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May 1998

With such an enormous amount of social movements operating in India and a severe lack of books on the subject, I had to concentrate on the Dalit Panthers, the Chipko movement and (obviously) the Narmada Valley protests. Well worth reading…


What can social movements and non-party politics

hope to achieve in India?

Social movements, political movements and non-governmental organisations (NGO) are just a few of the many labels used to classify those self-organised groups who, outside of conventional party politics, are attempting to achieve some form of social justice in India. Their objectives cover a broad range of issues from welfare and charity work right through to revolutionary, anti-state agitations. However, I have chosen to concentrate on protest movements; those that feel the need to struggle against what they feel to be an injustice. This will take account of single-issue organisations that are essentially, though not always consciously, attachments of protest movements. India has a long, colourful history of protest groups that can be dated back centuries, although arguably the greatest movement, in terms of numerical size, was the Gandhian nationalism of the Independence, or ‘Free India’, movement. Since Independence there have been a number of relatively small organisations. The 1970’s, however, saw the emergence of what could be described as the new breed of social movements.

This volatile period witnessed dramatic change in the Indian political landscape, as the euphoria of Independence that appeared to have carried the Congress Party to continuous political dominance began to wane. The death of Nehru in 1964 also seemed to have marked the all-embracing character of the party. When Mrs. Gandhi finally concluded the long succession crisis within the party with a landslide victory at the ballot box in 1971, she had already contributed to the splitting of the party and, more importantly, in destroying the finely tuned network that her father had so effectively administered. This information-gathering network had been highly effective for Congress in disarming any form of dissent, either by incorporating Opposition party policy, or by providing early remedies to potential problems. With her unassailable majority, Mrs. Gandhi could pass new legislation within the Lok Sabha, but without the network she was unable to guarantee its implication; her optimistic electoral promise to eradicate poverty in India consequently proved to be a hollow gesture. Dissent and criticism of Mrs. Gandhi grew until she finally called the Emergency in 1975, thereby suspending all official political debate. The Emergency did not create all the new social movements, many of whom were already in operation; it did, however, provide a further impetus and awareness of the need for autonomous organisation and a greater scepticism of professional politics.

The caste system is a unique feature of Indian society and has been the cause of great tension dating back thousands of years. In recent times this tension has re-emerged again and again, both in political and civil society. There have been many formations of lower-caste and anti-caste movements fighting against caste discrimination and oppression, although possibly the most significant, and certainly the most symbolic, since Independence was that of the Dalit Panthers, founded in Bombay in 1972. Claiming their allies to be those sections of society suffering at the hands of economic and political oppression, they produced a powerful manifesto that accused Congress of being "essentially a continuation of the old Hindu feudalism which (had) kept the dalits deprived of wealth, power and status for thousands of years." (1)

The leaders of the Dalit Panthers were young writers and poets who used the term ‘Dalit’, literally the downtrodden, as a true description of their social situation and a positive affirmation of their own identity. The term firmly demonstrated their determination to reject and distance themselves from the labels bestowed upon them by others, such as the official government terminology ‘Scheduled Castes’, the demeaning classification ‘Untouchables’ and even Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’. Dalit was used with a sense of pride to define those who were "exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion." (2) This incorporated neo-Buddhists, workers, landless labourers, small farmers and women, as well as the expected Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They were first brought to public attention when the Sadhana, a socialist magazine, published a collection of their writings and poems; the ensuing outrage led to calls for a banning of the magazine. The Panthers’ immediate response was to hastily organise a protest march in defence of the publication, under the newly designed red-on-black Panther flag. The addition of the ‘Panthers’ to the name of their organisation was derived from the militant American Black Panther movement of the 1960s, whose members caused controversy with the uncompromising demand for ‘Black Power’ under the symbolic gesture of a raised fist. The unveiling of the Black Panther name and the use of the red-on-black emblem (3) during the march, proved highly controversial and immediately pushed the organisation into the media role of spokesmen for the dalit movement.

