/, Longer Essays/A Man to Match His Mountains, from the Introduction to The Chipko Movement by Shekhar Pathak

A Man to Match His Mountains, from the Introduction to The Chipko Movement by Shekhar Pathak

I first came across Shekhar Pathak’s name in the files of the Uttar Pradesh State Archives in Lucknow. The year was 1983, and I was working on a dissertation on the social history of forests in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. In those days the U.P. State Archives were well run; the files one ordered came to one’s desk fairly quickly, and with all their pages intact. On the inside back cover of each file was a list of all the scholars who had seen that particular document before. Studying the records of the Forest Department and the General Administration, I found that in some cases I was the first person to have ordered a particular file, but in most cases the second. The person who had got to these records before me was a certain Shekhar Pathak.

From Lucknow I went to my home town, Dehradun, then merely a district headquarters in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh – not the capital of Uttarakhand it was to later become. Here, I was directed to a living repository of Himalayan history named Captain Shoorvir Singh Panwar. A kinsman of the last Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal, he told me stories of peasant life in that kingdom while also allowing me access to his collection of court documents. Then he let slip that I was not the first historian to raid his mind and his archive; a certain Shekhar Pathak had been there before me.

Shoorvir Singh-ji told me some details of my predecessor’s personal history. Shekhar Pathak came from Kumaun and had been a student-activist in the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini before turning to teaching and research. He now taught at the Kumaun University’s Department of History in Nainital. I decided to drop in to see him unannounced. I took a train to Delhi and from there a bus to Nainital. I arrived at night and checked into a local inn. The next morning I asked for directions to Kumaun University, which I reached after an hour’s stroll. I walked straight into the History Department and the office of its best-loved teacher.

My first sight of Shekhar Pathak was of him with books on his table and papers on his lap, talking, talking, talking, to a group of students clustered around him. I introduced myself as a Ph.D. scholar from Kolkata. Shekhar asked the students to come back later; they were all doing B.A. degrees and lived in his small town where nothing was very far. We began to chat, at first about the files both of us had seen at the U.P. State Archives in Lucknow, then about documents in the library of the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun that I had seen but he had not, and about newspapers scattered in private hands across the hills that he had seen but I had not.

Shekhar told me that he had written his Ph.D. thesis on movements to abolish forced labour in Uttarakhand; I was writing mine on movements against commercial forestry in Uttarakhand. These struggles intersected and overlapped; they informed one another and often had the same leaders. This, our first conversation, was a conversation of peers, of historians who had both got their hands very dirty in the archives. It was quite unlike conversations I was to hear later (but never participate in) between historians trying to make sense of Derrida or Foucault.

After a couple of hours of intense discussion we got up to have tea in the college canteen, then returned to his office for more talk. As dusk fell Shekhar said I must come home with him for dinner. We climbed down the hill from the university, walked around the lake and up another hill to where he lived. He was tall, slim, and impossibly athletic. I was as slim as he, but six inches shorter as well as seriously asthmatic. He had to slow down often, and stoop down too, but nonetheless we carried on our conversation until his house. There I met his wife, Uma Bhatt, and took to her immediately: her personality was gentle and understated, in contrast to her husband’s, yet an hour in her company was enough to reveal a scholar of equal substance, and a human being of equally substantial character.

Shekhar Pathak was born in 1950 in the village of Gangolihaat, in eastern Kumaon. His father was a soldier in the Kumaon Rifles, his mother a home-maker. Shekhar grew up in Gangolihaat and studied in the village school. When he was about ten, he was sent to be with his father in Mathura Cantonment, but after two years there returned to the village. He matriculated from the local school and went to the small town of Berinag to do his Pre-University diploma.

In between school and university, Shekhar spent a year with an aunt in the state capital, Lucknow. Here he developed an interest in Hindi literature, this stoked and furthered by hearing the novelists Yashpal, Bhagwati Charan Verma, and Amritlal Nagar speak. He now moved back to the hills, where he finished his B.A. degree (in History) at Almora College, then a hotbed of student activism. He did brilliantly, getting a high first class, and carried on at the same college for his M.A.

Having done well in his M.A. too, Shekhar considered going to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for his Ph.D. However, when a teaching job came up at the D.S.B. College in Nainital – affiliated to Kumaun University – he took it instead, as his family circumstances did not permit him the luxury of four more years as a student. He registered for his doctorate locally, with Dr Shakambari Jayal, the head of the Department of History at Kumaun University. Shekhar subsequently taught at his home university for more than three decades before taking voluntary retirement in 2007.

