Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement

Thomas Weber

Women Join the Struggle at Reni Forest

The Chipko activists, led by Bhatt, mounted an intensive campaign among the villages around the Reni forest. They were aided in this work by Communist Party of India activists who had gained some influence in the area. The cooperation worked well in the interests of this forest. On some future occasions tensions were to develop – the means of the Marxists and those of the satyagrahis on occasion were to prove fundamentally different at their philosophical cores.

During the preparatory work in the villages the activists would sometimes play the devil’s advocate in order to get the villagers themselves to realize what was happening. In one village near the Reni forest Bhatt reminded the inhabitants of the connection between deforestation and landslides, a connection these villagers knew only too well. They had, however, already helped to brand the 2451 trees earmarked for felling and had been paid for their labour. Bhatt told them that they might as well get up and fell the trees immediately. There were loud protests, and when asked why they had carried out the necessary preparatory work the villagers answered that they did what the Government had paid them to do. What other action was open to them, they inquired. When asked if they would then cut the trees if the Government paid them, they villagers answered no, but they could not stop the Government if it wanted to cut the forest.

Bhatt then explained that it was possible to save the forest. It had been done at Mandal and Phata. The trees could be saved by hugging them. Although the task was daunting – the forest was far larger than anywhere axemen had previously been challenged – the notion that perhaps it could be done gradually sank in. The women sitting at the rear of the meeting at first giggled at the world ‘chipko’ that was so often used, but they listened keenly: they were after all the chief victims of deforestation, having to trudge ever further for fuel and fodder as the trees vanished. And soon they would become the front-line soldiers of the andolan.

Bhatt went to Dehradun to plead with forest officials to cancel the auctions, to warn the bidding contractors that they would face opposition from the local people and to publicize the issue. Although in a last minute effort to stop the auction, he stood and pleaded at the entrance of the town hall where the bidding was to take place, the forest was sold.

Small meetings were held and the people organized in preparation for a mass demonstration at Reni on 15 March. The demonstration resembled a colourful folk festival with a procession being led by the temple musicians of Lata village. The demands of the villagers were read out and slogans shouted. Bhatt stayed in the main town of the region, Joshimath, for two more days. No move was made by the contractor, but within one day of his departure, on 18 March, their well-provisioned labourers arrived in town.

Forest officials asked to talk to Chandi Prasad Bhatt in Gopeshwar on the 26th. They kept him busy for the day. It had also been announced that compensation was to be paid to all those who had had land appropriated by the army following the Chinese invasion, and to make up for lost trade following the closure of the border. The payments were to be made in Chamoli on 26 March.

While the men from Malari, Reni and Lata villages were thus absent, the axemen moved into the forest. The collusive plan of the Government and contractors had been executed brilliantly, but there was one variable that they had overlooked. The busloads of labourers, with their tin windows drawn, had stopped short of Reni village and the workmen took a small trail, that did not go through Reni, into the forest. They were, however, spotted by a small girl who immediately ran to inform Gaura Devi, the head of the local women’s circle.

Gaura Devi, a child widow, now in her fifties, quickly gathered some others and twenty-seven women and little girls rushed after the labourers. Some of the men were rude to the women. One, armed with a gun, tried to frighten them. The matronly Gaura Devi pushed herself forward, in front of the gun, and challenged the man to shoot her instead of cutting the trees. She compared the forest with her mother’s home. Most of the labourers were also from the hill regions and their shame at having to fight with women and their instinctive understanding of the problems Gaura Devi was explaining to them helped them to decide to withdraw.

The womenfolk stood guard at the path leading to the forest all night. The men returned the following morning. For four days the villagers stood vigil. The movement’s workers camped close to the labourers. They talked to the workers, set them at ease and told them of the need for such actions. On 31 March the biggest demonstration the hills had ever seen was held. The trees of the Reni forest had been saved.