The Panthers’ very effective and provocative use of the media was to bring the issues of dalit exploitation and oppression into the political foreground. Established left-wing parties were forced to re-evaluate their own positions on the subject, most notably the Marxist reconsideration with regard to the connection between class and caste. However the Panthers’ own objectives, as outlined in their manifesto, were never satisfied or even clearly thought out. Their consistent call for revolution, with its clear uncompromising message "We want to rule the whole land" (4) was a powerful rhetoric, but with little ideological substance or even agreement amongst the leaders. They therefore found themselves unprepared for the immediate fame and attention that they received. Within two years the Dalit Panthers split into a variety of fragments, each pursuing their own ideological and political agenda. A number of new Dalit organisations took the initiative further, fighting for the cause, both from outside and from within the party-political framework, whilst others concentrated on the theoretical and ideological questions surrounding ‘Dalitism’.

One of the Panthers’ achievements was that by the 1980s, the term ‘Dalit’ had been generally accepted as standard terminology used to define lower caste status. However, the importance of the Dalit Panthers lay more in what they inspired, rather than by what they actually achieved. Their anger, which had translated into an open rejection of both religious and political authority, proved to be an inspiration for many. Their demonstrative willingness to fight back against dalit oppression and its accompanying atrocities encouraged a large number of the young and progressive intellectuals throughout India to struggle, not purely against caste injustice, but for their own justice. In this way, the Panthers "proved to be the spark that set off a wave of organising efforts throughout the country." (5)

The Chipko movement can be seen as one of the truly outstanding movements of its time. Its success in not only fulfilling its aims, but of also exceeding them, has led it to be claimed as part of the women’s movement and also as part of the ecological movement. In truth, it was never intended to be aligned with either. The peasant women who live in the area of Uttarkland, in Uttar Pradesh, had in 1965 launched a successful anti-alcohol campaign in Tehri Garthwal in opposition to the proposed opening of a liquor shop. Further demonstrations were held in other areas with up to 2000 women in attendance. This small victory had given the women an insight into the effectiveness of collective action and the confidence to embark upon the Chipko movement.

Heavy flooding, soil erosion and landslides were the result of commercial exploitation of the Himalayan forests and the government’s expansive programme to industrialise India. Logging and other pursuits of economic gain were leading to mass deforestation. "India lost 3.4 million hectares of forest between the years 1950 and 1972 and 9.2 million hectares between the years 1972-1975 and 1980-1982." (6) In 1970, several villages and fields were immersed by a major flood in the area. "This was the first sign that the Himalayas were dying." (7) Those most effected were the women of Uttarkland who, as the main agricultural workers (most of the men having had to immigrate to the plains to find work), began to realise that something was seriously wrong with the landscape. The women’s lives became still harder as they found the distances that they needed to trek in order to gain sufficient fodder, fuel and water were rapidly increasing. On realising that the dramatic deterioration and threat to their lifestyle was a result of deforestation, they began organising resistance with the aid of two NGOs, the Gandhian Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (D.G.S.M.) and the Jakeshwar Shikshan Sanstha (J.S.S.).

The women held regular seminars in different villages inviting outside journalists, environmentalists and local government officials to discuss the situation and propose possible action initiatives. Vigilance parties were formed to monitor the activities of the axemen and demonstrations were held demanding a ban on commercial exploitation in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. In 1972, the women held several demonstrations calling for an end to the contractor system of forest exploitation, but the situation escalated when the forest department granted a permit to a sports manufacturer allowing the felling of fifty Ash trees. The women took action by attaching themselves to the allotted trees, effectively shielding the tree from the axemen with their own bodies. This method of resistance was based on their observation that when "a wild animal came face to face with a mother and a child, the mother’s reaction would be to hug the child." (8) The ‘hugging of trees’ proved successful in saving the Ash trees and was to be continually repeated in further situations.

