The New India Versus the Global Green Brahmins

The Surprising History of Tree Hugging

On March 26, 1974, a crew of out-of-town loggers arrived near the small village of Reni in the Uttarakhand Himalayas with plans and a permit to log the nearby forest. Opposition to increased logging by outsiders had been growing. But with the men of the village away one day for some government work, the loggers took advantage of the men's absence to start cutting down trees. When word got back to the women of Reni, dozens of them ran to the forest to confront the loggers.

Shouts filled the air as the women did something that would become a landmark event in the history of environmentalism. Accounts vary as to whether the women actually hugged the trees, but regardless, they successfully prevented the loggers from chopping them down.1

In the years that followed, the Chipko movement -- referring literally to the Hindi verb "to stick" (as in, to the trees) -- would become an international media sensation. "Tree hugger" entered the lexicon as an all-purpose signifier for environmental sympathies. Among greens in the West, the Chipko movement became a symbol of poor women standing up for nature, while for many Indian elites at home, it provoked nostalgia for ancient spiritual customs and traditional ways of village life that seemed to be fast disappearing in India's modernizing cities.

The Chipko story became iconic in rough proportion to the degree to which it became detached from the actual events that transpired in Uttarakhand. From the start, Chipko was driven by a desire among villagers for local autonomy and economic opportunity. Outside efforts to protect the Himalayan forest would spark a backlash among the very same villagers. The actual history of the Chipko is the story of rural Indians' efforts to establish local control of resources, first by fighting the outside forest contractors who wanted to log their trees, and then by fighting outside environmentalists who wanted to protect them.

Today the Himalayan region, like the rest of India, has chosen the path of economic development and modernization. Even so, the idea that the women of Uttarakhand were hugging trees to protect the environment and prevent economic development, repeated most famously by Vandana Shiva in her international best seller, Staying Alive, captivates the imaginations of Western environmentalists and urban Indian elites alike.2 Sitting comfortably at the intersection of environmental suspicions of modernity and India's homegrown ascetic tradition, the Chipko fable has profoundly misinterpreted and distorted the true meaning of Chipko, and with it, the larger story of modernization in India.

The notion that poverty ennobles while wealth corrupts has transfixed elites for centuries. It is repeated by those with wealth and power as both a cautionary tale about the spiritually corrupting effects of wealth and a way to rationalize their power in highly unequal societies. In India, this was manifested by the glorification of asceticism in the traditional Brahminical value system espoused by high-caste Hindus.

In the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi updated this Brahmin asceticism by advocating an idealized vision of a traditional village-based society with limited needs, limited ambitions, and small-scale subsistence production. "We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago," he wrote in his 1910 book, Hind Swaraj. "We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before." Economic development, for Gandhi, was no prerequisite for happiness. "A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor," he wrote. "Millions will always remain poor." In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi defended hereditary occupations, and thus, implicitly the caste system.3

The Gandhian valorization of poverty and asceticism fit neatly into the emerging cosmopolitan discourse of "sustainable development" for poor nations. With the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s, many Indian elites started to justify asceticism and poverty not only as spiritually ennobling, but as environmentally virtuous as well. "Gandhi's Hind Swaraj has for me been the best teaching on real freedom," wrote Shiva, who trained as a physicist in Canada. "For Gandhi, slavery and violence were not just a consequence of imperialism: a deeper slavery and violence were intrinsic to industrialism, which Gandhi called 'modern civilization.'"4

Shiva and other green elites attacked modernization and development in India as a calamitous foreign imposition on the rural poor by multinational corporations and the World Bank; some even depicted the traditional (caste) society as natural. Shiva valorized traditional village life, where women worked harder than "men and farm animals" and "invisibly with the earthworm."5 Environmentalists Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha argued that the caste system was an ecological adaptation to reduce competition for scarce resources. They contended that caste groups in traditional Indian society "might with profit be compared to biological species," complete with "characteristic modes of subsistence," "distinct habitats," and "ecological niches."6

