Over the weekend, at a ceremony coinciding with his birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river. He praised the project’s engineers and called himself a man in a hurry, keen to usher in a new India. He also blamed what he called “forces of obstruction", because of whom “Maa Narmada" suffered the most.

There was suffering, but it was borne by small farmers and Adivasis, nearly 40,000 of whom were displaced to make way for the dam, their lives uprooted and communities disrupted. But “greater common good" had to prevail. Large dams have always been marketed as essential for the many, and that means lesser beings pick up the costs.

Modi also alluded to conspiracies to hold Gujarat back. His ire was directed at environmentalists and activists who opposed the project, and the World Bank which withheld funds due to environmental and rehabilitation concerns. Taking the cue from Modi, some commentators criticized activists for delaying progress by opposing the dam. 

If only the Adivasis and the dispossessed knew what was good for them and step aside for the many, Gujarat would prosper—so ran the refrain. Some commentators have used statistics to show that many of the resettled are now happy, even though the same statistics also show that just as many are not happy. Utilitarian arguments are deployed to say that many more would benefit from access to water and power. But there is no such thing as a free thaali, as Gujaratis, of all the people, must surely know. Someone has to bear the cost, and that cost, as with all major development projects conceived and implemented, has been borne by the poor.

Since the state’s formation in 1960, Gujarat has had a collective, bipartisan consensus that only by damming the Narmada would the state alleviate its water crisis. Gujaratis have accepted that wisdom, and all governments have committed resources towards building the dam. To be sure, Gujaratis, like people everywhere, need water and electricity. The question is whether a large dam is the best—or only—way to attain that goal, and whether such massive displacement of people was necessary.

But as Mona G. Mehta showed in her powerful essay, “A River Of No Dissent: Narmada Movement And Coercive Gujarati Nativism", questioning the dam was seen as treasonous in Gujarat (her essay appears in Gujarat Beyond Gandhi: Identity, Society And Conflict, which she has co-edited). She writes: “The plan to build the dam used the instruments and rhetoric of democracy to forge a popular consensus around a coercive Gujarati nativism marked by ideas of victimhood and an adversarial ‘Other’." 

If you were against the dam, you were against Gujarat. Nobody was spared—from Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to Mrinalini Sarabhai who questioned the dam’s social implications, anyone who challenged the dam was vilified. Fewer people spoke up within Gujarat, and those from other states who did, were condemned as enemies of the state. The vehemence reached comical absurdity when Gujarat’s theatre owners refused to screen Aamir Khan’s film, Fanaa, since they feared protests, because Khan called for humane resettlement of those affected by the dam. Compassion, sympathy, or concern seemed to disappear. Indeed, in the 1990s, one Gujarat minister had rather callously said, “the government didn’t have to move a finger to resettle the tribals, who would (automatically) leave their habitat like rats from their holes when the water would rise".

Such arrogant assertions smack of pride and power. There is a word in Gujarati for pride, and it is asmita. Successive governments saw the dam as signifying Gujarati pride and identity, personifying asmita. That word has deep resonance in Gujarati culture. In 1922, Kanaiyalal Munshi, the lawyer and novelist who was part of the freedom struggle and close to Vallabhbhai Patel, wrote an essay called Gujarat Ni Asmita, or the pride of Gujarat. There, he attempted to trace the origin of Gujarati identity.

As Rita and Abhijit Kothari explain while introducing their recent translation of Munshi’s novel, Patan Ni Prabhuta (The Glory Of Patan), Munshi’s quest took him to the pre-Muslim Chalukya period of Gujarat’s past, which he saw as the “zenith of the civilization of Gujarat". Munshi’s popular novels redefined Gujarati identity for many Gujaratis. Munshi’s asmita invokes a mythical nostalgia that is neither inclusive, nor syncretic, and certainly not accurate, given the state’s rich diversity of faiths, languages, and identities. Such an essentialist view builds on the ideas underpinning Hindutva. Little wonder then, that the majoritarian view in Gujarat, which has voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party for close to two decades, identifies with it so closely.

But is Gujarat’s asmita built on subjugating tens of thousands of poor? Around the time when Munshi was writing the essay encapsulating his thinking, another Gujarati, M.K. Gandhi, had returned to India from South Africa, helping Indians discover an identity based on humility, not arrogance. Think of the vulnerable, he said. Before taking any step, he advised, “recall the face of the poorest...and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her... Will it restore him (her) to a control over his (her) own life and destiny? ...Then you will find your doubts...melt away." 

As Gujaratis celebrate the dam, they might pause to reflect on whether it would restore to the most marginalized Gujaratis control over their lives. Such reflection may also reveal the real meaning of asmita.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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