In 1973, the year I finished high school in Dehradun, Shekhar Pathak was arrested in Almora during a protest demanding that a separate state (to be called “Uttarakhand”) be created from the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh. The next summer, while I was preparing to play cricket for a college in Delhi, Shekhar and three companions walked across the entire breadth of the Uttarakhand Himalaya. The march began on 25 May in Askot, in eastern Kumaon, abutting the Nepal border. The day was carefully chosen – it was the birth anniversary of the patriot Sridev Suman, who had died after an 84-day fast in jail in 1944, protesting the autocratic rule of the maharaja of Tehri Garhwal. Through the summer of 1974, the four young men walked westwards, crossing pastures, forests, fields, streams, rivers, and high mountain passes. They stopped each night in a different hamlet, where they acquainted themselves with the opinions (and problems) of their fellow Uttarakhandis. Their seven-week, 1000-km-long march ended in mid July, just before the monsoon broke. Their last stop was the village of Arakot, at the western edge of Garhwal, abutting Himachal Pradesh.
Shekhar did the same trek in 1984, elongating it now into a trek of 1150 km, and again in 1994 (albeit with a different set of companions each time). On both occasions he asked me to join, if only for a day; but my asthma and my laziness (not necessarily in that order) came in the way. No matter; Shekhar did an Askot-Arakot Abhiyan in 2004, and again in 2014. I think a sixth march in 2024, when Shekhar will be merely seventy-four, is entirely likely.

In 1987 Shekhar Pathak published his first book. Entitled Uttarakhand Mein Kuli Begaar Pratha, this is an updated version of his Ph.D. thesis and a history of the system of forced labour in Uttarakhand, as well as of the popular movements of the 1910s and 1920s that finally forced its abolition. It drew on deep research in primary sources, on unpublished materials in state archives, on an astonishingly wide array of local newspapers, and on fieldwork across the region. Two years later I published my own first book, The Unquiet Woods. This narrated the history of forest protests in Uttarakhand from the late nineteenth century down to the late twentieth century.

In the United States the modern environmental movement was inaugurated by a book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). In India the modern environmental movement was inaugurated by a grassroots struggle, the Chipko Andolan, which began in 1973. Chipko attracted wide attention because of its innovatively non-violent techniques of protest, because it was led by Gandhians, because many of the participants were women, and because it took place in the Himalaya, a place of deep symbolic and spiritual significance.

Commercial forestry in the Himalaya had grave consequences for all of India; for it was in these mountains that our major rivers originated. Forest felling, if it continued unchecked, would have not just adverse consequences for the village economy of Uttarakhand, it would by causing and accelerating floods imperil rural as well as urban life in the Indo-Gangetic plain. By raising these questions, the Chipko movement led to a major debate on Indian forest policy and the destructive consequences of its narrow focus on commercialisation. Because of Chipko and other forest movements, clear-felling and the promotion of exotics was stopped, and the state began to pay (slightly) greater attention to the needs of forest-dependent communities, and of nature itself. Meanwhile, Chipko also helped fuel a wider debate on sustainable development, on whether India, with its higher population densities and lack of access to colonies, could afford to imitate the resource-intensive, energy-intensive, and capital-intensive methods of industrialisation that had been followed in the West.

In The Unquiet Woods, I argued that Chipko was, first and foremost, a peasant movement in defence of community rights; further, it did not emerge out of the blue but was the culmination of a century of protest against the state’s expropriation of resources traditionally controlled by the village community. In the preface to my book, I said that it sought to provide “a more general history of ecological decline and peasant resistance in this region, whose main focus is on recovering the history of forest-based resistance within which Chipko is a small though undoubtedly distinguished part. In this sense my study is both “more and less than the history and sociology of the Chipko movement.”
To these words in the text was appended a footnote, in smaller type, which read: “The definitive history of the Chipko Andolan is currently being written by Dr Shekhar Pathak of Kumaun University, a person uniquely qualified for the task; for he is perhaps the leading historian of modern Uttarakhand and an activist in Chipko from its inception in 1973.”

This sentence was based on conversations with Shekhar. My friend had been deeply dismayed by the superficial and sensational representations of Chipko in the Indian and, especially, the Western media; by the excessive focus in environmentalist writings on Chipko’s two major leaders, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, and the consequent downplaying of the ordinary women and men who had made the movement what it was; by the quarrels that broke out between the movements’ rival wings (these accentuated by metropolitan intellectuals with their careers to build and their axes to grind); by the lack of understanding of the ecological and cultural diversity of Uttarakhand displayed by those who had written about Chipko in English.

