Dinesh Mohan 1945-2021
‘Prof. Dinesh Mohan’, I typed, then paused. The ‘Prof.’ sounded too formal so I deleted that ‘Dinesh Mohan’. The ‘Mohan’ now, wasn’t that kind of unnecessary? So I deleted that too, ‘Dinesh’. No, even that was not how we knew him. So I typed in ‘DM’. And then I stared at the ‘DM’ until the eyes kind of blurred over.
When they cleared a bit, I found the screen had changed. ‘Here, move over,’ it said, ‘let me at the keyboard: you’re bloody useless at this and anyway, it’s my obituary.’
So I moved over.
‘Why would I be stupid enough to listen to what others have to say about me? It’s my turn to say what I think of them!’
Who do you want to start with then, I asked.
‘Maybe those who crossed over before me – Yashpal and Gowariker and Rahman; and there was Rajni and Haksar and Dhawan… I guess I could go on and on naming those giants who set up such incredible institutions, on whose shoulders I not only learnt to stand, but on which I leant through those younger years searching for a direction. They were so generous and so supportive; I don’t think I have been as supportive of the next generation as they were, but maybe some of it rubbed off. It’s actually good they are not around to say what they think of me! It was their indulgence that I got to sign the Statement on Scientific Temper so early, but it took me some time to grasp what "scientific temper" really meant. Looking back, I guess it was that ‘temper’ that made me abandon aerospace engineering and shift over to biomechanical when I saw the contradiction between my anti-Vietnam War beliefs and the war missiles I was contributing to making. I must say, I felt pretty foolish at the time!’
You don’t think biomechanical can contribute to violence?
‘Oh sure it can, but that’s what I always told my students; that you’ve got a choice: you can go left or you can go right, it’s only the idiots who think they can stay in the centre. It’s not that they were idiots, but it’s the spark in their eyes that makes teaching such a rewarding vocation. I would try and challenge them; cut off the ties that bound them to ideas and values that they had accepted without thinking just because their (expletive deleted) grandfather or some other fuddy-duddy had said so. I remember one twerp who said in class that Muslims were taking over because they had four wives. So I had to do a statistical exercise to say that if each Muslim man married four Muslim women then either three out of four Muslim men would have no women to marry or each Muslim woman would have to produce four girls for every boy. I suspect that got not only him but all the others in the class to think, "Shit man, I never thought of that!" That’s one example of scientific temper! But it’s tough to do it all the time. The kids need a break. It’s important to make them feel that they are not stupid; it’s just that they’ve been told they are the cream of the nation so they don’t need to think any more.’
So you think it’s difficult to make others think because they already think that they know what to think?
‘Stop throwing googlies at me! One has to deliberately be a (expletive deleted) contrarian if one is to shake others out of their comfort zones. Like there are these terrible ideas floating around that IT will reduce energy use; or that the metro is god’s gift to cheap and efficient transport; or that helmets can injure the neck; or that lockdowns will kill the virus. I mean how can such stupidity be removed unless you call them out for being stupid? Then a debate can at least begin but you have to be well prepared with data and arguments and the ability to transcend disciplines. That is why interdisciplinary research is so important and why I kept pushing for more investment in research. Hire four good people and you are likely to get one who performs; but hire a hundred average ones and you are sure to find twenty gems among them. Until two decades ago one could get bureaucrats and politicians who were open to such ideas and would go out of their way to find the money but now I guess stupidity has become a global disease. I am out of the way now,but I think the younger lot will find their way out of this mess.’
What makes you think interdisciplinary research will help in that?
‘Heh heh, we had a few stormy arguments about that, didn’t we! I did manage to strong-arm that bit about safety and helmets into the law. What was more satisfying was getting fireworks to be less injurious, particularly to show that the anaar was much worse than the bombs. The BRT must have been a great threat to the rich car-owners because they managed to run a campaign against it for months in the newspapers and finally got rid of it. But its time will come; there is no doubt about that; except that it will have to be a vision of a new kind of city. I enjoyed that study we did on the fire in the Godhra train; that put a fire beneath quite a few bums! As well as the one on autorickshaws – that upset quite a few mind-sets. And I think I managed to contribute a bit to a larger understanding of public transport and the need to privilege the pedestrian, the cyclist, and the vendors and hawkers. Meeting and talking with them was very refreshing, much more than the stuffy seminars and power points we have all gotten used to.’
You want to smuggle in a few words about friends and family?
