By Nandini Oza*
Dinkerbhai Dave, one of the strongest pillars of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Gujarat, passed away on the morning of the 9th of January 2018. I remember Dinkerbhai in so many different ways – a friend, a colleague, more like a member of family. I remember him even more as one who dared to challenge the establishment in the State of Gujarat over Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) where few did. But most of all, I will remember him as the one who fought adversaries with jest and worked in most unpleasant of circumstances with an absolute jovial disposition.
I recall a meeting with select proponents and opponents of the SSP in Navsari in South Gujarat in the year 1990. Even before the meeting could commence two busloads of political goons of the then strongman and Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel barged into the premises and physically disrupted the meeting. While all of us were shocked and dejected, Dinkerbhai in his typical jovial manner lightened our moods so that we could get back to the work we had assembled for. He said, “These are all bhaduti manso [paid people]. We should not get disappointed because of them. Many did not even know where SSP is being built”. NBA’s meetings in Gujarat were on many occasions disrupted, be it in Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, etc but Dinkerbhai helped in restoring the faith and mood to keep going and more so with upbeat energy. Dinkerbhai could make light of the most unfavorable of situations and simply go on. Nothing could dishearten him. This was his biggest strength.
I recall yet another occasion when I had accompanied Dinkerbhai to Lokbharti, the esteemed Gandhian rural educational institute near Sanosra, Bhavnagar in Gujarat. Dinkerbhai himself was a student of Lokbharti once. We had gone there to request the persons in charge to let NBA place its view point before its students as to why it opposes SSP. Dinkerbhai was very confident that at least Lokbharti would not turn us down as other organizations and institutes in Gujarat we normally approached did. I do not wish to name the person now but one of the senior administrators at Lokbharti told us, “First you go and convince Babubhai Patel, our senior. If you will succeed in convincing him, we will invite you to a meeting here.”
Now, Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, a Gandhian had chosen to become the Narmada Development Minister and that too in the Chimanbhai Patel Government. Babubhai as Narmada Minister was one of the strongest proponents of the SSP among the Gandhians although he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of Machu Dam breakage in Morbi in which five to ten thousand people had died. In spite of being a witness to one of the worst dam disasters in the world, Babubhai was presiding over the building of SSP as the Narmada Minister. There was no way in which we could have convinced Babubhai although the NBA had debated the issue with him earlier at a meeting organized by some senior and respected Gandhians at Vedchi. I was deeply saddened that even Lokbharti would turn us away like this! But Dinkerbhai laughed and said, “Don’t you worry, this is a small thing. We will come again. Let us right now go to meet the Gandhian Ashram head near Amreli.” And off we would go laughing and joking to try our luck elsewhere. This is how with Dinkerbhai in the lead, NBA could hold many a meetings across Gujarat on the issue of SSP amidst unprecedented opposition.
Dinkerbhai, a strong Gandhian at heart, tried his best to debate the issue with other veteran Gandhians of Gujarat at the risk of being sidelined by his own Sarvodaya family to whom he was close. Dinkerbhai often approached Late Shri Chunibhai Vaidya, another respected Gandhian to convince him to withdraw his steadfast support to Chimanbhai Patel in building the SSP. Although Chunibhai Vaidya himself had once fought against the adverse impacts caused by dams like Dantiwada and Sipu in Gujarat, particularly in the downstream areas, Dinkerbhai could not convince him. Instead, Dinkerbhai himself lost some of his leverage among the many Gandhians and the well placed Gandhian institutes in Gujarat. But such things did not matter to Dinkerbhai and he never lost heart. Dinkerbhai tirelessly traveled the length and breadth of Gujarat to organize NBA meetings and succeeded in organizing meetings at many places. This was possible only because Dinkerbhai engaged with the nastiest of proponents of the SSP in a lighter vein and in a friendly way even after suffering insults sometimes. This character of Dinkerbhai to engage with even angry opponents jovially helped NBA sustain and grow in Gujarat. Dinkerbhai was deeply rooted into the culture of Gujarat and this too helped in the expansion of NBA in a hostile atmosphere. And so did his genuine simplicity, selflessness and sincerity.
As the opposition to the SSP grew and as submergence in the Narmada Valley commenced, Dinkerbhai convinced the organization he was working full-time to let him give over fifty percent of his time to the NBA. And to the credit of the organization, they let him do so. And so did his family, more importantly his very loving wife Jayshreeben who managed their home in his absence. His family supported him in spite of knowing well that if Dinkerbhai did not associate the way he did with the NBA, he would reach places in Gujarat’s political and social life.
