rn: re: Arundhati Roy, NBA & the crushing of a magical protest


Jan Slakov

Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2000 18:33:56 +1100
From: Lynette Dumble <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Re: Arundhati Roy arrested!

Dear Jan and friends at RN,
Thanks a million for circulating the Cora Weiss petition to remind India's 
diplomats that international eyes are watching the actions of the Madhya 
Pradesh Government. In general, the Indian media has damwashed the Narmada 
Bachao Andolan's January 11 peaceful march to stop work on Maheshwar power 
project. In addition to considerable misreporting from some sources, notably 
the Times of India, there is a continuing effort to vilify Arundhati Roy. 

As one has come to expect from this woman of extraordinary integrity, praise 
and adulation were the last things on her mind went she chose to stand up 
and be counted alongside the Narmada Bachao Andolan and India's dalits. At 
the same time, both Arundhati and the NBA are wide awake to the politics of 
"diminishing numbers", and have taken the opportunity  to set the record 
straight about the events of January 11, which include the arrest of 973 NBA 
members and their allies, in today's Hindustan Times [see below].

With warmest regards, Lynette.



Sunday, January 16, 2000, New Delhi 

How ‘private’ cops crushed a magical protest 
(By Arundhati Roy and Jharuna Jhaveri) 

IT HAS been distressing to read the completely false accounts that have 
appeared in both local and national newspapers about the Narmada Bachao 
Andolan's capture of the Maheshwar dam site. 

Obviously, these accounts are based on information received in press 
releases handed out by the Government and S. Kumar's, the textile company 
that has won the contract for the dam. 

To suggest that there were only 400 people, most of them "outsiders", is 
nothing but an outlandish lie. We both were there to express our solidarity 
with the struggle of the local people and not to "lead the march" as some 
papers have suggested. (Winning a prize for literary fiction does not 
automatically qualify a person to "lead" a people's movement that has 
existed years before she came along.) 

This is a brief, first person account of what happened. There are 
photographs and documentary film footage of the event for anyone who wishes 
to check the veracity of what is stated. 

On the night of January 10, men and women from the 62 affected villages 
gathered in the village of Sulgaon. By midnight, between 3,500 and 4,000 
people had assembled. They planned to capture the dam site of the Shri 
Maheshwar Hydel Project, the first privatised hydel project in India for 
which the Government has signed a power purchase agreement with S. Kumar's. 

The 3,500 local people were joined by about a dozen "outsiders", most of 
whom were independent filmmakers, photographers and reporters. Among the 
supporters were the veteran Gandhian Jyotibhai Desai, Krishna Raval and 

The march set off from Sulgaon at 4 am on January 11. It was exactly two 
years ago to the day that villagers occupied the Maheshwar dam site for more 
than 20 days. In order to avoid the police, we walked in darkness and in 
pindrop silence for about 6 km through fields and on little-used footpaths, 
across streams and marshland. 

Not a throat was cleared, not a beedi lit. The sound of 3,500 quiet feet, 
the absolute single-minded determination and discipline, was magical. Those 
of us who were "outsiders", both the skeptics and the romantics, knew we 
were participating in something historic. We arrived at the dam site just as 
dawn was breaking. 

The policemen who had been patrolling the actual dam structure were taken by 
surprise, and could not prevent the first 2,000 people from occupying the 
site where excavation work on the powerhouse pit was underway. However, they 
managed to head off 1,500 people, who were forced to remain in Jalud, the 
first village in the submergence zone. 

Soon after the site was occupied, the Collector Mr Bhupal Singh, the SP 
(whose name we don't recall), and the Additional Collector arrived and tried 
to persuade the people to leave peacefully. 

The Collector was asked why the Madhya Pradesh Government had chosen to 
permit S. Kumar's to push ahead with the project, and ignore the 
recommendations of its own Task Force Report, which prescribes a complete 
re-evaluation of the project. 

He was asked whether police repression was the way to deal with the fact 
that there was no land available for the resettlement of displaced people. 