The Story of Amrita Devi’s Sacrifice

In order to give people the courage to fight for their trees, Chipko leaders fasted and recounted the story of previous actions where hardship and overwhelming odds were overcome in the battle for trees. One of the grandest of these stories, designed to put steel in the soul of the most timid villager, is the story of the Bishnoi woman, Amrita Devi. This story has featured in many Chipko pamphlets, was recounted to villagers and retold in press interviews. Bahuguna related the story to Richard St. Barbe Baker, who in turn through his Man of the Trees newsletters, told it to the world. The story is a wonderful propaganda piece; it is about simple, religious-minded villagers laying down their lives for trees. It is almost guaranteed to instil pride in a forest heritage and make the listen determined to face the tree-felling adversary with redoubled courage.

After witnessing hardships caused by an extended drought and the resultant deforestation, Jambhoji, the son of a village headman, had a vision of men quarrelling with nature as the cause of the hard times. In 1485, the founder of the Bishnoi sect (now known as Swami Jambeshwar Maharaj) laid down the twenty-nine tenets of the faith which are still followed by the Bishnois of Rajasthan. The rules include a prohibition on the cutting of trees (and especially the protection of the all important shade and fodder tree, the drought-resisting khejari), the wood conserving practice of burial (as opposed to the normal Hindu practice of cremation) and a ban on the killing of animals. Along with the growth of trees and life of harmonious balance with the now protected wildlife, grass for cattle grew and the soil became increasingly fertile. The prosperity of the Bihsnois increased as the desert spread in non-Bishnoi areas of Rajasthan.

There were examples of Bishnois laying down their lives for trees. In 1604, in Ramsadi village, two Bishnoi women died to protect trees and, in 1643, a saint called Buchoji lost his life at Peelawas in a similar act of sacrifice. Such acts occasionally still continue, but the most inspiring example was the sacrifice of Amrita Devi and the massacre of Bishnois over 250 years ago.

The Bishnois had been taught from childhood to love trees; children had their own special trees that they would regularly talk to and hug – and Amrita Devi was no different. One day in 1731, the peace in Jalnadi village, some twenty-five kilometres from the Rajasthani town of Jodhpur, was broken when the Maharaja’s axemen arrived.

The Maharaja of Jodhpur, Abhay Singh, had decided to build a new palace for himself and so dispatched Giridhar Das Bandar and a detachment of men to fetch wood for his lime kiln. The Bishnoi village was surrounded by hundreds of trees. Bhandari ordered his meant to cut the trees. When she saw the axemen approach, Amrita Devi rushed to the scene and begged them to stop. She explained the faith of the Bishnois. The king’s men were unmoved, so Amrita Devi hugged the first tree marked for felling. She allegedly uttered the now well known couplet of the sect: ‘a chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree’ as she was cut through by the angered axemen. As her dismembered body feel to the ground she was replaced, in turn, by her three daughters, who were also brutally killed. Bhandari withdrew to gather reinforcements. The Jalnadi villagers also sent out a call for assistance to the eighty-four surrounding Bishnoi villages – only one (to its eternal shame) did not respond.

When Bhandari’s axemen returned there was a major confrontation. He warned the villagers that if they continued to resist, the axe would fall upon them also. But the Bishnois held firm. By the end of the day a further 359 people (294 men and 69 women) from forty-nine different villages had been butchered. Whole families had been wiped out.

The axemen had manage to secure only one-third of the required timber and the enraged Maharaja demanded an explanation. When he heard the ghastly story of the 363 villagers who had sacrificed their lives in order to prevent the work of the axemen from continuing, he immediately ordered a stop to the work on the palace and set out to visit the scene of the destruction. As the full realization of what had happened impressed itself upon him, the fiery-tempered Maharaja underwent a change of heart. He apologized to the villagers and pledged that in the future the Bishnois would never again be called up to provide timber, that no khejari tree would be cut and that there would be no hunting permitted around Bishnoi villages.

Reference: Thomas Weber Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement New Delhi: Viking, 1988.

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