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June 3, 2000
But no one seems very festive. A few police officers wander through, staring down the villagers, and attempting to appear threatening. One police officer carries a video camera, focusing in on one person and then another, as if to say "we know who you are." He comes back to me several times, probably because he doesn't know who I am and cannot understand why a foreigner has come.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Believe me, I am not cheating by re-writing my dispatches about the Narmada River but there seems to be a pattern here. Like the "development" plans along the Narmada, the people affected by the proposed mega-port at Umbergaon are Adivasi (tribal) villagers who are mostly illiterate and excluded from the political system. They were not consulted about the plans for the port and knew nothing about it until one day someone was traveling from village to village, knocking on each door and cheerfully asking "When the government takes your land for the port project, do you want monetary compensation or a resettlement package?"
Getting back to the event in the village of Umbergaon, a large, horned cow wanders by me, the crowd continues to swell, someone stands up to take the microphone and begins to leads the group in singing and chanting. Why are these people so opposed to progress and development? Why do the police seem so angry? Why is there such fear and sadness in the eyes that surround me?
On April 7th, just two months ago, the SRP charged a group of peaceful protestors with their lathis (billy-clubs), arresting 48 people and severely beating several of the arrested men once inside the jail. Former army Lt. Colonel Pratap Save (pronounced "saw-VAY"), a war hero for service in two of India's wars, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the port and has organized the opposition efforts among the local villages. As a result, at one o'clock in the morning one day, the police burst into his home and arrested him. While in jail, the police beat Colonel Save so badly that his brain bled severely and he slipped into a coma for over a week before he died.
The judge reports that the findings of the tribunal vindicate the villager's position. Lucky for you, I read the long report and I can give you the rundown of important points the Tribunal made--like Cliff's notes:
After the judge's presentation of the report, all those who gathered began to march in a line to the police station where Colonel Save was held. An endless river of saris weaves its way across the beach and the fields and into the village, as far as the eye can see. Outside of the cover of the trees, the sun beats down mercilessly, but the protestors don't seem bothered, as they chant and sing in front of the police station, "Long live Colonel Save."
Should I stay in the bus? I'm not sure what to do. I don't know this family. Am I turning Colonel Save's widow's pain into a tourist attraction or a worthy story? What right do I have to be here? My brain fills with doubt but I feel compelled to go inside and express my sympathy. I was told that my presence at the rally was good for the people and let them know that the world is watching. Maybe my presence made the police think twice about using violence, this time. Perhaps Colonel Save's family will be strengthened.
One at a time, each person approaches Mrs. Save, kneels in front of her, and speaks with her. When my turn comes up, I kneel and look into her eyes. Her face is so tired, so heavy, but present and calm.
"Namaste, Auntie," I say, my hands pressed together in front of my heart. I take her hands in mine, still staring into her eyes. "Do you understand English?" She nods.
"My name is Abeja. I am from America and I am a writer. I am very sorry about your loss. There are many people in America who do care. There is nothing I can do to bring your husband back." A look of intense sadness crossed her face for a moment. "But I will write about him, and about the people of Umbergaon, and about your struggle, so that he will not be forgotten."
She nods to me, holding my gaze, seeming to draw some strength from what I have said. I squeeze her hand, touch my heart with a "Namaste," and step back to allow the next person to see her.
Mrs. Save calls one of her sons over, and whispers something to him. He comes to me and says, "She wants you to know that she heard you and she understands."
"I know," I say. "Thank you."
Check out this week's Making a Difference to see how you can support Sunita Save, her sons, and all the people of Umbergaon.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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