Gandhi evoked for all manner of causes

Two major nonviolent protests this week in India are being used by both the left and right.

She lies on the sidewalk, fanned by supporters, surrounded by TV cameras, fasting to death to protest the displacement of some 35,000 peasant families by a major dam project.

He leads a march of Hindu nationalists across northern India to protest the government's "appeasement" of minorities, especially Muslims.

Their causes couldn't be more ideologically different. Medha Patkar is a left-leaning activist who has spent 20 years trying to prevent construction of India's largest dam project. L.K. Advani is a former Indian deputy prime minister who led a mob that tore down a 500-year-old mosque in 1992, an act that set off riots that killed thousands.

But their common technique of nonviolent protest - seen this week in a Delhi hunger strike and a protest march starting in the western state of Gujarat respectively - serves as a reminder that the trappings of the Gandhian freedom movement, and occasionally the spirit, are alive and well.

Even as India grows into a 21st-century power - striking nuclear deals with America and wooing the world's biggest corporations - the nation still is often judged against the spirit of Mohandas Gandhi, its colonial-era founding father. And if critics are often quick to point out where modern India falls short in that comparison, they might put some of the blame on Mr. Gandhi himself.

"The weakness of Gandhi was that he never thought of institutions," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "His interest was the condition of the conscience" and to establish a link between the individual conscience and the policies of society.

It is difficult for a nonviolent resistance movement to maintain momentum over time, Mr. Mehta says, particularly in a country like India that has established its own native systems of law and government. Nobody likes to fight against himself.

Yet since the mid-1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Committee to Save the Narmada) has fought an Olympian struggle against four state governments to halt the construction of dams along the Narmada River. The dam was intended to bring electricity and water to four states.

Andolan founder Medha Patkar, backed by celebrities such as novelist Arundhati Roy, have marched the length of the Narmada River and succeeded in forcing the government to focus on the plight of displaced farmers, many of them members of India's disadvantaged tribes. It was the Andolan's protests that forced the World Bank to withdraw support for the Narmada project, in part because of the human cost of displacement.

In 100-degree heat, Ms. Patkar began her eighth day of fasting on Wednesday, visited by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who begged her to end her fast as her health deteriorated. Patkar says she will continue her strike until the government publishes its plan to rehabilitate displaced families in the Narmada region.

"Villages have been submerged, a lot of the discussion is happening [ex] post-facto," admits Ananya Vajpeyi, a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi, who sat on a sidewalk near the hunger strikers to show solidarity. "But what Medha is saying is, 'Let's minimize the damage.'

"It's not hopeless. That is the nature of dissent. You have to keep going. The people here," she says, pointing to villagers from the Narmada region sitting nearby, "for them, any house saved, any livelihood saved is better than nothing."

In another part of the capital, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee saw off fellow members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Advani and party president Rajnath Singh, in their twin protest marches. Mr. Advani's march will begin Thursday in Gujarat; Mr. Singh's march will begin in the eastern state of Orissa - the two marches will converge in Delhi on May 10.

Called a national integration pilgrimage, the marches are aimed to protest at the Congress government's policies to increase the number of Muslims in the Indian armed forces, and its supposed "soft approach" toward jihadi terrorist groups, including the group that set off blasts in the city of Varanasi, a site revered by Hindus.

"The politics of 'minorityism,' if unchecked, will prove a disaster for the Indian Nation," Advani said at a Tuesday press conference in Delhi. "Far from helping the minorities, it actually undermines their development and well-being."

Prakash Upadhaya, a fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum, warns that Advani's protest march could set off violence from Indians angry over other matters, such as the lack of economic growth in rural areas. "People have anger, and anger does not have an alternative," he says. "If the BJP fills a vacuum, that is a great danger." Previous marches, coupled by rhetoric against minorities, have sparked deadly rioting in the past from elements of the Hindu majority against minorities like Muslims.

Gandhians like Patkar say that seeing other parties adopt the trappings of Gandhianism is frustrating, and seeing a government built on nonviolence work against the cause of the Narmada region's displaced poor is depressing.

Activists say the best judge of whether a project is worthwhile is the Mahatma himself. "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him," Gandhi wrote in his memoirs. "Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away."

"This matter is not going to succeed in this environment, but we will go on fighting," says N.K. Afandi of the Jamaat-e Islami Hind, an Islamic political party. "We, especially in the Islamic movement, have to join [Patkar], because we see her struggling for the destitute, for the weak."

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