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HIMALAYAN HEROINES - The remarkable social activists of Uttarakhand

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By Politics and play Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 27.07.13

I wrote, in my last column (“No lack of warning”, July 13), about the precocious environmental work of Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade), the British admiral’s daughter who became a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. I write this time of another Englishwoman whose commitment to, and understanding of, the beautiful and fragile Himalaya was even deeper.

Catherine Mary Heilman was born in London in 1901, of mixed English-German parentage. Her father, a goldsmith, was interned during World War I because, in an ethnic sense, he was ‘alien’. During and after the war, his daughter faced hostility from xenophobes too. Then she met some Indian students, who told her about Gandhi and the freedom struggle. This inspired Catherine to come out to India in 1932, to join the staff of a school in Udaipur. Two years later, she met Gandhi for the first time. For the next few years, she was based largely in Sevagram, working with Gandhian experiments in basic education. Her admiration for Gandhi grew, yet she also came to appreciate the rock-like solidity of Kasturba, whose self-effacing support had done so much to make the Mahatma’s work possible.

Catherine had now taken an Indian name — Sarala Devi. She felt fulfilled in Gandhi’s ashram; however, the climate of central India did not suit her. She suffered from dysentery, and more worryingly, from malaria. From Gandhi’s friend and follower, Acharya J.B. Kripalani, she came to know of an ashram in Almora set up to propagate khadi. So Sarala went northwards, to come under the care of Shantilal Trivedi, the Gujarati Gandhian who ran the ashram in Almora. She loved the hills, the woods and the views especially, and very quickly made herself at home here.

In 1942, the Quit India movement broke out. The Almora district witnessed sustained protests. Farmers and students took out processions, hoisted the banned national flag, and shouted slogans against the British. The State came down hard. Hundreds of men were arrested, and also some women. Sarala did not herself join the open protests, yet her sympathy with the protesters was marked. She visited them in prison, provided succour to their families, and carried messages to and from activists who were underground. Finally, she was also arrested, and spent two terms in prison.

Her incarceration made Sarala’s identification with the Indian cause complete. After she was released, she chose to start a girls’ school in memory of Kasturba Gandhi (who had died in prison during the Quit India movement). The Uttarakhand society was extremely conservative; here girls worked in the fields and in the kitchen, and were not encouraged to educate themselves. The British-born Indian set out to change this. She acquired a cottage in Kausani named Lakshmi Ashram, and prevailed upon Congress workers to send their daughters there. As she recalled, “some elderly, conservative elements in the village, forever shaking their heads, accused us of breaking all the old social rules, that our girls would be looked upon as having lost their caste, and then how would they get married?”

The girls in Lakshmi Ashram grew their own vegetables, raised their own cows, cooked their food and cleaned their premises. They also learnt their letters, with the curriculum, based on Gandhian principles, teaching languages, science and social studies, and livelihood skills such as weaving. The girls also ran the ashram office and kept the accounts.

Sarala’s wards became self-confident, capable young women, who, after they graduated from the ashram, went out into the world, working as teachers and social workers. Some started schools of their own. Together, they created a quiet, silent revolution in Uttarakhandi society. Sarala inspired some very capable men to join the Gandhian movement as well. Through the 1960s and 1970s, graduates and associates of Lakshmi Ashram played major roles in struggles against alcoholism, deforestation, and the siting of large dams in the hills.

As she grew older, Sarala grew more pessimistic about the direction that her nation and the world were taking. “By keeping man far removed from Nature”, she wrote despairingly in 1976, “by making a slave to the machine in the spheres of production and entertainment; through the rapidly increasing pollution of air, water and natural resources; the excess of words and speed; the breakdown in family relations and concern for society”— by all this, “mankind is now facing a condition of unprecedented crisis in the areas of both mental and physical health.”

