Treading the Gandhian Path – by Sunderlal Bahuguna

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997. The author Sunderlal Bahuguna, born 1927, is a noted environmentalist and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Non-violence and Satyagraha.

Born in a remote Himalayan village and that too in a princely state, I could know about Gandhi when I was a High School student at the age of 13. My inquisitiveness to know about a strangely dressed young man, who was dressed neither like the officers of the state nor like the poor subjects with loin cloth, but was putting on white Khadi cap, Kurta, Jacket, dhoti and chappal, inspired me to chase him.

He had a small box in one hand and a bag in another hand. I guessed he must he somebody like an archer, who had demonstrated his feats in archery and we were so much impressed that we left going to the school for some days and followed him. The idea came to my mind that his small box must contain something of our interest. I along with a few friends asked, what are you carrying in your small box?’. He very gently replied, ‘come I will show you’. He sat under a banyan tree, opened the box and demonstrated his feat. He was spinning yarn. Looking at this new wonder, we said, ‘It may take you a year to produce yearn sufficient for a shirt’, He promptly replied, whether I get enough yarn for my shirt or not, Gandhi with confidence says that we can end the British rule and become independent, if every Indian starts spinning. This is Gandhi’s Yarvada Charka (the spinning wheel he invented inside Yarvada prison).

‘What else does Gandhi say? How can a spinning wheel bring freedom’. The young man said, “if you want to know more, you can buy these small booklets”. I spent the whole amount of six annas, (about five pennies), which my mother had given me for a week’s breakfast on three small booklets. One was by Gandhi – How to achieve Swaraj? Other was of national songs and the A Word to Young Men by Prince Kroptkin.

The young man was Sri Dev Suman – a smart hillman of 25, who had become Gandhi follower at the age of 15. He asked me, ‘what are you going to do after finishing studies?’ I said, ‘service of the ruler’. And he again asked, ‘But who will serve these poor with loin cloth?’ I immediately replied ‘we will also serve them too’. ‘How can a person serve two masters?’ He silenced me by asking this. ‘Then what should I do?’ He said, ‘That you have to decide, but I ask you, will you sell yourself for a few silver coins?’ And I firmly said, ‘No, never. I also join the army of Gandhi’.

It occurred to me that the soldier of Gandhi’s army should wear Khadi (hand-spun, hand woven cloth), know spinning and above all know more about Gandhi’s life. Our small group could manage to get a spinning wheel, Gandhi’s autobiography and some other books. We were cautious not to be detected, so we practised spinning and study of Gandhi’s autobiography in the cemetery.

Sri Dev Suman after three years was arrested and charged with treason. He was tried inside the prison, where he undertook fast unto death for the protection of civil liberties. I myself was arrested for getting his statement published in the press and kept in the police lockup for five months. Gandhi’s writings and Suman’s penance strengthened me and as a boy of 17, I felt glorified in being imprisoned for being a humble soldier of Gandhi’s army.

Another opportunity to study Gandhi and practice his teachings came, when I went underground from Lahore, where I was studying in the University. I was in a remote village in Lyalipur district teaching children of a Sikh family. I felt I should take up Gandhi’s constructive work programme. I started spinning for self-sufficiency and scavenging the village streets. Though I was laughed at, I felt very much satisfied.

The British had left India, but slavery in the native states continued and thus the freedom struggle in the states was intensified. I was prevented by the Army from entering into Tehri town. I went on a fast. They dragged me some distance and I remained sitting. My fast continued for a week and finally they had to yield. I had seen Gandhi during his last days in his prayer meetings in Birla House. We met him a day before his martyrdom. He expressed his happiness over the success of non-violent struggle of Tehri-Garhwal state’s freedom.

Gandhi in his last will had called upon the freedom fighters to settle down in villages, liquidate the Congress and take up constructive work among the villagers. I could not do so. I was working as a general secretary of the Congress party in my district but this work did not give me satisfaction. Untouchability was still there. Scavengers were regarded as untouchable. They, in order to forget their miserable life, used to take liquor and fight among themselves. The police would not intervene. On Gandhi’s birthday, October 2nd, 1949, I started a night school in their colony. We used to sing the devotional songs and Ramayan. Now they were under a new type of intoxication – the intoxication of Ram-nam — so dear to Gandhi.

