About Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches in the History Department at the University of California at Los Angeles. He writes widely on the History, Politics and Culture of India.

Gasping for Oxygen: Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna, 1927-2021

With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims.  Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID.  His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement.  He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.

It was, I think, the summer of 1986 when I first met him.  My memory of the meeting has not dimmed even if the exact dates elude me.  It was certainly some time before the publication in 1989 of Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya.  At least a decade had elapsed since the onset of the Chipko movement and I wrote to him seeking an audience.  A week or two later a light-brown colored postcard bearing 10 paise postage appeared in the letter-box at my residence in west Delhi.  Bahuguna wrote to say that he expected to be in Delhi for some work the following week and that he would be taking the midnight bus from ISBT (Inter-State Bus Terminal) to his ashram in the Tehri Garhwal region.  Would I care to join him and spend a few days with him at his ashram?  These were the days before the internet; but even the telephone was rather remote to his way of life.  It would be sufficient if I just showed up at ISBT, he assured me.

We rode the midnight bus to Silyara Ashram.  The bus dropped us off perhaps 7-8 hours later on the main road; it was a steep hike to his ashram.  Bahuguna was then more than twice my age, but he ambled up the hillside as if he were a goat—leaving me far behind.  The mountain air, he told me, had strengthened his lungs; there were few roads and he cut his own (to borrow an expression from Bruce Chatwin) song lines across the hills nearly at will.  We were greeted at the ashram by his wife Vimla, who survives him, and who reportedly married him on the condition that he would forgo any political ambitions and serve the people of the region as a social activist.  “Spartan” is perhaps the word that captures the ambiance at the ashram and the lifestyles embodied by Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna.  Bathing was under a hand pump:  the water was snow melt but, even in the summer, frosty cold.  He offered hot water but advised me that a bath with cold water in the open air was calculated to do wonders—for one’s health and clear thinking. Vimla prepared the simplest meals, using only millet and barley for rotis:  as they explained to me, they had given up the use of rice and wheat.  These grains were far more expensive, and they did not feel justified in consuming them considering that the villagers among whom they worked could not afford them.  Barley and millet, I was told, are more resilient; they take up far less water to grow and are apt for an age when resources are dwindling.

Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna. Source: Getty Images.

“What do the forests bear?  Soil, water and pure air.”  The women of the Chipko movement, founded by Chandi Prasad Bhatt but most closely associated with the name of Bahuguna, coined this slogan.  Bahuguna’s life of activism did not, however, commence with the Chipko movement.  Inspired by Gandhi, Bahuguna, after flirting with Congress party politics, had in his 20s taken up anti-untouchability work and he also closely worked with village women to create an anti-liquor drive in the hills.  The other slogan that would grow out of the Chipko movement, “ecology is permanent economy”, was Bahuguna’s own distinct contribution.  The Chipko movement has most often been understood as an attempt, in which village women played the critical role, to prevent contractors—most of them coming from the plains—from cutting down trees for the lumber industry.  They would hug the trees:  thus the word ‘chipko’, ‘to hug’. 

A scene from a village in Uttarakhand in 1973 (then part of Uttar Pradesh) where women are hugging the trees: thus the beginnings of the Chipko Movement. Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/chipko-andolan-was-the-strongest-movement-to-conserve-forests-india-needs-it-again-342183.html

“Let me humbly correct you”, Bahuguna unhesitatingly reminded his audiences, whenever he was given the credit as the author of the Chipko movement, “it was the village women of Uttarakhand who started the Chipko movement by embracing the trees to save them from being cut by government contractors for making cricket bats!” Thus was born what became the template for nonviolent environmental movements in India and elsewhere in the world, often led by women.  Large-scale deforestation, as the people in the hills knew, led to ecological devastation and precipitated flooding. However, rural livelihoods were also adversely impacted: firewood and fodder, as well as water for drinking and irrigating the fields, were all in short supply.  But Bahuguna understood that the exploitative political economy of foresting—to which he opposed the “permanent economy” that arises from an awareness of the fact that the only economy which enables people involves the true husbanding of wealth, from a proper management of material resources—implicates contractors, forest officials, and the elites living in the cities who have a fundamentally parasitic relationship with the rural countryside.

