Memoirs which recall several inspiring aspects of social and ecological movements


A recent book released on the first death anniversary  of Sunderlal Bahuguna has recalled several inspiring episodes of social and ecological movements in the Himalayan state of  Uttarakhand. Edited by  Madhu Pathak and published by Samay Sakshya, this book titled Sankalp ke Himalaya , for the most part in Hindi, will be remembered most for the chapters contributed by social activists involved in numerous struggles.

Vimla Bahuguna recalls the little known movement for dalit entry in a temple in Budakedar in 1956. After achieving this entry, Vimla and Sunderlal along with other senior activists had stood guard at the gate to prevent any violent intruders. Soon enough a priest emerged with shoes in his hands and attacked Sunderlal.  Sunderlal started bleeding from nose and mouth. Vimla and other activists like Surendradutt  Bhatt and Kameshwr Bahuguna who tried to protect also got some shoe blows. But still these activists did not allow the priest to enter the temple to attack the dalits inside the temple. This movement was later extended to some other temples as well.

In the mid-sixties in some villages of Garhwal  women like Jupli Bai tried to check increasing consumption of liquor by destroying illegal distillation joints within villages. The next step was against the government’s efforts to open a  liquor vend in Ghanshali but this was checked by a big mobilization of people. A big boost was provided by the arrival of the mother of the  famous freedom fighter Sridev Suman to lead the anti-liquor struggle in Chamba. This shop was closed and the movement spread to Tehri. Several activists including Hema Devi and the mother of Vimla were arrested. The government agreed to close down some liquor vends but the contractor obtained a stay order. Hema Behan and a dalit activist Bhavani Bhai played an important role in going to many villages and start the movement again. In 1971 the movement returned, the mobilization of people being helped by a fast of Sunderlal on this issue.

The government stepped up its repression. 30 women were arrested and sent to Saharanpur Jail. These included a woman from Chamoli who had two babies, one of three years and one of a one and a half years, who went with her to prison. Vimla went to jail with three generations of her family, her mother as well as her six years son Pradeep. On hearing about the fast and the arrests, Sarla Behan, the senior-most Gandhian activist in Uttarakhand several of whose disciples were involved in the movement, also reached the movement-site adding to its strength. In jail women told the security guards—you need not guard us. We are determined to stay in jail anyway till the liquor shops are shut down. Finally the government had to agree to their demand and shut down liquor shops all over Uttarakhand in 1971.

Then started the next phase of these activists, mostly (but not all) belonging to the Sarvodaya/Gandhian movement to save forests in which women led by Gaura Devi in Chamoli and Sudesha Devi and Bachni Devi in Hemvalghati played a particularly important role. The word Chipko (hug the trees) was first used by folk poet Ghanshyam Sailani in his song written in 1972, and this soon caught on. Sailani wrote songs, composed the tunes and was also in the forefront of various protest sites singing these songs on Garhwali. In Kumaon region a very important contribution was made by another folk poet Girda. Later Atul Sharma wrote some songs which were popular in these movements.

Vimla Bahuguna has also recalled the contribution of five women from near Silyara to the crucial struggle to save trees in Badiyargad—Nanda Devi, Mangsiri Devi, Satyeshwari Devi, Bhuri Devi and Jupli Devi. They camped in a remote forest and rushed from one place to another wherever efforts to cut trees were being made. At times this had to be done at night as the contractor tried to get the trees axed under the cover of darkness.

It is as a result of such struggles that commercial tree felling over height of 1000 meters was banned by the government. This was followed by Kashmir Kohima March to spread the message of protecting environment in a much wider part of the Himalayan region, followed by a cycle voyage all the way from Gomukh to Gangasagar ( origin of Ganga river to its submergence in sea). In 1989 Sunderlal had taken a vow to devote himself to the struggle against the construction of Tehri Dam Project (TDP) and the travels helped to prepare for this.

At the peak of the anti-Tehri dam movement a bus accident had claimed the life of 16 protesters while injuring several others. It was suspected at that time that this was deliberately caused to break the morale of the movement, and this has now been confirmed in these memoirs.

Earlier a severe earthquake in 1991 which claimed 650 lives had also devastated the ashram in Silyara village where Vimla lived. Even while reconstruction work had to be planned, due to urgency of the movement she came to join her husband who was camping on the bank of the Ganga (Bhagirathi) river in a hut. They stayed here year after year till such time that tunnel closure led to the rising of the river water. Still refusing to leave the site of struggle they moved to an abandoned upper house with great difficulty till finally evacuation could not be avoided any longer.

