Writing as resistance in postcolonial India

The Indian government has justified the construction of the Sardar Sarovar megadam as a national instrument of democratization, potentially supplying drinking water to millions of people. Activists claim that dams form part of a biopolitical apparatus, causing displacement and relocation for indigenous people. Their fightback questions ‘modernity’, ‘development’ and ‘justice’.

“The whole point of the Rally for Valley was to make alliances – urban-rural, writer-farmer, musician-fisherman – the idea was that we were all citizens of the earth making common cause of the struggle in the Narmada Valley.” (Roy in Bavadam 1999) 

“How can we accept that what the government says in the name of your development is for our development, when our lands have been submerged and we are not even being compensated for that? This is total brutality and injustice, this is not any development. We are more enslaved than we were with the British. We are left out in every part of the action of the state. If we ask for rehabilitation we get jails and lathis. What kind of state and what kind of rule of law is this? They don’t see that we are equal citizens in this country.” [i]     (Surbhan from Kakrana)

Surbhan lives in the village of Kakrana in Madya Pradesh, India. He is one of the Adivasis displaced by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar (SS), the largest of a set of dams built along the Narmada River in central India over the last three decades.[ii] Like Surbhan, hundreds of people from plain and hilly areas have lost their houses and lands for the realization of this big development project and are still to be recompensed. Their grievances against the state are often articulated through an appeal to citizenship rights: what does it mean to belong to a state, or to a free country, when the right to land and livelihood of hundreds of Adivasis in the Narmada Valley has been ignored for almost thirty years? What are the justifications that write the Adivasis out of the narratives of development? How is the race towards development run at the expense of the poor, ethnically different subjects of the state? These questions become central for attempting to understand the Narmada Valley project in Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Greater Common Good’. Her narrative, which contributed to the struggle at the end of the 1990s, offers a point of entry into the debate over the dam.

Did the valley need a writer?

Planning for the Narmada Valley project dates back to the end of the 1970s and has been opposed by the NBA resistance movement since 1988. The World Bank, one of the main funders, withdrew its support as a consequence of the release in 1992 of a critical independent report by Bradford Morse. The court judgment on the dam construction was suspended from 1995 to 1999, fuelling hope for a decisive halt. The sustained fight of villagers against the state, the World Bank and multinational corporations was regarded with interest and puzzlement, even becoming an icon of resistance against agents of the modern empire in Negri and Hardt’s Multitude. The present situation though presents a different scenario.  

On 18 October 2000, a judgment of the Supreme Court of India unexpectedly allowed the completion of the dam as per the original plan. After this significant setback, the NBA abandoned the prospect of stopping the construction but did not end the fight. Its new objective became the rehabilitation and relocation of the ‘oustees’ (a legal term common in India to describe the displaced peoples) and to oppose the spread of corruption connected to these activities.

The essay ‘The Greater Common Good’ by Arundhati Roy, published in the widely circulating magazines Frontline and Outlook in June 1999, called for participation in the eight-day ‘rally for the valley’ that was to take place in July in the territories scheduled for flooding. For its highly critical content and given the international fame the Booker prize granted Roy in 1997, the essay attracted international attention and gathered support for the rally. On that occasion, the writer together with the activist Medha Patkar and other well-known public figures marched barefoot, in Gandhian style, to express solidarity with the Adivasis.

Medha Patkar in 2002.
Wikimedia Commons/Kannan Shanmugham. Public domain.

‘The Greater Common Good’ accused regional and central governments of dispossessing marginalized people in the name of the ‘common good’ of the nation. Drawing together evidence from surveys, available technical data and experts’ opinions, the essay pointed out the ineffectiveness of dam technologies. It also exposed the process of recolonization of rural areas by national and global agents, outlining the connection between the central and local governments and the World Bank (for a long time the main funder of the dam industry).

Roy entered in the debate over the dam quite late, when the movement had already achieved significant results mobilizing local activism and seeking institutional responses. Her trips across the Valley in 1998 had the effect of re-directing public attention to the anti-dam campaign when the general interest seemed to be fading. Her main contribution was to shape a distinct language of struggle when the movement was looking for more international visibility. Through the evocative action of marching, which evokes topical protests in Indian history, Roy performed her closeness to the Gandhian tradition of non-violent expression of dissent and to the struggle against caste discrimination that formed an important part of the Mahatma’s political agenda. Interrogating the unilateral logic of development that imposes an idea of progress on the population as a whole, the dam construction interestingly revives the opposition between the centralized control of the state and a more dispersed local rule. The actions of writing and marching mutually sustain each other and reverberate both within and outside the boundaries of the text.

Displacing the nationalist narration

‘The Greater Common Good’ starts with an epigraph taken from Nehru’s 1948 speech to the people that were to be displaced by the Hirakud dam: ‘if you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country’. Nehru’s speech, famously declaring dams ‘Temples of Modern India’, inaugurates the equation between dams and the benevolent, democratic process of modernizing the nation. Of India’s three thousand six hundred big dams, she notes three thousand three hundred were built after 1947.

