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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 47 New Delhi November 10, 2018

Narmada Appeals to You, Sardar!

An Open Letter to Sardar Patel

Monday 12 November 2018, by Medha Patkar

This letter was written and published on October 30, 2018.

Respected Sardar Patelji,

Namaskar!

Whereever you may be, as our leader of the Freedom Movement, your soul, I know, rests here on the motherland whose beloved son you have always been. Your act of freeing India from the shackles of the royal states and estates and of freeing the farmers from the oppressive tax laws of the British regime is unprecedented even to this day. As the first Home Minister of the first government of Independent India, your firm, non-communal and social approach to the unparalleled violence and the relief work thereafter, was appreciated by none else than Mahatmaji as unique, despite the controversy created by some.

You stood tall in the historic freedom struggle of India as the Sardar. But you know, while throwing your legacy by the wayside, a 182 metre-high statue of yours is being unveiled in a few days to be the tallest in the world! Can you imagine who has built your new Avatar? Many Chinese and some local Adivasi and national labourers have worked overnight on the ‘Sadhu Bet’, a hillock with the Adivasi deity of their faith. You would surely ask: on whose land would this statue stand? Whose plan was this? This land, river, forest that your Avatar is going to stand on, belong to the Adivasis. The very same people your government and the leaders, Mahatma Gandhi to Pandit Nehru, recognised as villagers with rights, as republics and offered security through Panchsheel. The forefathers of the Indian Constitution, with Babasaheb at the helm, also granted them the right to peace and good government, through the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and later the PESA Act towards self-reliance.

You would surely watch from the highland the scene down into the River Narmada and its banks to the basin wide and far. Your vision will find their huts and hamlets in the hills and hillocks, one of which was Varata Bawa Tekri under your feet. Do remember the days when you carried out the operation to integrate the princely states with delicacy and democracy, to make most of them sacrifice voluntarily for unity. By the way, your Avatar is also claimed to be for the same goal, Unity...yet with the insanity of impinging upon not just their land but also their rights. Would you ever think of using ‘force’ against these simple and least monetised, self-reliant people, as had to be done against the princely state of Junagadh then?

Sardar, these Adivasis also belong to the farming community you recognised as the contributors who feed and need to lead. Today, if only you knew the reasons behind their laying down life and cuddling death, you would have taken to the same task and struggle, combing villages and fields as in August 1942. But the most shocking for you, who acquired royal properties, dealt with transfers, created ‘privy purses’, would be to know the ways and means of transferring today the life-supporting resources of the very brethren you fought for, receiving acclaim for the social movement you built. Non-cooperation was the non-violent tool you exercised, under the guidance of Bapu then. The same tool is now a weapon in the hands of the Indian rulers, practising neo-colonial ideals. They do not bring in the horses or the Sepoys or take over properties of the rich and the mighty. They take over the very life-line—land, water, river, forest and fish—of the weak and the marginalised. Could you ever dream of the Indian State—the ICS cadres whom you treated as the ‘Patron Saint’ of the public, and the Cabinet members, whom you warned against ‘partiality and corruptibility’ and leaving the path of rectitude in your speech on April 21, 1947—assuming itself to be powerful enough to not only tax farmers but also exploit them through low prices for the produce and extract GST from small traders and evict the market infrastructure of the poor, the hawkers, in the name of huge, gigantic infrastructure? Is your legacy at stake, Sardar? How could they tolerate suicides by lakhs of farmers?

Do please have a look on your left and you will find the six-lane highway running up to 120 kms in length parallel to the Narmada. Lakhs of trees, more than 100 years old, within the last one year had to make way for this highway. The people of Rajpipla, once a princely state that is recorded in history for having defeated Aurangzeb’s forces, are compelled to be mute spectators, having no channel to vent their Man ki Baat.

You, Sardar, once the chairman of the committees responsible for the minorities, tribals, excluded areas and fundamental rights must also know that when your Avatar will be well lit and decorated, the tribal communities, being repressed and oppressed, are to be thrown into darkness. Their lands, in six villages not even legally acquired, following the British law of 1894, but simply taken over, paying a paltry sum of Rs 80/- to Rs 200/ - per acre in 1961, are now being diverted for luxurious hotels named after ‘Shreshtha Bharat’ or Swaminarayan Complex and even a museum with their own remnants. You, who were successful in recovering the farmlands for the farmers refusing to pay the oppressive tax, would come down to support these tribals who are not granted anything as per the new law of 2013, nor are gifted with alternative land but are being made to accept a Rs 7 lakh package which they too are non-cooperating with. You were at the forefront of such a struggle and having threatened to leave the Congress, had made your party accept the path of non-violent yet militant battle that led you into jail in 1940 and a solid mass protest in 1942, with the shutdown of even the civil services! With your ability to organise the countrymen as also to face the onslaught of the imperialist forces, you could certainly challenge the present powers, the creators of your Avtar, vouching for unity, but practising the divide and rule tactics and promoting or allowing brutality, while denying diversity of creed, culture and religion. If only you take a step forward and downward into the valley of Narmada, you would surely be overwhelmed with the simplicity of these nature-based, generations-old communities, of Adivasis, farmers and fishworkers. Many of them had already lost their lands as it was acquired by the state for the Dam, again in your name, Sardar Sarovar, without paying them compensation worth a rupee. They too walked in your steps, faced attacks, and were sent to jails. (Jail? You had called it a ‘place for peace’, in 1943, remember?) The government in 2013 issued orders and made promises to give land for land. But ultimately they are being cheated and evicted out of their balance land for tourism! Do please have an eye on these fast-track operations around, as only you can stop them from further damage...only you can!