The form of protest itself, gained a great deal of notoriety and attention; as did the fact that the activists were seen as ‘simple peasant hill women.’ This patronising attitude towards the Chipko movement under-rated their ability, but worked to the advantage of the women. Those involved with the movement proved to be extremely strong-willed, very creative and fully aware of the need to publicise their activities and the reasons that lay behind them. From an early stage, they outlined their objectives to journalists at their seminars and, several times a year, organised camps attended by between 250-300 participants each time. In January 1975, a number of women embarked on "a seventy-five day trek from Uttarkashi to Kausani and another fifty day trek from Devprayag to Naughaon to mobilise public opinion on women’s increased workload due to deforestation." (9) If there remained any doubts, the 1979 protest in Vadiargarh clearly demonstrated the movement’s determination. Joined by the women of Kemar, a village 100 kilometres away, they opposed both the state and the men of the village who had been "bought off with bribes." (10) Their collective actions saved 2500 trees and had shown how they were fully prepared to give up their freedom, their husbands and possibly their lives to protect the forests.

In 1980, Mrs. Gandhi officially recognised the struggles of the Chipko movement by inviting the leaders to New Dehli for talks. The outcome was for a joint study to be undertaken, by scientists and government agents, to consider "the problem of the Himalayas." (11) From the initial results of the study, Mrs. Gandhi banned commercial forest felling in the Himalayas at heights above 1000 meters. The commercial felling of trees was also banned for fifteen years and the plantation of food, fodder and fuel bearing trees ordered. Although central government had finally taken action, the Chipko movement did not end its intensive campaigning. The women not only continued to mobilise ‘tree hugging’ protests, but also extended their activities. The environmental knowledge they had acquired has been utilised in various project-oriented work in close collaboration with the local government and has been applied towards "large-scale educational work." (12)

The Chipko movement has been consistently led from the grass roots. The women were the first to recognise the ecological problems caused through commercial logging and development and had the most to lose through deforestation. They were therefore the strongest fighters in the protection of the forest. Empowered by the growth of their movement, their self-confidence and ability to clearly articulate their demands has been continually enhanced. Despite coming from the humble origins of the Himalayan villages, the women of Chipko, are now internationally recognised by both ecological and women’s movements as a source of inspiration.

Another protest movement that has received international attention is the anti-dam movement, specifically concerning the protests surrounding the Narmada Valley dams. The largest proposed dam, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), was intended to be a prestigious part of India’s thrust for rapid economic development and its planning dates back to the 1950s. The entire Narmada Valley development was a truly enormous project, estimated to cost over $5 billion and expected, on completion, to irrigate 1.9 million hectares of land and generate power for three states. The project also planned to "submerge 13,744 hectares of forest land and 11,318 hectares of agricultural land and displace over 400,000 people from their traditional habitats." (13)

Rural activists and a number of NGOs combined to fight as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) against the construction of the dam and the proposed mass displacement of the inhabitants. Initially the villagers, believing the construction inevitable, sought justice concerning the proposed resettlement, maintaining the allotted resettlement land to be of inferior quality to their present homes. In 1988, however, the protest concerning resettlement escalated into a protest against the construction of the dam itself. This developed into a highly organised campaign in which the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) representatives linked up to other NGOs throughout the country and approached international organisations to apply pressure upon the Indian government. This form of campaigning had never been used against the Indian government in such volume and the results were impressive.

The Indian government had been relying upon outside financial help, primarily in the form of loans, to finance the enormous cost of the project. It was these nations and organisations that the campaign targeted, requesting their withdrawal from the project and stressing the detrimental effects the development would have upon the environment and the tribal and riverbank residents. They also questioned the necessity for the development when cheaper, and supposedly more effective, alternatives could be found. The Japanese government withdrew its commitment to supply loans for the project in 1989 and this was followed by the lobbying of the World Bank to withdraw its financial support. Representatives for the campaign participated in official government hearings concerning the World Bank in several countries and further pressure was applied in 1992 when "full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Britain’s Financial Times signed by over 900 organisations from countries all over the world, openly challenged the World Bank’s involvement in the project." (14)

Under mounting pressure, the World Bank took the unprecedented step of appointing an independent panel and commissioning a 363 page report. In October 1992, based upon the Morse Report (15) recommendations, the World Bank stated that it would withdraw from the project by April 1993, unless the Indian government had addressed the environmental and social concerns surrounding the development. Unable to meet the conditions and in an effort to avoid any further embarrassment, "the Indian government informed the bank that it did not want the remaining undisbursed loans." (16) The World Bank had already forwarded one-third of their original investment (17) when they ended their involvement. However, although not officially to finance the Narmada Valley project, the World Bank in July 1993 pledged $3 billion in the form of loans and aid to India.