I met Thakkar Bapa in Delhi. He had devoted his life for the upliftment of tribals and untouchables. He asked me, ‘Have you seen the cells in which those where you teach live?’ I admitted, I never saw these. Shewing his stick he told me that he had measured thousands of dark and dirty cells where these servants of the society lived. This was a practical lesson to me. We launched a programme of making better houses for them. Untouchability was in practice in the school hostel. There was a scheduled caste boy, who was served food outside. Two young caste students raised voice against this, but their protest was not paid heed. So we started a hostel where students of all castes could live together. It was later named as Thakkar Bapa Hostel.

We started the construction of its building when the number of students increased. I used to work as a and some construction labourer, helper to the masons. The students also worked after their school and study hours. Within five years, we could construct a building. This become the centre of anti-untouchability movement. We had a group of young students, who led the temple entry in the holy shrines of Gangotri and Yamunotri. Spinning and other manual labour along with their studies became a part of their routine and these students could be ion of civil recognised separate from others.

But itwas Mira Behn, the English disciple of Gandhi, daughter of Admiral Slade, who persuaded me to work in the villages. She established her Pashulok (Animal’s World) Ashram in the Himalayan foothills at Rishikesh. In 1949 Ganga was in spate and damaged the Ashram. Mira Behn rode on horse back towards the source of Ganga in the hills to find out the causes of the flood. She could see it was deforestation and, more than that, conversion of natural broad leaved oak forests into commercial Chir-pine forests. She wound up her foothill Ashram and set up a new Ashram-Gopal Ashram (Ashram for the service of cow) in the remote hill village of Geonli. To reach there one had to walk 40 Kms. Mira Behn looked after the cows, worked in the kitchen garden and simultaneously could find time to listen to scriptures, read books and write articles. In her life I could see a balance between head, heart and the hands.

Tehri-Garhwal was the poorest district of India. There were forests, but of no use

to the people. The contractors made fortune out of these forests. Mira Behn had a plan to change the land use in which tree species giving fodder, fuel and fertilizers were to be encouraged, but bureaucracy came in the way, in spite of Pandit Nehru’s full support. Finally she left the area and settled in Kashmir. But she created in me a village worker, passionate for Ashram life.

Finally my dreams were fulfilled, when I and Vimala—an assistant of Gandhi’s other British disciple, Sarala Behn, who had established an Ashram to train women workers in Kumaon hills—were married. I left party and power politics forever on June 1956.

We constructed huts, with the help of Thakkar Bapa Hostel students, on a degraded piece of land covered with thorny bushes. Two huts were made—one for

We used to living and other for kitchen. Vimala found work for herself. She gathered cowherd children and taught them during the night. I tended cow, worked with the villagers in the fields, sat with the villagers for evening prayers.

Gandhi’s prayer of the Sevak (people’s servant) sustained me. One of the sentences of the prayer was, ‘Oh God give me strength and eagerness to be one with the common masses of India’. Common people earned their livelihood by doing manual labour. We formed a labour co-operative and worked through it in constructing the canal and the roads. The villagers were addicted to liquor and used to distill liquor. The ladies were the worst victims. They could not speak anything against their drunk husbands, but in our evening prayer meetings the issue was raised. Women become vocal and the men took pledge to give voice against up this bad habit. When complaint of their breaking the pledge came, I went on fast in lonely place and they repented.

In 1960, in the wake of Chinese aggression, Acharya Vinoba Bhave—the spiritual heir of Gandhi—called me to Agra, where he was halting during his padyatra (foot march). He said in a challenging tone, ‘look here, I am an old man walking all over the country but you being a young man are sitting in your Ashram. The threat from China is psychological more than physical. China is not a tiger to be threatened by the guns. China has a philosophy of alleviating poverty. We have the superior philosophy of Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj (village rule). You should go from village to village in Uttarak hand (Central Himalayan) region with this message.’ Nehru and Vinoba came out with a similar statement that Gram Swaraj was a defence measure.