Dams inscribe independent India into the history of western progress; at the same time, the controversies they raise mark an increased resistance against the acquisition of modernity through technology.

Roy’s core argument opposes the nationalist myth inaugurated by Nehru equating individual sacrifice to a precious contribution to the health of the country. Intervening in this narrative, Roy’s chronicle interrogates the nationalist assumptions passed on in this period, ‘when dams moved men to poetry’. What is concretely gained through the dam and the displacement of millions? Which narrations report the voice of the affected? Roy severely questions the validity of the Narmada project through the use of statistics on the relation between the expected revenues and the long-term sustainability of the expenses required by the Sardar Sarovar and by tracing the failure of previous dam enterprises. Dams, as she states, relying on a wide range of official and third party reports, cannot be considered as driving forces towards future economic and sustainable growth.

Common good, private property and orientalisation

Though commonly regarded as enterprises destined to improve the basic living conditions for large masses, dams inevitably cause displacement and relocation. Roy asks which subjects will be forced to sacrifice their land and village life and her answer casts a dark shadow on the entire project: in the case of the Sardar Sarovar, Adivasis and Dalits are the main victims of the politics of relocation. In Roy’s words:

“A huge percentage of the displaced are Adivasis (57.6 per cent in the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam). Include Dalits and the figure becomes obscene. According to the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes it’s about 60 per cent. If you consider that Adivasis account for only 8 per cent of India’s population, it opens up a whole other dimension to the story. The ethnic otherness of their victims takes some of the pressure off the nation builders. It’s like having an expense account. Someone else pays the bills. People from another country. Another world. India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyle of the richest. Did I hear someone say something about the world’s biggest democracy?”

When millions of people from lower classes and castes are dispossessed in the name of modernization, their lives become expendable in virtue of a general interest. The victims’ voices do not reach large publics, seemingly doomed to remain concealed. So, when literature brings to the forefront the violence tribal people face, it resonates with their acts aimed at gaining visibility in the public sphere. Rallies, demonstrations and other ways of claiming rights animate politically driven literary accounts. This in turn can open a breach into the language of mainstream media and politics.

The submergence zone has been interestingly described by Nirmal Trivedi, applying Agamben’s idea of the ‘state of exception’. According to this interpretation, affected people are subjected to the law that dispossesses them and at the same time disconnected from their rights to counteract this process. It is in the creation of these territorial enclaves where rights are suspended, comparable to refugee camps, that modern sovereignty reveals its iron fist. Dams thus appear as biopolitical apparatuses showing how contemporary democratic states have assimilated the use of totalitarian policies. Like walls in the case of migration, they endorse power over people’s life and enact it on targeted groups of the population, supporting what Agamben called the ‘democratico-capitalist project of eliminat[ing] the poor classes through development’.

Roy’s text stresses how the contest over the land between Adivasis and the state highlights a clash of conflicting notions of the ‘common’, whose long history is rooted in imperialism. In his groundbreaking work, Common Property and Common Poverty: India’s Forests, Forest Dwellers, and the Law (OUP, 1986), Chhatrapati Singh shows how the confiscation of land initiated by the Crown coincided with the introduction of enclosures and legislation on private property. As early as 1824 the British started a process of the privatization of resources. In that year, the Bengal Regulation allowed the acquisition of land, and the amendments made to this law in 1870 and in 1894 shaped the Land Acquisition Act in use today.

The newly established language of legality recognized property as the cardinal principle regulating land use, betraying the traditional customary rights of indigenous cultures. Moreover, the transformative impact of this action disproportionately affected the Adivasi economy, which relied on the use of common lands for open pasture, shared agriculture and other activities. The lands catalogued by the British as ‘waste lands’ and declared property of the Crown, for example, were vital grazing and firewood resources for nomadic tribes.

The usurpation of land that followed colonization dramatically impoverished indigenous people, whose claims over their habitations, as Singh points out, had never been stated in the language of property:

“In the strict sense forest dwellers have not cognized traditionally their habitat as their property, common or private, since such a legal title did not exist in their world view…. The British made use of this fact of monarchical claim over land to introduce the institution of common property over which the sovereign has absolute rights.”

While the Land Acquisition Act dealt with private property, the commons were managed through forest laws. Not even these laws included any protection for forest dwellers. On the contrary, the safeguard of the environment appears an objective to be pursued, in spite of, or even against the inhabitants of these areas.

One of the revealing examples of the new logic of governance, still in use today, is the introduction of a different criminal code for punishing forest-related offenses. These rules construct a double standard, shaping ranks of citizens ruled by separate codes. Among the different criminal procedures prescribed in the Forest Acts, section 64 is a significant example. It gives full power to forest officers to arrest anyone without a warrant if that person is deemed to be committing an offence pertaining to the forest. Stating special measures of surveillance and punishment for forest dwellers, the Forest Acts have the effect of othering indigenous populations who did not rely on the modern idea of legal property. The Acts subject them to different criminal norms. The colonial law thus contributed to the production of an ‘other’ appearing backward, by not complying with the economic and legal parameters of an instituted western norm, and potentially dangerous.