Sardar, the scale and impact of forcible encroachment upon the lives of the communities in this most ancient Narmada civilisation and valley, can be seen by someone of your stature and perspective. No one can hold your hand today, but you could and would drag the sena/army of bureaucrats out of their villages with your ‘iron hand’ if only you witnessed their might against the toilers’ rights. Will you, our beloved leader, engage the powers that be in a thorough review and reflection? Gone are the days when you yourself and Gandhiji had such a discourse on the floor of the jail and evolved a vision of swaraj and self-reliance, of agriculture and village republics. Gone are the days when you valued production by masses to ensure equity in both the economy and social life. I feel ashamed to tell you that there was no need to bring in 1500 Chinese workers here while excluding local Adivasis from Gujarat, your own State, many of whom are compelled to migrate and harvest sugarcane, working day and night. I feel shaken to share with you what is being planned and publicised in your name... Shopping malls, five- or seven-star hotels, luxurious guest houses, helipads, Statewise bhavans on the river bank with all its paraphernalia—the shops, markets, massive food plaza, food courts, walkways, travelators and what not. All this when not less than 35,000 families, affected by the Dam in your name since years, are still awaiting full, fair and just rehabilitation. They never marketised Narmada, nor its water. They are damned by the Dam but are most awed and anguished to see their sacrifice being taken as a capital for the Tourism Industry and, as everyone knows, political tourism too. They are sad that the farmers of Gujarat, the progeny of your movements, are left high and dry... while the corporates reap huge benefits.

Your contribution to the farmers and vision of India are enshrined with that of Mahatmaji and Nehru in all our memories. You accepted Panditji, and vowed for unity within the Congress. The common citizens of this country have no place in this gigantic play today, Sardar. All lights will be on you, the Avatar, Sardar, while throwing everything that you practised and preached intentionally to the dark recesses of history books, and the future of the Adivasis and this country is being sealed with the new paradigm.

Your generation was aware of two vices—corruption and communalism. The spirit behind your sermons, given then, is needed today. Your No to communalism was reflected in your appeal to the religious leaders during communal violence following the partition that was inevitable. Your speeches across India and a letter to Guruji Golwalkar against the Hindu fundamentalist vision of the RSS asking them to change and get integrated, are to be read and imbibed by every citizen of the country today. Those who are hiding behind your new Avatar, and marketing you, have never engaged themselves to understand your thoughts and your action to overcome violence, to move from monarchies to democracy, from monopoly and hegemony to equity and fraternity. They do not visit the families of those lynched by mobs. They do not respect the resolutions of the Adivasis. They do not value agriculture or the agriculturists. But they are staking a claim to your name, Sardar.

They hail the tallness of your Avatar while they are consumed in their own pettiness. Adivasis know all this. Evicted since 1961, the Adivasis can’t take it anymore. No Jaykaras! No celebrations from them. They mourn, they protest, they condemn and challenge as they know their mother river, not just gods and goddesses but culture and nature, and their very life is threatened again and again. Their forefathers too had fought the British, and with their perseverance had held on to the land then. They are in a new freedom struggle, asserting self-determination. They are not a part of this game in your name, worth Rs 3500 crores with about Rs 200 crores illegally collected from public enterprises as CSR, as per a CAG report. What is CSR? That will be for another letter on another day, Sardar...

Your Avatar shall stand tall, Sardar. In the midst of the river, on the Varata Bawa Tekri. We watch with hope that your Avatar shall watch over and stop all that is unjust, against unity, equity and sustainability. We seek the blessings and support of your iron hand for today and for ever. We look forward to having you there when the Adivasis raise their voice, amidst festive tourists who will gather on the 31st and every day, with or without your legacy, but all vows for a new touristocracy. We know you alone will listen to the Adivasis, their cry to halt, inspiring them to fight for their rights and the Mother River’s too! Narmada appeals to you, Sardar!

With respectful tribute,

Medha Patkar

Medha Patkar is a renowned crusader against large dams that cause massive displacement of people. She can be contacted at e-mail: medha.narmada[at]gmail.com

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