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Probing into Gujarat’s ‘silent’ subalterns

By Rajiv Shah
Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, who has just finished her stint as professor at the Centre for Rural Studies, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, the premier institute which “trains” IAS babus in administrative skills, has come up with a new book – an “ethnographic” account of five major mass movements of Gujarat.
Outcome of her earlier fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, the book seems unique in two ways: First, even as analyzing the five movements from what she calls “rights-based” perspective, the book does not take any of these on their face value; and secondly, against the backdrop of the so-called Gujarat model of development, they highlight what has been ailing diverse sections of Gujarat society over the last four decades.
Titled “Protest Movements and Citizens’ Rights in Gujarat (1970-2010)” and published by IIAS, the five mass movements the book seeks to analyze are – the Navnirman movement of 1973-74, when led to the overthrow of Chimanbhai Patel ministry in 1974; the two anti-reservation movements of 1981 and 1986; the pro-Narmada dam Ferkuva movement of early 1990s; and the 2009-10 Mahuva movement against the Nirma Cement Plant in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat.
The book ends with an Afterword, a chapter on the latest Patidar movement of 2015, where the author seeks to highlight the caste-based “‘rights’ agenda” adopted by the Patels in the context of Gujarat’s “transformative politics and social justice”. She interprets the Patidar movement for reservations – a travesty of the demand to abolish reservation in 1980s – as an expression of the Patels’ perception of losing out in the development race, a “desire for stronger presence in educational sector, which is a gateway to employment in different sectors and immigration abroad.”
Referring to the two anti-reservation movements and the pro-Narmada dam Ferkuva movement, the author says, these were led by “relatively privileged groups” who became “the forerunners in exercising rights”, and succeeded in opening up “debates on citizens’ rights” in such a way that they “subverted the norm of rights, i.e., right to reservations, right to resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), right to development of the tribal oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.” In fact, what was subverted was “the notion of ‘shared’ resources in terms of educational and employment opportunities, and water resources and other benefits through Sardar Sarovar Dam, respectively”, she says.
The author believes, what also witnessed here was “silence of the subalterns.” Interpreting this silence as the “voicelessness and absence of counteraction or retaliation”, she underlines, “It connotes ‘politics of silence’, which means a process of both silence and silencing – who or which group is silent becomes a unit of analysis along with the process of silence and silencing.” Further: “In philosophy, the silence signifies higher attainment and a positive connotation, while in sociology and political science, silence is analysed structurally. If dissent and resistance makes a democracy vibrant, the civil society responsive, and the citizens interactive; conversely, the silence indicates a lack of space for dialogue, and selective exclusion or segregation or lack of parity.”
Especially referring to the Ferkuva movement, the authors points to how it “spoke of Narmada as a lifeline of Gujarat”, with the result it increasingly became “an act of Gujarati identification with all denominations: religion, sub-sect, class, gender, occupation, regions and simultaneously viewed those who opposed the dam as the radical ‘Other’ of the state.” She controversially remarks, “It also played a catalytic role in consolidating Hindutva in at least two important ways – first, it broke the solidarity of the Left movement by creating an expansive platform around water and development that transcended the secular and non-secular divide. Second, the nativism that arose around the dam was at once secular and amenable to a communal vision given its divisive discursive frame that specified an oppositional ‘Other’.”
The author, however, concedes that, despite their inherent weaknesses, the other two movements – Navnirman and Mahuva – did make some broader impact, as they sought to address some of the more contentious issues facing Gujarat society.
A spontaneous movement which sprang from the aspiration to end “poverty, corruption, inflation and injustice”, Navnirman became the precursor to the India-wide JP movement. She says, the Navnirman movement’s “distinct contributions” include “articulating democratic rights, including civil liberties, right to development, addressing corruption as ethical-political issue.”
Though it did not have “theoretical understanding of societal problems” and talked of “reconstruction in simplistic, uncertain terms”, the author approvingly quotes Manishi Jani, the top Navnirman leader, as saying, “For the first time in history of India, the students of Gujarat entered the Andolan with social commitment, where they felt that we have to perform our duties towards the nation and they participated to curb the corruption…” He adds, students for the first time did not “gossip while standing at the pan shop” but instead discussed “political issues and events and analyzed them as responsible citizens.”
As for the Mahuva movement, says the author, it seemed to bring out “a gamut of issues to the fore with a demand for land for an industrial unit, Nirma Limited’s Gujarat-based detergent company for putting up a cement plant, captive power plant and a coke oven plant.” It ensued a vibrant debate, especially among Saurashtra farmers and beyond, on “the present development paradigm that supports industrial development” and the “consequence of undated land records, which could take away livelihood of large number of citizens”. Led by ex-BJP MLA Kanubhai Kalsaria (now with Aam Aadmi Party), it helped bring together civil society and political groups.
Drawing a parallel with the Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan, the author says, the Mahuva movement sought to give the hope that it would be possible to “win over” through a legal battle, which ultimately turned into its weakness, too. “The Andolan articulated the right to development and the right to participate in decision making and planning regarding desired development in the region”, she notes, adding, it resorted to several “protest programmes like padyatras, submitting of memorandums and advocacy with political leaders”, all of which were “measures of deliberative democracy”. However, she regrets, it relied too much on legal means to fight for justice, raising the question whether “any people-centric achievement is possible in a post-judgement scenario”.
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This article was first published HERE

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