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Abeja Dispatch

Gandhi's Satyagraha, the Insistence on Truth
May 17, 2000

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The hills around this village of Domkhedi are dry and barren
The earth here is dry and scorched by the sun. India is facing a terrible drought right now. These hills, once covered in forest, now wear yellow grasses and only a few shrubs and trees. If the forests had not been cut down, the soil would have been shaded, and may have been able to hold some of its moisture. But now there is nothing to shield it from the sun's powerful rays.

It's early morning in the small Adivasi village of Domkhedi. I sit alone under a large tree, watching a line of four women walk up the path from the Narmada River, past the dry fields. The three sisters, Kaili, Bibi, and Punti, and their mother, Katri, are all balancing large clay pots of water on their heads. Each of the houses in the village has a few of these pots, and the women will make several trips to the river to fill them all before the sun gets too hot. I'm glad that they didn't ask me to help, because I can't do that!

India's year is roughly divided into three seasons: Grishma (The Hot), Varsha (The Wet) and Shishira (The Cool). We, unfortunately, are visiting smack dab in the middle of "The Hot." In July, the monsoon rains ("The Wet") will start. Traditionally, that is the time for planting crops, to be harvested in December. India is anxiously awaiting this year's monsoon to end the drought, and hoping that it is larger than last year's, which was much smaller than usual.

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for larger view
Women carry water up from the river every day to fill these jars
You would think that the poor tribes around here would be looking forward to the monsoon, to bring life back to these hills. These days, that is not the case. Instead of life, the monsoons threaten death to this village and its traditional way of life. You see, Domkhedi is 60 kilometers upstream from the Sardar Sarovar Project, one of the 30 mega-dams that the government of India is building on the Narmada River. Every year since 1991, because of the dam, Domkhedi gets completely flooded with water.

The government wants the people of Domkhedi and the neighboring villages to leave, but they don't have anywhere to go. The government has begun to cut down the forests where these tribal peoples collect food, medicinal plants, and firewood, saying that it will be submerged, anyway. But the Adivasi villages here refuse to budge. They have plainly stated again and again "Koi nahin hatega, bandh nahi banega!" which means "No one will move, the dam will not be built!"

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Kaili and Bibi share their home and their stories with me
When the government first conceived of these dam projects, they certainly weren't planning on these poor, illiterate peasants to protest. Actually, they weren't really planning for them at all! Despite the fact that construction began all the way back in 1961, Katri's family didn't know that their home was going to be submerged until 1985, when Medha Patkar walked into their village and told them.

"At first we thought she was crazy!" they told me, with Pravin interpreting. "How can we be drowned? The river is so far away! Eventually, though, she was very insistent and we listened to her."

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The women from the village surround Medha to keep the police from arresting her (Photo by Deepa and Harekrishna)
By 1993, several of the villages that were already being submerged by the dam waters took a stand. Supported by their neighbors and activists like Medha, they refused to leave their homes when the monsoons came. They refused to take down their huts or save the posts made from ancient teak trees from their forests. Their animals stayed tied up. The baby remained in his cradle. "We will drowned but we won't leave!" they chanted. And they meant it.

They called this action the monsoon "satyagraha". The word satyagraha, coined by Mahatma Gandhi, means "insistence on truth." It is a peaceful form of protest, where the protesters refuse to comply with the authorities based on principle. It is hoped that when the government takes action against the peaceful protesters, they will realize that what they are doing is wrong.

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Last years satyagrahis risk their lives to save their way of life (Photo by Deepa and Harekrishna)
Despite government threats and warnings, and despite the very possibility of drowning, these villagers have insisted that the truth be told and adhered to. The police came in boats and arrested them all, and set their cattle free before the waters drown them, and the dam continued to be built.

In the years that followed, the struggle grew along with the dam. Thousands of families from over 200 villages made the same vow, that they would not leave their homes. There were rallies and sit-ins, hunger strikes and protests. People have been repeatedly arrested, beaten, and even shot at by the police. One 15-year-old boy from a neighboring village was shot and killed. The police have raped several women known to be active in the resistance movement, with no punishment. But the people have remained peaceful and stood firm.

Civil Disobedience

When otherwise lawful people intentionally break the law out of principle, in order to make a point or to avoid a greater evil, it is known as "civil disobedience." This is different than vandalism or random acts of lawlessness. Non-violent acts of civil disobedience are selfless actions which require courage and sacrifice, and have led to great changes in the world.

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, it was an act of civil disobedience. It was unlawful for a black person to sit in the front of the bus. She knew that the law was unjust, and was willing to go to jail to challenge it. When Gandhi marched to the sea to make salt, he was breaking a British law which required Indians to buy salt from British merchants. When Julia Butterfly sat up in a Redwood tree for two years, she was trespassing on private property and refusing to comply with police orders. She risked her life because she believes that saving ancient forests is more important than property rights and corporate profits. And let's not forget about the Boston Tea Party!

Can you name other famous acts of civil disobedience? Do you think that it was ok to break the law in these situations? Would you ever participate in civil disobedience?

In 1993, after reviewing the dam project and the treatment of the "oustees," (the people who will loose their homes because of the dam) the World Bank withdrew its support of the project. In 1995, the Supreme Court of India put a temporary hold on further construction while the problems were being worked out. Finally, the people were starting to be heard.

But last year, before the monsoon season came, the dam was raised 8 meters, including humps that are supposed to slow the water going over the top. That, of course, caused the waters to rise higher, and more villages to be submerged. The satyagrahas were resumed. As the water rose, people were arrested again and again, but they just kept returning. Sometimes they would stand up to 36 hours in water up to their waist, or even their neck, as the level of the river rose and fell depending on the rains further upstream. Finally, when the water level was expected to rise particularly high, 386 satyagrahis (people who were participating in the satyagraha) were arrested and held for 14 days.

"The only place the government has for the oustees is the jail!" One activist said, ironically, since there is no fertile land for resettlement.


monsoon - heavy rainfall often causing floods
adhere - stick to

Last night, as I sat under the stars, "chatting" with them using hand signals and facial expressions (I don't speak their native Adivasi language, and they don't speak English), I forgot all about their struggle and the risks they are about to face, yet again. Laughing and joking among themselves (often at my expense, I'm afraid), they drank tea and rolled up whole tobacco leaves and smoked them, still green. It is hard to believe I'm sitting among such heroes. I wonder, in their situation, if I would be strong enough to stand up and fight, or if I would just leave to the city slums, their other alternative.

Despite an uncertain future, they continue to send their children to school, to carry water up from the river, and to plant their crops. It is the only life they know-although they are being quickly introduced into a modern world of governments, courts and money.

Relevant Links

Transcript of chat session with Medha Patkar

A letter to fax to Indian officials

Website about the Narmada river put up by Friends of Narmada River

What will happen this year? A case is just finishing up before the Supreme Court of India which will help decide their fate. If the ruling is not in their favor, construction on the dam could begin again, even before the monsoons come. Then what?

Keshav Sirra Vasave, the head of the nearby village of Nimghavan, speaks of the old days with nostalgia. "Before the dam, we got fish from the river, food from the jungle. We were very happy. Now they are cutting down the forest. And the submergence is very harsh." Even if the dam stops where it is, the forests will still be gone, and the river will still submerge their homes every year. Is there an answer to these problems?

If you want to know more about the situation, or find out how YOU can help, check out last week's Making a Difference section.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Keeping Their Heads Above Water!
Jasmine - The Ruins of Vijayanagar: A Sacred and Grand Legacy
Abeja - "Ladenge, Jitenge, Sikhenge, Badenge!": We will fight, We Will Win, We Will Learn, We Will Grow!

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