Saffronising green


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MANY social issues are today being expressed, constructed and defined in new ways by Hindu conservative forces, especially since the beginning of the 1980s. Significantly, however, even certain environmental movements and discourses which green activists admire and valorise, consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly, have expressed themselves in ideologies and languages that can only aid the growth of Hindu communalism in India.

The Vrindavana Forest Revival Project in Uttar Pradesh, initiated by some prominent environmental and religious organisations in 1991 is a good example. Vrindavana is seen as the birthplace of Krishna and after the Ram Janmabhumi liberation campaign and the destruction of the Babri Mosque, the ‘liberation of Krishna Janmabhumi’ has become central to the agenda of Hindu conservatives. The language of this environmental project underlines, as causes of environmental problems of Vrindavana, the ‘abandonment of traditional Hindu values and technology’, ‘centuries of Muslim and British rule as detrimental to traditional Hindu culture and practices’, ‘forgetting the injunctions such as those found in Manusmriti’, thereby offering solutions on entirely new socio-political grounds, going beyond trees, shrub planting and sewage systems.1

Some environmental discourses provide a defence of the caste system, increasingly being challenged by the rising lower and intermediate castes, especially in North India, the heartland of communalism. Hence the explanation by Kailash Malhotra, an anthropologist, that ‘The caste system... was actually based on an ancient concept of sustainable development which disciplined society by partitioning the use of natural resources according to specific occupations (or castes); and "created" the right social milieu in which sustainable patterns of resource use were encouraged to "emerge".’2 Or says another, ‘The Hindu caste system can be seen as a progenitor of the concept of sustainable development.’3 Even an important academic study on the ecological history of India provides in effect a functionalist justification of caste as a system of ecological adaptation.4



At certain times, environmental discourses, however well-intentioned, fall into the trap of valorisation and romanticisation of some dangerous forms of indigenism that aid obscurantist forces, albeit unintentionally. A fair, held to honour the Kosi river, was initiated in the early 1990s in Bihar in the belief that it would help control increasing land erosion and the river’s seasonal change of course. The fair not only involves elaborate river worship by Brahmins, but a small goat is also drowned as a mark of sacrifice.5

The journey of evoking environmental myths, associated with the river Ganga, to oppose the construction of the massive Tehri dam in Uttarakhand state is crucial to an understanding of the interrelationship between environmental movements and Hindu conservative forces, especially in the context of the ’80s and ’90s: How was an environmental politics that sought to explain the opposition to a dam, both scientifically and culturally, in a complete and coherent way, saffronised? How could the specificity of environmental myths, kept fresh by their use, reuse and misuse, be mobilised in the course of communal politics in particular territories and specific societies? How did environmental and communalised myths, portrayed in specific texts (booklets, pamphlets, speeches, slogans, songs, proverbs), become identical in a given phase?



The Tehri dam, when completed, will be one of the highest dams in the world harnessing the waters of two important Himalayan rivers – Bhagirathi and Bhilangana.6 The dam is finally expected to be 260.5 m high and impound 3.22 million cu m of water. The reservoir is expected to irrigate 2,70,000 hectares of land and generate 346 mw of hydel power. The dam will completely submerge Tehri town and 23 villages, while 72 other villages will be partially submerged. Nearly 5,200 hectares of land will also be lost to the reservoir. In addition, about 85,000 persons will be displaced by the dam.

The Tehri dam has witnessed continuous questioning and protest by various people, including the noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna who has virtually made it his life-long mission to stop the construction of the dam by living at the dam site and by going on periodic fasts.7 To marshal their case, the Tehri opposition has tried to establish connections between ecological, social and mythical values through scientific studies, environmental campaigns and cultural religious references, thus engaging in a wide gamut of environmental politics.



Those opposed to the dam emphasise the economic life and structure of the dam, its geology and seismicity, displacement and rehabilitation, cost and benefit. They also talk about the cultural and religious values of the Ganga river and the Himalayan region. They attempt to use scientific knowledge to explain their perceptions of imaginative and emotional truths. They go on fasts, dharnas, demonstrations, and other agitational programmes, to focus on their demands.

The anti-Tehri dam politics has been subject to a collaborative relationship between what is ‘factual’, ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’ and what is ‘religious’, ‘faith’, ‘emotional’ and ‘mythical’. This collaboration seeks to heal the great environmental and cultural wound that development and the dam has inflicted on the region. Towards this end, they speak the language of ecological politics, as it was the universal language of the anti big-dam movement of the 1970s. They also invoke certain metaphors, and it is through many of these that the anti-dam forces, more especially Sunderlal Bahuguna, reach out to particular religious practices and mythical beliefs. In their use of these metaphors and myths, the environmentalists often come close to the beliefs of conservative Hindu forces and their chosen communal path. In effect, the metaphor and the myth is the Trojan horse through which communal politics enters and re-enters green politics.



