Sunday, November 06, 2005

Champion of the woods

Sunderlal Bahuguna is 79 but he has the same fire and zing in him to protect the forests, its people and the environment as he had when he joined the Freedom movement at the age of 13....

His eyes brighten up and and his smile hides the wrinkles that time has set in. And as if he pressed Ctrl Z on the keyboard of his memory, time reverts back to six decades and more, when he was 13 years old, a village lad in the hilly region of Garhwal, now in Uttaranchal. “It all started when Sridev Suman visited our village. He was different and we went around teasing him about a tiny box he carried,” reminisces Sunderlal Bahuguna.

"Sumanji was a freedom fighter. He was going from place to place to spread Gandhiji’s message of self reliance and ahimsa. One day he opened a box and showed us the tiny charkha in it. He told us that we could weave our own kurtas on it. We teased him and told him that even if he spun the charkha for the rest of his life, he would not be able to weave enough yarn for even one kurta. He replied that he may not be able to weave one kurta but if everyone took on to the charkha, India will one day become independent. It was such a simple yet strong message of self reliance.

“He carried with him some books by Gandhiji. We were very fascinated by this maverick. My mother used to give me a monthly allowance of six annas then. That month I used the money to buy the books. Later, I took the help of a friend whose father was a police official in Tehri to buy a charkha for Rs 6. Since spinning the charkha was not allowed publicly, I used the burial ground to spin the yarn. Many of my friends joined me. People thought that we were engaged in group studies. Some of my friends who were found out, were beaten up at home because their parents were hounded by the police. But like any other adolescent, there was a zest to do the undo-able,” his narration is simply engaging.

And then Sridev Suman was arrested. “He was tried in the prison. I somehow managed to get his statement and gave it to a national Hindi daily. Next day there was chaos and I was arrested. I was put in Narendranagar jail, away from Sumanji. I appeared for the Intermediate examination under arrest. Later, I heard that Sumanji went on fast, which lasted 84 days. At the end of it, he died. In his death, he taught me a great lesson. He told me that to be a satyagrahi, one must be fearless and have no enemies. Meanwhile, while in jail, I fell sick and had to be operated for a cyst. I fled the hospital to Lahore and went underground. I donned a new identity – of Sardar Mann Singh. I had to learn Gurmukhi. After one year of remaining underground I resurfaced and joined the Sanatan Dharma College in Lahore for graduation. While studying, I joined the Freedom Movement and became the State’s publicity manager of Praja Mandal. After the Independence, I was elevated to the rank of general secretary,” Bahuguna looks up at the cloud laden skies. Within him are a thousand such stories waiting to be heard and carried forward as legacy, I think.

Dressed in a white khadi kurta and pajama and hair tied with a white bandana, the environmentalist exudes extreme simplicity and conviction of strength not easy to emulate in times of high consumerism and compulsive market forces. Bahuguna’s life is one inspired by icons that were self made and will remain treasured in the history of time.

Inspired by Mahatma

One of them was Mahatma Gandhi. “I met him a day before he was assasinated, on January 29, 1948. He blessed me and said he was happy that I had spread the message of ahimsa to the people. He used to chant eleven vows of life, during his prayers, which have become the guiding principles of my life. These are: ahimsa (non-violence); satya (truth); asteya (not to take another’s things; not to steal); brahmacharya (celibacy); ashangra (not to collect too many things); shram (bodily labour); asvada (not to hanker after taste); abhaya (fearlessness); samanalok (the belief that all religions are equal), swadeshi (self-reliance), and sparshabhavana (not to practice untouchability).”

After India gained Independence, Sunderlal Bahuguna moved to his village in Tehri and launched a movement against untouchability. He also opened a residential school for boys of all castes and a temple for the Harijan.

In 1956, his life took a turn when he got married to Vimala – a small built lady with tremendous drive and grit. She also hailed from the same background. Her parents were Freedom fighters. “She asked me to choose between politics and marriage. I opted for marriage. We moved to a small village – Sihar and started living in a hut there,” says the septuagenarian. The couple got involved in social activities. While Bahuguna formed a labour co-operative society, Vimala launched a night school for boys and day school for girls because there were no schools for girls.

