Nonviolent people's struggles in India


Narayan Desai

Narayan Desai has had a long experience with nonviolence -- his father was Gandhi's personal secretary, and Narayan was raised in Gandhi's ashram. Narayan lives at his own ashram, the Institute for Total Revolution, and at the time of conference was Chair of War Resisters' International. In his opening address to the Conference, he analysed four contemporary examples of Indian nonviolence.

I will talk about four recent cases of people's power and nonviolent action. Two can be considered successful, or at least immediate successes.

The first case is from Baliapal, on the eastern coast of India, in the state of Orissa. Baliapal, which has been described as the granary of Orissa, was selected by the central government to have a missile base. Many people are surprised to hear that India is planning missile bases, but this has been going on for a long time. I chose this case in particular because it is entirely people's power which has prevented the base from functioning, and at last the government has abandoned the idea of a missile base there. We aren't yet sure if there won't be missiles somewhere else, but still people succeeded in preventing it at Baliapal.

This happened for many reasons. Baliapal is a lush area which produces rice, coconuts, vegetables that feed Calcutta and many other places. The whole population was to be evicted for the missile base, and the people decided that they would resist. The whole movement against the missiles was organised spontaneously. When I tried to find out who was the leader, I could not, because there wasn't one. But we know of many people who were involved, such as a school teacher who had lost his wife. He said to himself, I am in grief, but my area -- and he called it my land -- is in greater grief, so let me sing about this greater grief in order to forget my personal grief. And his songs are sung in hundreds of villages. They are very simple songs, but they have spread throughout. He was only one example, there were many others spread all over the area.

All they did was very simple. They did not allow any government officers to enter the whole area of several hundred square kilometres. The people created physical or human barriers and kept vigil day and night. Except for teachers, who were government officials, the authorities were not allowed to enter the area at all. Teachers were allowed in: they talked about what was going on and were on the side of the people. The government took a whole battalion of soldiers around the area, but the men, women and children continued their vigil with songs, and people's theatre. People kept watch in tree tops and blew conch shells or rang brass bells to warn others if they saw a jeep or other vehicle coming. Then people would come in their thousands and surround the area. The campaign succeeded so well that they have toppled the government there, and the local government is now ruled by a party that has openly supported the opposition.

The second case is also from Orissa, in a forest region near a hill called Gandhamadan. A private company intended to clear the forest in order to construct a monstrous aluminium factory on the hill. This would have meant denuding the hill, depriving the tribal people there of forest wood, food and medicinal plants. The people created barriers at strategic points of entry into the forest and prevented any of the company's vehicles from entering the area for months. There was only one pass on the hill, so it was easy to block the passage, which was done every day for more than two years. The company decided to shift the proposed factory to another site.

The third case is a general case, related to the anti-nuclear power movement in India. There have been people's demonstrations against proposed nuclear power plants in Kakrapar in Gujarat, in Kaiga in Karnataka, in Tamilnadu, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, where the struggles are still going on. Here the people have been mobilised by educational programmes, grassroots organisations and demonstrations. In the case of Kakrapar, in Gujarat where I am from, there have been occasional demonstrations with intense, provocative reprisals by the administration. There has been one case of stone-throwing and sabotage by the people in the course of five years of peaceful struggle. The struggle is still going on and victory does not seem around the corner.

The fourth case is connected with two big dams on the river Narmada, which passes through three states in central and western India. It is one of the larger rivers in India and, as all rivers in India, is considered holy. The tribal people who are threatened with eviction from the area, supported by environmentalists, are leading the struggle here. After three years of drought and famine, the idea of irrigation canals is very attractive to the beneficiaries of the diverted dam water. But more than 100,000 tribal people live upstream and are threatened with eviction. Environmentalists are concerned about the forest cutting, water logging, soil salinisation and similar long-term damages which may follow the big dams. Some demonstrations have succeeded, others have not. The latest demonstration was two weeks ago when a few thousand people brought their bullock carts, tractors, and trucks and blockaded a bridge. The new government, which had promised so many things, negotiated for 24 hours, at the end of which the state's Chief promised to give serious consideration to their demand if the movement was postponed. So it was postponed for some time. But the demonstrators considered it a big success.

All these four struggles happened in relatively poor parts of the country. It's the poor who are usually affected by the so-called development programmes of the rich. Tribal people have in particular been affected. The bureaucracy and the military have almost invariably been on the side of the "civilised" in these struggles. This reminds one of Gandhi's prophecy that there would be a struggle between the citizens and the military in India.

The two places where people's power has succeeded are where the people were self-reliant. They did not have to depend on outside forces to continue their struggle. That was a very important factor. Self-reliant, decentralised units of society may be vitally important in social defence.

The mobilisation was faster and more thorough where the issue was immediate and concrete, as in the case of Baliapal and Gandhamadan. The power plant issue was not that concrete. It takes more time and effort to mobilise the people when the issue is relatively distant and abstract, like radiation or the after effects of big dams. The qualities that were defended in all these struggles were those of the means of livelihood and culture.

Some of the methods employed in these struggles were conscientisation, organisation, direct struggle, and providing an alternative, especially in the case of the power plants. The tools were songs, drama, traditional theatre, newspapers in local languages and house-to-house contact. Some of the lessons that we learned are that although these seem to be different issues, they are all interlinked. The problem seemed to be a struggle between the citizens and the military or bureaucracy combined. I describe them, not as individuals, but as forces of life and forces of death.

The struggle is going to be long-drawn. We also found that nothing teaches better than action. It needs a lot of grassroots organisation. Wherever there was grassroots organisation, we had more success. The conflict is also about the concept of development and progress.

Just where does the strength come from? The basic strength comes from the inner qualities of those who struggle. It comes out of the faith, the patience, and out of the perseverance of those who are involved in the struggle. A lot of it came out of the culture in which they had been living and which they want to defend. It also comes out of self-reliance. Lastly, the strength was evident also when it was realised that the ┬┤enemy' was not one or more individuals, but the system, which was anti-people and anti-nature.

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