it too late.

It wanted the people for a massive show of strength. The people obliged.

But when they realised that the BJP had omitted to make any arrangements for them, they became furious.

After ordering the function, it would appear, the chief minister had gone to vacation in Mahableshwar. The group of ministers who promoted the event worked in isolation.

The result was the current havoc.

The politicians underestimated the people. They were not given place to sleep, nor food, not even water.

To add to their woes, when Advani arrived, security personnel stopped the buses to the site, stranding thousands who had come to "pay homage to Devi Narmada".

All of which led to the anarchy I was witnessing. Some 20 people with lathis and stones came to me. Who am I, they wanted to know.

"I am from Mumbai," I said.

They were angry, thirsty and hungry. They moved on.

On that 20-km stretch, not one policeman was visible. The mob targetted the BJP leaders and ministers. Three politicians were injured.

More than 10 times, people came up to me asking the same questions:

"Are you connected with the government?"

"Are you a journalist?"

"Are you a VIP's daughter?"

I kept giving them my standard reply: "I am a guest from Bombay."

The crowd was furious. It kept abusing the ministers.

I met a young lady. She was a BJP corporator from Ahmedabad.

"We were invited, but we were not respected. Only VVIPs were taken care of.

"We could not reach the site on time. Forget about facilities like toilets. Even a bottle of water was not available!

"We were brought to clap in response to ministers... The politicians didn't care for us once they got enough crowd to present before Advani," she added.

She continued: "We got provoked when ministers were given safe passage. Here we were standing for 7-8 hours and then came cars with red lights, which were waved through! It was unbearable. People stopped Gabhaji Thakore's car and went after each and every VVIP car. We smashed some five cars and burnt a minister's Cielo!"

She gave me a scornful look when I revealed my identity. "Better not say that for the next one hour," she advised.

BJP supporter Pallavi Daulatjada had come all the way from Anand. She too was upset. Now all she wanted was a vehicle to return home.

The BJP, clearly, had become a victim of overdrive.

The masses -- they are just "display material" for political parties. When the Advanis or Gandhis of the political world fly down from Delhi, lesser political mortals like Patels or Deshmukhs have to show off their support. They are forced to parade the sheep.

And the sheep in normal cases follow the shepherd. Blindly.

Raju Parmar of Surendra Nagar, Kamuben from Khakhra village, Kanabhai from Madhupur and Jagdishbhai from Kutch were all part of the flock. All active BJP supporters.

"Visit the site," they were urged.

And then someone forgot that they were humans who needed toilets in the morning, food to eat and water to drink.

I could empathise with the people wielding lathis. They were looking for the people who wronged them, the people who wielded power.

What a scene! The workers were up against their own leaders. Openly defiant.

In their eyes, journalists like me too were part of the corrupt regime.

These farmers from Saurashtra, Palanpur and Mehsana wanted the politicians and the media to experience what they had gone through for them -- hours of waiting on the road, in the sun.

As late as 2300 hours, the blockade continued. People went ahead and paid homage to Devi Narmada.

It was indeed a display of people's power. They did not smash or burn any private cars or buses, or attack any ordinary person. They showed restrain. They did not go mad.

But they were bent upon teaching the exclusive beneficiaries of power a lesson. And they did.

I salute them. They were rebels with a cause.

Sheela Bhatt promises to keep us posted on the politics behind
the dam.

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