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Posted at: Apr 15, 2018, 1:54 AM; last updated: Apr 15, 2018, 1:54 AM (IST)

Tree huggers of Reni

Celebrating 45 years of Chipko movement, a unique struggle to save trees, which is now a global phenomenon
Tree huggers of Reni

Amit Sengupta

Simple mountain women in a little village with a beautiful name: Reni. High up and lost in the fog of the vast expanse of the Henwalghati amidst the fragile Himalayan ranges of Uttarakhand. Holding memories which are life-affirming.  And great stories of inspiration which inspired India and the world, through its sheer simplicity and sacrifice.

Chipko, literally, means hugging. The Chipko movement in the remote hills (then in UP), has become a global phenomena of ecological protection. Started in 1973, even the Google Doodle this year celebrated the 45th anniversary of this unique movement, whereby both the scaffolding and the catalyst are simple hill women. “First, you cut our bodies, then only can you cut our trees,” they told the private contractors of a private sports company, backed by the mighty Indian state.

The movement was led by Gaura Devi, born in village Laata, a widow at 21, with a little child, working in the forests and the fields, running a little wool cooperative, surviving against all odds in the harsh conditions. She first led a contingent of 27 women of the village, and hugged the trees, even when the night had fallen, and no help seemed to reach the satyagrahis.

However, to celebrate Gaura Devi and her female fighters of the Chipko movement, one must travel away from the beautiful Himalayas, into the desert of faraway Rajasthan, where the original movement began. Mostly unrecorded, even in the documentation of the pre- and post-freedom movement era, this is the tragic story of resilience and love for nature, especially marked by the epical struggle and sacrifice of yet another young woman: Amrita Devi. In her narrative is also resurrected the great history of non-violence and dedication to nature by the incredible community of Bishnois in Rajasthan, where young mothers never feel shy to feed their own milk to little black bucks. And, with pride.

Khejri is the thin tree that survives in the harshest of conditions in the desert. It gives shade and wood to humans, and food to animals. In village Khejarli in district Jodhpur, in 1736, the king is said to have ordered scores of trees to be cut to redecorate his palace. However, there was only one hurdle: Amrita Devi. When the king’s henchmen arrived to cut the trees, she hugged the trees along with her two little girls. All three were cut into pieces.

Then the movement began. More than 330 Bishnois — men, women and children — were cut into pieces and killed, as they hugged the trees. Their blood turned the desert red. When the killers abused them saying only old people are volunteering to get killed, youngsters, including newly married couples and children, joined the movement. This marked a bloody rupture in the history of ecological protection.

Indeed, Gandhian satyagrahi Chandi Prasad Bhatt had started an incipient movement to protect the legacy of organic food and natural resources in and around Gopeshwar. He was one of the first to organise village resistance against the timber mafia. The movement spread across many villages.

Reni became the epicenter with Gaura Devi as a leader because most men had gone to another centre to discuss crucial issues regarding the campaign. She had no option but to organise the women who were left behind in the village.

As night fell, and they refused to budge while hugging the trees, despite abuses, threats and the shadow of guns, word spread across the mountains. So, on little bylanes, across steep hills, through the forests, and across the sublime river of Alaknanda, men and women rushed to Reni and joined the spontaneous Chipko activists. The struggle became a national and international phenomena, with Gandhian leader Sunderlal Bahuguna and others joining it. The movement stopped the mass destruction of forests by the timber mafia in nexus with big business and politicians. It created a huge outcry against the ravaging of the fragile hills of the Himalayas, leading to landslides, soil erosion and floods. It led to a law that no tree can be cut beyond 1,000 feet. It also led to the synthesis that forests and indigenous people are integral to the protection of nature. Once again, the hills became vibrant, and bio-diversity flourished in Henwalghati.

The Chipko movement also inspired the Beej Bachao Andolan, led by Gandhians like Dhoom Singh Negi and Prasun Kanwar, among others. They preserved the many varieties of seeds lost in the modernity of commercial cultivation: seeds of spices, pulses, rice, vegetables, fruits, trees.

It also led to the call to protect ‘Jal, Jungle aur Zameen’ — water, forests and land. The three decade long anti-Tehri dam movement was sustained on this principle, led by Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna. He sat on several fasts, and led a peaceful and protracted movement against the big dams in an earthquake-prone zone, which destroyed not only fertile land and forests, but the flow of the great river: Ganga. Now, trapped in a tunnel and reservoir at Tehri, ravaged by modernity’s  barbarism in the plains, the pristine river high up in the hills has been turned to a ganda and toxic nullah.

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