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 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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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 Solidarity of Oppressed Peoples: A Tribute to E S Reddy, Anti-Apartheid Activist

E S Reddy with Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress from 1967-1991. Tambo passed away in 1993; the Government of South Africa conferred on Reddy the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo in 2013.

On the 1st of this month, Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy passed on.  Not many people have heard of him, outside some circles of Gandhian scholars, anti-apartheid activists, and a smaller number of scholars and students of human rights.  The New York Times noted his passing with a warm and generous obituary, and the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was effusive in his praise of Reddy, whom he lauded as “a man of principle and commitment to human rights; but above all we remember him for epitomizing social solidarity.”  It is characteristic of the shocking insularity into which India has fallen, and the near total disregard in the middle class for what happens in the world outside the US and Pakistan, and to some extent China, that the Indian press took no notice of the passing of this gentle colossus who was born in India in 1925—except, not surprisingly, for an obituary penned by Ramachandra Guha.  The first volume (2013) of Guha’s biography of Gandhi bears this dedication:  “For E. S Reddy — Indian patriot, South African democrat, friend and mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities.”  Guha is generous with his praise, rightfully so, but his judgment that Reddy was the “mentor to Gandhi scholars of all nationalities” is rather erroneous:  the pity of it is that few were even familiar with Reddy, and even fewer used Reddy’s work—those being the ones who had an abiding interest in Gandhi’s South African years and, contrary to the received view, his continuing interest to the end of his life in what was transpiring in South Africa.

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Gandhi, Secularism, and Cultural Democracy

(on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)

“Gandhiji at Prayer Time, Parnakuti, Poona”, gouache on paper, 1944. The artist is Chittaprosad, the great advocate of the rights of workers and revolutionary artists. Nikhil Chakravarty described in the newspaper People’s War the circumstances under which he painting was done: “Saturday the 6th of May. The papers flashed the news that Gandhiji was going to be released [from the Aga Khan’s Palace, where he had been detained after his call to the nation to “do or die”] at 8. Without a moment’s ado, Chittaprosad and myself took the next train to Poona. Excitement and speculation ran high, but the people as a whole seemed to be as yet too dazed to celebrate it as a day of national jubilation.”

Since the high and the mighty in this ancient land of ours will use the opportunity of Gandhi Jayanti to garland the statues of the Mahatma and spin the usual homilies about the eternal values of truth and nonviolence, values which are being shred to pieces in India, I can turn to the more humble work of attempting to lay out briefly what remains of Gandhi in an India that is increasingly taking the turn towards becoming a Hindu nation.  The attacks on Gandhi are coming fast and furious from every corner.  His assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being hailed by some Indians as a martyr, a true shaheed.  Reportedly, Godse is trending at #1 on Twitter in India. Gandhi’s statues are vandalized and in social media he is accused of the worst atrocities that can be imagined.  Yet Gandhi was in his lifetime synonymous with India.  When Nehru was once asked what is India, he replied with this short sentence:  “Gandhi is India.”

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Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

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The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”

Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US.  I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years.  Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics.  We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable.  Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.

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Just Who Are the Racists? And the Progressives? Excerpts from a conversation with Rev. James Lawson

Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”.  Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson.  John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.

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A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day

Los Angeles, August 15th

As India marks the 73rd anniversary of its independence, it is once again an opportune moment to reflect on what remains of the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle that led to India’s deliverance from colonial rule.  The country might seem to have weightier subjects on its mind: the coronavirus continues to cut a blazing trail through much of the country, and whatever actions the state has taken to stem the transmission of the disease have evidently been woefully inadequate.  Tens of millions of people have been thrown into the ranks of the unemployed.  Many people have been cheered, and some startled and dismayed, by the bhoomi pujan conducted by the country’s Prime Minister, who is supposed to represent every citizen without distinction, at Ayodhya in consequence of the 2019 Supreme Court decision that left the path open to Hindu nationalists to raise a grand temple in honor of Rama at his alleged birth place.  That such a ceremony, which seems to be not only about building a temple to augment Hindu pride but also coronating a king, should have taken place at a time when the pandemic is exacting an immense toll says something about the priorities of the present regime.

ModiAtBhoomiPujanAyodhya

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the bhoomi pujan, Ayodhya, 5 August 2020.

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Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler. Continue reading