Exactly four years after we had started the Ashram, I left it to go from village to village. We would tell villagers to free themselves from three shops—liquor shop, courts, the shop of litigation, and cloth shop. They should give up liquor, settle their own disputes and spin their own cloth. But the government was encouraging liquor to earn revenue. A new liquor shop was proposed near our Ashram in Ghansali. I sought Vinoba’s permission to suspend my wandering in the region and offer satyagraha at the liquor shop. He immediately responded, ‘you have to organise people for picketing the liquor shop. The government should think how can they confront China freed from opium by making people drunkards’.

Men were not serious, but the ladies were determined to fight the liquor. They had to look after the family, the farm and the cattle. The main problem was of creating leadership from among them. We organised Ram Lila (the play of Ramayan) during the night. Ladies in hundreds thronged.

After day’s hard work and feeding the family, they would walk 7 to 8 Kms. with torchwoods in their hands. We encouraged them to come on the platform. They would also come with a handful of rice to help the movement. A retired judge — an old man, the most respected in the area — came forward to lead the movement. Seeing the dedication, determination and devotion of the people, the government changed the decision. This was the peoples’ first victory and their faith in non-violence was established.

We multiplied this experiment. For seven years, we fought against liquor. There were mass movements against the liquor, picketing by ladies everywhere. One after another the liquor shops were closed and finally the government declared five bill districts dry in 1970. But the High Court revoked the prohibition. Everywhere an atmosphere of terror was created. The women were told that if they picketed the liquor-shops after High Court orders, they will be sent to jail for many years. We were keeping vigil at the spot where the shop was to open, but the liquor-vendors eluded us by opening it at a new place. Immediately we rushed to the spot. Acharya Vinoba Bhave had made a rule to chant one thousand names of Lord Vishnu (Vishnu Shahastranam) at 10.30 a.m. all over the country. I sat in front of the liquor shop and started chanting Vishnu Shahastranam. As soon as I finished and opened my eyes I was shocked to see the ghastly scene. The head of the son of the liquor vendor was bleeding. He was beaten with an empty bottle by his own servant, who had taken the full bottle to rejoice over the reopening of the shop.

Liquor is the cause of violence and bloodshed. Is it going to happen all around? What to do? Because everybody around us said that it was impossible to close down the liquor shops now. I was reminded of a devotional song of blind saint Surdass. He sang long-long ago.

I bow to the feet of Almighty.

With whose kindness, the lame crosses the mountain.

The blind sees everything.,

The deaf hears and the dumb speaks.

The poor wanders as a crowned king.

At least a blind man had experienced that the impossible can become possible. When all our worldly efforts had failed, why not go on a prayerful fast?

Thus, I started my prayerful fast in front of the liquor shop on Nov. 5th, 1971. It was an open place on the road. People laughed at me. The drunkards created noise. They became more vocal and remarked what right I had to create hindrance in their way; but gradually some senior citizens came to persuade me to give up the fast. Later women started coming. I asked them were they still afraid of the prison. They said, ‘no’. ‘If so, go from village to village and bring thousands to protest against the liquor shop’. Their number went on increasing. They sang devotional songs near the place of fast. On 16th day, 20th November, more than twenty thousand people, mostly ladies, assembled in Tehri town. They had come fully prepared to court arrest. A public meeting was held, which passed a resolution asking me to give up the fast as they will picket the liquor shop. Thus, I concluded my fast.

The people, the most oppressed in the society, the women, had come forward to fight for the cause. This is what Gandhi wished. Scores of these women, and also my six year old son Pradeep along with his mother, were arrested and sent to far off prison. My wife’s old mother was also arrested. In this way the three generations had come together for a common cause.

While working for Gram Swaraj in the border villages, we had seen a bigger threat to the country in the shape of ever-increasing floods due to deforestation in higher Himalayas. We took up forest problem in 1972. We thought the unscrupulous contractors were responsible for overfelling the trees. So the demand was to replace the contractor system with forest labourers’ co-operative, supplying raw material to local forest-based industries. The idea to pressurize the government by hugging the trees marked for selling came from the villagers. This was the result of 12 year long efforts of peoples’ education in non-violence. Chipko means hug — feel the heartbeats of the trees.

