Medha Patkar's Fast - Live From Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

April 05, 2006
Mayank Austen Soofi

At first on reaching the not-so-visible venue at Jantar Mantar, I could not spot her in that thin crowd of colorfully dressed villagers and kurta-jeans and handloom-saree clad city activists. It was Sunday afternoon and there were not many people on the broad pavement adjoining this 18th century monument. (The pavement is the exact place where demonstrations are permitted by the administration. In 2005, my close friend had fasted there all alone for two days in pursuit of religious harmony).

After looking around and looking down, I finally saw Medha Patkar. She was lying on the ground. Covered in a crumpled blue-colored chaadar, with only her pale face and disheveled grey hair visible, I was seeing Ms. Patkar for the first time in real life and was quite shocked to see her in such a state and in such surroundings and in such temperature.

It was very unreal to witness Medha Patkar, listed by one of India's top weekly magazines as one of the 25 most influential figures of independent India in its 25th anniversary issue, lying on a New Delhi footpath without much of a ceremony or fanfare!

In the heat of the blinding afternoon, the only refuge was the shade afforded by a blue tarpaulin. Lazy weekend traffic was whizzing past in the adjacent avenue. The volunteers and activists were busy talking god-knows-what in separate groups. Villagers were sitting in clusters. Most were chatting, others were fanning themselves and some were dozing. They all had come all the way from their villages in Madhya Pradesh destined to be submerged under the Narmada water once the height of the damn is raised from 113 metres to 121.92 metres.

Ms Patkar is protesting against raising the height of the dam and is holding a fast-unto-death even at the time of writing this piece. She is demanding rehabilitation of the displaced people before the height is raised. This is in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling that ordered grant of permission for raising the height of the under-construction dam only after ensuring rehabilitation of the affected people.

It was Medha's 5th day of fasting and she had already grown very frail. Her body had started wasting off. There were two more fasting villagers lying on either side of her. All the three were being fawned over with Ms. Patkar being the focus. Some women were fanning them with newspapers. One was serving ice cubes and water to each of them from time to time. There was also a stall for books on Mao, Lenin and other outdated figures of the past.

It was an intense sensation on being so close to Medha. I had always admired her but with a bit of skepticism: I do not doubt the idealism of her intentions but am not completely convinced in the constructiveness of her kind of activism. However all of it melted down in that hot afternoon. I was forced to re-juggle my opinion from what I saw: a frail old woman, who happened to be one of the most admired and celebrated personalities of our time, lying there on a roadside! With no rented crowd! No fancy banners! Not even an effective sound system! I cannot imagine our present day air-conditioned politicians capable of making such a humble protest. Not Sonia Gandhi. Not A.B. Vajpayee. Definitely not L.K. Advani! In many ways it was like a scene out of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi with the old man stubbornly weakening himself during one of his fasts.

After an hour of sitting, staring, listening, observing and generally feeling awed by the utter simplicity of the scene, I noticed a strikingly beautiful woman, thinly-built but with a broad back, walking into the venue. Dressed in a very baggy like shalwar with a very scanty top, wrapped in a thin muslin kaftan-like garment, wearing an exotic necklace (the one which hippies wear and can be easily bought in Paharganj), she looked very familiar. She was Arundhati Roy! Dark, radiant, with her curly nest of (greying) hair. She looked at Medha with a tenderness that shone out of her very expressive eyes and then she sat down with the others.

At the other end of the pavement, lunch was being served from a big bhagona. The menu consisted of a yellow gravy-like moong-daal khichdi, the kind which is generally recommended during an upset stomach. Although aam ka achar was the accompaniment, the khichdi looked so unappetizing (and unhygienic) that in spite of all my comradely feelings towards the Narmada activists, I did not dare to sit down for this lunch. But Arundhati Roy, refusing a special lunch packet consisting of subzi poori, instead came over and served herself with this very same khichdi. She then sat down on the footpath and ate the whole thing with seeming relish and even licked the pattal clean with her fingers.

Meanwhile I saw another familiar figure in a crisp white kurta pajama entering the venue. He was SAR Geelani, the Delhi university professor who was arrested and consequently tortured by the Delhi police after the parliament attack in 2001. (He was later released by the courts). He too had come out in support of Medha Patkar.

Soon speeches were being made and 'revolutionary' songs were being sung and though Medha was very weak and though her eyes were closed, she did smile at some particulary fine slogan or on some particularly interesting rhetoric that was periodically burping out of the screechy loud speaker. She even tried to clap at times but it needed a lot of effort and she was drained of all the energy.

One feeling that was shared by many present there that day was the strange absence of media coverage. It almost appeared as if reporters were not covering the fast on purpose. Ms. Roy even commented that it would be foolish to expect any support from the 'corporatised media'. (Of course things changed later on. But remember, the Sunday I was there, it was yet 'only' the 5th day of Medha Patkar's fast. There was not much crowd; hardly any news channel crew was stationed; the fast still had not been featured in any publication except The Hindu; Ms Patkar's health had not yet deteriorated to an alarming level; and of course a major fashion event was in progress in Mumbai).

