Listen to the nonviolent poor

Allow for peaceful change, before violent change becomes inevitable

While the rest of us are mesmerized by talk of war and terrorism and wars against terror, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, a little life raft has set sail into the wind.

On a pavement in Bhopal, in an area called Tin Shed, a small group of people embarked on a journey of faith and hope. There's nothing new in what they're doing. What's new is the climate in which they're doing it.

On May 20, activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the Save the Narmada Movement against Big Dams, began an indefinite fast in Bhopal. They fasted longer than Gandhi did on any of his fasts during India's freedom struggle.

Their demands are more modest than his ever were. They are protesting against the Madhya Pradesh government's forcible eviction of more than 1,000 Adivasi (indigenous) families to make way for the Maan Dam on the Narmada River. All they're asking is that the government of Madhya Pradesh implement its own policy of providing land to those being displaced by the Maan Dam.

There's no controversy here. The dam has been built. The displaced people must be resettled before the reservoir fills up in the monsoon and submerges their villages. Among the activists was 22-year-old Ram Kunwar. Hers is the first village that will be submerged when the waters rise in the Maan reservoir. Yet during the fast, no government official bothered even to pay the activists a visit.

At the end of 30 days, the activists called off the fast, having wrested a meager concession from the government – the setting up of a committee to "look into" the complaints. In India they kill us with committees.

Unlike other large dams in India, where the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of displaced people is simply not possible (except on paper, in court documents), in the case of Maan the total number of displaced people is about 6,000. People have even identified land that is available and could be bought and allotted to them by the government. And yet the government refuses.

Instead it's busy distributing paltry cash compensation, which is illegal and violates its own policy. It says quite openly that if it were to give in to the demands of the Maan "oustees," it would set a precedent for the hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Dalits (untouchables) and Adivasis, whose villages are slated to be submerged by the 29 other big dams planned in the Narmada Valley. The state government's commitment to these projects remains absolute, regardless of the social and environmental costs.

What will happen to those displaced by the Maan Dam when their villages are submerged in a few weeks' time? Will they just go down in the ledgers as "the price of progress" along with the millions of other people displaced by big dams? That phrase cleverly frames the whole argument as one between those who are prodevelopment versus those who are antidevelopment – and suggests the inevitability of the choice you have to make: prodevelopment, what else? It slyly suggests that movements like the NBA are antiquated and absurdly anti-electricity or anti-irrigation. This, of course, is nonsense.

The NBA believes that big dams are obsolete. It believes there are more democratic, more local, more economically viable and environmentally sustainable ways of generating electricity and managing water systems. It is demanding more modernity, not less. It is demanding more democracy, not less. And look at what's happening instead.

Any government's condemnation of terrorism is credible only if it shows itself to be responsive to persistent, reasonable, closely argued, nonviolent dissent. And yet, what's happening is just the opposite. If we do not respect and honor them, say nonviolent protesters, by default we privilege those who turn to violent means.

Across the world, when governments and the media lavish all their attention and seriousness on war talk and terrorism, the message that goes out is disturbing and dangerous: If you seek to air and redress a public grievance, violence is more effective than nonviolence. Unfortunately, if peaceful change is not given a chance, then violent change becomes inevitable. That violence will be (and already is) random, ugly, and unpredictable. What's happening in Kashmir and the horrible communalist violence we have seen in India are both part of this process.

Right now, the NBA is not just fighting big dams. It's fighting for the survival of India's greatest gift to the world: nonviolent resistance. You could call it the Ahimsa Bachao Andolan (Ahimsa means "nonviolent resistance"), or the Save Nonviolence Movement. Yet the Indian government has shown nothing but contempt for the people of the Narmada Valley, for their arguments against big dams, and for their movement.

In the 21st century, the connections among religious fundamentalism, nuclear nationalism, and the pauperization of whole populations because of corporate globalization are becoming impossible to ignore.

While the Madhya Pradesh government has categorically said it has no land for resettling displaced people, reports say that it is preparing the ground (pardon the pun) to make huge tracts of land available for corporate agriculture. This in turn will set off another cycle of uprootings and impoverishment.

If the Congress Party wishes to be taken seriously as an alternative to the destructive right-wing religious fundamentalists who have brought us to the threshold of ruin, it will have to do more than condemn communalism and participate in empty nationalist rhetoric. It will have to do some real work and some real listening to the people it claims to represent.

As for the rest of us – concerned citizens, peace activists, and the like – it's not enough to sing songs about giving peace a chance. Doing everything we can to support movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan is how we give peace a chance. This is the real war against terror.

• Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi and is the author of 'The God of Small Things' and 'Power Politics' (South End Press).

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