Review of Gentle Resistance, The Autobiography of Chandi Prasad Bhatt: Witness to Chipko

Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s memoir is both a chronicle of a life and a record of the long fight to protect forests in the Garhwal

Published - March 01, 2024 09:01 am IST

Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Chandi Prasad Bhatt | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s memoir, Gentle Resistance, is a remarkable book, by a man no less unique. Bhatt came to public prominence in the wake of the Alaknanda floods of 1970. Over the next few years he concluded that the “self-reliance and self-respect” of hill communities in Garwhal and Kumaon were tied to the fate of the forests.

The Chipko protests of 1973-74 had a longer background in the loss of control of the forest in the late 19th century as timber became vital to British imperial interests. As he writes most movingly, it was the large-scale road construction after 1960 that changed things in epochal terms.

He writes of how the surroundings of Joshimath had “bears hidden by the foliage of oak trees. Tigers were known to stalk the various rivulets. By spring time, the hills were radiant with the red and pink of the rhododendron. All these beautiful trees were brutally hacked down.”

Sundarlal Bahuguna (left) with Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

Sundarlal Bahuguna (left) with Chandi Prasad Bhatt. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

Loss of forest cover

By 1970, for him, the loss of forest cover and the wrath of the rivers gave it urgency. The historic women’s protest in Reni, Chamoli in March 1973 questioned not only a contract for a specific company but the very approach to control and exploitation of the forest with industry and forest revenue as priority.

This is what makes for a fascinating read: it is both a chronicle of a life and the times of the author and a record of his long years of service in the Bhoodan movement under Vinoba Bhave and subsequently in forest-related initiatives.

The English book follows close on the Hindi original published in 2021. It is shorter and rather than being a literal translation, a rewrite of the gist of the original. This has been a meticulously executed project for the translator, Samir Banerjee. The black and white photographs tell their own story.

Rejecting social hierarchies

The experiences and events of the early years of his life and milieu are of much importance. Born in 1934 to a priestly family of Gopeshwar Brahmins, his was a world of both hard scrabble struggle, and an awareness and rejection of deep-set social hierarchies. ‘Untouchability’, a pernicious practice, was rife even as services of key Dalit groups, like iron smiths, carpenters and basket weavers, were integral to the wider village community.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Chandi Prasad Bhatt | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

But the austerity was real: when unable to deliver dues from customers for a well-off relative’s business he returned to his village. But the family was unable to produce enough from their agricultural fields, and it was only when Bhatt got a job at the Motor Owners Union of Garwhal that they could eat arhar dal and rice.

It was in the late 1950s after a march with Acharya Vinoba Bhave that he turned to full-time social work. This also meant that when he ploughed the land, he ate with Dalit labourers, prompting the ire of many for violating caste boundaries.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Chandi Prasad Bhatt | Photo Credit: Shekhar Pathak

The early phase that saw the formation of the Dasholi Gram Swaraj Sangh in 1964 are critical to comprehend the roots and staying power of the later Chipko movement. The idea of village self-rule through voluntary organisation was an old Gandhian idea. The author’s pen portraits of men, women, events, and episodes are priceless. There is a self-effacing tone and a deep sense of giving others their due.

In 1959, many ideas, such as primacy to local needs in forest use and workers cooperatives to ensure gains were locally and evenly spread out, were spelt out in a report under deputy minister Baldev Singh. Later, in the 1970s, stalwart Chief Ministers of UP like N.D. Tiwari and H.N. Bahuguna gave their assurances to implement these ideas but that made no difference on the ground.

Peaceful protests

As Bhatt shows in the Reni case, it was individuals like Gaura Devi and other women protestors who managed to stall, and chase away, those licensed to fell trees for a company. Well beyond that, the cooperatives gathering and processing herbs and other products and the voluntary raising of broad-leaved tree saplings became the main stay in Chamoli. The movement as much as its method of determined peaceful protest had widespread resonance. Specific demands like an end to forest auctions were hard won.

The troubling part of the narrative is when he reflects on his long journey. The montane ecosystem is more fragile and construction is taking a heavy toll even as community bonds are vulnerable. But Bhatt’s book will stand both as an eye witness account and as inspiration.

Gentle Resistance, The Autobiography of Chandi Prasad Bhatt; Translated by Samir Banerjee, Permanent Black, ₹895.

The reviewer teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Haryana.

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