And quiet flows the Narmada…

By Rajiv Shah
It was a Sunday. I was preparing to drive down to Ahmedabad from my Gandhinagar residence on June 17, in the afternoon. Suddenly, I got a phone call from one of the most controversial activists of India, Medha Patkar. She said, she was in Ahmedabad, why not meet? I readily agreed. I may have talked to her several times on phone to find out what she thought on issues related with the Narmada project, but never had an occasion to meet her.
She had come to Ahmedabad for the second time in a year to appear in an Ahmedabad court regarding a case involving assault on her during - what many in consider - her "unwarranted" visit to Sabarmati Ashram in 2002 to attend a gathering of Gandhians and activists to protest Gujarat riots. Organizers of the 2002 meeting, including well-known danseuse and activist Mallika Sarabhai, were quick to distance themselves from Patkar’s sudden appearance saying the meeting was in no way "connected with the Narmada cause with which Patkar was associated."
I vividly remember how gleeful state politicians, cutting across party lines, were after Patkar was attacked. A top minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, who now holds a key post in the all-India BJP, not only refused to condemn the incident. Worse, he informally regretted to a group of newspersons in his chamber on the second floor of Sachivalaya’s Block No 1 that the assault was not properly organised, adding how much he had wished it was stronger. He uttered some unprintable words about Patkar, making me feel repulsive about a leader I had some regards for his insight into politics. While this was an extreme view from a Modi man, the general thinking was: Why Patkar should at all come to Gujarat? She was so much hated for her opposition to Narmada, the lifeline of Gujarat, that her entry into Gujarat would create a law and order problem. The best way to avoid it was to ensure that she was kept out.




Such was the atmosphere then that anything and everything connected with Patkar was considered an anathema. It is a common knowledge how Aamir Khan-starrer Rang De Basanti and Fanaa were not allowed to be screened in Gujarat in 2006. The only reason was, and about which BJP youth leader Amit Thaker made no qualms, Khan had "insulted Gujarat by sitting with Mehda Patkar on her hunger strike in Delhi" for seeking proper rehabilitation of the Narmada oustees and opposing the dam. Aamir’s posters were burnt. The officialdom watched from the sidelines, with babus secretly telling cinema halls not to screen any Aamir film. Be that as it may, Thaker was just expressing the strong view in Gujarat’s political class which believed Patkar was the state’s "enemy No 1." It was not a new atmosphere either. Patkar was considered a "threat" for more than a decade. The same very year, her Narmada Bachao Andolan office in Vadodara, which had already closed down anticipating an attack, was ransacked. Working with a skeleton staff, Patkar had not visited the office for years.
Be that as it may, even as I was driving the spot where Patkar was staying put in Ahmedabad to appear in the court the next day, I was surprised. There were no cops around. I could not find even plainclothesmen, whose job would be to oversee and report to the top guns in Gandhinagar who all went in to meet her. It was a free atmosphere. Flanked by a handful of her supporters, she was vividly describing how corruption had hit rehabilitation of Narmada oustees in Madhya Pradesh. "It is all Gujarat money, around Rs 1,800 crore, which is being swindled", she alleged. Turning to me, she wondered how the Narmada project was doing. I told her what the officials had told me - that the canal networking was in progress, that farmers were willingly giving away land for a very good price they were getting to build canals, and that 80 per cent of the land had already been acquired. She didn’t believe the figure, but added, "Even if you stop the dam’s present height at the present level (121.92 metres), it would provide water to the command area via canals. There is no need to take the height any further. Believe me you can do it. We have worked out a blueprint which the government can follow."
I wanted to move away from Narmada, as I knew what she thought on it pretty well. I asked her pointblank: "Are you still a persona non grata in Gujarat?" Surprised, she wondered why she should be, she was a free person with the right to go to any part of India. "I mean de facto persona no grata… You were not allowed to enter Gujarat as the officialdom thought your presence would lead to law and order issues. In fact, you were hounded out", I explained. This made her open up, and this was my second surprise. She declared in the presence of her supporters, "Today under Narendra Modi, I feel no threat. Nobody follows me any longer. I move around freely in villages, meet Narmada oustees, who are our old contacts. When I go to Vadodara, I usually see a white car around. But it means no harm. I don’t know, maybe the change is strategic. I hope it lasts." Patkar suggested, earlier too she would visit oustees’ colonies in Gujarat clandestinely - it was all "unannounced", which would no more be the case now. Only recently she visited some sites next to the Kevadia colony, where the dam stands.
Modi’s top officials see things somewhat differently. I asked one of them if the Gujarat government’s attitude towards Patkar had changed. "She is no more a threat to Gujarat", explained one senior bureaucrat, adding, "Patkar has accepted that the dam’s height would be taken to the full reservoir level, 138.64 metres. She appears to believe that it is a fiat accompli. She is in no position to lead a movement in Gujarat, where oustees have been rehabilitated in well-built sites and are living happily. All her Narmada-related activities are outside Gujarat, in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and there too she is just fighting for proper rehabilitation of the oustees. So why bother?"
Interestingly, the most important anti-Medha Patkar organisation, Narmada Abhiyan - which has worked as the apex body of all NGOs campaigning for the Narmada dam ever since the days when Chimanbhai Patel was Gujarat chief minister in early 1990s - now has a different view. Abhiyan’s founder and former president Krishaprasad Patel once told me that there was "no reason to allow Patkar into Gujarat" as she was the state’s chief enemy. Now headed by Prof Vidyut Joshi, a sociologist who is a long-time protégé of the Narmada project, the new Abhiyan chief seeks to adopt a very liberal attitude. He tells me, "We do not think that Patkar is anti-Gujarat. Her objection has been to the dam, which is now a thing of the past. I have personally met Patkar several times, asking her to come to Gujarat and see for herself how the Narmada oustees live in their new homes." Interestingly, unlike his predecessors, Prof Joshi also disapproves of the attack on Patkar at Gandhi Ashram in 2002, saying, "It is unfortunate that a minister in the Modi Cabinet protected a key attacker."

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