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Sunderlal Bahuguna: The Quintessence Of ‘Sacred Ecology’ – OpEd

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American ecologist Garrett Hardin once posed a question: Why are ecologists and environmentalists so feared and hated?  Hardin himself answered: This is because in part what they have to say is new to the general public, and the new is always alarming

Sunderlal Bahuguna—a trailblazer of the Chipko movement in India—was surely not hated in his home country, as elsewhere in the world, but he grew himself to great prominence when the land grabbers, encroachers of forests and mega developmentalists feared him for his bold and uncompromising position—on nature and the rights of people at the bottom of the society. 

Bahuguna—who breathed his last on May 21—in fact, had feared what Hardin was referring to catastrophes of all kinds. In his “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin wrote: Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest. Bahuguna was one who knew too much about this ‘rush.’ That’s why he made his domain of ‘sacred activism’ visible to all—in line with the notion of ‘public space’ as enunciated by Hannah Arendt. Bahuguna sought to make the Himalayas a visible ‘public space’ and he placed himself as “a guard of the ecology of the Himalayas.” 

It was Arendt who warned that if the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible. In fact, Bahuguna was the symbol of this ‘transcendental’ ecopolitics.   

Admittedly, Bahuguna was instrumental in generating a genre of environmental activism in India that had typically employed a wide repertoire of campaign and struggle—bringing into play the Gandhian strategies of nonviolent resistance and protests.  As a renowned leader of the Chipko Movement, Bahuguna played a key role in the preservation of forests and other natural resources in the Himalayan landscape. He even carried the message of environmental security and non-violent struggle to a global arena. 

Remembering Bahuguna’s versatile stature, ecologist Vandana Shiva said that he was the continuity between our freedom movement and today’s ecology movement. Shiva recollects: Sundarlal Bahuguna and Bimla Bahuguna are my teachers in Gandhian philosophy, that ecology is a permanent economy, that simple living in service of others is central to making a shift from ego centric thinking and living to eco centric thinking and living. Ego centrism leads to greed, consumerism, taking others share. Eco centrism leads to caring, sharing and not taking others share. She said that Bahuguna had spoken as the voice of nature. He lived for nature and her protection. His life was a continuous Satyagraha for life and freedom. His legacy shows the way to the future of humanity living with respect for, and in harmony with nature.

Born in 1927 in Tehri district (in what is now Uttarakhand), Bahuguna grew up in salubrious environs of trees and expansive pasture lands of the Himalayas. At the age of 13, he joined the freedom struggle and he was arrested for his participation in the nationalist cause. Later, he focussed his attention on social work. Under the inspiration of his wife Vimla, Bahuguna began to work in rural areas and spread messages of social equality and sustainability of livelihood. In an interview with The Better India, he said that Vimla inspired me to look deeper. With her support and the guidance of a few others, I realised that to make a real change, I would need to step out from my bubble, and live among the masses in the rural and remote parts of the country. I needed to understand their everyday issues and whether at all government policies helped them

In an interview Bahuguna said: I left politics in 1956 and we were living with the poor people after establishing an ashram with my wife. I tried to find out what were the causes of poverty of these people. It was due to the soil erosion, drying up of water sources and this was due to deforestation. The village women came forward in our movement. In our area, women are the backbone of our social and economic life, because of soil erosion, the men folk had to come down (to the plains) for their livelihood and women were left behind. The whole burden of managing the family fell on their shoulders. They had to collect fodder, firewood, water, everything. Prior to this, we had launched a prohibition movement. It helped us in the mobilisation of women.

A Gandhian in vision and work, Bahuguna challenged the evils of caste inequality and strove hard in disseminating the spirit of self-determination and freedom. The Sarvodaya Movement had an abiding impact on him. With the inspiration from Vinoba Bhave, Bahuguna began his padayatras (foot marches) across the districts in the hills to spread messages of ecological security. The 1960s was a decade which witnessed a surge in environmental movements. Bahuguna, along Chandi Prasad Bhatt, was quite successful in mobilising the rural folk against deforestation and organising a Gandhian style of protests against felling of trees. In fact, this eventually resulted in the launching of the Chipko Movement in 1973. The message of Chipko (‘hug the trees’) Andolan was loud and clear—Today, the Himalayas are calling you. Wake up my son, do not allow my auction. Protect me from being slaughtered

Bahuguna sought to awaken the consciousness of the people and the powers-that-be about the disastrous implications of deforestation and mega developmental activities. His long marches across the region were remarkable for the massive reception and support. It began with a 120-day walk of 1,400 km in 1973. Another one was a 2,800 km walk in 1975 in Uttarakhand. He also undertook a 4,870 km walk from Kashmir to Kohima during 1981-83 which, in fact, prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to enact a legislation to ban green-felling. Bahuguna was also a great inspiration for the ‘Save Silent valley’ movement in Kerala in the 1970s and early 1980s.   

