Sunderlal Bahuguna: Himalaya’s foot soldier

Print edition : June 18, 2021

Sunderlal Bahugana and Vimla Bahuguna at the Kali river in Karnataka in 2005. Photo: Pandurang Hegde

A re-enactment of the Chipko movement’s ‘hug a tree’ action in Tehri Garhwal. Sunderlal Bahuguna helped spread the message of Chipko in the hills of Uttarakhand. Photo: Rainer Hoerig

With Vimla Bahuguna and Pandurang Hegde of the Parisara Samrakshana Kendra at the conclusion of the Sharavati padayatra in Karnataka in 2005. Sunderlal Bahuguna inspired Pandurang Hegde to start the Appiko movement. Photo: Pandurang Hegde

Sunderlal Bahuguna at the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement) gathering at Jardhargaon in Tehri Garhwal district in 2010. He readily supported offshoot movements of Chipko. Photo: Ashish Kothari

Sunderlal Bahuguna’s (1927-2021) primary identity is of a crusader to save the Himalayan environment and people, but he also inspired generations of environmental activists outside the Chipko villages of Tehri Garhwal.

WHEN a big tree falls in a forest, it takes with it many smaller ones that are in the path of its mighty crash. Sometimes, though, it quietly dissolves into the soil, continuing to enrich everything around it. In the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna, a mighty tree has indeed left us, but it has left behind an inspiring legacy that will nurture generations to come. As a young, somewhat naive animal lover growing up in Delhi, my first encounter with him in 1979 was a moment of awakening, and in subsequent decades his actions and messages have remained sources of inspiration.

Sunderlal Bahuguna has so many facets that a single article cannot possibly do justice. He was, of course, best known for the iconic Chipko movement, though he was not, as is often portrayed, its founder. Shekhar Pathak of PAHAR, whose recent book, The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, is the definitive account of the movement (Ramchandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods being a precursor), gave me a quick account of the beginnings of Chipko and Sunderlal Bahuguna’s role in it.

The Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, a village organisation set up by Sarvodaya activists, including Chandi Prasad Bhatt, was already agitating against permits given to private companies, instead of village industries, to fell trees in the Alaknanda valley. When the devastating floods in this basin in the early 1970s were linked by the local people to deforestation, the movement spread, with the first Chipko-like action in 1973 in Mandal village. Others followed, including the more well-known action led by Gaura Devi in Reni village in 1974.

Having already experienced the devastation wrought on the Himalaya by deforestation, Sunderlal Bahuguna was quick to pick up on these actions. Acknowledging the role of women like Gaura Devi and people like Chandi Prasad, he took their message to Tehri Garhwal and elsewhere, helping spread Chipko to many other parts of the hills of what was then Uttar Pradesh and is now part of Uttarakhand.

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As a superb orator and prolific writer, Sunderlal Bahuguna’s communication skills are likely to have been the biggest contributor in this. Indeed, his impact was not confined to the mountains he was primarily active in but was felt over a much wider geography. His padayatras were the most powerful means of carrying the message of saving the Himalaya. In the late 1970s, there was the Askot to Arakot march; in the early 1980s the astonishing 4,800-kilometre-long Kashmir to Kohima padayatra; and in between and after, dozens more. Some of the young (and not so young) participants in these marches later became Chipko and ecological crusaders in their own right. They include Vijay Jardhari, Radha Bhatt, Kunwar Prasoon, Kulbhushan Upamanyu, Pratap Shikhar, Shekhar Pathak, Dhoom Singh Negi, Sudeshabehn, Sahab Singh, Bhupal Singh, Pandurang Hegde and Biju Negi. And not to forget that legendary folk singer Ghanshyam Sailani who rewrote many old Garhwali songs and added stories from the epics to them to drive home the ecological message.

The padayatras were supplemented by road blockades, dharnas, rallies and other forms of agitations with an explicit non-violent approach. During one such padayatra at Badyargarh in 1978-79, Sunderlal Bahuguna started a fast on his birthday, January 9, which lasted 24 days (he was arrested on the 18th day but continued the fast in jail). Other participants in the movement continued the agitation for over two months. This helped draw intense attention to the issue of deforestation in the Himalayan region, forcing the State and Central governments to pay heed to the demands of the movement. In 1981, the government announced a ban on commercial felling at altitudes higher than 1,000 meters above mean sea level (msl).