The Collector tried to trivialize the seriousness of the situation with 
pathetic humor and some tired soap opera dialogue. ("Hum do bhai hain, aur 
ek ghar main do bhaiyon ke alag alag vichaar ho sakte hain…/main bhi aap ka 
hun, yeh prashaasan bhi aap ka hai aur yeh police bhi aap hi ki hai…") 

This was greeted with derisive laughter from the people, who called him "S. 
Kumar ka dalaal." 

The people restated their demands: 

a)What will each unit of electricity generated by the project cost? 
(According to the NBA's calculation, it would be more than Rs 10 per unit) 

b) According to the escrow clause in the contract that the MP Government is 
negotiating with S. Kumar's, the Government will have to pay the company Rs 
600 crore a year for the next 35 years, irrespective of how much electricity 
the project actually generates. We demand to know where this money is going 
to come from. 

c)The MP Government's relief and rehabilitation policy for the Narmada 
Project, which is legally binding, says the displaced people must be given 
land for land. We demand to be shown exactly where this (non-existent) land 

The Collector then said he would go back to his office and return with his 
written reply. Instead, he returned a little later and ordered the police to 
take up positions to begin the arrests. 

In response, the people moved to a lower level in the excavated pit. They 
perched dangerously on the jagged edge of a rocky, 50-foot precipice. 

Any fall from there would have been fatal. Sensing the mood, the Collector 
withdrew the police at about 8.30 am. There was a palpable easing of 
tension. For the next two hours or so, people spoke, sang, and the "outside 
supporters" (numbering about four) introduced themselves and spoke briefly. 

Several local people spoke at length about the struggle and the violent 
repressive regime of the government and S. Kumar's. Again and again they 
said they would rather die than lose their lands and homes. 

Suddenly, without warning at about 11 am, the police returned and the 
arrests began. Women were dragged and carried into waiting buses. We 
(Jharana and Arundhati) were dragged away, carried up the hill, dumped in a 
private Tata Sierra and driven away. 

The driver of the vehicle admitted that it belonged to the "project" 
(administered by S. Kumar's). It was a humiliating revelation —is this the 
first, faltering step towards a privatised Indian police force and 

We protested about this and were then transferred to a police Gypsy. We were 
first taken to a resthouse. We refused to get out of the vehicle and 
demanded to be taken to the jail along with everyone else. We were then 
driven from place to place for over three hours, and eventually we were 
taken to the Mandleshwar jail where the rest of the people were waiting. 

They had refused to get out of their buses until they knew where we and Ms 
Chitaroopa Palit (a beloved NBA activist) were. The male policemen had booze 
on their breath. While driving away after dropping us, the driver of the 
police jeep knocked down a man, a drunk constable. 

His unconscious body was unceremoniously dumped in the back of the police 
Gypsy. We have no idea whether he is dead or alive. 

Altogether, more than 2,000 people were picked up. There were not enough 
vehicles to take them away in. There was no place in the prisons to keep 
them. Eventually most of them (including ourselves) were released. 

However, 973 people were arrested and lodged in the Maheshwar jail. (The 
Press is advised to check police records). We learnt that there was no 
electricity and no water and no facilities. 

Today, five days later, the situation borders on farce. The jail has been 
left open and abandoned by its own workers. The people have vowed to return 
to the dam site and stop illegal construction work. It's not surprising. 
Their lives and livelihoods are at stake. 

To the rest of the world, the Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project may be a dam, but 
to the affected people, it is nothing but a gun to their heads. There could 
be no bigger lie than the misinformation that the movement has no local 
support. S. Kumar's and the Government both know they have a full-blown 
civil disobedience movement on their hands. 

The Press would know it too, if it would only go and see for itself, instead 
of basing its reports on government handouts or false accounts by 
compromised journalists on the payroll of private companies (of whom, 
according to local people, there is no shortage). 

It is a disturbing development, this. The Press would do well to look into 
it, or risk having its good name tarnished by unscrupulous people 
masquerading as journalists. 

One last word: What the people of the Narmada Valley are asking for is 
honest, reliable information about their future. Is that so unreasonable? 

For the government to treat such a historic, spectacular and spectacularly 
non-violent peoples' movement in the way it has done, is to undermine the 
very principle of non-violent protest. Is it only when a plane is hijacked 
that people get taken seriously? Or not even then?