Women, who were trained in non-violent method of protest came forward to save the trees, but their vision was different than that of mens’ economic demand. They said ‘forest is our mothers’ home — a place, which a lady remembers when in trouble.’ After five years our illusion was cleared, when we saw that there were landslides even if the trees were felled by the forest co-operatives. Womens’ participation and our long foot marches to educate the people, a fifteen days’ fast in 1974, gave birth to a new concept – a new slogan:

What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air.

Soil, water and pure air, are the basis of Life.

On 9th January 1979 was my 53rd birthday. We were camping in villages of Alaknanda valley. Thousands of green trees had been marked for felling. The axemen were at work. The villages were scattered. I sat under a tree marked for felling. The axeman was to come there to start his work. I felt I had become so insensitive that I was doing nothing when my sons are being slaughtered before my eyes. The holy Upanishad says, ‘A tree is equal to ten sons.’

I hugged the tree and the axeman went to the next. I chased him. For some time this continued. Finally I followed them to their huts, but nobody would give me shelter. They were told I was their enemy — an obstacle in their way to earn money. I sent my two colleagues to go to the village and declare my fast unto death till tree felling was stopped. I squeezed under a heap of hay. Next day people from the villages came. The news spread far and wide. On the fourth day to my surprise the hay was burning. I saved my life by running away with the sleeping bag, my only belonging. Thereafter we could find shelter under a hut.

Vimala, along with some ladies from my Ashram, had come. On the 13th day of my fast, they took me to jail. I continued my fast and gave a statement that force feeding and medicines would cause my death as I was naturalist. This baffled the authorities, who were pressing the doctors to do force-feeding. When I did not yield, they sent me to Dehra Dun jail. Groups of doctors came every day to examine me. They would feel my pulse, the heart, measure the blood pressure; but found everything alright. I observed silence and listened to devotional songs. This strengthened me. Doctors asked me the secret of this. I said there is a hidden power — the power of self — to measure which you have no instruments.

On the 24th day, the government decided to stop tree feeling and talk with me on the issue on management of hill forests. Thus ended my prayerful fast. I came out stronger from this ordeal.

It was finally in April 1981, when felling of green trees for commercial purposes was banned. But it was only in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Himalaya extends from Kashmir to Kohima. How to spread this message? I finally decided to undertake padyatra (foot march). During this foot-march, the first to join me was 72 year old Gandhian activist, Sri Ratanchand Dehloo. Later many more people joined and we could complete this 4,870 km march in 300 days. Besides Indian Himalaya, we walked through Nepal and Bhutan, about 2000 kms. We carried our luggage on our backs and lived upon whatever the villagers offered. We could take the message to the hearts of the people, impress upon them the vital importance of forests for their survival.

The slogan given by Chipko attracted international attention. Richard St. Barbe Baker, celebrated Man of the Trees, the veteran forester came to India to greet the movement. He was a saint scientist. He declared that this was a scientific movement. Later, Indian Science Congress also passed a unanimous resolution supporting the movement. Thus the way for Sarvodaya — well being of all — was paved. Science had come in support of self knowledge (Atma-Gyan).

A 260.5 meter high dam, Tehri dam, the highest in Asia was planned over River Bhagirathi in 1960s. When it was sanctioned by the Planning Commission in 1972, people who were going to be displaced by this monstrous dam launched a movement against it. Work on it was started in 1978. The movement slowed down. People went to the court, but in spite of all scientific opinions against it and the apprehension of a big earthquake, work continued. Sri V.D. Saklani, the spirit behind the movement, asked me to devote full time to this issue as he had become old and weak. On November 24th, I left Silyara Ashram, the base of my 33 years work, with a decision not to return till Tehri dam was stopped. Now I was a homeless wanderer. I went from village to village listening to the people and to the nature around. Is this all going to vanish if the dam is built? Nobody was listening to the people.