In 1960, Vinobha Bhave called Bahuguna to Wardha during his padyatra and exhorted him to take the message of Gandhi ji’s gram swarajya (village republic) to the remote villages on the Himalayan border. From 1965 to 1971, he mobilised the hill women of Uttar Pradesh in an anti-liquor campaign. Following the agitation, Vimala was arrested along with their infant son and her mother.

Bahuguna’s memory is as fresh as the woods, which he and Vimala hugged, along with thousands of people to save them from being destroyed. That in 1973 became the Chipko Movement, which he took forward with Chandi Prasad Bhatt. For eight years the struggle was on, which eventually helped in banning of felling of trees in the Himalayas. “It was initially started by a lady. Chipko in our language means to hug. We hugged the trees so that they may not be axed. Our slogan was ‘What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air’. We pitted this against the government refrain – ‘What do the forests bear? Raisin, timber and foreign exchange,’ and it worked. The women protested along with men and children and their voice echoed in the forests Laathi goley khaenge; apne paid bachaenge. Bhaley kulhade chamkenge; hum paidon par chipkenge (We are not afraid of getting beaten by the stick and stone, we will save our trees. Let the axe shine, we will stick to the trees).

The protests continued for eight long years till in 1981, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India banned the felling of trees, now in Uttaranchal. And such was the charisma of the people’s movement that Pandurang Hegde, a student of social work from Karnataka studying in Delhi approached Bahuguna and later launched the Apiko movement against the felling of trees in South India. The Chipko movement succeeded in halting felling in the Western Ghats and the Vindhyas, as well as generating pressure for a natural resources policy more sensitive to people’s needs and environmental factors.

Tehri woes

In the late 1980s, Bahuguna joined the campaign opposing the construction of Tehri dam. He mobilised people from village to village and was accompanied by Vimala. In 1989 he began the first of a series of hunger strikes to draw political attention to the dangers posed by the dam and in due course the Chipko Movement gave birth to the Save Himalaya Movement. Bahuguna ended a 45-day fast in 1995 when the government promised a review of the Tehri dam project. But the promise was not kept and the following year he committed himself to another fast, only broken after 74 days when the Prime Minister gave a personal undertaking to conduct a thorough review, largely on Bahuguna’s terms.

It was then that Bahuguna voiced his fear against the receding Himalayan glaciers and warned that if this was not checked, the glacier feeding the Ganga would disappear within the next 100 years. “I told the Prime Minister that the people in Himalaya are facing a crisis of survival due to the suicidal activities being carried out in the name of development. The monstrous Tehri dam was a symbol of this. I told him that there was a need for a new and long-term policy to protect the dying Himalaya. I do not want to see Ganga dying for short-term economic gains,” his voice for once vents out the anger of a people made to watch the killing of their main life source, the river they venerate with a certain spirituality.

The present situation at Tehri dam is grim. “Today they have closed the three gates of the dam, if they close the fourth one also, it will stop the flow of the river. Thousands of people have lost their land. They are still to be rehabilitated. We have cases pending before the Supreme Court and the High Court filed by the people. The fight will go on. I have always opposed dams because I see them as temporary solutions to permanent problems,” he sounds committed.

And it’s not that Bahuguna is just concerned about the Himalayas and the Ganga. He strongly opposes the interlinking of rivers. “The politicians in Delhi are allured by the waters coming from the Himalayan region. They are driven by short term goals. Interlinking rivers means building big dams everywhere. This would lead to killing of the rivers. It would be extremely unfortunate,” says Bahuguna.

In his tour to south India, he visited the Kodagu forests and gave lectures at places, including Mysore. Does not the body give way, one is compelled to ask. “With age, I may have become weak in body but the spirit is undying. There are thousands of people involved in these movements. It is not a one-man show,” he admits. His spirituality is contagious.

As he gets ready for his lecture, he signs off, with a simple line. “If you must, then give voice to the silent majority.”



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