Bahuguna, fortuitously, became a renowned environmental activist at a time in India when people such as him were not hauled into jail on charges of sedition as is the case today.  The conferral of awards on activists of his standing is always a tricky matter, involving a deliberation by the state on whether more is gained by acknowledging the achievement or ignoring it.  In 1981, Bahuguna declined the Padma Shri, though in 2009 he accepted the Padma Vibhushan, a far more exalted honor second only to the Bharat Ratna (“Jewel of India”).  Though in 1980 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had at his instigation instituted a 15-year ban on commercial felling of trees in Uttarakhand, Bahuguna saw little evidence that the ban was being implemented by forest officials.  He went on to undertake what can only be described as a heroic padyatra or walk across the entire range of the Himalayas, traversing nearly 5000 kilometres both to inspire grass-roots activism and to bring the question of deforestation to the fore.  By this time, Bahuguna was also beginning to immerse himself in a related cause:  he would go on to steer the long and protracted movement against the mammoth Tehri Dam, a 261-metre high, 575-metre wide dam that the government was promoting as the country’s largest multi-purpose dam and as a sign of its commitment to “development”.  In 1989 he undertook the first of many fasts in protest against a dam project which activists criticized for displacing over 100,000 villagers and for the dangers it posed to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayan foothills. 

Bahuguna, perhaps more so than any of the other major environmental activists from recent decades, remained extremely close in spirit to the life and teachings of Gandhi.  This is not only evident from his exceedingly spartan lifestyle, but from his ease of communication with people from all walks of life and his keen awareness that a nonviolent activist must also seek to engage with a wider public and sway the court of public opinion.  At the same time, he had also absorbed enough of Gandhi’s teachings to embrace the view that the social activist must continue to labor without any regard for recognition.  Though Bahuguna remained active to the end of his life, and in more recent years had become an outspoken advocate on behalf of young campaigners for climate change, there were unquestionably long periods of time during which he seemed to disappear from the public gaze.  That ‘invisibility’ never unfazed him nor did it diminish an iota his commitment to social transformation.  His frequent hunger strikes have most often been mentioned as suggestive of the extent to which he was beholden to Gandhi but it is a wholly mistaken view to suppose that hunger striking—which Gandhi distinguished from fasting, though this is not the place to elaborate on the distinction—ipso facto is ‘Gandhian’.  A detailed study of Bahuguna’s own recourse to fasting will be required at some point in order to understand its place in modern Indian politics and social transformation.

Sunderlal Bahuguna with school children. Source: Reuters.

Bahuguna was preeminently a man of the hills, born and bred there, and if he traveled to Delhi to negotiate with the mandarins in the South Block, it was always to return home to the hills and to village India.  In common with Gandhi, he held no illusions about the degradation of life in much of rural India.  In his own lifetime, apart from being a witness to the devastation wrought by ill-conceived ‘development’ in the hill regions and the deleterious consequences of climate change, he would have seen hundreds of villages in his native Uttarakhand turn into ghost towns as young men migrated to the cities. Nevertheless, Bahuguna was still insistent in holding to the view that without attentiveness to the problems of villagers, India could not hope to move towards social equality and justice.  From our conversations over two days nearly four decades ago, one of his observations is seared in my memory:  “Bharat ki atma gaon mein hain” (“The soul of India resides in its villages”). 