On Christmas day, 25th December, 1989, I went on a week’s fast. This was a call to motion on my part. I was fasting outside the dam site. Nobody was allowed to go to the site. On the fourth day of my fast, I walked to the work site. Gigantic machines were at work. First I made gesture to stop these, but they continued. Finally, I jumped upon a bull-dozer which was in action. They had do stop it. It was evening and the frosty winter night was to fall. My sitting there made people brave. They came in the hundreds. We made fire around. Next morning a temporary shelter was made, but I made the wheel of the bulldozer my permanent seat. I would offer my prayers, speak for an hour and observe silence for the whole day. When nothing happened for seven days, I declared an indefinite fast. On the 11th day, message came from Delhi for talks.

The talks were not decisive. Our protest continued. I repaired to my ancestral deserted house, which is in the submergence area of the dam. Later, through foot marches from the source of Ganga to Hardwar, where it descends down from the hills to the plains, we walked spreading the message from village to village. River Ganga is worshipped by millions as the holy mother. It is the symbol of India’s Aryan Culture, which sees life in all creation and advocates a worshipful attitude towards all forms of life. Moreover, behind the story of the origin of Ganga is the story of penance of a king, who left everything for the welfare of humankind. The river is suffering from the dual onslaughts of exploitation and pollution.

To make people conscious about it, we set out on a cycle rally on September 11, 1991, from Ganga Sagar, Bay of Bengal, where Ganga joins the sea, to Gaumukh in Himalayas. Again, teaching and preaching through our action. We covered 2300 kilometers in 46 days, when a big earthquake rocked the hill region on October 21st, 1991.

This put a big question mark on the construction of Tehri dam on a highly seismic zone. On October 29th, we decided to sit in protest near the dam site and finally, on December 14th, 1991, along with more than two thousand people, we stalled the work at dam site.

The monstrous machines were again stopped. We pitched our tents at the work site keeping 24 hours vigil. They tried to dislodge us, brought a bull-dozer to demolish our camp. We again climbed upon the bull-dozer. The work remained stalled for 75 days when in the dark of night the police came and invaded our camp, arrested forty of us and took us to the jail. Among those arrested were Vimala, my wife, two young girls of our Ashram and three ladies. This was an attack on civil liberties. I started indefinite fast in the prison. Vimala and Diksha Bisht, a lady worker, joined me.

We were shifted to Roorkee jail the fourth day and later to Megrut Medical College, finally released an brought back to Tehri. I continued my fast and insisted to be taken to the spot, where our camp was demolished. But everywhere armed police were posted to prevent our entry. We pitched our camp on the road side. All methods of torture were adopted. The fast generated countrywide interest in the problem of Tehri dam. It was discussed in the parliament and finally George Fernandes, a socialist leader and member of the Parliament, visited me with an appeal from the President of Lok Sabha to break the fast. We wanted an assurance from the Prime Minister that blasting of explosives at the dam site will be stopped and a review of the project undertaken. It took another two week On the forty-fifth day when this came, I broke my fast and shifted to the bank of the river near the dam site.

Here I live in a shanty since April 1992. People from different parts of the country and world visit this spot. Near our shanty is a red flag — the flag is not the flag of the socialists, but railwayman’s danger signal, to caution people about the dangers from high dam in Himalaya, in particular, and from destructive development. People often ask what is the alternative. Gandhi had foreseen the doomsday as early as 1908, when he wrote Hind Swaraj. The objective of development is economic growth or prosperity, but to achieve this temporary economic prosperity we have lost peace and happiness.

We have created a world, which is confronted with the problems of threat of war and internal security, pollution and depletion of resources, and poverty and hunger. The concept of development had made man the butcher of nature. Gandhi’s vision of a ideal society was based upon the Indian culture. Development is a state in the life of individual and society in which they enjoy permanent peace, happiness and fulfillment. This can be achieved if science and technology is applied to sublimate nature. Thus the ultimate goal of humankind, to march from nature to culture, will be achieved. The seed was sown by Gandhi. He nurtured it and left tender plant to our generation to rear and help the tree to grow. I have been devoting myself to this during these 55 years.


This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.

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