By Nandini K Oza* 

The Mulshi satyagraha (struggle) against a dam being built by the Tata company on the river Mula in Maharashtra is one of the first anti-dam struggles of India, fought nearly a hundred years ago. However, not much is known about this important and powerful struggle, though it has been well documented in the book ‘Mulshi Satyagraha’, by Rajendra Vohra.
The main leaders of the struggle were Bhuskute and Senapati Bapat and it had a very large participation of women too. It would be interesting to know about the Mulshi satyagraha through the diaries of the close aide of Mahatma Gandhi, Mahadevbhai Desai. Gandhiji and Mahadevbhai Desai were in the same jail in Pune in which the Mulshi satyagrahis were also imprisoned.
Some excerpts from the diaries of the time written by Mahadevbhai Desai:

Mahadevbhai’s Diary: Volume 17, Year 1923:

Page 28: Mulshi satyagrahis receive lashes: The head of the Government information department has admitted that the rumor that the Mulshi satyagrahis [1] who have been jailed at Yeravada central prison have been subjected to lashes is indeed true. However in the statement he has disclosed that the prisoners were lashed as they indulged into a revolt. What is the meaning of a revolt is known to the superintendent himself, ‘to refuse to work in jail’, can be (actually) defined as a revolt, is surprising to us!…
Page 47: Mulshi peta satyagrahis: Earlier there was an indication of a “revolt” by the Mulshi satyagrahis. Shri DP Sane who has himself received lashes has under oath brought out the facts which will give the readers an idea of what has been considered as “revolt”. They (Mulshi satyagrahis) were produced before the (jail) superintendent not because they did not do the work allocated to them but because they could grind less flour than what was given to them. In response to their statement that ‘we are doing as much work as possible’, the jailer seems to have told them that ‘your father has never ground flour and so you are not grinding flour isn’t it?’…
(Mahadevbhai:) …When will we feel that the lashes on the back of those who have gone to jail after doing pure service and are even following the rules of the prison, are actually lashes on the back of the country? If we would be experiencing that such lashes, such insults are being inflicted on the backs of each one of us… only then we will not be able to tolerate all that is going on under the polluted organization.

Page-231: ...Will not allow peace even in jail: Information has been received that Jeramdas who was in jail with Gandhiji, made several of the Mulshi peta satyagrahis who were fasting to withdraw their fast as per the message of Gandhiji to do so [2]. The person (Jeramdas) who tried to do well and meant well was punished (for this)! The superintendent who followed the rules of the jail to its every word, when came to know of this, asked Jeramdas that why had he left his cell without permission? And he (Jeramdas) was punished for seven days with solitary confinement! As soon as Gandhiji came to know of this, he made a request to the superintendent that he too should be punished as it was he who had sent the message (to the Mulshi satyagrahis who were fasting in jail to withdraw their fast through Jeramdas). Since the superintendent refused to do so, Gandhiji punished himself by going into solitary confinement for a week…
Page-233: …Rang Jamyo (Highest pitch of excitement): The struggle of the flag (the right to hoist Indian flag) has not been started by us. It is a fight that has come upon us due to our self-respect. The struggle that has been started luckily by a region (Nagpur), if adopted by all the other regions and made successful, it will be a good step, though a delayed one.

The Mulshi reservoir

This struggle (the struggle for the right to hoist flag) is more significant than the other struggles. …Mulshi peta satyagraha is proper in all respect, but it cannot be given a political form. Nagpur struggle has pure political form…there was a meeting of regional committee in Jabalpur where a resolution was passed to postpone the local struggle and send the volunteers to Nagpur. Tamil Nadu’s committee is also thinking of sending volunteers. It will be nice if our committee also takes one decision and contributes to that struggle (of Nagpur)…

Mahadevbhai Diary: Volume 6, Year 1924:

Page: 186:
“Dear friend, Sabarmati, Date 11-9-1924: …Dastane and Devdhar talked a lot in Juhu… that has had an impact on me… From their talk I have understood that not all members believe in non-violence and the work of Khadi. Take the example of Shri Bapat. He was the leader of the Mulshi peta satyagraha. I have read his pamphlets on the satyagraha. He does not believe in non-violence… all these matters need internal correction… if our behaviour is pure it will have an impact of a kind we may not know on those who are opposing us…
MK Gandhi.”

Mahadevbhai Diary: Volume 2, September 1932-January 1933:

Page- 82: In the evening, a telegram was sent to Senapati Bapat. (Gandhiji:) “Your reason for fast is touching, but I would like you (to) reconsider your decision on strength of contrary opinion of an expert like me in such matters. I feel convinced that your fast has no religious sanction. Since you feel for me, you should not die with me, but live to carry on my work. Think of the consequences if all coworkers were to die with me. Will that act not be criminal? Please listen. God bless you.”
(Mahatma Gandhi sent a telegram to K Kellapan to withdraw his fast for the temple entry by the untouchables as follows:)
Page 97: (Mahadevbhai:) Bapu sent him a long telegram, ‘…Considering all situations, I can see your mistake. Leave fast and give a notice of three months.’
(Mahadevbhai:) Vallabhbhai and I were shocked at this (shocked at the telegram to Kellapan by Gandhiji to withdraw his fast). I had a question that why cannot it (Kellapan’s fast) be an issue of his innermost soul? So Bapu said: “He asks me, he asks for my blessings, that itself shows that it is not an issue of his innermost soul, but he acts as per my advice. Bapat was against me, he is not under my discipline, so I do not have anything to tell him; but Kellapan accepts my discipline…”
***Translation from Gujarati by me
[1] In order to generate power, the Tata Hydraulic Company was building a dam on the rivers Nila and Mula near Pune due to which villages and fields near Mulshi were to submerge. This is why the people undertook a satyagraha under the leadership of Shri Bapat, etc. The work was postponed for nearly seven months. However in December 1921 when the satyagraha recommenced, the Government arrested people and punished them severely. Those imprisoned due to this struggle were known as Mulshi satyagrahis. They were subjected to lashes in jail on ninth February 1923 as they refused to work. (foot notes are part of the diary).
[2] Mulshi peta satyagrahis were lashed for having refused work in Sabarmati jail on 9-2-1923(this must be actually Yervada jail); In order to explain to them as per the instructions of Gandhiji that satyagrahis cannot refuse work and they cannot undertake fast for that, Jeramdas had to leave his cell. For the ‘crime’ of leaving his cell, Jeramdas was punished with a week of solitary confinement.

*Independent researcher, formerly with Narmada Bachao Andolan. Courtesy: Nandini Oza’s blog History Less Known. Pix by the author