Some readers will put this sentiment down to the romanticism with which Gandhi and his followers are often associated, and point to such a thought as the very reason why the time for Gandhi has long been over. This view remains oblivious to the consideration that villagers as well as those who advocate for rural India also do so because they are sensitive to the question of scale and what most befits, if I may put it this way, the stature of man.  That is one reason among others why Bahuguna remained opposed to big dams.  The critics who love to pounce upon any worldview which smacks of what they deride as “romanticism” do not pause to think that people such as Bahuguna have never taken anything from the earth, the soil, and the air—beyond what is required for existence itself. I suspect very much that it is the example of Bahuguna—besides the judgment of a court in New Zealand—that moved the Uttarakhand High Court to pronounce in 2017 a judgment that is altogether radical and liberating—for women, men, nature and our very earth.  The Ganga and the Yamuna rivers and their tributaries, wrote Judges Rajeev Sharma and Alok Singh, are “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.”

Bahuguna was, if it may be put this way, a great champion of oxygen-producing trees and clean air.  His was also a struggle to increase the quantum of oxygen.  It is cruel, perhaps a bitter truth of our warped times, that at the very end he should have been felled by the lack of oxygen.  It is true that he had been ailing for some months, but the circumstances of his life—the relatively clean air of the mountains, a life of dignified labor, no attachment to possessions, a long and happy marriage, communion with nature, the advantage of clear and noble thinking, contentment with the simplicities of a rural lifestyle—were conducive to a yet longer life than the 94 years with which he graced the world with his august presence.  What an indictment of our society that our last vision of this giant of the mountains, a man who befriended oxygen-emanating trees, should be of someone strapped to a CPAP machine, gasping for oxygen.

First published under the same title on 30 May 2021 at abplive.in, here.

The Creative Scholar: A Tribute to James Carse, Philosopher of Religion

Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse

           

James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year.  He was 87 years old. 

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Narendra Modi and a 14th-century Delhi Sultan: A Study in Megalomania

Vinay Lal

The 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was by all accounts a stern, puritanical, and yet generous ruler, characterized above all by capriciousness and a brutal exercise of power.  Perhaps the most reliable and certainly one of the most detailed narratives of his rule comes from the hand of ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler who spent six years at the Sultan’s court.  Ibn Batuta observes at the outset that “this king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood.”  Over the next thirty pages, ibn Batuta details the gifts that the Sultan showered upon nobles but especially foreigners, following it up with gruesome accounts of the punishments he meted out to those who dared so much as to disagree with him.

An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”)
drawn by Léon Benett. IbnBatuta is shown with his guide in Egypt. Source:  http://www.artfinder.com/work/ibn-battuta-in-egypt-hippolyte-leon-benett/
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Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics

There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States,  was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket.  Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48.  If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia.  But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.

A celebration by the Indian cricket test team at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, January 2021. Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/news-that-shows-strength-character-courage-michael-clarke-lauds-team-india-historic-series-win
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Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

(First in a projected mini-series on the West Bengal Assembly Elections. For non-Indian readers or others not immersed in the nitty-gritty of Indian politics, the state assembly elections determine which party will rule the state. In the present round of assembly elections, five states went to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc in India in recent weeks. Far from being suspended, elections in West Bengal were held over a period of five weeks.)

The incumbent Chief Minister of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee, popularly known in Bengal as “Didi” (literally, older sister), addressing a crowd from her wheelchair.

Indian elections have seldom been pretty affairs, certainly not in the last decade, and the gargantuan scale as well of even state legislative assembly elections makes elections in most countries look like tame affairs.  However, even by the rough-and-tumble standards set by politicians and their followers in India, the just concluded elections to the West Bengal Vidhan Sabha will go down not only as one of the most keenly and even bitterly contested elections in the country’s recent history but as a sure indicator of the depth of depravity to which the BJP has sunk and the manner in which it has dragged down institutions such as the Election Commission in its naked quest for power.

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The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.
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The Impunity of White Terrorists

Vinay Lal

What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”.  He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view.  Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy.  Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.

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Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

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Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
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The Year that America Unraveled

It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”.  The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”.  Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom.  “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.

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