Abstract In this article, I put forward a Marxian analysis of the conflict over dam-building on the Narmada River in central and western India, which seeks to bring out how in this specific conflict it is possible to discern the workings of the master change processes that have moulded the Indian trajectory of postcolonial capitalist development. I start by showing how the concrete case of dispossession in the Narmada Valley is expressive of how the development strategies that defined the postcolonial nation-building project have been moulded in such a way as to create a de facto transfer of productive resources to the country's dominant proprietary classes. I then move on to argue that these features of the political economy of India's postcolonial development project can be understood as the sediment of struggles between social movements from above and below in the decades immediately prior to Independence. Arguing that the postcolonial development project has unravelled, I outline the fundamentals of an analysis of the characteristics of social movements from below in the conflictual field of force which is emerging in its wake. Finally, I draw on the trajectory of resistance to dam-building on the Narmada to articulate a series of reflections on the nature of state power in India and the possibilities that might exist for the state to function as an enabling space for the struggles of subaltern social groups.