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Hill conservationists

Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi... Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi
Old Chipko song
axe us: women hug the trees (inset) Gaura Devi

Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them. This is the song which travels through the valleys of Garhwal, beyond the legendary villages of Reni and Lata in Henwalghati, the epicentre where the first epic Chipko (Hug the Trees) Movement was born. This year, 2004, the villages celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Chipko uprising which electrified the nation, and which shines in a hundred thousand struggles all over the world till this day. That historic night of March 26, 1974, when Gaura Devi led 26 women and hugged the trees to stop the contractors from axing them. Chipko! Cut our bodies with your axes before you cut the trees! She was the original catalyst which spurred a hundred schools of thought in the Himalayan hills: save the rivers, streams, trees, land, biodiversity, save the seeds, flowers, ancient resources, grow new alternatives, smaller dams, small water harvesting models, organic agriculture; stop deforestation, ban the timber and liquor mafia, fight for women’s empowerment. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Dhoom Singh Negi, Kunwar Prasoon, they were the male protagonists of a tough feminine discourse, each finding its unique Gandhian method of protracted struggle. Nowhere in the world had something like Chipko ever been witnessed or experienced. From Brazil to Bangladesh, it became a role-model movement for thousands of eco-groups. Big is monstrous. Small is beautiful.

Later, in the 1990s, the militant, all women-led Uttarakhand Movement, set an enlightened example of how stoic, simple hill-women can face the most uphill journey in their search for justice and autonomy. On the night of October 2, 1994, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s up regime unleashed a reign of ‘Changezi terror’ against the protesters who were proceeding to Delhi for a peaceful protest. The notorious pac left a trail of blood and repression, with several women assaulted in the fields. But relentless repression only added to the fires of protest. With women as vanguard.

Amit Sengupta

September 11, 2004

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