The Gandhian Legacy in Tehri-Garhwal
In early 2014, I revisited the village of Rampur in Tehri-Garwal, where I had conducted research for my PhD. Tehri-Garwal had once been home to a number of prominent Gandhian collectives and activists, including, most prominently, Sunderlal Bahuguna. It was also a major site of the ‘Chipko’ agitations in the 1970s, in which local people embraced trees to prevent their felling by contractors. Revisiting the village seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the relevance of Gandhism to contemporary people in the hills.
I sat in the tea store at Khadi, a small hub-town on the Henwal River, waiting for my Jeep to be ready. I was going back to Rampur, the village where I spent a month in early 2010, doing research for my PhD. I was waiting with my friend and translator, Deepak, who had recently moved to a larger town for work and who was to accompany me back to Rampur.
As I sat sipping the over-sweet tea, Deepak surprised me by calling in Dhoom Singh Negi from the street. I was very pleased to see him. Dhoom Singh is a prominent Gandhian activist in the region. I have always found him to have a warmth of presence and a gentleness that instantly sets one at ease. Where the other activists in the region are often the objects of gossip (accused, generally, of chasing fame, rather than honestly fighting for local interests), in my experience, Dhoom Singh is universally respected and admired as a humble man, who has really put Gandhi’s philosophies of simple living and locally-oriented social work into practice.
Dhoom Singh was actually quite busy, having come into Khadi to participate in a meeting regarding the establishment of Legal Aid services for poor people in the region. Nonetheless, he took the time to sit with us for a cup of tea. He asked me about my work and I gave him an honest account of the article I had recently written about the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA), a seed conservation initiative of which he is a part. I told him my conclusions, while Deepak translated. I’d argued that BBA had carried on the Gandhian tradition in the Henwal Valley and demonstrated the practical application of Gandhian philosophy, but that, nonetheless, most young people in the region were underwhelmed by their message and were more interested in finding sources of cash income – usually by migrating to the plains. I asked Dhoom Singh for his opinion: Does Gandhian philosophy have a future in the region? How can it become more appealing to young people?
Dhoom Singh was courteous and considered in his reply. He acknowledged the reality that young people in the region were not interested in Gandhian development. Most of them are moving out in search of greener pastures. The problem, he said, is that the people are all following a different model of development, in which cash income is the measure of progress. However, he insisted that sooner or later, people would need to return to Gandhi. The current development model, he said, is dependent on the rapid exploitation of natural resources. Since this is occurring at a rate much faster than the rate of natural regeneration, it cannot last forever: eventually it will need to be re-thought. It was a line of argument that was difficult to oppose, though one certainly wondered which would come first – a rethink of the development model or total ecosystemic collapse.
Dhoom Singh finished his tea and had to bid us farewell. Soon after, Deepak and I squeezed into a jeep with 14 other people and made the short but uncomfortable journey to Rampur. We arrived just as the sun was setting and the women were returning the village with huge bundles of fodder on their heads.
Unhappy in Paradise
Everything seemed exactly the same as before. Rampur really is an idyllic place. The air is crisp and sweet and the fields flow in deep green terraces all the way down to the rivulet. Between the terraces are fruit, fodder and nut bearing trees, which pepper the landscape with colour. Throughout the village, small irrigation channels run between the buildings, such that wherever you stand, you can hear the gentle trickle of running water. These canals nourish people’s kitchen gardens and provide them with a constant supply of clean mountain water, before eventually flowing down to the irrigated fields, below. This is one of the few places in India where I feel completely confident drinking local water: a welcome farewell to bottles.
In Rampur, I was always unsettled by the contrast between, on the one hand, the beautiful scenery, relaxed pace of life and the apparent happiness of the local people and, on the other hand, the fact that so many young people are itching to get out. It seemed to speak to the classical question: ‘what is the good life?’ I remembered that, during my last visit, an elderly person from Rampur had expressed her bemusement to me of young people’s desire to leave their village to live in a room in Delhi no larger than a toilet. What is the nature of this ‘pull’ of the metropolitan city and the cash economy?
After putting down my bags at Deepak’s house, I made my way to the home of Sudesha Devi. Sudesha was another major activist of the Chipko movement. The true extent of her bravery probably remains untold. During the 1970s, she had mobilised women from throughout her village to oppose commercial forestry, participating in several direct action protests and being sent to prison for ten days. What is not on the record is that Sudesha had continued with single-minded determination as a Chipko leader in spite of receiving strong resistance to her activism from her own husband, who felt threatened by her growing public prominence. I had stayed with Sudesha and her family for most of the duration of my first visit to Rampur.
When I arrived there, I met with Kaviraj, Sudesha’s grandson. He informed me that most of the family were out collecting fodder and that Sudesha was in Tehri, a nearby city, where she was helping her younger daughter campaign for an upcoming election. I was a little disappointed that I had missed her, but nonetheless happy to see Kaviraj. He filled me in on his activities – that he was studying art at a nearby college, teaching part-time at a local school for Rs. 1000 per month (less than $20) and had also started running free yoga classes for children in the village. I asked him if anything had changed in the village and he told me ‘Nothing at all – except that so many people have gone outside.’