As nomadic jungle-dwellers, Adivasis were perceived as representatives of a state of nature. In accordance with a view gaining momentum after John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) where the title to property is said to originate from human labour applied to a determined piece of land, the absence of private property in indigenous societies was regarded as evidence of their lack of social maturity. The orientalization of Adivasis takes place at the conjunction of anthropological accounts and law, which misrepresented them as backward and, in cases like the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, criminalized them. This infamous act, declaring some of the tribes officially outlaws, attached to these people a stigma of thievery that survives to this day, even in regions like Madhya Pradesh where few groups were formally affected by it.

Culturally instituted discriminations and inflicted poverty both stem from British land policies and still afflict forest dwellers. In the independent nation, questions of occupancy rights have been pushed aside and the state is the prime owner of the land. British laws like the Land Acquisition Act remain in use and the reality of expropriation remains familiar for many Adivasis who lose their land for massive infrastructural projects.

In her essay, Roy passionately declaims how the logic of displacement causes the ‘disappearance’ of millions of citizens:

“The millions of displaced people don’t exist anymore. When history is written they won’t be in it. Not even as statistics. Some of them have subsequently been displaced three and four times – a dam, an artillery proof range, another dam, a uranium mine, a power project.”

Her description of indigenous people’s estrangement by the language of law, and their marginalization to the point of being effaced from official registers, suggests the possibility of interpreting the production and control of their difference as an effect of orientalism. Orientalism not only produces and sustains a social stigma, but also justifies displacement projects rendering Adivasis vulnerable. The framework of legality (on which citizens ought to be able to rely to obtain justice) does not seem to guarantee any help to the oustees. On the contrary, instituting an imposed foreign language on the customary management of land, law creates a yoke of violence on Adivasis deprived of their livelihood.

Roy’s essay continued to cause controversies long after its publication. She was blamed for having moved on to different causes after 1999, leaving the valley for good; but Roy’s attempts to intervene in the struggle against Adivasis’ subalternity without abandoning the vocabulary of citizenship had enduring effects and mobilized activism both inside and outside India.

New agency

Employing the term ‘citizenship’ outside the legal context, Roy fills it with new connotations. ‘Citizens’ for her are not only the Adivasis and non-Adivasis doomed of submergence, but also those who witness the valley’s drama in India and in different parts of the world and cannot simply ignore it:

“The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees of an unacknowledged war. And we, like the citizens of white America and French Canada and Hitler’s Germany, are condoning it by looking away. Why? Because we’re told that it’s being done for the sake of ‘The Greater Common Good’. That’s being done in the name of the Progress, in the name of the National Interest. Therefore gladly, unquestioningly, almost gratefully, we believe what we are told. We believe what benefits us to believe.” (italics mine)

Being a citizen means being accountable for the actions of the state and for its exercise of violence through coercion and persuasion. The concept of citizenship here employed comprises an ethical responsibility towards the environment as well as towards other people.

‘The Greater Common Good’ entails an act of reading, motivating the audience to join the protesters in the ‘rally for the valley’ due a month after the publication of the essay. It directly interpellates a wide set of readers, ranging from people in the institutions supporting this massively destructive project to Indian and international citizens, with a provocative and dialogic style. To those who supposedly believe in the national narrative equating progress to technological development, the author proposes alternative perspectives and urges to take into account her story: “Allow me to shake your faith. Put your hand in mine and let me lead you through the maze… don’t look away. It isn’t an easy tale to tell”. Here the choice of the style is revealing. Roy walks with the readers through the ruins of a ‘developing’ world and into the valley, anticipating the march she was to undertake during the mass demonstration.

This participative process, ignited by the people and their struggle, has to go back to them. On 27 June 1999, shortly after the publication of her essay, the writer poignantly donated the income of her Booker Prize, gained two years before, to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In an interview I recorded in December 2011 with Adivasis occupying government land in an NBA action, Ratan from the village of Sugat interestingly described the boomerang effect of Roy’s act emphasizing how it concretely helped the people:

“We later came to know, after some time that Arundhati visited our villages and after two months the book had come out… She filled an entire book with our story that was read by many people and that fetched a lot of money. But then we also knew about Arundhati’s decision that she wouldn’t use any of that money and she gave it back to us in the form of the boat and jeep that the Andolan has now. So the proceeds of that book came back to the Andolan and the people who are fighting.” [Italics mine]

For the Andolan, the boat and the jeep are essential instruments for crossing the valley and reaching the hilly villages where Ratan, and more than 150 families of oustees of Madhya Pradesh are still fighting to obtain land and keep the state to its word.

Writing as resistance in postcolonial India | openDemocracy.

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