But while the new green Brahmins naturalized poverty and invoked the interests of the rural poor as justification for their antimodern ideas, those ideas never stood a chance in a democratic India. Neither Gandhi's vision for India in Hind Swaraj, nor the green Brahminism that developed in the 1970s, had any significant following among India's lower castes, who increasingly rejected the exploitative nature of the traditional socioeconomic system. Even as early as 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru, who would become India's first Prime Minister wrote to Gandhi, "It is many years since I read Hind Swaraj... but even when I read it twenty or more years ago it seemed to me completely unreal." Nehru reminded Gandhi that, "the [Indian National] Congress has never considered that picture, [portrayed in Hind Swaraj] much less adopted it."7 It was the nationalist, nonviolent, and humanist Gandhi that poor Indians admired and respected, not the Gandhi of asceticism, deprivation, and tradition.

From its earliest moments, the Chipko movement was centrally focused upon economic demands, access to resources, and control of local forests. For Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who organized some of the first protests and efforts among local communities to develop the forests for their own benefit, Chipko meant preserving people's traditional forest rights, which, in his view, were being threatened by a distant "bureaucratic set-up." Although he was inspired by Gandhi's promotion of economic self-sufficiency, Bhatt was not against development or industrialization as long as it was controlled by local communities.8

But outsiders were quick to take up the cause, and they had very different ideas about what the Chipko movement was about. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a well-traveled regional politician with good English language skills, supported the Chipko demands and eventually became the charismatic face of the movement outside the region. Influenced both by Gandhi's asceticism and by a British environmentalist known as the "Man of the Trees," Bahuguna presented Chipko to his growing audience as a deeply conservative movement, interested only in preserving the ecological balance of the Himalayas and the traditional socioeconomic order of its villages.9

Bahuguna took his demands directly to the Central (federal) Government in New Delhi, correctly betting that his antidevelopment message would appeal more strongly to distant metropolitan elites than to local government officials. "Gandhi had foreseen the doomsday as early as 1908, when he wrote Hind Swaraj," wrote Bahuguna. "The objective of development is economic growth or prosperity, but to achieve this temporary economic prosperity we have lost peace and happiness."10 Bahuguna's message met with applause from his elite audiences, who hailed him as an ecological Gandhi, fighting the evils of modern technology and commerce.

The rebranding of Chipko as an "environmentalism of the poor" worked -- at least in swaying influential figures. Bahuguna and allies won the support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and international NGOs and succeeded in enacting a slew of laws and regulations, all aimed at better conserving the Himalayan forests. But the logging restrictions sparked a backlash in Uttarakhand. By the late 1980s, regional political groups such as the Uttarakhand Revolutionary Party and Jungle Kato Andolan (which literally translates as the "Log the Forest Movement") began publicly exhorting communities to start cutting down trees in defiance of what became known as the "Chipko Laws."11 These groups offered to clear-cut forest areas on behalf of any community or village wishing to initiate development projects. In the 2000 book, Of Myths and Movements, historian Haripriya Rangan quotes former Chipko supporter, Gayatri Devi:

Now they tell me that because of Chipko the road cannot be built, because everything has become paryavaran [environment].... We cannot even get wood to build a house.... I plan to contest the panchayat [village council] elections and become the pradhan [mayor] next year.... My first fight will be for a road, let the environmentalists do what they will.12

When researcher Antje Linkenbach visited Reni in the 1990s, the villagers accused Bahuguna of misrepresenting the Chipko movement and even complained, perhaps apocryphally, that in some public events Bahuguna had used another woman to impersonate Gaura Devi, a prominent Chipko activist from Reni. Asked what they had gained from Chipko, the villagers interpreted the question in strictly economic, not environmental, terms and replied that they had not seen any gains at all except that "two boxes came with old clothes" and some certificates.13

