Some fifteen years ago, when the Narmada Bachao Andolan was at its height, the ecologist Madhav Gadgil told me about that movement’s forgotten predecessor. Back in the 1920s, the peasants of Mulshi Peta, near Pune, had protested against the construction of a dam being built with government support by the industrial house of the Tatas. The struggle was led by Pandurang Mahadev (‘Senapati’) Bapat, a socialist and nationalist who had been educated in England. Like Medha Patkar of the Narmada Andolan, Bapat was a leader of much charisma and courage. Like her, he identified completely with the peasants who fought to save their ancestral lands from being submerged.

As a boy growing up in Pune in the 1940s, Madhav Gadgil had known of Senapati Bapat. Later, in the 1960s, he read a book on the Mulshi Satyagraha written by Bapat’s associate V. M. Bhuskute. Still later, in the 1990s, Gadgil came across a historical study in Marathi written by Rajendra Vora, who was then the Tilak Professor of Politics at the University of Pune. The ecologist was greatly impressed by Vora’s book. It had used a wide range of primary sources to tell a story important in itself, but also of contemporary relevance in view of the parallels it afforded with the Narmada controversy.

With a little help from me, Madhav Gadgil persuaded Rajendra Vora to work on an English version of his book. Professor Vora was, however, a busy man. He was a key member of Lokniti, a countrywide network of political scientists that closely monitors state and national elections. He was also editing a major book on Indian democracy with his colleague Suhas Palshikar. Besides, there were courses to teach and students’ theses to evaluate.

In between these various commitments, Rajendra Vora worked on preparing an English version of his book. He chose to add a fresh chapter comparing the Mulshi Satyagraha with the Narmada movement. Earlier this year Professor Vora died of a massive heart attack. Later this year his book will appear in the shops, under the title The World’s First Anti-Dam Movement. It should appeal to a wide range of audiences—to those interested in Maharashtrian history, in the history of Indian nationalism, in the politics of the environment, in the sociology of peasant protest, or in alternative strategies of economic development.

The World’s First Anti-Dam Movement begins with a meticulous reconstruction of the agrarian economy of the Mulshi region. Vora tells us of the forms of land tenure, the systems of credit, the crops grown and marketed, and the shrines cared for and worshipped in. He then moves on to the threat to the valley and its peoples by the dam being built by the Tatas. Next, through a skilful use of Marathi sources, he narrates the story of the long (if eventually unsuccessful) struggle aimed at preventing the submergence of the Mulshi valley. We hear of the hunger strikes by the leaders, of the marches and demonstrations by the rank-and-file. The complex connections between the Mulshi peasants and the middle-class nationalists of Pune city are carefully laid out. We learn of the profoundly ambivalent attitude towards the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. Beyond the protest and the struggle, Vora also introduces us to the ideological dimensions of the conflict. He analyses the arguments of the proponents of the dam—who claimed it would generate employment and prosperity for the nation as a whole—and of its opponents, in whose view the project would merely impoverish one set of Indians to benefit another.

Rajendra Vora’s book ends with a chapter comparing the Mulshi Satyagraha with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. When the English edition was first proposed, this comparison was uppermost in his mind (and ours). Now, reading the proofs of his book, I find that it is even more topical than he or we had assumed. In a fascinating passage, Vora writes: ‘As the Satyagrahis saw it, this was not merely a struggle between the Mawalas [as the Mulshi peasants were known] and the [Tata] company, but a struggle between two versions of economics. As long as the government could not prove that the scheme was necessary in the public interest, it had no right to take away anyone’s land. The state may demand everything from the citizens when the security of the nation is in danger or in times of national calamity, but there was no such emergency in the Mulshi case. The submerging of the vast tract of land which was the cradle of Maratha history was therefore an act of tyranny, and injustice. It was being undertaken to fatten the dividends of a private company’.

Rajendra Vora’s book is an impeccable work of historical scholarship. But it also speaks to the present in a way that very few history books do. For the Mulshi dispute was the first intimation of the conflicts that arise when a densely populated and ancient agrarian civilization begins the long and sometimes very painful march to industrialization. The Mulshi Satyagraha was not merely a precursor to the Narmada Bachao Andolan; it anticipated the protests in Singur, Nandigram and a dozen other places, where the state likewise intended to transfer land owned by many small peasants to a single, privately owned, company. Like those other disputes, Mulshi opposed country to city, subsistence to commerce, farmers to factory-owners, the aam admi to the fat cat.

It is a shame that Rajendra Vora did not live long enough to see his book in print. We need now to read it not simply to honour his memory, but to gain a deeper understanding of the past and future of modern India.

Published in The Hindu, 6/7/2008