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Sunderlal Bahuguna, Love in the Mountains: Devotional Ethics, Ecology and Politics in India

by Umar Nizarudeen

Emancipation from the bondage of soil is no freedom for the tree-Tagore

Environmental conservation movements encompass a relentless drive towards justice, as the life of Sunderlal Bahuguna exemplified, even in the era of social media dominance. His was that rare voice for justice lost among the clamour for power among the elites of Northern India. Bahuguna realized early on that environmental justice was irretrievably linked with gender justice. The primordial embodied feminine wellsprings and sources of human civilization can possibly be lost in the labyrinthine realm of the digital.

Unfortunately, the digital sphere has been a space of spectacular violence, rampant misogyny, and atrocious masculine posturing comprising a case of cognitive mapping going haywire in such a way that the digital, while being animated by the feminine principle, has banished the feminine itself from its center. This happens in real-time, in ecosystems and environments like the Technopark in Kerala, HITEC City in Hyderabad, Silent Valley in Kerala, Silicon Valley in San Jose and Bangalore in India, and also in the larger, more expansive economic and political, social, and cultural spheres opened by the digital regime. Bliss Shepherd rightly calls this the mythopoesis of men’s achievements (Shepherd, 1995).

Bhakti Is an Indian devotionalism that evolved from Sufi mysticism in the early modern era. The groundedness of Bhakti is luminescent with an iridescent spirituality shorn of any inertia. This provides relief from the inertia of conventional feudal-patriarchal religion with its leaden core of ritual and scripture. Digital preservation of forests has been the norm in the Himalayas since the movement led by Sundarlal Bahuguna and Chandiprasad Bhat where mystical religion unites with rationalist ethics. At times of right-wing ascendancy, the movement/andolan nature of Bhakti and Sufism has increased valence.

The Himalayan ecosystem with its marine fossils arguably encapsulates best the fragility of our ecological commons, not owned by a single owner. Bahuguna modulated the development of an ecological kinship to match this convivial symbiosis. The ecological commons was projected not simply as a local movement, but as a universal ethical paradigm that could be replicated from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef.

Not just the Tehri dam, but an entire gamut of anti-human practices were problematized by Bahuguna including new-fangled post-humanist ethos. The molecular nature of this resistance against molar aggression encapsulates the post-independent spirit of India at best. While many environmentalists preferred to romance the western academic space and its ivory tower cachet, Bahuguna opted for a performative mode of resistance that provided a counter spectacle to large-scale industrial aggrandization. This performative turn took recourse to underline the vulnerability of the unmediated human in opposition to the interests of big capital. The foisting of gigantic extraction mechanisms like the modern nation-state on the Himalayan ecosystem had its adverse impact on the quality of human life in the Alakananda Valley and elsewhere. The performative aspect of Bahuguna’s movement, later mimicked by many, was the first step towards Indian futurism that encompassed the feedback of cybernetics, ecological foresight, and ethical rigour against post-humanism. The environmental mythology inevitably invoked by Bahuguna and compatriots did not play into the hands of the revivalist narrative. This denied the right-wing a foothold within the environmental justice movement. Boundary thinking and foregrounding of the `local’ as absolute were vital mistakes in hindsight. Bahuguna’s association with the VHP and others in the anthropomorphising of the river Ganga as a goddess, perhaps to alleviate the problem, rather contributed to cumulative revivalist narcissism later on. Auto-affection and tree-hugging owed to the Islamicate traditions which were never acknowledged. Within the already strengthened `Punyabhumi’ discourse, the environmental justice movement of Bahuguna chose to impart an everyday realistic quality. This combined with the rise of the middle class, resulted in the emergence of an unstoppable juggernaut, which decimated every semblance of decency and humanism that the dharmic consciousness of Indic civilization had ever envisaged.

The anti-dam movement just stopped short of tapping into the motherlode of blood and soil nationalism. The wellsprings of devotionalist Bhakti, From Kabir onwards, tempers the humongous machine of the imperial nation-state as the Chipko movement amply demonstrated. It was a foregone conclusion that the environmental movement would utilize the animist and naturalist tendencies inherent in the collective Indian consciousness. The belatedness of the revivalism perhaps contributed to it not metamorphosing into a standalone political entity. The Teutonic antecedents of blood and soil nationalism were hardly lost on the elite Indian conservationists. This paved the way to environmentalism playing second fiddle to revivalism, which often included bizarre claims of a primordial proto-futurist `Bharat’.

Academically too, within the University space, the historicist approach divides mystics into settlers and nomads, and goes back to agrarian settlerism, raising claims that the exigencies of agrarianism compelled women to stay at home, lending to men the heavier muscular labours, thus depleting influence on decision making and larger corporeal well-being. A more holistic, horizontal modeling of Bhakti, and environmental auditing is called for from the Himalayas to Kerala.

Perhaps no other popular leader since Mahatma Gandhi has combined the philological versatility with ethical rigour like Bahuguna. He opposed the real abstraction involved in the commodification of nature and the fetishization of ecology. He foresaw that the teleological drive of development could lead to apocalyptic scales of destruction. Bahuguna and his movement had their resonances in Kerala.

The  Gadgil Report on the deterioration of the Western Ghats in Kerala (which is a UNESCO world heritage site) and the action plan needed to protect the same, includes stringent measures to prevent quarrying and building activities. The quarries supply raw materials including sand for the construction mafia which in turn channelizes large-scale funds into the quarries, thus completing what essentially is a vicious cycle of ecological colonization and injustice. That Bahuguna has passed away at a time like this comes as a shock to environmental justice activists the world over.

About the Author:

Umar Nizarudeen is with the University of Calicut, India. He has a Ph.D. in Bhakti Studies from the Centre for English Studies in JNU, New Delhi. His poems and articles have been published in Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Bombay Review,  The Madras Courier, FemAsia, Sabrang India,  India Gazette London, Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.

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