Sunderlal Bahuguna: Giant of the Himalayas, sensitive writer, strong traveller and smiling inspirer


Express News Service

The departure of Sunderlal Bahuguna (9 January 1927-21 May 2021) to another planet is the end of an epoch. This epoch started when the Indian freedom struggle and Prajamandal struggles were going on. Born in the family of a state official, he had the resources to pursue other things, but opted for the arduous route.

In 1942, when he was a student in Lahore, he was inspired to participate in the freedom struggle. He went underground and reached Tehri, where Praja Mandal was trying to work in the state. This organisation was denied entry. Shridev Suman tried to convince state officials, but he was arrested and rearrested and died after 84 days of historic hunger strike.

Suman’s death gave life to Praja Mandal and Tehri people under the feudal state. They organised themselves under Praja Mandal and a rainbow of leaders emerged out of it. Bahuguna was among them. He was not only inspired by Suman, but also met him a few times. After the merger of Tehri state in the Indian union in 1949, Bahuguna became the secretary of Tehri Congress. He was educated, a good looking orator and committed to Gandhian ideals. He had a great future in politics.

But when his marriage with Vimala Nautiyal was initiated, her first argument was that if he wanted to marry her, he had to leave politics and join social work. This was a new beginning in the lives of both. In 1956, they thought about establishing Navjivan Ashram in Silyara, a remote village in Balganga valley in the inner parts of the district. Education for women and dalits was one of the aims. After a few years, a hostel was built for the downtrodden in Tehri town. Both were involved in this project with many others. It was some kind of a renaissance in Tehri.

Before that, a Sarvodaya team was developed in Uttarakhand with Sarala Behn at the top. The others were Man Singh Rawat, Sunderlal, Vimla, Radha Behn, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Sohanlal Bhubhikshuk, Ghanshyam Shailani, Diwan Singh Bhakuni, Sher Singh Karki and many others, who participated in different works of Bhudan. The Bhudan yatras taught them the real issues of the mountains. First, they worked for the entry of Dalits in the temples. After that, they brought their kids to schools. The next movement was against alcoholism.  This movement spread to all parts of Uttarakhand. The Bahuguna couple and others participated and in 1969, prohibition was introduced in five districts. It continued almost for two decades.

In 1970, floods in Alaknanda prompted the Sarvodaya workers to analyse it. They found that apart from landslides and tectonic activities, felling of forests was also responsible for this flood. This was the time when angu trees in the Chamoli forests were allotted to a sport goods company. This gave rise to Chipko in Gopeswar. The word Chipko emerged in a meeting with villagers in Gopeswar. Early in 1973, Mandal protests stopped the axe men and in the second half, the Phata protest also succeeded. For the first time, women participated in large numbers in the protests. On March 26, 1974, the women of Reni village wrote another chapter of Chipko, when 27 of them led by Gaura Devi gave a turning point to the movement. A Chipko committee was formed by the government and many demands of the movement were accepted.

The Emergency became detrimental for the further rise of Chipko, as the Sarvodaya team was divided over supporting or opposing the move. But when Janata Party formed the government in 1977, people started hoping for a good policy for forest issues. Janata Party failed in dealing with those issues. It gave acceleration to the movement and Chipko came out in different regions of Uttarakahnd in a participatory form, dominated by women and young people including students.

Till 1980, Uttarakhand was under the voices and echoes of the Chipko movement. With the change of government in 1980, most of the initial demands of Chipko were accepted. After that Chipko activists diverted their energy to other initiatives. Chipko initiated the idea of environmentalism of the poor dealing with economy and ecology together.

Bahuguna organised a Kashmir-Kohima tour in 1980-82 to spread a message to people and rulers to look at Himalayan issues in a more committed way, placing nature and people at the centre. The idea of ‘ecology is permanent economy’ emerged. After that, he became active in Anti Tehi Dam movement initiated by VD Saklani in 1978, by lodging a writ in the Supreme Court. Bahuguna led the movement with support from locals and people who love the Himalaya. But the state machinery developed the villains, and supporters of the Dam. Political parties also played a dirty role. Many PMs of India bluffed at him. Many times his hunger strikes ended with some promise that were never fulfilled. The movement failed, but it sparked a big debate over the pattern of development in Himalaya.

Bahuguna was among the very few true Gandhians. In Uttarakhand, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Radha Behn and a few others are old and ailing. He was a true voluntary worker, sensitive writer, strong traveller and smiling inspirer.

He followed the path of Gandhi and Suman and Gandhi’s two British daughters — Sarala and Mira. At times, people felt his working style bordered on heroism. Sometimes Sarla Behn disagreed with his hunger strikes too. He continued working in his own style. He never compromised. He may have had weaknesses. But for the larger good, he stuck to his point. Some of his points proved true later.

Uttarakhand lost a father figure of Himalayas and the country a fighter for the Himalayan cause. So many things which he taught us, I hope, will be part of the lives of people, especially young people. He taught us going back to villages is the only way of sustained life in the Himalayas. He gave us the idea of Askot Arakot Abhiyans.

We salute him and his great contributions.

(The writer is a Padma Shree award winning environmentalist/historian who has written many books)

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