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Asia

Gandhian protest finds a new incarnation in modern India

Mahatma Gandhi called his particular form of non-violent, symbolic protest "Satyagraha." Now, his countrymen have invented their own take on the idea to protest against both river dams and nuclear power plants.

When Gandhi led his countrymen on the famous Dandi march of 1930, the master strategist of non-violent protest was fully aware of the power of a symbolic act, especially when performed by a mass of people.

To protect a British monopoly, the law of British India prohibited Indians making salt from seawater at their own shore. However, Gandhi intended to do exactly that on the open beaches at Dandi, together with thousands of his followers.

Gandhi called this type of protest "Satyagraha," meaning quest for truth.

Eighty-two years later, Indian villagers would be found standing in neck-deep water for days on end, protesting against a river dam which would flood their villages and rob them of their livelihoods. This form of activism, known as Jal (meaning water) Satyagraha, is being used to oppose both the raising of dam levels - and the displacement that it brings - and the country’s expansion of nuclear power.

Arundhati Roy, a rights activist and Booker prize-winning novelist

Writer and an activist Arundhati Roy supports the movement dedicated to saving the Narmada

The history of protest against dams and hydroelectric projects in the Narmada valley is as old as the concept of development by building big dams. India's first prime minister and the founder of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, described dams as "the temples of resurgent India."

Today, India’s Narmada River is the focus of such opposition. The river traditionally marks the boundary between northern and southern India. A need for both irrigation and power generation led to the establishment of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) in the 1980s. The plan was to build 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small-sized dams along the 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) length of the river.

Saving the Narmada - and its people

The Narmada Bachao Andolan - the Save the Narmada Movement - includes displaced farmers, as well as those facing upheaval, at one end of the scale.

At the other end are renowned intellectuals, social leaders and internationally-acknowledged writers. Both Booker Prize winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy and award-winning social activist Medha Patekar have given greater visibility to the Narmada protests.

However, it was the sight of 51 men and women standing neck-deep in water for almost 15 days to protest against the government's raising the water level at the Omkareshwar Dam, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, that really made an impression. Eventually, the authorities were forced to give in to some of their demands.

A woman living near Kudankulam atomic plant holds a placard as she participates in an anti-nuclear protest

Non-violent protest has also been used to oppose nuclear power

Journalist Shirish Khare saluted their courage. "Despite all negligence, red tapism and corruption, this movement is still run by the non-violent, Gandhian philosophy," said Khare.

Jal Satyagraha was also used at the Indira Sagar Dam, also on the Narmada, where, on September 13, police finally cracked down by pulling protesters out of the water.

Water protest against nukes

Only a day later, the tactic of Jal Satyagraha had been taken over by a protest movement against a very different modern phenomenon: the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Their demonstration was against a power plant at Kudankulam.

Activists were standing in the seawater off the Idinthakarai coast. The anti-nuclear activists were holding hands forming a human chain, in an act combining two distinct forms of symbolic protest.

The sight is one that surely would have pleased Gandhi.

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