The main milestones in the life of Sarala Devi are covered in her memoirs, first published in Hindi in 1976 (she died in 1982). These are now available in a readable English translation by David Hopkins, and published by Pahar in Nainital under the title, A Life in Two Worlds. Her legacy, meanwhile, has been analysed in a fine recent book by the anthropologist, Rebecca Klenk, entitled Educating Activists: Development and Gender in the Making of Modern Gandhians. Klenk first visited Lakshmi Ashram in 1991, and has been back many times since, spending weeks and months speaking with and observing its girls at work and at study.

One of the strengths of Educating Activists is the oral histories of women who have passed through the ashram’s portals. There are extensive interviews with Radha Bhatt, who joined in 1951 and, 15 years later, assumed charge of the ashram after Sarala Devi voluntarily relinquished her responsibilities. Radha behn is a person of great charm and strength of character. I carry a vivid recollection of a march I attended 30 years ago against unregulated mining in the region of Chandak-Sikhrana, in Pithoragarh district, when her ability to inspire the Kumauni villagers was strikingly manifest.

Another leading Gandhian who features in Rebecca Klenk’s narrative is Vimla Bahuguna (neé Nautiyal). She grew up in Tehri Garhwal, a deeply patriarchal, parochial princely state which did not even have a high school for girls. Fortunately, her father had heard of Sarala Devi and her Lakshmi Ashram. She was sent there to study and be trained; later, she returned to her home district to set up an ashram and school of her own. With her husband Sunderlal Bahuguna, Vimla behn played a critical role in the environmental movement in the hills.

To those who know Uttarakhand, Radha Bhatt and Vimla Bahuguna are iconic figures. Yet Klenk also pays close attention to less known graduates of Lakshmi Ashram, to their individual and intellectual development, to their transformation from shy, timid girls from poor familes to self-confident and articulate women shaping progressive social change in Uttarakhand and beyond. Her narrative covers several generations of activists, from those who were directly influenced by Sarala Devi to those who never knew the founder but yet made creative use of her message.

Rebecca Klenk characterizes Lakshmi Ashram as an experiment in “Gandhian modernity”, which offered “rural girls from a marginal region a sense of inclusion, urgency, purpose, and importance.” It “promised to integrate the Uttarakhand Himalaya into the new nation by training women to become modern citizens and village leaders who would extend Gandhi’s program of real swaraj, or independence, into hill villages.” The girls came from all social backgrounds — Brahmin, Rajput, Bania, Dalit and Bhotiya. In the stories they told their American interlocutor, the ashram “was about social struggles and change, and about becoming part of the nation and the world.” Over a period of six decades, writes Klenk, the graduates of Lakshmi Ashram have “creatively drawn upon Gandhian ideals to demand women’s rights, as well as economic and environmental justice, and to articulate a critique of the ways in which liberalization and democracy, despite rhetoric to the contrary, have failed to provide decent lives for all Indian citizens.”

Reading Educating Activists, I was struck by the open-minded, non-dogmatic way in which these social workers interpreted Gandhi’s message. They adapted it to contemporary hopes and aspirations. Employment generation and livelihood security were for them as critical as self-control and personal austerity. I was also impressed by the sense of institutional continuity. Sarala Devi left the ashram 20 years after founding it. After two decades at the helm, Radha Bhatt likewise handed over the responsibility to a younger colleague. This reminded me of the similarly smooth transition in the Self-Employed Women’s Association in Ahmedabad, whose founder, Ela Bhatt, also gracefully withdrew herself from day-to-day supervision, so that younger leaders could take charge. Such institutions are exceptional, for in most cases, the man or woman who founds a non-governmental organization cannot abide giving up control and authority.

Reading these two books now, in the wake of the tragedy in Uttarakhand, was an especially poignant experience. It also prompted a series of questions. Does a region that produces such outstandingly selfless Indians deserve such a cruel fate? In the work of repair and restoration that lies ahead, will the state and the Central government seek out the support, and knowledge, of the remarkable social activists who still live and work in the state? Or will they be guided by other, shallower, more short-term considerations?