But the most dramatic testimony came in a Press Institute of India workshop in which villagers from Reni and a neighboring village, referring to the establishment of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in their area, complained that the conservation laws and federal control had backfired. The local communities were better at managing the forests than the federal government, they asserted. "Now there is virtual plunder to supply valuable herbs to the Delhi cosmetic market," one man lamented. "So there is no protection in the protected area while the local villagers are denied their basic needs."14

While deep greens romanticize village life and sustainable development NGOs deliver solar panels, efficient cook stoves, and other "appropriate technologies" to rural communities, Indian villagers are migrating to cities in massive numbers, drawn by the promise of economic opportunity. The popular mass movement that would ultimately define Uttarakhand's future would not be Chipko, but rather the Uttarakhand statehood movement demanding regional autonomy and development. In 2000, the new state of Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh and today its leaders prioritize economic development, industry, and jobs.

Ultimately India's destiny does not lie in the traditional village-based society promoted by Mahatma Gandhi in Hind Swaraj, but in an entirely different paradigm envisioned by Babasaheb Ambedkar, the father of India's democratic constitution, whose ideas have become increasingly prominent in modern India. During his life, Ambedkar, who was the leader of the Dalits, formerly known as the "untouchables," publicly and emphatically rejected Gandhi's idealization of India's traditional rural order. "The love of the intellectual Indians for the village community is infinite, if not pathetic," Ambedkar wrote in 1948, "What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?" He observed, "In Gandhism, the common man has no hope... The ultimate goal of man's existence is not reached unless and until he has fully cultivated his mind." Ambedkar argued:

Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute.... The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization.15

In contrast to the asceticism of Gandhi and the green Brahmins, Ambedkar saw that liberating India's lower castes from the exploitation of the caste system could unleash the energy and creativity that might make India a modern and prosperous nation. This is in fact what is transpiring across the subcontinent as India's enormous population embraces technological transformation, modernization, and urbanization in search of better lives and greater freedom. Rapid modernization and urbanization bring their own problems and challenges, but they present far greater opportunities for the poor than traditional technologies and the traditional village-based socioeconomic order -- along with the potential for greatly reduced ecological impacts.

The modernization of India is, like that of the rest of the Global South, inevitable. While India's ascetic tradition has many admirable aspects, it is also the cause and effect of a caste system that has left much of its population living in dire poverty for hundreds of years. Thankfully, modernization and urbanization are now finally breaking that cycle. /

1. Linkenbach, Antje. 2007. Forest Futures: Global Representations and Ground Realities in the Himalayas. London: Seagull Books. 57-58. (back)

2. Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books. (back)

3. Gandhi, Mohandas K. 1909. Hind Swaraj. Original in Gujarati. English translation, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1938. pdf edition, 2003. Accessed November 23: (back)

4. Shiva, Vandana. 2011. "Swaraj: A Deeper Freedom." Navdanya International, March 9. (back)

5. Shiva, Staying Alive, 108-109. (back)

6. Gadgil, Madhav, and Ramachandra Guha. 1993. This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, Berkeley: University of California Press. 105. (back)

7. Rudolph, Lloyd I., and Susanne H. Rudolph. 2006. Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays. Berkeley: University of Chicago Press. 25. (back)

8. Linkenbach, Forest Futures, 153-164. (back)

9. Rangan, Haripriya. 2000. Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History. London: Verso. 30-31. (back)

10. Bahuguna, Sunderlal. 1997. "Treading the Gandhian Path." Gandhi and the Contemporary World. Original eds. Antony Copley and George Paxton. Indo-British Historical Society. Accessed November 23, 2011: (back)

11. Rangan, Of Myths and Movements, 164-166. (back)

12. Ibid., 42. (back)

13. Linkenbach, Forest Futures, 84. (back)

14. Dogra, Bharat. 2002. "Whither the Chipko Years: The Fading Gains of Himalayan Conservation." India Together. Accessed November 23, 2011: (back)

15. Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. 2002. "Gandhism: The Doom of the Untouchables", in Rodrigues, Valerian, ed., The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, fifth impression, 2008. 158. (back)