Attitudes against big projects and dams, the Tehri dam in particular, were part of the growth of the environmental movement in India in the 1970s. This period is generally seen as one of growing environmental consciousness and movements. One popular mode was to use facts and figures, scientific methods and techniques, to challenge a project that too claimed to be based on scientific calculation and assessment. The concern with reason and measurement, data and cost calculation was like a social enterprise and found expression not only in the setting up of the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti in 1978 and its various campaigns, but also in several studies, research papers and articles.

Through an analysis of technical, social and environmental variables,8 it has been argued that the economic life of the dam will not exceed 61.4 years and the dam will not yield promised results within the next fifty years at least, by which time the reservoir would be substantially silted up. Regarding the real life situation of the Tehri dam oustees, problems of land alienation, destitution, inequality, abrupt and forced changes in the agricultural pattern, breakage of the joint family system, total lack of the village commons, educational and health facilities were emphasised.9

Environmental politics against big projects is often also the preservation and pursuit of the natural and the beautiful. Aesthetic issues revolve around the depiction of what is pristine and heavenly at the project site and what constitutes natural and harmonious living. This has been an important part of the criticism against big projects like dams. In the particular case of Tehri dam, the region and the project site have been repeatedly referred to as pious, peaceful and solitary. The Himalayan region and the Ganga are seen as symbols of a divine force, a thing of beauty and a point of contact with the infinite. Though this landscape regularly appears on the canvas of environmentalists, it is not necessarily associated with mythical and religious figures and symbols.



Landscapes are given meaning, shape and form with reference to people. For the anti-dam activists, sublime dignity lies in the people’s contact with and appreciation of the environment. Similarly, there are many examples where the beauty and scenery of the river Ganga becomes a major source of protest against the dam, so much so that the pictorial and highly emotional representation itself becomes a way of presenting the politics of anti-dam activists. There are poems like: ‘Flowing like a divine girl, singing songs, we see many colours, many faces of her, she continues to flow.’10

An aesthetic impulse echoed throughout the early period of the anti-dam movement. However, it only enjoyed a marginal presence. Hindu myths and faith were not the central element of this aesthetic sensitivity; it was nature in its splendour which provided both confirmation and affirmation of individual and collective concerns, and enhanced the capability of appreciating beauty and fighting for it.



The myth of a glorious past has been an important metaphor in the anti-Tehri dam movement, especially in recent years. The central importance of the past is explained in unequivocal terms. Kameshwar Prasad Bahuguna says: ‘This is not only a question of drowning or displacing. It is a question of being attached with one’s self and honour. It is a question to preserve our cultural heritage, to save the Ganga water from being poisoned. It is a question of being attached with our past.’11

This past has a long history – a history which is being invoked beyond all sense of time and place. This history has some variations, as a place of mythical figures, as a place of healthy-happy people, as a place of one’s ultimate being and living. Claiming status as a historian of Uttarakhand, Sunderlal Bahuguna writes about Garhwal a century ago: ‘Every member of the family was busy. The work related with agriculture and cattle rearing was so much that nobody in the family had the chance to sit idle. There was too much of work for menfolk… Life was busy, people were happy. Their world was limited to their land and cattle. All families were living with each other to make their life happy and prosperous.’12

For the state and the pro-dam people, nation and nation-building has been intimately related to completing the construction of the dam.13 However, even for the environmentalists and the anti-dam activists, national security, national interest and national unity are no less important. Sunderlal Bahuguna and other prominent anti-dam activists have in their environmental discourse throughout emphasised water and forests as the basis of a safe and secure nation, free from outside threats.



The enemy and a threat perception occupy a special place in their environmental identity. This threat perception is not fixed; it is in flux and constantly reworked by social activists and other concerned people.14 Thus, if pro-dam people see the dam as an important step in the creation of a national landscape, a dominant argument of the environmentalists sees the preservation of a truly Indian landscape as central to national unity and integrity.

In the anti-Tehri dam movement, environmentalists and social-religious leaders provide cultural and imaginative representations of the Ganga and the Himalaya in varying degrees. These representations often get Hinduised and become essential parts of environmental politics and identity. In the later part of the movement especially, anti-Tehri dam politics has persistently and centrally been constructed through a conservative Hindu imagery, often in partnership with Hindutva politics. Ganga becomes holier and holiest. The ecological reasoning is blurred and goes beyond logic, eliciting Hindu support, patriotism and xenophobia.



The cultural creation of the Himalaya and the Ganga is a result of the combination of several agencies: Hindu religious and social values; holiness and uniqueness of the Ganga water; its great economic and practical significance, symbolising Indian culture and civilisation from very ancient times right up to the present; holy places, temple complexes, and rishis-munis at vantage points along the banks, and so on. The Ganga stems from some golden period into the nationalist period.