A chapter in the book contributed by Kunwar Prasun, one of the most valiant activists of these movements who died an untimely death some time back, travels back to the origin of the chipko movement. He recalls two protest demonstrations on the question of forests in Uttarkashi district on December 11 and 12, 1972 district following which three senior activists  Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Ghanshyam Sailani left for Chamoli district. On way, stopping at Rudraprayag, Sailani composed his famous Chipko song in Garhwali. This was followed by another protest demonstration in Gopeshwar on 15 December. As the authorities here were felling Angu trees for sports goods but were not allowing use of these trees for traditional use of farming implements, people mobilized to protest against the felling of angu trees. Gaura Devi played a very important role in mobilizing  several rural women and preventing the felling of trees.

Vijay Jardhari is a senior activist of all these movements and later contributed greatly to Save the Seeds Movement. He has recalled that he had reached the area of crucial struggle of Badiyargad forest in the last week of December with Kunwar Prasun and Sunderlal Bahuguna. As Sunderlal had to leave for some urgent work, the contractor got the opportunity to increase his preparations for cutting trees. He and Prasun had to rush from one place to another to protect trees, but then they learnt of a much bigger preparation to cut trees. Prasun asked Jardhari to call more villagers from nearby areas while he sat down in front of the tent of the workers who had been brought to axe trees next day.

All night in the Himalayan cold weather of December he sat in the open, hungry and unprotected. In the morning when Jardhari returned with villagers he found Prasun still sitting there, his lips split and bleeding from the cold wave conditions.

On 9 January Sunderlal returned and his first act was to touch the feet of several workers and to request them not to axe trees. He also started a fast. Jardhari has written he has never forgotten how Sunderlal’s actions helped to change the tide in the favor of the movement.

An 8 year village boy Narendra  won the hearts of everyone including workers by rushing from one tree to another to hug them and protect them. Jardhari was also doing the same till a saw tore open the pyjama of Jardhari and his leg started bleeding. Instead of being discouraged, protestors became even more determined. Sailani, Dhum Singh Negi, Diksha, Dayal Bhai, Surendra Dutt Bhatt, Pratap Shikhar , Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna, Vimla Bahuguna with five companions also reached the protest site in the middle of increasing mobilization of local villagers like Bachan Singh, Zaman Singh, Madhu Prakash and Sulochana.

Very early on the morning of 22 January the police arrested Sunderlal Bahuguna.  This added further to the intensity of local protests. When Bahuguna was taken to Tehri jail this led to protests there and when he was taken to Dehradun jail this resulted in protests there too.

On 31 January the government made an announcement of stopping axing of trees in some forests including Badiyargad, to be followed later by another announcement of stopping commercial felling of green trees in a much wider area.

Jardhari has recalled that the Hemvalghati phase of the movement and the slogans created by Kunwar Prasun helped in a much greater ecological orientation of the movement. The leading activists of this phase were very close to Sunderlal and Vimla.

Madhu Pathak , daughter of Vimla and Sunderlal who had made her own valiant contribution to protecting trees in some forest areas apart from playing a supporting role with her husband Dr. Pathak all her life,  has recalled that her father was so deeply committed to protecting forests that on her wedding day he quietly told her that when the ceremony is completed he will have to immediately leave for a remote forest which is badly threatened. The chronology prepared by Madhu for this book recalls that Sunderlal was first imprisoned for 5 months at the age of only 17 in 1944 due to his participation in the freedom movement. His next imprisonment was in 1970 ( anti-liquor movement), followed by 1979 ( chipko movement), and then in 1992 and 1995 in the context of the Anti-Tehri Dam movement. The imprisonments were often accompanied by long fasts. His first protest fast was in 1947, followed by 1971 for anti-liquor movement. This was followed by chipko movement related fasts in 1974 and 1979 (the second one in conditions of imprisonment. In 1992 and 1995  fasts were started by him in the course of imprisonment resulting from opposing Tehri Dam. The second one continued for 45 days. In 1996 and 1997 came two longest fasts of 74 and 54 days in the course of opposing Tehri Dam.

This gives us an idea of the deep commitment of these Gandhian/Sarvodaya activists of Uttarkhand to their people and environment. This kind of continuing deep involvement with deep commitment and many-sided sacrifices for such a long time is very rare.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth. He covered the social and ecological movements described here for several newspapers and journals over a period of about 25 years.


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