Mira and Sarala Behn: The guardians of our ecological galaxies
Richard Attenborough’s film on Gandhi made famous the story of Madeleine Slade, the British admiral’s daughter who came to India and attached herself to the Mahatma, changing her name to Mira Behn and courting arrest several times during the freedom struggle. This exemplary tale of a rich, white woman taking the side of coloured/colonised Indians even became the subject of an Amar Chitra Katha book.
Mira’s years with Gandhi in his ashram and in prison are well known; forgotten, however, are the equally interesting years she spent in India after leaving her master. In 1945, restless and in search of new challenges, she left Sevagram and relocated herself in the Himalayan foothills, near Rishikesh. She spent the next decade living in Uttarakhand, witnessing at first hand the destruction of the hill forests and the early attempts at damming the hill rivers.
In 1949, Mira Behn remarked of the short-sighted policies of “development” being followed in India in mindless emulation of the West: “The tragedy today is that educated and moneyed classes are altogether out of touch with the vital fundamentals of existence — our Mother Earth, and the animal and vegetable population which she sustains. This world of Nature’s planning is ruthlessly plundered, despoiled and disorganised by man whenever he gets the chance. By his science and machinery he may get huge returns for a time, but ultimately will come desolation. We have got to study Nature’s balance, and develop our lives within her laws, if we are to survive as a physically healthy and morally decent species.”
Mira lived in the valley of the Ganga, in the region known as Garhwal. To its east lay the region of Kumaun, also a land of rich mixed forests and free, fast-flowing rivers. Kumaun was the karmabhumi of another English woman disciple of Gandhi. Born Catherine Mary Heilman, she adopted the nom de plume Sarala Behn. Sarala was, if anything, rooted even more deeply in the soil of her adopted homeland. She went to jail in the Quit India movement, and suffered a long and harsh period of imprisonment. On her release she established the Laxmi Ashram in Kausani, a village renowned for its views of the great snow peaks.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sarala trained and inspired a series of remarkable social workers. They included Sunderlal Bahuguna, Vimla Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, and Radha Bhatt. These and other proteges of Sarala were to do outstanding work in community activism in the hills. They pioneered the Chipko Andolan, which opposed the destructive methods of commercial forestry and inspired similar forest protection movements across India and the world. These hill Gandhians also opposed large dams for their adverse social and environmental consequences, and drew attention to the horrific damage caused by open-cast mining. Not content merely with protest, these Gandhians organised constructive programmes of reforestation and water conservation. Their mentor Sarala Devi watched their work with interest and admiration. In 1982, when she was in her seventies, Sarala wrote an ecological testament called Revive Our Dying Planet, a clarion call to action whose message resonates today.
Mira and Sarala are both long dead. The others I mentioned are alive, but in their eighties. Their struggles for ecological responsibility have had mixed results, because they were opposed by more powerful interests, the politicians, contractors and factory owners who wished to augment their profits and their power by exploiting the extraordinarily rich natural resources of the Himalaya. In recent decades, these vested interests have ruthlessly plundered land, waters, minerals, and land, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
As Mira and Sarala, Chandi Prasad and Sundarlal, all argued, there were sound economic and ecological reasons to be prudent in human interventions in the Himalaya. But there were some compelling cultural reasons too. For these hills are the source of the holiest rivers of India. Some later ecological crusaders have sought to stop destruction in the name of the most sacred of our rivers, the Ganga. In February 2011, a young sadhu named Nigamananda went on fast in protest against sand mining on the banks of the river. His ordeal lasted three-and-a-half months, and was ended only by his death. The government then in power, led by Dr Manmohan Singh, was unmoved.
Now we have the tragic death of Swami Sanand. Born GD Agarwal, he was an admired professor of engineering at IIT Kanpur, who inspired generations of students to take to careers that combined professional excellence with social responsibility. His own commitment to his country was manifest through his working life, and, after his retirement, in his struggle to save the Ganga from destruction at the hand of man. The letters he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his last fast combined both scientific rationality and a deep spiritual understanding of nature. These letters went unanswered; although, after his death, the Prime Minister issued a tweet of condolence that must seem, to the dispassionate observer, as being hypocritical in the extreme.
From Mira Behn to Professor GD Agarwal, a long line of wise Indians have warned against the destruction of the Himalayas, which is our most important and most fragile mountain chain. They have alerted us to the hazards of converting mixed forests into monocultural stands, to the excessive use of chemical fertilisers, to the negative impacts of large dams, to the devastation caused by sand mining, and more. Yet State and Central governments (of all parties) have ignored them, continuing to despoil and disorganise the rivers and mountains that sustain our civilization. Tragically, our politicians are absolutely unworthy of the Himalaya and the Ganga in whose name they claim to speak.
(Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. The views expressed are personal.)