Most of Sunderlal Bahuguna’s compatriots agree that his biggest role was to insist on the ecological integrity of the Himalaya, and that this had to be the fulcrum of any plan and project made for its people. “Ecology is permanent economy,” he said, in one of those pithy one-liners that were the hallmark of his biggest inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi. On a trip to Tehri Garhwal in 1980, when I, along with many other young members of the newly created environmental action group Kalpavriksh, stayed at his Silyara ashram, he spoke eloquently about how the destruction in the Himalaya was not an isolated occurrence. Rather, it was inherent to a model of development that treated nature as a commodity. It was from him, and several other visionaries, that I learnt some of my earliest lessons in the connection between environment, economy, politics, and social justice.

Saving the Western Ghats

While Sunderlal Bahuguna’s primary identity is as a crusader to save the Himalayan environment and people, he played a crucial role elsewhere, too. Pandurang Hegde of the Parisara Samrakshana Kendra in Sirsi, Karnataka, was inspired by him to start Appiko (Kannada for Chipko) to save the forests of the Western Ghats. This was in 1983, but Pandurang recalls that Sunderlal Bahuguna visited the region in 1979 to help in the campaign against the proposed Bedthi hydroelectric project. This project would have submerged thousands of hectares of natural forest and agricultural land and displaced many villages. Local opposition supported by people like Sunderlal Bahuguna forced the government to scrap it. In 1982-83 Pandurang (then 23 years old) joined Sunderlal Bahuguna on the Kashmir-Kohima padayatra, and when the march ended, he was told to go back to Karnataka and start a movement. Pandurang recalls: “Around that time a youth club in Uttara Kannada district was campaigning to save forests from being clear-felled. They requested me to invite Sunderlal Bahuguna, who promptly responded, came and administered an oath of non-violent action to all of us.” He returned in December 1983, and the guru-disciple duo walked across many parts of south India promoting conservation of ecology, especially protection of the Western Ghats (a biodiversity ‘hotspot’). This and the broader Save the Western Ghats Movement led to a moratorium on green felling across the region in 1989.

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Chipko-inspired movements

Sunderlal Bahuguna also readily supported offshoot movements of Chipko, such as the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA, Save the Seeds Movement) initiated by Vijay Jardhari and others in Tehri Garhwal. Indeed, one of the last times I met him was at a BBA gathering at Jardhargaon in 2010. He was then 83, yet his voice and clarity of thought when he delivered his speech belied his years. Earlier, he had regularly supported the Narmada Bachao Andolan in its bid to stop the mega dams in central India. And through his widespread communication, Chipko directly inspired similar ecological movements in other parts of the world. In the Himalayan region, Chipko-inspired movements against large dams, roads in fragile areas, and mining (such as one led by Bhupal Singh in Nahin Kala, near Dehradun, which Kalpavriksh supported through legal action and advocacy).

Sunderlal Bahuguna’s work defines him. But for me, the human side of the person has always been equally, if not more, important. In my very first meeting in 1979 I was struck by his simplicity—his clothes (always khadi), his sparse diet (as much uncooked as possible), and the ahimsa (non-violence) in his behaviour towards others.

And the sheer energy. During the 1980-81 treks through the Chipko villages of Tehri Garhwal undertaken by Kalpavriksh, we were astounded by the weight he carried in his pitthu (or ‘rooksack’, as he called it). Pandurang Hegde recalled their padayatra in Bhutan as part of the Kashmir-Kohima journey in 1982-83: “We were royal guests of the Bhutan government, and they gave us horses to carry our luggage, but Sunderlalji insisted on walking and carrying his pitthu, which must have weighed 40 kilograms! I could hardly carry 10 kg on my back, though I was less than half his age.”

Many others whose lives Sunderlal Bahuguna touched recall his incredible energy and the ability to connect. Radhabehn Bhatt, a Gandhian who started Lakshmi Ashram in Kausani, Uttarakhand, recollects several padayatras with him: “They were difficult, we would cover long distances through the day, not knowing where we would end up at night. Wherever we halted, he would ask me to sing a song before going to sleep; I was exhausted and reluctant but once the song got going, we would all regain our energy!” She also says that during these yatras, there would be at least one daily stop in a place of tranquillity, where Sunderlal Bahuguna would request her to read out from a book by Gandhi, or Vinoba Bhave, or other such inspirational people. “Sunderlalji called it the ‘jungle vidyapeeth’ [forest university]; I think it was his way of inculcating values and knowledge amongst us youth. Also, we would all carry lots of Chipko literature, and sell it along the way; he would gather us around each evening to ask how much fund each of us collected!”.