It would be highly hypocritical of me to moralistically oppose young people’s desire to migrate. I myself could not tolerate the simplicity of village life. Though I’ve tried to avoid getting caught up in the maya of professional competition and dollar chasing, I do have a desire for expansion. If I am not growing, then I feel strangely purposeless – despite my pretenses of following a Buddhist philosophy.
To be unhappy in paradise is a terrible thing. I could see this very much amongst the young men of Rampur. You wake up each morning, take your food, do your chores and enjoy the day with friends. Yet, you almost feel guilty in your enjoyment and the beauty that surrounds you. You are not living up to your imagined potential. There is a ‘real world’ out there somewhere that moves at a very fast pace. Here, life moves very slowly and uneventfully: you are totally out of sync with rhythm of the globalised world.
The Gandhian Silence on Patriarchal Exploitation
Deepak and I spent much of the next day lazing about, sipping tea, basking in the sun, watching movies, playing with the children and chatting with the village elders. I felt very relaxed and happy. Nonetheless, I soon became acutely aware that this relaxed village lifestyle, which I have romanticised so much, was the exclusive domain of men. For the women of Rampur, almost every waking hour is consumed with work. They wake before dawn to prepare breakfast, so that the men can wake up to a hot meal. They feed the animals, and work the fields, before coming back to prepare the men lunch. In the afternoons, they go to the forests to collect food, fuel and fodder and return by evening carrying the day’s harvest on their heads, only to begin work preparing dinner.
The position of women within the village economy is one issue that I believe Gandhians have been wilfully blind to. Hiding behind the defence of ‘Indian tradition,’ they are happy to preserve a situation in which the men laze about doing nothing all day while the women labour ceaselessly. Gandhi famously defended manual labour, believing that it was good for the soul. And certainly, I would not characterise the women of Rampur’s lives in terms of uninterrupted misery. The boundaries between work and life are highly blurred in the hills and work is a very social phenomenon. Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that there is something obscene about such an unequal gendered division of labour.
The men in Rampur seem very much aware that they have it good. At one point during my stay, I had a tongue-in-cheek conversation with a local young man about me finding him a bride in Australia. When the jokes had finished, however, he said in a more serious tone that he could not tolerate a Western wife, because they expect men to do work around the house: ‘Whereas here in Garhwal,’ he said, chuckling, ‘man is king!’
Sunderlal Bahuguna, a local Gandhian activist, has often cited his mother as a major source of inspiration. He speaks of how she taught him the virtues of hard work, through her laborious routine. In George Alfred James’ recently published biography of Bahuguna, he relates how Bahuguna’s mother used to exclaim, ‘Oh God, please take my life!’ whilst going about her daily tasks – a phrase not uncommon amongst Garhwali women. Given their awareness that the life of women is constant hard work, it seems remarkable that the Gandhians have not done more to directly address the unequal burden of labour within Garhwali households.
Whenever I questioned the incredibly unequal burden of labour in Garhwal, it was always framed by locals as though I were questioning their tradition. Further, it seemed that the idea of a different reality was not openly discussed by local people. At one point, in the evening, when the men were out, I took the opportunity to ask some of Rampur’s women whether they thought it was right that they have to bear such burdens. Although my Hindi is basic, I phrased it in such a way that I imagine my point was clear: ‘yahan pe mahilae sab kaam karti hain/Here, the women do all of the work’ (a point on which they all laughed and agreed) ‘To aapke khayaal mein, kya mard ko zyada kaam karna chahiye?/ So in your opinion, should the men do more work?’ My question was clearly phrased in terms of what ought to be, but the women kept answering in terms of what is. They told me that after the boys go out and start earning money, then they don’t have to do any work. Vagaries of language and cultural niceties being what they are, I’m still unsure whether they were simply avoiding my question out of some sense of propriety, or if the idea of questioning the gendered order of things was simply unfamiliar to them. I feel quite sure, however, that my asking this question was not quite culturally appropriate. I had to ask it, nonetheless.
What I think is troubling is that Gandhians are not asking these questions. In the past, Gandhian activists in the region have made significant progress in opposing caste segregation and some of the worst forms of caste-based exploitation. Sunderlal Bahuguna, for example, made this a major focus of his work in Tehri in the 1950s. In doing so, they encountered significant resistance at a local level, but persisted, holding to the truth (satya) of the principle of human dignity. Therefore, it is confusing to me why (to the best of my knowledge) gender-based exploitation within the household has never generated a comparable response. Indeed, in my experience, Gandhians become quite uneasy whenever the topic of gender equality is discussed, vaguely invoking ‘Indian culture’ to as a kind of conversation-stopper (though I should add that Gandhians are not alone in this respect – in my experience, many Marxists in India are equally uncomfortable about the ‘gender question’).