Whilst the campaign was gaining international attention, local governments, particularly in the state of Gujarat, were attempting to publicly discredit the anti-dam movement. The activists, whether illiterate villagers fighting against resettlement or the urban intellectuals who questioned the validity of the project, were portrayed as environmental ‘terrorists’ and ‘tools of foreign intervention’. (18) The NBA employed non-violent Gandhian methods of protest, but were met with increased violence, harassment and intimidation. Mass arrests took place at rallies and residents were forcefully evicted from their homes within the submergence zone. There have also been horrific reports of severe beatings and rapes of NBA activists, some whilst in police custody.

The Official Secrets Act (OSA) has also, at times, been imposed upon areas connected with the dam, which has raised further questions concerning the legitimacy of local government action. The OSA was originally intended to apply to non-civilian areas such as military instillations and "makes it an offence for anyone to be within the prohibited area ‘with the purpose of creating an obstacle.’" (19) Even communicating information concerning the area is classified an offence. The penalty for OSA violations is, on conviction, imprisonment from three to fourteen years. To apply the OSA to protect a public works project from peaceful demonstration does appear extreme, it violates the right to freedom found in the Constitution of India (Article 19 (1)), and appears to undermine India’s intentions on signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International human rights organisation have responded to the accusations, establishing the Narmada International Human Rights Panel to investigate and "document ongoing violations of political, economic, social and cultural rights of the people of the Narmada Valley." (20) They have so far asked for the withdrawal of the OSA and requested a central government investigation into the activities of the political leaders in Gujarat, who they believe to be encouraging the violence against the anti-dam protestors.

A revision of the original plans to meet some of the NBA objections has delayed the completion of the Narmada Valley project. However, several villages have now been submerged and despite international condemnation, the construction has not been halted. Any success the NBA can claim to have achieved has been over-shadowed by the tremendous volume and nature of the violence associated with the SSP.

Modern democracies, worldwide, have protest movements working within them. Their presence demonstrates an active civil society that effectively empowers the citizen and enhances the state. Their activities may pressurise, and sometimes embarrass the government, but they allow issues to be discussed, that may otherwise of been overlooked due to either, ignorance or, the political sensitivity of the subject manner. The protest movements active in India have matured since the 1970s. Their initial naiveté has been replaced by the sophisticated use of international agencies to highlight local, single-issue concerns. The violence and violation of human rights, alleged in the Narmada Valley, appears to indicate a lack of governmental tolerance expected in a democracy and has damaged the international reputation of the Indian state. This needs to be addressed to ensure that protest movements maintain the ability to forward their concerns of civil society, rather than resort to acts of terrorism in an effort to be noticed.





1: The Dalit Panther Manifesto quoted in Gail Omvedt – DALIT VISIONS (Orient Longman, 1995) p72

2: Gail Omvedt – Ibid. p72

3: The colouring of various anarchist organisations. An example being the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (C.N.T.) who fought under the red and black flag during the Spanish Civil War.

4: Gail Omvedt – op. cit. p72

5: op. cit. p73

6: Carrie Lane – Women as the backbone of Chipko. p2

7: op. cit. p5

8: op. cit. p6

9: op. cit. p7

10: op. cit. p7

11: op. cit. p8

12: op. cit. p8

13: Smitu Kothari – Social Movements and the Redefinition of Democracy found in Philip Oldenberg – INDIA BRIEFING 1993 (Westview Press, 1993) p132

14: op. cit. p132

15: Named after Bradford Morse, the chairman of the review board.

16: Smitu Kothari – op. cit. p133

17: International Rivers Network – A Report of the Narmada International Human Rights Panel p2

18: op. cit. p3

19: op. cit. p16

20: op. cit. p1



Philip Oldenberg (editor)


(Westview Press, 1993)

Gail Omvedt



(East Gate Books, 1993)


(Orient Longman, 1995)


Internet Sources

Carrie Lane

Women as the backbone of Chipko

International Rivers Network

A Report on the Narmada International Human Rights Panel

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