The project area appears as a particular religious expression, with certain known facts and causes. Allied to this expression is the golden past and the sacred present, with interests in the mystic pleasures to be derived from contemplation of a God-graced and virgin nature. It is said, ‘India is a holy land; and holiest of the holy and greatest of the great is the Himalaya especially its Uttarakhand region. All our scriptures support this view. Uttarakhand is Devbhumi (a place sanctified by Gods) and Tapobhumi (a sacred land of penance and austerity)… A land of gods, it is called. It makes its dwellers god-like.’15 To oppose the Tehri dam, certain environmentalists have increasingly resorted to using Hindu myths about the Ganga. These myths together integrate the identity of a river and a ‘Hindu’ country.

The cultural creation that was hitherto a combination of several agencies overlapping with each other has coalesced, especially in the 1990s, into a narrow, conservative environmental politics. The appeal to Hindus and their organisations becomes an important and the readiest expression of the mood of the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Sunderlal Bahuguna and his Himalaya Bachao Andolan, an increasingly powerful political-cultural undertow. For what the anti-Tehri dam agitation subscribes to is not only an identifiable, expressive Hindu religious culture, but also the conviction that only through recovery of a Hindu religious platform can a successful case be made against the dam. The bond uniting the environmental and heterogeneous coalition of religious and political concerns now makes up the mainstream of the movement. Its targeted call is to arouse the Hindus for a greater cause.



The Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti appeals to pious sadhus-sants to stop the catastrophe of Tehri dam as ‘the foreign powers are conspiring for the Tehri dam, to end the religion and tradition of the Bharatbhoomi.’ At the time of the sacred Mahashivratri festival, they approach kawarias – Hindus, who travel on foot, carrying the Ganga water on their shoulders to pour into their temple or on Lord Shiva. Invoking Hindu mythology on the origin of the river, and the faith and emotion with which kawarias carry the Ganga water, anti-Tehri activists ask them to awake and arise.16 They harp on the greatness of Sri Ganga Jee, as exemplified in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, on the auspicious day of Ganga Dashhara.

The anti-dam movement also goes to the extent of sometimes invoking popular stereotypes about the Muslim community. During one of his fasts against the dam in 1996, Sunderlal Bahuguna’s references became obvious, as quoted in a report: ‘Sample the story narrated by Bahuguna at one of his evening sermons. The environmentalist said, Muslim Emperor Aurangzeb refused water to his dying father, but "we Hindus" even offer water to the dead. The analogy by this "Gandhian" stunned two local Muslim women who silently walked out of the meeting even as the audience, including some VHP activists, burst into applause.’17



The campaign for Holy Mother Ganga, on the dotted lines of a conservative Hindu politics of the times, gets wider in its ideological reach. The shift in the anti-dam movement from Himalaya to Ganga, and from Ganga to Hinduised holy mother Ganga becomes increasingly clear. The campaign, along with the sadhu-sants and their organisations, tries to make several common causes. It says: ‘We should take initiatives for the preservation and beautification of Rameshwaram, Kanchi, Vraja (Mathura-Vrindavana), Kashi and Haridwar, to place an ideal before the entire Hindu community… To embrace the Vedic system of water conservation, according to our tirth tradition, can only ensure pure and pious water to all the Indians…. To re-establish the land’s productivity, we must immediately implement the Vedic system of undisturbed flow of pious rivers.’18

Fear has been one of the strongest elements in the anti-Tehri dam movement. Fears regarding the safety, geology, seismicity, hydrology, and other life and death risks involved in the construction of the dam are based on a comprehensive and technical analysis of the project. Fear is clearly expressed with regard to geology, seismicity and earthquake, and most of the literature published by the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Sunderlal Bahuguna and other concerned people, is full of such references. At the same time, the basis of the fear is marked by a transition in the later period of the anti-dam movement. There is now wild speculation regarding the effects of the dam. Not geology, seismicity, hydrology or earthquake, but Ganga turning into a jheel captures the particular effect. Contact with the dam is contact with the worst social values. Family, morality and dignity of women are all in danger now.



Fear becomes an environmental metaphor for the propagation of certain images and values. For Swami Chidanand Saraswati, saving the mother Ganga from the dam is like ‘saving from Ravan.’ He says, ‘It [dam] is a big giant Ravan who is going to eat us all.’19 There are now new, created reasons for opposing the dam: ‘Now the question arises that if Ganga is turned into an artificial lake20 like this, what would be its impact on Ganga jal?’21

Before I end, it is significant to note that the RSS and the VHP have been active in the campaign against the Tehri dam, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, and have in the process often aligned with Sunderlal Bahuguna.22 For Hindu conservative forces, the Ganga and the Tehri dam are conscious political constructions, which embody beliefs, values and information that can influence events, behaviours and perceptions. They try to cover a wide field, from a simple-minded religious text to an imaginative and sacred account, from the river in danger to a community and country in danger.23



By using the myth of the Ganga, Hindu conservative forces do not employ an idea that is simply false, but rather one that so effectively embodies Hindu beliefs that it provides an opportunity to influence their way of perceiving reality and hence their identity and behaviour. For all its factual, scientific currency, dam on a river is a metaphor, and a remarkably subtle and sinuous one at that. The essential purpose of this metaphor is to consciously connect the Ganga to the Hindu community and community to nation in a conservative Hindu frame. Apparently dissimilar entities – the politics of saffron and that of green – are made to be similar, to go together.

