Ashwinibhai Bhatt passed away in the US on 10th of Dec 2012. For the activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Ashwinibhai was first an activist than a writer. In fact, most of us in the NBA were not fully aware how popular a Gujarati writer he was and how well he wrote. On reading his books one realizes that had he not been a regional writer his popularity would have spread far and wide.
While it is very tempting to write about him as a writer, it is important to remember him as a firebrand activist of the NBA as that is an equally fascinating and significant facet of his life that is not so known today. His centrally located home in Paladi-Ahmedabad– 65, Brahman Mitramandal Society, was a home to many activists including those of the NBA. All activists associated with varied causes could walk in and out of his home freely where his mother who was fondly referred to as “Ba” and wife, Neetiben would lovingly feed everyone with delicious homemade food. More importantly Ashwinibhai’s house became the NBA “office” in Ahmedabad at a time when activists of NBA were not allowed to function easily in the State. Anyone who housed NBA activists faced Government ire and harassment. Ashwinibhai defied this unwritten diktat and therefore his house was targeted by the State and State sponsored goons on more than one occasion. He risked/compromised his popularity as a well known writer and eminent citizen of Gujarat a great deal in order to be a part of the NBA.
Ashwinibhai’s involvement with the NBA came at a time when very few people having the stature similar to that of Ashwinibhai were willing to question and stand up to the State regarding the Sardar Sarovar Dam/Narmada Project publicly in Gujarat no matter what their belief. Even most of the eminent Gandhians in the State who otherwise believed “small is beautiful” stood for the Big Dams on Narmada. Ashwinibhai’s involvement therefore significantly extended Narmada Bachao Andolan’s base in Ahmedabad and Gujarat.
In Gujarat, the Sardar Sarovar Project was trumpeted as the “Jeeva Dori”- the life line of Gujarat. In such an atmosphere very few newspapers or magazines could report anything questioning the Sardar Sarovar Project not only because that would invite wrath of the State but also because they thought that the revenue of the newspaper / magazine would plummet. However “Abhiyan”, the popular Gujarati magazine Ashwinibhai was associated with, fearlessly carried many an important facts about the Sardar Sarovar Project and exposed the falsehood and propaganda of the State risking fall in the magazine’s circulation as well as revenue from advertisement. Today where media is increasingly owned by corporate houses and relies heavily on revenue from advertisement, one understands the worth of fearless media/journalism standing up for the truth more than for revenue. Ashwinibhai strived for such an independent and fearless media that exposed falsehood and brought out truth no matter what the consequences. Reporting on issues raised by NBA in “Abhiyan”, otherwise a mainstream magazine at a time when there was unsaid censorship helped bring awareness to the people of Gujarat especially Saurashtra and Kutch. Ashwinibhai chose to swim against the tide.
The following report in the year 1999 by Committee to Protect Journalists explains though very briefly how difficult it was to stand up against the State on the issue of Narmada Project in Gujarat and the role of Ashwinibhai Bhatt: http://cpj.org/1999/07/india-dam-essay-lands-writer-arundhati-roy-in-hot.php
It would be worth quoting some excerpts from CPJ's web site here: “Meanwhile, in Gujarat State, CPJ's sources report that virtually all bookstores have pulled copies of [writer Arundhati] Roy's book for fear of violent reprisal. Last week, activists from the two most powerful political parties in India, the Congress Party and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held demonstrations condemning Roy for her anti-Narmada views. On June 22, members of the youth wing of the Congress Party burned several copies of The Greater Common Good. Youth Congress president…threatened that "If within the next 24 hours, all [Roy's] irresponsible, anti-development books are not withdrawn from the shelves, the bookstores will have to face the wrath of angry Youth Congressmen." The BJP's youth wing held a similar demonstration on Saturday, July 24. In this climate of extreme intolerance, the renowned Gujarati writer Ashwini Bhatt was unable to find a publisher willing to release a Gujarati edition of Roy's essay, and is now planning to publish the book himself [Ashwinibhai not only translated the essay in Gujarati but also published it himself]. However, CPJ fears that distribution of the book will be extraordinarily difficult and even dangerous…”
Ashwinibhai, a pillar of NBA in Gujarat, had begun to write a novel-Jal-kapat (evil around the issue of water) to explain the negative side of large dams and politics of large dams/water. However this book could not be completed due to his failing health. His ill health no longer allowed him to travel to the Narmada valley as he wished. But completing the novel was never far from his mind. Had it been completed it would have been an exceptional contribution to the current development and large dam/ water/energy debate. However Ashwinibhai’s love for the river Narmada and the Narmada Valley is clearly reflected in his earlier novel “Othaar” as the story unfolds around the banks of the beautiful river. Ashwinibhai had travelled for several months in the Jabalpur area for this book.
The passing away of Ashwinibhai is not only a great loss to the literary world and journalism but an insurmountable loss to people’s movements in general and to Narmada Bachao Andolan and the ideology it stands for in particular.