From March 08 onwards when the Narmada Control Authority took the controversial decision to raise the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in Gujarat we have witnessed a steady rise of not merely the dam wall itself, but also the frenzy exhibited by supporters of the dam. The recent episode is the anger displayed by activists of Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) youth wing, first by stopping the screening of the film Rang de Basanti from cinemas in Gujarat, and now threatening violence if any cinema hall dare release the latest Aamir Khan starrer, Fanaa.
Let us look at how this came about. Dismayed at the extreme indifference shown by the ruling government to their pleadings for halting the construction of the dam until affected persons are properly rehabilitated, Medha Patkar, Jamsingh Nargave and Bhagvatiben Jatpuriya went on indefinite fast from March 29th at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Aamir Khan met these Narmada protestors, as well as others protesting the continuing neglect of victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy more than 20 years ago, and spoke about the apathy of the state towards obtaining justice for these vulnerable communities. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's admirers from the BJP's youth wing were so enraged by this show of support that they spent no time labeling him as enemy of Gujarat. They hit the streets burning his posters soon after, while carefully sparing the TV sets in their own homes that took his sound bytes and image to millions of others in Gujarat!
The BJP workers shouting at the top of their voices that Gujarat needs and benefits from the dam might find Aamir Khan's appearance a useful lever for their spiral of increasing violence. But voices of Gujarat come in other forms too. These workers would do well to recall the lines penned by Gujarati poet Umashankar Joshi, on what will happen when the anger of the starving countryside engulfs the palaces.
Bhukhya jano no jatharagni jaagshe
khandher ni bhasm kaNi na laadhashe
(When the hunger of starving millions will engulf the sky,
How will you retrieve the burnt-out remnant of your palaces)
The violent assertiveness is part of a larger trend. In the last decade, Gujarat has witnessed the rise to power of those politicians who instilled the language with idioms of aggression. In the process, asmita (identity) is undergoing swift erosion by oft-repeated use and abuse in Gujarati writings and society. There is an urgent need to reclaim humility and reason, as the rising dam wall threatens to drown all reason.
It was also last week that my parents made me watch a documentary on floods in the river Navli on whose banks I spent my childhood days during the last monsoon. My maternal uncle and I recalled how, during 1982 the river similarly flooded, and our neighbours were in anguish over the fate of our river-bank colony, if the waters were to rise by a few metres more. My eyes fill with tears when I recall the image of my grandfather, who would come to the river with a stick in his hand, asking us kids to return home for lunch during those childhood days.
As I grew from childhood into my teens, the river gradually died. First it stopped flowing all around the year, and instead became a seasonal river. Its flow gradually trickled down, due to rampant extraction of groundwater along its banks. A small dam upstream from my childhood home, on a stream merging with the river, started recording less and less water storage. The final three years of the eighties were very bad. However, from late nineties, realisation dawned upon Gandhian social activists that much work needs to be done on rejuvenating local water resources, and dreams of getting water piped from far-away sources were wishful. Now, with a series of checkdams built along the course, this river witnessed a huge flood thanks to the bounties of last monsoon (and that's why my parents made it a point to make me watch this documentary on last year's flood).
With Aamir Khan categorical that there is no question of offering an apology for his stance, those BJP workers are now threatening to ban not only all the films of Aamir, but also the products that he endorses. Even Harin Pathak,senior BJP leader, says he shouldn't have spoken without having thorough knowledge of the issue. But what about those who do have extensive knowledge of the project, and are still critical? What is the rioters' response to critics of the project amongst whom many do speak, understand and read Gujarati, though might not have penned articles in Gujarati who have opposite view on the dam than that of the establishment.
Silencing the 'other' is only a short step away from silencing ourselves. What will happen if the fanatics of BJP youth wing were to snatch away my fellow Gujaratis' right to a different voice, say, fiction written by Ashwini Bhatt, rather than Aamir Khan? How many of 'us' can we silence? I remember reading a letter from Bhatt, published in the Gujarati weekly Abhiyan more than a decade ago. He narrated his experience of being with the project oustees, and as he described the people he encountered I realised that they too - like the girl Luku who cooked makke ki roti for my favourite Gujarati fiction writer - were 'our people'. My mind is gripped with fear as I recall this letter Ashwini wrote more than a decade ago, confessing that "Hafeshwar no khaDkaaL DhaaL utarataa utartaa huN radi padyo hato" (while climbing down the rocky slopes of Hafeshwar, my eyes were filled with tears).
Who are 'we'? And which voices are 'ours'?
"KhetivaaDi dubaaDi ne, Gaamegaam ujaaDi ne
Banaavyo aa bandh tame, Dhokhaa dhaDi karine
Jivaadori tamaare, Faansi no fando amaare"
By drowning our farmlands, and wiping out our villages
You have built this big dam by surreptitious means
Maybe it's lifeline for you, but we will always call it death noose, and nothing else.