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Protesters in India embrace waterlogged tactics

September 18, 2012 |  8:32 am

India protests
NEW DELHI -- There’s never a shortage of creative ways to protest in India, the world’s largest democracy. The tradition stems at least as far back as the 1930 salt march against oppressive taxation led by Mohandas Gandhi that helped bring down the British empire, and Gandhi’s “fasting unto death,” employed effectively to pressure politicians and stem sectarian violence.

Several times a day somewhere in India, roads, highways and byways are blocked over one issue or another, ranging from power blackouts and land grabs to farm prices and ethnic separatism. One highway blockage in northeast Manipur state last year carried on for 92 days.  

Other arguably less subtle forms of protests in recent years meant to spotlight corruption, inflation, education policy and military crackdowns include self-immolation, women stripping in front of army barracks, slapping senior officials on live television and throwing shoes at politicians -- considered a grave insult in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Then there was the rather imaginative, if short-lived, idea of handing out “zero rupee” notes to crooked officials in order to stem bribery.

In recent days, demonstrators have opened a new front: water. The move started in late August in the central state of Madhya Pradesh when villagers opposed to a dam stood in a reservoir for 17 days. Their drive for building a smaller structure and receiving compensation for lost land turned the sight of their disembodied heads into a fixture in news photos.

They came up with the water idea, said anti-dam activist Alok Agarwal, because no one was paying attention to their more conventional protests. It was also a way to show how the dam was drowning their community, he added.

Picking up on the trend, demonstrators opposed to a nuclear power plant in southern Tamil Nadu headed into the sea for two days last week, forming a human chain as they bounced around in fairly sizable waves. Perhaps affected by motion sickness, they subsequently switched to sand, burying themselves in rows on the beach with only their heads showing. “Neck deep in anger,” read one caption.

Then on Sunday, fishermen in Tamil Nadu angry over rising diesel prices followed suit, submerging themselves in a stretch of ocean wearing black headbands and waving black flags before heading ashore to regroup.

With every new form of protest, there are inevitable critics. As the original water protest in Madhya Pradesh was winding down and police were dragging villagers out of the drink, a charity group calling itself Poorvottar Sanskriti Sansthan called for an investigation, arguing that the protesters were “fakes” and the media had been duped.

Photos were “doctored,” the group’s state president Thakur Jagdish Singh said in a statement, arguing that the villagers pretended the water was deep when in fact it was quite shallow and rushed into the water only when they saw reporters coming.

Not true, countered the anti-dam protesters, pointing out that many of their water-logged brethren endured skin diseases, infections, blisters, even fish bites. In fact, the civic group making the accusations that no one’s ever heard of is probably a government plant bent on maligning the movement, said Agarwal of the anti-dam faction.

“This water protest we’ve introduced is a noble idea inspired by Gandhi,” Agarwal said. “This could play an important role in future social battles. It’s a weapon for the common man.” 


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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: The waterlogged feet of a protester are displayed as others stand in water during a 17-day demonstration over the construction of a dam in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Associated Press