‘Family is foundation, you know. You have to work hard to build on it. Of course I love them, and, of course, I will miss them. I expect they will carry on without me, maybe with a greater dash of kindness and warmth. What is love if you cannot accept everyone for what they are? I am so glad I managed that song at Shonu’s wedding and that last vacation with Peggy – man, those are accomplishments! Friends are, in many ways, an extension of family – although there are a few loonies and insufferables among them too! If I did manage to make them feel they belonged, even if I was lambasting them for one thing or the other, well that’s my ticket to wherever I am going. It’s going to be difficult though. Not to have close people to fight with, to laugh with, and sometimes to cry with. Not to be able to drive over for a gup-shup, or walk over to the pan shop, or banter down the corridor, or wiggle my belly. But what the hell, it’s been an uproarious journey even though it sort of ended up gasping for breath. As for chaps like you, they’ve always been useless PITAs.’
What’s a PITA?
‘A pain in the (expletive deleted) arse.’
Shouldn’t that be PITFA then?
‘There you go being one again! The only thing that redeems you is that you like Old Monk. So, here’s your obit all done; now sign off and let’s go and have a drink.’
And the screen faded into a shimmering black.
Director, Hazards Centre, Delhi
Sunderlal Bahuguna 1927-2021
I first met Sunderlal Bahuguna in Silyara Ashram, perched on a hillock in the Himalaya overlooking the Bhilangana, a tributary of the river Ganga. I was on a field trip as part of my Master’s degree in Social Work from Delhi University. When I had settled down, he asked me: ‘why are you here? If you are aspiring for a career, then I am sorry, this is not the place for you. We train people to become activists, to be spokespeople for those who do not have voice – the forests, mountains and rivers.’
He inspired many people like me to carry forward his ideas as spokespersons for nature and to launch similar movements as his, across the country.
Inspired by Gandhiji, he initiated a movement, at the young age of fourteen, against the Raja of Tehri and against the British Raj that compelled his expulsion. He had studied in Lahore and in the post-independence era he could have become a successful politician. But his wife Vimla had other ideas. She was clear that she would marry him only after he had quit politics. Together they established the Navjeevan Ashram that did much constructive work in the Himalaya, inspired by Mira Behn, a disciple of Gandhiji.
I have witnessed the manner in which the Chipko movement evolved from its nascent stage of protests against outside contractors being permitted to fell trees, to the creation of local decentralized cooperative institutions to generate employment for hill peoples. Most Sarvodaya workers were busy implementing economic programmes based on local industries, ignoring the needs of women, who suffered greatly due to lack of water, fuelwood and fodder that was essential to eke out a decent livelihood living in the hills.
It was the openness and humility of Sunderlal and Vimla that resulted in the realization that the economic ‘programmes’ did not address the real needs of people. The women were demanding a total ban on the felling of trees. It was the ‘ecological’ shift in the Chipko movement that endorsed the slogan:
What to the forest bear?
Soil, Water and Pure Air,
Soil, Water and Pure Air are the basis of life.
Though it sounds simple and obvious, those tag lines encompass the concept of Deep Ecology and Eco Feminism, in which women play the major role of nurturing and regenerating nature. The synergy of the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence as a basis for grassroot action, along with ecological nurturing, resulted in a mass awakening of people not only in the Himalayan region, but across India and overseas.
It was my privilege to be part of the trans-Himalayan padyatra from Kashmir to Kohima. This 4800 kms march was across many different states, Nepal and Bhutan, and was the most fascinating journey of my life. I began to learn and understand the brass tacks of grassroot action, that required all practitioners in the field to respect the voices of the people affected, and build an ‘ideology’ based on those learnings. I remember that cold December winter when we walked across Bhutan. The King of Bhutan was so impressed with the Chipko movement that he accorded us the status of ‘royal guests’ and provided a horse and forest officer to accompany us. Despite that, Sunderlal ji continued to carry his rucksack weighing forty kilos, while I, in my twenties, would be panting to keep pace with him. When we arrived tired in a village, he would be full of energy, chatting, cracking jokes and laughing with the village community. He had great stamina and energy that stayed with him till the age of ninety four years.
Though he has received many prestigious awards including the Padma Vibhushan and the Alternate Nobel Prize or Right Livelihood Award, he believed that social activists, working to bring change in the society, should be prepared to face ridicule, neglect and isolation. Overcoming these barbs makes activists strong and equips them with the strength to swim against the tide.