For all these reasons, Shekhar Pathak wanted to write his own book on Chipko, and I put him in touch with Rukun Advani, my editor at the Oxford University Press. Recently, in the OUP archives, I found a letter written by Shekhar to Rukun in August 1988. This was in response to one of Rukun’s, presumably asking about when he would get his book ready. “I am collecting material on Chipko from newspapers, books, articles, interviews from the real rural activists . . .”, wrote Shekhar, “. . . there is a dominating lie in all the publications. You cannot find the real Chipko anywhere. One can feel that Chipko is a movement made by the media. I am doing my best to present the actual Chipko in its total historical perspective.”

The next year The Unquiet Woods was published, with that footnote in the preface mentioning Shekhar Pathak’s history of Chipko as forthcoming. However, by announcing his project in advance, I had, so to say, put nazar (a hex) on it. For I had omitted to mention that he had other things to attend to as well. There was Pahar, a biennial journal which he began out of a sense of obligation to the hills, and which he nourished and sustained more or less on his own; there were his teaching and supervisory duties; there were post-Chipko popular movements in Uttarakhand (such as the anti-alcohol movement of the 1980s and the statehood movement of the 1990s) to observe, take part in, and write and speak about.

And there were also other books to write. In his travels through and across the hills, Shekhar had become fascinated by the figure of Nain Singh Rawat, a nineteenth-century explorer who had made many trips to Tibet, posing as a pilgrim but actually working for the British Raj as a surveyor. Tibet was then a closed, insular kingdom which wanted to keep all foreigners out. British surveyors and explorers would be deported if they entered the territory, but Indians from Uttarakhand wouldn’t, since there had been for centuries a trade in goods and commodities (and ideas) between either side of the Great Himalaya. Nain Singh was one of several people recruited by the Raj to do their work; and he did so ably, learning to use scientific instruments to map the territory he went through, the course of different rivers, and the precise distances between different places on the route to Lhasa.
In pursuit of his hero, Shekhar had trawled through the colonial archives in London, the Sven Hedin Collection in Stockholm, and the Survey of India archives in Dehradun; studied the scientific literature; made three journeys to Tibet himself; and, best of all, discovered Nain Singh’s diaries in his home village. Based on all these materials, Shekhar Pathak, with the advice and assistance of his wife the literature scholar Uma Bhatt, wrote a definitive three-volume book on the explorer, his life and his times, published in 2006 under the title Asia Ke Peeth Par.

Remarkably, even while engaged in these various writing and editing projects, and while attending to his university duties and his family, and while making all those many journeys across and beyond the Himalaya, Shekhar continued to research his book on Chipko. If he had a week free in between, he would use it to visit one of the many valleys in which Chipko protests had taken place, study the landscape, and talk to the people. Or else trawl through local newspapers of the 1970s and 1980s, taking notes. Or conduct long oral interviews with the movement’s leaders and foot soldiers.

In November 2019, Shekhar Pathak’s magnificent book on Chipko finally appeared in Hindi. It was published by Vani Prakashan under the title Hari Bhari Umeed: Chipko Andolan aur Anya Janglat Pratirodho ki Parampara. The main title is evocative enough to be nearly untranslatable; perhaps Bounteous Green Hope might be a workmanlike rendition. (The sub-title tells us that this is the history of Chipko as well as other forest struggles in Uttarakhand.) Now, a year later, the English translation has been done by Manisha Chaudhry, and I have had the privilege of editing and somewhat restructuring the Hindi original. It is of particular pleasure to Shekhar (and myself) that the English edition is being published by Rukun Advani of Permanent Black, who had (back in his days at the OUP) first shown an interest in it. That this book appears under an imprint based in the charming hill town of Ranikhet rather than the maddening megalopolis of New Delhi if of course a further¬ – and perhaps even greater – source of joy.
I do not want to anticipate readers and rob them of the pleasure and instruction of reading this book for itself. They will, I am certain, be stimulated and educated by what Uttarakhand’s leading historian has to say about Uttarakhand’s greatest gift to India and the world. Nonetheless, I must here point to some key features which make this book both definitive and distinctive.

To begin with, this is the first comprehensive history of the Chipko movement. The movement had its origins in Mandal village of Chamoli district; when, in the spring of 1973, inspired by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and organised by the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Mandal, the villagers prevented a sports goods company, Symonds, from felling a plot of ash trees. In the years that followed, there were some dozen-odd protest actions in other parts of Uttarakhand, where, likewise, peasants stopped felling by threatening to hug trees marked as allocated by the state to timber contractors.

Shekhar’s book documents every one of those protests, and does so with a rare attention to detail. He sketches the local ecological and cultural context by reconstructing each protest from start to finish, by featuring those who led and those who participated, by recalling the slogans used and the posters displayed. While paying rich attention to the agency of human beings, these wonderful set pieces vividly bring alive the landscape of Uttarakhand as well.