Dinkerbhai stood with the people of Vadgam, the first village in Gujarat to submerge in the dam waters when waters rose and entered the homes of the people for the first time. He would walk many kilometers across hills to reach without fail the submergence villages heavily guarded by the police and where entry was prohibited. This Dinkerbhai would do by convincing the police of the sanctity of his purpose and by befriending them. On reaching, in spite of being tired to the bone, he would engage everyone describing vividly how he had managed to achieve the near impossible fete. And all would laugh forgetting for a while the tragedy unfolding around them in the Narmada valley.
There are countless other incidents concerning Dinkerbhai in the NBA and his contribution to the struggle can fill pages. It would not be possible to narrate all the incidents but it is important to share one particular incident here. In his interview, respected Girishbhai Patel, the founding and veteran member of the NBA while recalling the incident of the arrest of over eighteen NBA activists and supporters in Gujarat in the late eighties for having breached the draconian Official Secrets Act at Kevadia Colony has this to say about Dinkerbhai:
“The right to freedom of speech is important in an open society…That is, people have the right to know and to be informed about the affairs of the State…We used to hold meetings frequently there [at Kevadia]. The area around Kevadia as well as the area around the [Sardar Sarovar] dam was already declared prohibited area… Once it was decided to have a large meeting of all the three States and many people had come. At that time they [Government] declared that this is a prohibited area and no meeting can be held.…
“As people had already arrived, we were wondering what to do next…It suddenly struck us that night that let us defy [the Official Secrets Act]… How should we go was an issue as there were CID and police personnel everywhere. At many places people were stopped and cordoned off by the police. We had formulated the whole plan as to where in the market place should everyone reach before the program that was scheduled to start at ten in the morning.
“We had worked out in detail how and who should give a signal so that everyone would assemble at one time before anyone would know of the plan… That day morning, each one of us took our position in a different place; someone at a tea stall, someone at the hotel, someone at a shop, someone on a scooter, and so on… Likewise we all 10-12 people assembled. And exactly at the given time, all of us, shouting Narmada Bachao slogan came together. The police were taken by surprise. They caught us all…We were taken to the Garudeshwar police station. This was the first agitation against the Official Secrets Act in the whole of India and this happened in our Narmada struggle…The Act was such that no meeting could be conducted at any place where the Act [is in place] or if an area is declared prohibited…The punishment was severe and its jurisdiction was under the district and sessions court… Therefore this was a major issue in law- free speech verses official secrets…
“…we were taken to Garudeshwar [police station] that morning… We were to be produced [before the Magistrate] within twenty four hours. The police was writing down everyone’s name. Many pleasant incidents took place. We were given good snacks but Dinkerbhai decided to play mischief [Laughs]. He was asked his name. He replied- ‘Dinker Dave.’ He was asked his father’s name. He said- ‘I will not give my father’s name.’ He was asked the reason for his denial by the police. So he said, ‘I have not come here after seeking permission from my father!’ [Laughs]…
“That fellow [police] said that the matter will not proceed any further if Dinkerbhai does not give his father’s name and, ‘We will not produce anyone before the court.’ The arguments went on till afternoon. We wondered why all this has had to come to Dinkerbhai’s mind right now! [Laughs] I finally told Dinkerbhai. ‘Give the name or else we will have to spend the night here if they will not produce us.’ Ultimately he gave the name [of his father] and we were produced before a first class Judicial Magistrate at night…”
This was typical of Dinkerbhai to convert most serious of adversity into a kind of comic situation and move ahead! And so, every one of us in the NBA awaited Dinkerbhai’s arrival and he would spontaneously turn a serious and sometimes gloomy atmosphere into a happy and energetic one.
Dinkerbhai took death lightly too! On his Facebook Post of 24th December 2017, as if he had a premonition, he writes, “मै भारत फ्री [फिर] जन्म लेकर लोकस्वराज स्थापित करना चाहता हू!” And when I read this, in midst of my sorrow of having lost a dear friend, I could not help smiling for Dinkerbhai had already planned where he wished to be reborn and what he wished to do!
We will miss you Dinkerbhai and terribly so. Zindabad.
*Independent researcher and writer, former activist, Narmada Bachao Andolan