It was interesting to witness Ms. Patkar in action and though one might chose to agree or disagree with her, it would be very difficult to ignore the sincerity of her intent, the strength of her character, the courage of her soul, and the doggedness of her efforts. Though she was looking very frail and weak, there was radiance around her face and she looked every bit the hero. Sitting so close to her made me feel a close proximity to what must surely be greatness.

Mayank Austen Soofi owns a private library and four blogs: The Delhi Walla, Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos. Contact:
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April 5, 2006
09:52 AM

Wonderful article Mayank! Keep them coming! You do an excellent job of bringing the experience of being in that dharna... Keep'em coming!

April 5, 2006
10:09 AM

And try the Khichdi next time:)

Moushumi Chakrabarty
April 5, 2006
10:51 AM

very interesting observations. whether or not we agree with her politics, medha patkar deserves to be commended for following what her beliefs are. in today's world, few of us are unworldly, isn't it? we worship at the shrine of high-paying jobs, expensive acquisitions, 'practical decisions' in life like scorning an arts education in favour of science or MBA degrees. medha patkar is living her convictions. which can't be easy on an empty stomach.

April 5, 2006
01:08 PM

Thankyou for your comments. You put words to my feelings too. One of the chief reasons I admire Medhaji is that she lives life according to her values and beliefs and doesn't let materialistic issues interfere with them. I aspire to follow in her footsteps of letting my convictions shape the course of my life and to struggle hard from the temptation of wordly pursuits.
Thanks. I really liked your comment!

April 5, 2006
08:27 PM

Here's a question though - why should progress, or opposition to it be held hostage by a person on hunger strike - why should the State, statist as it is, have sympathy for an old or young woman on hunger strike? Why not ask for a writ, why not let progress take its course? How different is this from Lata's threats over the flyover?

Will Superman save the world?

April 5, 2006
09:09 PM

Excellent Points Aaman!!

Eventhough I feel sorry about the physical state of Medha Patkar, We do not know anything about really what is happening out there. It might be the raw truth or it might be really a farce.

This article surely captures the emotional aspects, and in that way its good.

But emotions dont rule the world. I cannot go on a hunger strike saying that '1+2 = 5' should be the norm. Thats irrational. And if someone overrides rationality with emotions they are being stupid. These are the exact points that your questions answer. Eventhough I dont want to judge Medha Patkar and Arundhathi Roy, I am now certainly interested in knowing the truth. What exactly is happening there? Can someone provide an unbiased level headed report.

April 5, 2006
10:00 PM

This is a valid query. Medha Patkar may be a sincere activist but why should the state be hostage to the whims and fasts of an individual? But there is a truth which is universally accepted that rehabilitation hasn't been done properly. Those tribals who had been living on their land since last thousands of years have been relocated to different areas; many a times this relocation being directed in big city shanties. Has anyone spared a thought about the changes, mostly negative, that has been caused on their lifestyle with this relocation without any sensible methodical planning?

True, water has to be provided; true power has to be generated but you simply can't dump a small minorty of affected people, who do not even constitute a vote bank, to wherever you pleases. Democracy is not only about majority rule. It is about paying heed to each and every minor social group. People who plan rehabilitation has to make those affected people an equal partner in their schemes which is simply not happening in Narmada case. This was even agreed upon by India's Supreme Court which actually ruled that the dam's height won't be further raised without ensuring a proper rehabilitation of the affected people. Now what is happening that the government has failed to provide this very thing and is bent on increasing the height which will lead to more submerging of the land in the coming monsoons. More people will be displaced even as the rehabilitation of the previous batch hasn't been done properly.

It has also become fashionable to portray activists like Medha Patkar as anti-development junkies and people tend to get irritated by her 'fast dramas' but they ought to remember that at least she does not inspire her followers to take to arms and rath yatras which happens to be the norm in this country. They only sing and dance and demonstarte and keep a hunger strike.

There is a misinformation that Patkar doesn't want the dam to be built. While that may had been true in the past but now even she realises that too much money and time has been invested and so many lives have already been destroyed and so there is no point in asking for a reversal. Now her demand is only a proper rehabilitation. Is that too much to ask for? Is it asking for a favour? Is it not the duty of the Indian government to take care of each and every segment of its vast population?

Raj Mehta
April 7, 2006
12:55 AM

Haha...a leftist orgy.

Raj Mehta
April 7, 2006
01:05 AM

Tell me Mayank , if Medha Patkar is so great and popular as you claim she is , how come she lost her deposit in the Lok Sabha seat she contested for in the last general election ,despite having the entire leftist intelelctual gang from NBA inlcuding the great Arundhati Roy campaign for her ?

Perhaps the people dont like her ???

April 8, 2006
06:25 AM

wonderful live description of the dharna. The writer's narration of the situation is almost pictorial. after going through the artice i really came very close to the suffering of the concerned people.

April 8, 2006
07:56 AM

Thanks for supporting Medha in her "Karmyuddha".

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