Many critiques of Gandhism descend into ad hominem arguments: targeting Gandhi, the man, rather than his ideas. Indeed, as a human being, I believe Gandhi was quite flawed. He was painfully self-righteous, sexist, racist and at times endorsed aspects of the caste system. And certainly, levelling critiques at Gandhism by way of character assassination of Gandhi is, to a certain extent understandable. Gandhism does not present a comprehensive theory of society in the manner of, for example, Marxism. Gandhi’s ideas are, to a much greater extent, tied up in his life experiences and the political struggles in which he was involved. Nonetheless, I do believe to evaluate the significance of Gandhian ideas today, we need to look beyond the man and assess the merits of the cohesive set of principles and methodologies that he endorsed. And from the point of view of these principles, I see no reason why patriarchal exploitation in India’s villages should not be targets for more focused campaigns – except for the vague justification of patriarchy as being part of an essentialised “Indian culture.”
The Case for Alternative Development
I went back to Kaviraj’s home in the afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to see Sudesha Devi. The family had told her that I was in Rampur and called her in Tehri. She decided to take a break from campaigning to come and see me. For this gesture, I was extremely humbled.
Dressed in a simple, white sari, Sudesha received great respect from her family and everyone in the village. I bent down to touch the ground beneath her feet, as is customary as a sign of respect in North India. She smiled broadly and told me that this was not necessary, as I was a ‘big man’ (bade aadmi) now – which only enhanced my feelings of awkwardness in negotiating customs and formalities.
We spoke generally for some time. I was happy that my Hindi had improved sufficiently to talk about some general topics, though the conversation did become constipated at certain points when I was unsure about a particular phrase or grammatical expression. She told me a little bit about her campaigning and she asked about my work. I told her I had written one article about Beej Bachao Andolan and that, as was her request, I had used her name and acknowledged the work she had done. On a previous occastion, Sudesha had expressed frustration to me that other researchers had come but never acknowledged her work. In particular, she claimed that one activist-scholar (who I will not name, but I suspect some of my readers will know who I am referring to), had taken credit for her work and that of her fellow activists. I had often reflected on Sudesha’s comments as a reminder of the highly unequal power relationship between researchers and their research participants. In most cases, I feel that researchers collect their data, use it to make whatsoever point they wanted to make from the beginning and then forget their research participants entirely.
After some time, I asked Sudesha about her thoughts on Gandhian philosophy, specifically, if she thought young people would continue to apply the Gandhian philosophy that had inspired her generation during the Chipko agitations. ‘Mahatma Gandhi ji had a very beautiful idea’ she began. Gandhi wasn’t interested in big factories, but in the small industries, based in villages. ‘He would wear only simple clothes’ she said, ‘clothes made by poor people,’ gesturing at her own coarse fabrics. ‘Not like yours!’ she said, and the others laughed. The government of today, however, is uninterested in developing the industries of the poor, but only the rich.
These arguments are surely as compelling today as they were in Gandhi’s time. I was interested by the fact that Sudesha was drawn to this aspect of Gandhi’s message, particularly given that the Chipko movement, of which she was a part, has often been represented as being a purely ecological movement. Rather than talking about romanticised notions of socially and ecologically harmonious villages (that the name of Gandhi tends to evoke), Sudesha was talking about the same issues as Dhoom Singh Negi – that the current development model doesn’t really work to the benefit of the common people (though it still captures their imaginations). And there seems to be little sign, either from government or from the local population in Tehri-Garhwal, of coordinated efforts to promote ‘alternative development’ pathways. If Gandhism has a future, it must surely come to articulate the case for alternative development in a manner that resonates with young people today.
Of course, these issues don’t just affect Rampur. Many have asked why, given the un-sustainability of their own lives, scholars choose to focus on whether the poorest, most marginal people are living sustainably. It’s a completely valid point. The reason that I keep coming back to these villages in my mind is because they are, in a sense, at the coalface of a much bigger phenomenon. Here, the choice between sustainable, locally-oriented village life and integration into the (unsustainable) capitalist economy seems to come into sharp relief.
But for most people, it’s not a choice. Rainfall has diminished, due to climate change. Wild animals, displaced from nearby forests, encroach upon the land. Blasting from local limestone mines causes disruptions to farming. And the vast out-migration of local people makes sustaining the agrarian economy a difficult task for those who remain. As such, it’s not surprising that people don’t see much future for themselves in the village any more. And this might be the main shortcoming of Gandhian philosophy and the reason it fails to appeal to you the young. The idea of self-reliant village economies is a surely a ‘beautiful idea,’ as Sudesha Devi described it, but the issue is that these village economies exist as part of a bigger world. This world encroaches upon them, whether they like it or not. We all must build our self-reliance, as capitalism continues to undermine our means of subsistence, but it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that the village economy should be the bastion of resistance and the beacon for a better world. The world has become far too interconnected for that.