Among these set pieces is one on Reni, a Bhotia village in the upper Alakananda valley. This is where women, led by the unlettered Gaura Devi, participated in Chipko for the first time, when they successfully stopped forest felling by loggers in the last week of March 1974. Unlike other chroniclers of Chipko, who have written about this celebrated episode at second-hand, Shekhar writes about it on the basis of his own numerous visits to the village and extended conversations with both Gaura Devi and others who were with her on that day.

were two major leaders of the Chipko movement; Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. Bhatt was particularly active in the watershed of the Alakananda; Bahuguna in the watershed of the other branch of the Ganga, the Bhagirathi. These two Gandhians had once worked together; later, they went their separate ways. Their rift led to bitter battles in the English-language press between those who thought Bhatt’s wing represented the real or authentic Chipko and those who claimed Bahuguna’s wing rather deserved that honour. Rather than wade into or take sides in this debate, Shekhar approaches the subject as a scholar – thoroughly documenting each of the Chipko actions that Bhatt and Bahuguna themselves led and took part in.

Notably, while paying proper attention to Bhatt and Bahuguna, this book – again unlike other narratives of Chipko – does not glorify or magnify their role. We thus hear of the vital part in mobilising peasants of major associates of Bhatt, such as Shishupal Singh Kunwar and Hayat Singh; and of the major associates of Bahuguna, such as Dhoom Singh Negi. There is a fine portrait of the folk poet Ghanshyam Sailani, whose songs were sung in Chipko protests and who was close to both Bhatt and Bahuguna.

Bhatt and Bahuguna both saw themselves as Gandhians. This led to Chipko itself as being seen as a “Gandhian” movement. Shekhar’s book thoroughly rejects this simple-minded reduction, not just by placing Chipko in its grassroots contexts but also by talking of the major role played by activists of the Communist Party of India, and by radical student leaders. Even at the level of leadership and ideology Chipko was much more than a Gandhian movement.

The most significant aspect of this book, however, is that it is first and foremost a people’s history. Its principal focus is the ordinary, often unlettered, men, women, and children who shaped, structured, and gave momentum to this remarkable movement of protest and reconstruction.

The depth and narrative drive of this book derives from the author’s unparalleled knowledge of Uttarakhand – of its history, culture, ecology, and economy. Shekhar has visited every valley in his home state, and more or less every village. For the past four decades he has been a participant in every major social movement in Uttarakhand too. That intimate first-hand knowledge is invaluable; however, it is given concrete shape and form by the research methods of the historian. It will be apparent that this book is based on an astonishing array of primary sources: government documents, fugitive pamphlets, personal letters, local newspapers, oral histories. It is this empirical depth that makes it so authoritative and so richly readable. The forests and fields, hillsides and rivers of Uttarakhand come alive along with the people who live in or alongside them.

I first met Shekhar Pathak in Nainital thirty-seven years ago. We have since remained in close and continuous touch. Our widely varying backgrounds notwithstanding – Doon School and St Stephen’s College in my case versus the village school in Gangolihaat and Almora College in his – he is the brother I never had. Our bonds are personal and they are political. Like me, he detests Hindutva; like me, he was cured of dogmatic Marxism by an early encounter with Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

In 2000, finally, the state of Uttarakhand came into being. I visited the state shortly afterwards, stopping in Dehradun before proceeding up the mountain to give a talk at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. It was from a telephone booth on the Mall in Mussoorie that I called Shekhar. He was (surprisingly) at home, on a hilltop looking out on the Mall in Nainital. I always talk excitedly, and on this occasion was even more animated than usual. When Shekhar picked up the phone I yelled: “Mein apne pradesh se bol raha hoon!” (I am speaking to you from our state). The phrasing of that sentence denoted affection and solidarity, but also shame and guilt. For the recipient of my call has always lived in the inner Himalaya. While I grew up on the foothills of his (our?) mountains, I now live at the country’s other end, on the Carnatic Plateau. Our backgrounds are different. Our styles of work are different. He writes in Hindi and I in English; he is out in the field while I dig in the archives.

In the Hindi edition of his book, Shekhar narrates with some exasperation how I chased and chastised him for many years to get him to complete this book. Behind that harassment lay all the four emotions I have mentioned – affection, solidarity, shame, and guilt. Now that the book is out, my feelings are mostly of love and pride. It has been a privilege to have played a part in the making of this wonderful work of empathetic scholarship; a greater privilege to have been the friend and co-worker of a person and scholar who is, in my mind and in the heart of every Pahari I know, the very embodiment of Uttarakhand. Thank God for those meticulous archivists at the Uttar Pradesh State Archives who first alerted me to what we had in common.

A Man to Match His Mountains
Ramachandra Guha
[excerpted from the introduction to Shekhar Pathak, The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, Ranikhet, Permanent Black, 2021)