January 24, 2020
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Photocopies Of Protest

There is anxiety in Chamalapura, 35 kms away from Mysore. But the villagers there are determined to "fight like in Nandigram." Does it matter that they think Nandigram is "somewhere near Delhi"?

Photocopies Of Protest

There is anxiety in Chamalapura. The villagers fear that their arable land would soon be lost to a 1000 MW coal-fired thermal power plant proposed by the state government under a PPP scheme. Their anxiety has spilled over to 12 surrounding villages and also Mysore city, which is just about 35 kms away.

If the villagers are worried about displacement and livelihood, Mysoreans are worried about air pollution. The winds that will blow across carrying the most deadly gases and dust from the plant, they argue, will destroy the city's heritage buildings and impact the vibrant tourism industry. Plus, they are espousing the cause of the flora and fauna in the two national parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole, that border Chamalapura.

The anxieties are real and the protests are valid. Only the supremely corrupt can turn a blind eye to the pristine ecosystem that Chamalapura is enveloped in. But despite all this empathising, a question has been hanging in my mind ever since I made a weekend visit to Chamalapura to gain first-hand experience of the protests. I'll come to my question at little later, but first, let me describe what I saw and heard when I landed at the village:

It was noon. Two women, Malamma and Jayamma, were standing under a tree where the road forked. I asked them which one would lead us to Chamalapura. Instead of answering my question, they asked in return: "Are you from KPCL?" KPCL is the government-owned power corporation responsible for setting up the power plant. Even before I could answer, the two frail women held out a threat: "If you are from KPCL, you can't enter the village. You'll not return home safe." I was taken aback, but, after I had presented my credentials, they got talking:

"Women of the village are the first line of defense. Let the government get past us and acquire our land... We have inherited this land from our forefathers how can we give it away? If we give this away what will we be left for our children and grandchildren? Even if we give away this land the amount that we may receive as compensation may fetch us nothing... We will soon become coolies or domestic helps in Bangalore or Mysore... What is the guarantee that our men will take care of us after the compensation money comes? They may spend all of it on drinks or may fancy buying a bike or a scooter... What if we are pushed to prostitution? The land allows us to remain independent of our men. Taking away the land affects a woman more than a man."

I was stunned by their ease with issues, their forethought and above all the plain logical flow of thoughts. It took them less than three minutes to be acquainted with me and state their case.

As we drove into the village, the women grazing cattle quickly gave a shout to each other to say there was a stranger at the door and they had to be cautious. And in no time, at the speed of an SMS, half the village knew that someone was surveying the terrain. We stopped to chat with Javaramma and Rangamma. They spoke about how the state was unleashing police force to curb their protests. They reeled out statistics of people injured and how much time it took to recover when the police had lathicharged them on the Bangalore-Mysore highway. "It seems the officials have written in their records that our village is barren. We get water at 20 feet, we grow a dozen varieties of crops. Government officials will not only sell our village to some private company fellows, they will also sell the entire country," they said breathlessly.

Dyaviramma and Jayamma were no different. Besides saying all that we had already heard they gave details of how much an acre of land with and without pumpset would cost in the village. They also gave out names of 'famous' Bangalore and Mysore personalities supporting their cause. They also mentioned how a lawyer and an environmentalist had been their link to the larger world. As the conversation drew to a close they made two statements, which led me later to the question that still hangs in my mind. They said: "We will boycott elections in Chamalapura and surrounding villages until this issue is resolved. We will fight like in Nandigram." I probed: "Do you know where Nandigram is?" The two women glossed over the seemingly uncomfortable query by saying it is "somewhere near Delhi."

The question hanging in my mind has many splinters and here goes: The high-level of awareness among the villagers, their ability to articulate the issues at the core is all very commendable, but is their awareness and articulation borrowed? Have they been excessively tutored and thoroughly blinkered to follow a particular path of logic by intelligent outsiders? Is there nothing local about a local issue? Can all men in a village splurge money, abandon their women and push them to prostitution? Why weren't they forthcoming about their personal or family crisis, which, I am sure, they are more familiar with than Nandigram? Why didn't these women say they'll attack the house of their elected representatives (MLA and MP) if the power plant is allowed? Why is their anger controlled by logic? Why are they not speaking through their gram panchayats? Why are they, by default, isolating their immediate leaders? Assuming that they they have a 'useless' and 'lousy' bunch of representatives, why do they not foreground their disenchantment about them forcefully? Why do they not think of ways to bring them to account? Have they subverted the political system to directly establish contact with alternative representatives (ecologists, writers and lawyers) to speak on their behalf? What will happen after the issue falls off the media radar and the alternative people move on to other sites of protests?

Can we blindly apply the dilemma of liquidity that Noida farmers faced some years ago or the aggression of Andhra women pressing for prohibition or the violence of Nandigram and Singur to create a homogenous and universal rhetoric of protest in Chamalapura? Can protest be devoid of a local flavour and devoid of innocence too? In an increasingly globalising world, are protests too networked? Are there now icons of protests parachuting to venues across the globe physically or through e-mails? Do all local issues now need a universal language and a familiar face to be taken seriously?

Recently, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others made a statement on Nandigram and advised people against splitting the Left in India, in the face of American imperialism. But the most respected Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, among others, protested and said "their distance from events in India has resulted in their falling prey to a CPI(M) public relations coup and that they may have signed the statement without fully realising the import of it in Bengal." Ironically, Arundathi Roy, who grandstands on a whole variety of issues from dams, nuclear bombs to democracy and death sentences had protested along with Mahasweta Devi. That apart, does not the issue of "distance" and "local import" hold good in the case of Chamalapura too?

So, finally, do we live in a time when there is nothing local, not even protests?

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