Dhoom Singh Negi, who as a student joined Sunderlal Bahuguna in the anti-liquor movements in the mid-1960s, says: “His greatest ability was to speak the language of ordinary people, whether in Garhwali, Hindi or English. He was simple, clear, firm, and convincing, in public assemblies, on the radio (he did frequent programmes on All India Radio), in numerous articles (for a while he was also a reporter for the Hindi daily Hindustan), and elsewhere.” He had the ability to reach all age groups; he especially delighted in talking to children and youth, and must have reached out to tens of thousands of people in his several decades of life. He also had the element of drama in him, as Dhoom Singhji told me with fond amusement. When he travelled to Stockholm to receive the Right Livelihood Award (or alternative Nobel) in 1987, he carried some gangajal with him, and showed it to draw attention to the plight of the rivers in India.

Also read: 'My fight is to save the Himalayas'

Radhabehn told me that at the village meetings during their innumerable padayatras in the Himalayan region, Sunderlal Bahuguna would request her to be the first speaker. This was perhaps a deliberate subversion of the traditional domination of men in public gatherings. She and Vijay Jardhari remarked that among the three or four main topics of discussion during the padayatras, one was women’s empowerment and equality with men. Shekhar Pathak recounts this fascinating tidbit from Sunderlal Bahuguna’s early history. When Vimla and Sunderlal were proposed to be married, he was a district secretary of the Congress. Vimla told him she would marry him only if he left politics and became a social worker. He agreed, and they moved on to work on issues of untouchability and poverty, set up the Thakkar Bapa ashram for Dalit and other marginalised children, and launched agitations against the liquor mafia. Sunderlal Bahuguna never stopped acknowledging his wife’s influence on his life’s direction, as also that of Gandhi’s disciples Mirabehn and Sarlabehn, the British women who made the Himalaya their home and spoke up against their destruction.

In his acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award, he said: “The long sufferings of hill women have guided the activists to reach new heights in their movement, when these persevering mothers of the future generations dictated that forests were their maternal homes, which provided water, food, fodder and fuel. Both the trees and the mothers teach that to live and also to be ready to die for the sake of others proves to be the real fountain of bliss.”

It is another matter that outside the Chipko belt, men like Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt were known as the leaders of the Chipko movement. I recall that on our 1980 and 1981 treks through the Chipko area, as school or college going youth, our eyes were opened to the central role that women played in the movement. Vimla’s role got hidden by her more visible husband. Shekhar Pathak says she would otherwise have been a well-known activist in her own right. Vimla and hundreds of other women were the grass-roots backbone of the movement.

Anti-Tehri Dam movement

Another major milestone in Sunderlal Bahuguna’s conservation journey was the movement against the Tehri Dam. This fight was tougher than the battle against deforestation, as the activists were up against powerful interests in undivided Uttar Pradesh and the Central government and private companies. The Tehri Bandh Virodh Sangarsh Samiti (the Anti-Tehri Dam Struggle Committee) filed a petition in the Supreme Court, and over time plenty of evidence was put forward by the activists about the potential disasters such a dam could bring. Alternatives were suggested, including by an expert committee appointed by the Central government. Sunderlal Bahuguna came up with this Garhwali slogan (recounted to me by Dhoom Singhji): Dhar ainch pani dhal par dala; Bijli banava khala khala (“On the ridges water, on the slopes trees; Make electricity in every valley”) indicating that micro-hydel could meet the needs of the mountains.

As no one listened, Sunderlal Bahuguna undertook a 56-day fast in 1992. I remember meeting him somewhere around the 20th day of the protest, in his tiny tent pegged above the dam site. He was weak, but his voice and will were strong. At one point in the struggle Sunderlal Bahuguna even aligned himself with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing outfit, in the hope that their opposition to the dam for violating the sanctity of the Ganga would win the battle. Several of his compatriots and supporters, myself included, were disappointed with what appeared to be an opportunistic or desperate move. Mukul Sharma’s critical analysis of this in his book Green and Saffron brings out the ethical dubiousness of such an alliance. Shekhar Pathak also notes that a certain level of individualisation came into the movement, which was particularly reflected in the fast. I also recall, when I visited the protest site, wondering whether mass mobilisation not only in Tehri town but in the hundreds of villages and hamlets that were due for submergence, may have yielded different results. But this is easier said than done, and the compulsions under which Sunderlal Bahuguna did what he did need to be understood. In any case, the combined might behind the dam defeated the movement, and dozens of productive and beautiful valleys and hills and fields and forests were drowned forever, as was the historic Tehri town.

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Although he kept raising his voice after this, and continued to support other movements, age and perhaps the disappointment of the Tehri struggle began to take their toll. Over the past decade or more, he had more or less retired, his health waning. Vimla continued to be the rock holding him up, as were his son Rajiv and daughter Madhu. Finally, he succumbed to COVID-19. Or perhaps he had already decided to quietly pass on; an India that was increasingly slipping into an ecological and social nightmare under a callous regime may have simply become too much to bear.

Ashish is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, in Pune.