The decades of 1980s and 1990s witnessed many movements in India for the protection of rivers and forests. Bahuguna was inevitably a part of all these struggles. The most notable was his fight against the construction of the Tehri dam on the river close to his birthplace in the Himalayas. It was in 1989 that Bahuguna launched the first of a series of hunger strikes to mobilise public attention on the dangers posed by the Tehri dam. Though the 45-day hunger strike in 1995 ended with an assurance from the government that it would review the project, nothing happened. This led to another long hunger strike in 1996 which again was concluded after 74 days when the Prime Minister offered a concrete assurance to conduct a comprehensive review. Bahuguna always reminded the environmental consequences of the dam, besides massive displacement. 

As expected, the assurances from the government were short-lived and they only delayed the project for a while.  But, ultimately, the dam became a reality in another few years’ time with enormous consequences for the ecologically fragile areas. Bahuguna himself admitted, painfully, that the Tehri Dam caused massive displacement and many villages around the site were submerged. He accused the government of committing unpardonable offence on the nature. 

Earlier, in 1981, when the Government of India decided to honour him with the Padma Shree—one of the highest civilian awards—he refused to accept it. He said: I would remain unfit for such an award till the flesh and blood of Mother India, in the form of precious topsoil from the Himalayas, flows down to the sea due to tree felling. 

When the Government again honoured him with another top civilian ward—the Padma Vibhushan—in 2009 he did not turn it down. In an interview he told ‘The Telegraph’: I had earlier refused the Padma Shri. This time I accepted the (Padma Vibhushan) award with the hope that it would give some weightage to my proposal for a detailed Himalayan policy.  Without such a policy, the Himalayas will perish in no time, especially with this persistent change in climate and global warming. I feel the entire Himalayas should be converted into a natural dam with a very aggressive afforestation that will allow the water course to run on its original paths. 

According to George Alfred James, the author of Ecology Is Permanent Economy: The Activism and Environmental Philosophy of Sunderlal Bahuguna, Bahuguna was also misunderstood during his anti-Tehri campaigns. In his paper presented to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015 (“The Sacred Activism of Sunderlal Bahuguna”) James wrote that Bahuguna’s protest against the Tehri Dam centered on social, ecological, and ethical issues for which he found support in the teachings of the Hindu religious tradition. But for him it was a religious issue as well. He recognized the support of those concerned with the religious significance of the river as an appropriate religious concern. 

James said: In an interview at the 2001 Kumbh Mela, when Bahuguna was informed that the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) had passed a resolution that condemned the proposed Tehri Dam, he expressed gratitude for the support of VHP and others. Following this, James said, many seized upon Bahuguna’s approval of the VHP opposition to the dam and began to interpret his concern for the religious aspects of the Ganges as an alliance with the exclusionary religious and political objectives of the VHP. For example, a British scholar, Emma Mawdsley, wrote that, to many, Bahuguna had become disturbingly compromised by his ties with the VHP. James questioned such misreading of Bahuguna’s statements, but expressed a concern that given the increasing sectarian rhetoric at this time in India, the religious imagery that had been persuasive and meaningful in the context of the Chipko movement tended to undermine the credibility of the anti-Tehri Dam movement.  

James also sought to clarify this alleged tie with Hindutva from Bahuguna and the latter made it clear that there is a critical difference between spirituality and sectarian religion and thereby rejected the allegation saying that the VHP had nothing to do with the anti-Tehri Dam movement—led and sustained by the people. 

Bahuguna was well aware of the kind of challenges that he had to take up in his persistent struggle. That’s why he said, Those who swim against the current, those who fight for truth, have only four things in store for them: ridicule, neglect, isolation and insult.

Bahuguna always underlined the need for rethinking development. He said that development should be synonymous with culture. When we sublimate nature in a way that we achieve peace, happiness, prosperity and, ultimately, fulfilment along with satisfying our basic needs, we march towards culture. He also said that a harmonious relationship between man and nature should be the ultimate objective of development. However, what we are doing is violence towards the earth, towards nature. We have become butchers of nature.      

The unrelenting activist Bahuguna never relooked his mission in the long-sustained struggle for the protection of forests and the rights of the poor and marginalised. Bahuguna was a persuasive ‘alternative development’ thinker of the Global South, a passionate environmentalist and a great inspiration for generations of ecopolitical activists.  

*The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for Global South Colloquy. He can be contacted at [email protected] 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

One thought on “Sunderlal Bahuguna: The Quintessence Of ‘Sacred Ecology’ – OpEd

  • May 27, 2021 at 6:28 am
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    As mentioned, Sunderlal was much misunderstood at a time when the Right-Wing Forces In India began to appropriate environmental issues. His spirituality was entirely different from what the religiosity in such circumstances of far right assertion demanded. Great, he never yielded to pressures of such forces. Sunderlalji can be rightly called the harbinger of ecosociality in India and the world at large. Thanks for the writeup.

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