In one of the meetings of the United Nations in Nairobi, Sundarlal ji came onto the dais carrying a load of firewood on his back to symbolically recognize and show the hardship African women endure. This act hit the headlines. He was often criticized for being media savvy and dramatizing the cause. He needed to be in an effort to spread the message. He was the self-appointed public relations officer for the conservation of nature, and he had no qualms in accepting this credential. To quote him, ‘giving voice to the voiceless, to the forests and rivers and other creatures who cannot speak should be our goal.’
Madhuraj / Mathrubhumi
Like Gandhi ji, he would use his spare time to write articles. He would write during train journeys and had the rare skill of writing in a moving bus! He introduced me to media personalities like Kuldip Nayar, and the editors of other newspapers, and said ‘this is my wealth; please use it for the cause of nature conservation.’ In addition to introducing me to chief ministers, he introduced me to Indira Gandhi, to pass on his goodwill and use his influence, not for personal benefit, but for the cause of changing policies to support the protection of nature.
I was blessed to learn the fundamental principles of non-violence and grassroots action from Sunderlal ji. He came to South India to share the knowledge and skills that he had gained over the years in organizing the Chipko movement. He taught us how to keep grassroots movements rooted with a ‘fistful’ of grain collected to manage the movement, rather than depend on outside funding. His emphasis on non-violence, even at the worst possible moments, holding no antagonism towards those who opposed the movement, was difficult to practice. In the age of hyper consumerism, and unlimited greed, he was a role model for austerity and restraint, using natural resources with a minimal footprint. With his infectious smile, his trademark bandana, flowing beard and unironed khadi kurta, he epitomized a wise sage or rishi.
It would be a great injustice to stamp him and his monumental work within the narrow confines of being an ‘environmentalist’. Sundarlal ji questioned the inequity inherent in the capitalistic system and its model of development. He believed it destroyed the basic capital of humankind – the soil, water and air. He vehemently questioned the ongoing violence against ecosystems, the rivers and multiple deprived communities. His life was spent attempting to realize the Gandhian dream of the ‘earth has enough to meet the needs, but not the greed.’ He challenged industrial civilization with his vision of replacing it with a model based on enhancing natural resources to live in harmony with nature. Through his grassroots work, he gave new life to the Gandhian idea of living in harmony with nature, trying to take forward the concept of ‘ecology is permanent economy’.
Activist, Chipko/Appiko movement, Uttara Kannada
THE passing of the renowned environmentalist, Sri Sunderlal Bahuguna, on May 21, 2021, at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Rishikesh, represents a colossal loss for the people of the Himalaya, for India, and for the world. Bahuguna’s advocacy for the natural environment and for living in harmony with nature, will be remembered and valued.
Born in 1927, Bahuguna joined India’s freedom struggle at the innocent age of 13 and was first imprisoned at age seventeen. After his release, and post-independence, he got involved in Gandhi’s constructive programme for the villages of the Himalaya. This drew him into the struggle for the preservation of India’s forests. His engagement with environmental issues was noticed and became visible in his leadership role of the famous Chipko Movement in the 1970s. Chipko, or ‘hug’, was a grassroots environmental movement committed to saving the forests from contract felling by hugging the trees to shield them from the axe. Bahuguna underlined the principles of this movement with foot marches, fasts, and discourses on the cultural, environmental, and religious significance of the forests. He maintained that his ecological vision of a harmonious relationship of humankind with nature is rooted in the soil of Indian religions.
In 1981, accompanied by a small group of colleagues, Bahuguna undertook a foot march from Srinagar in Kashmir to Kohima in Nagaland, a journey of 4870 kilometres, to raise awareness of the exploitation to which the forests and the lives of the mountain people were exposed. The success of the Chipko movement has engendered movements of a similar nature in the South of India, in Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In India, in 1981, this movement compelled a 15-year moratorium on the cutting of trees above the elevation of 1,000 metres, for commercial purposes.
While Sunderlal Bahuguna is a household name in India, he is known chiefly for his activism. The philosophy behind his activism integrates the insights from contemporary ecology with the spiritual traditions of India with the non-violence of Gandhi. The relevance of India’s environmentalism with that of western countries, remains a contested issue in the emerging field of environmental philosophy. Some western scholars have tried to infer the nature of an Indian environmental ethic from their exploration of ancient Indian religious texts. Others have argued that the use of such texts is selective and misleading. Bahuguna’s activism and advocacy demonstrates the significance of the people’s perception of nature and their devotion to the forests they depend upon for their collective life.
George A. James
Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas, Denton
* George A. James is the author of Ecology is Permanent Economy: The Activism and Environmental Philosophy of Sunderlal Bahuguna. State University of New York Press, 2013.