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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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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In-Betweenness and Migrancy: A Tribute to Manglesh Dabral–Migrant, Poet, and a Quiet Rebel

Vinay Lal

The Hindi poet, Manglesh Dabral, died in New Delhi last week, felled as many others have been by COVID-19.  Dabral was a quiet, unassuming man, and, according to those who are truly conversant in Hindi poetry, quite likely among the two or three of the greatest Hindi poets of his generation.  He had a long career as a journalist, having been associated with many leading Hindi newspapers and magazines—in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Delhi—over the course of several decades, and his stewardship of the Sunday literary magazine of the newspaper Jansatta, known as Ravivari, was quite legendary.  His obituaries make note of his many distinguished contributions to Indian literature and journalism and all those need not be rehearsed here at length. Though Dabral’s poetry was translated into English and nearly a dozen other European languages, he was himself an accomplished translator into Hindi of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert among others. 

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Yeh Inquilab Hai, Sir: Indian Farmers and the Architecture of Protest

Farmers gathered in protest at the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu on 4 December 2020. Photograph: Agence France-Presse.

Almost to the day, one year ago, the Dadis (or grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh stood up to the Indian state while most of the Indian middle class, which capitulated to the Modi government when it first assumed power in 2014, looked on silently as one of the most remarkable nonviolent protests anywhere in the world was carried out with discipline over several months before the pandemic took over the lives of everyone and furnished the state with the pretext to send the Dadis back to their homes.  Now, with the rebellion of the farmers, a new front has been opened in the battle of the country’s ordinary citizens against a wholly authoritarian government that is frighteningly intolerant of dissent and reeks of the arrogance of power.  “Power tends to corrupts”, the English politician and writer Lord Acton famously declared, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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Secession in Ethiopia: Pluralism in a Modern Nation-State

Ethiopia, a country of around 115 million people, has been over the last few weeks in the thick of a civil war that, the Ethiopian government submits, is now drawing to a close.  The attempted secession of the Tigray region has apparently been thwarted by decisive military action.  It remains to be seen whether the proclamation of victory is justified or premature, but what has been unfolding there should be of special interest to multiethnic states and particularly democracies which are struggling to contain the rising tide of ethnic particularism and xenophobia which is sweeping the world.  For most of the 20th century, the Amhara, with 27 percent of the population, held sway over a country with seventy ethnic groups, among them the Oromo (34%), the Tigray (6%), and Somalis (6%).  The more than four decades long rule of Haile Selassie was brought to an end in September 1974 when the 82-year old Emperor was deposed and a military junta known as the Derg assumed power.  Ethiopia was transformed into a single party Marxist-Leninist state.  For much of that period, the country became indelibly linked, in the worldview of the outsider, with the image of famine; internally, the “Red Terror”, the campaign of repression unleashed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg’s point man, made short work of the regime’s political opponents.

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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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Coronavirus in Native American Communities: The Charade of “Thanksgiving”

General Jeffrey Amherst’s letter of 16 July 1763 advocating for the use of every method, including the “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians, that might aid in extirpating “this execrable Race”.

Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”.  Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”.  Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest.  This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America.  The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”.  It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”.  As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

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