At stake in this interlude between green and saffron is nothing less than the way people understand their humanity. It is indeed paradoxical that environmental concerns of the Hindu conservative forces are occasionally channelled through virtually the same language used by radical environmental and social movements. This simple and disingenuous appropriation of language points to a serious problem, i.e., the development of communal, authoritarian discourses within the new social movements of India.24

It is delightfully naive to assume that the entire content of emerging environmental issues and movements is necessarily progressive. The panoply of environmental politics in India today reveals some political allegiances or affinities with Hindu conservative forces. Rather than uncritically endorsing all environmental movements, or all visions of the environment, we should analyse their limitations, intractabilities and contradictions in relationship to communalism. These explorations can provide some critical tools for further understanding the complexities, nuances and ambiguities of environmental and social politics.



1. Flyer, Vrindavana Forest Revival Project and Ranchor Dasa (Director of the Project), ‘Reviving the Forests of Vrindavana’, Back to Godhead 26(5), September-October 1992, p. 27.

2. Kailash Malhotra, quoted in The State of India’s Environment 1984-85: The Second Citizen’s Report. Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1985, p. 162.

3. O.P. Dwivedi, ‘Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit of Hinduism’, in Roger S. Cottlieb (ed.), This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. Routledge, London, 1996, p. 159.

4. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India. OUP, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 91-110.

5. Mukul Sharma, ‘Sonmanki "Mela": Preventing Erosion’, Economic and Political Weekly, 23 June 2000, pp. 2223-4.

6. There are many reports/booklets available at both official and unofficial levels, which provide information regarding the Tehri dam. For example, Multipurpose and Hydroelectric Projects in Ganga and Yamuna Valleys, UP (Irrigation Department, Lucknow, May 1986); Rahul Sen, Tehri Dam: A Fact Sheet (South-South Solidarity, New Delhi, 1995); Yashpal Singh, Tehri Bandh Pariyojana ki Byatha-Katha (Rishikesh, 1992); Yashpal Singh, Tehri Bandh Pariyojana: Vivad evam Tathya (Rishikesh, 1992).

7. For a detailed account of these many protests, petitions, committees, see Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain and Srabani Sen (eds), State of India’s Environment, The Citizen’s Fifth Report, Part I: National Overview. CSE, New Delhi, 1999, pp. 145-9. Also, Update From Delhi. Update Collective, New Delhi, nd.

8. Vijay Paranjpye, Evaluating the Tehri Dam: An Extended Cost Benefit Appraisal. Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, New Delhi, 1988, pp. 43-138.

9. U.P. Voluntary Health Association, Rehabilitation of Tehri Dam Oustees: Promises and Performance. Lucknow, 1996, pp. 1-13.

10. Trilokchand Papne, ‘Saswat Bahane Do’, in Virendra Dutta Saklani, Gangajee ke Pavitra Jal Ko Apavitra Karene Ki Yojana. Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Tehri, 1980, pp. 16-22.

11. Kameshwar Prasad Bahuguna, ‘Tehri Bandh Ka Virodh Kyo?’ Himalaya: Man and Nature 15(7-8), December 1991-January 1992, p. 12.

12. Sunderlal Bahuguna, ‘Parvatiya Vikas aur Bhoomi Upyog’ in Chipko Sandesh. Chipko Suchana Kendra, 1989, pp. 15-17.

13. Singh, Tehri Bandh Pariyojana: Vivad evam Thathya, p. 61; Singh, Tehri Bandh Pariyojana ki Bhaytha-Katha, p. 14. The author has forcefully argued that the Tehri dam is beneficial for the nation and its stoppage would adversely affect the national interest and nation building.

14. Sunderlal Bahuguna, ‘The Himalayan Threat’, Tehri, nd., p. 4; Paranjpye, Evaluating the Tehri Dam, op cit., p. 10.

15. Swami Chidananda, ‘Save The Himalaya’ in Bhagirathi ki Pukar 7(2), February 1997, p. 1.

16. ‘Kawarion Se Appeal’, a pamphlet released jointly by the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti and the Shiv Kawar Sangh. Meerut, nd. Another pamphlet of a similar nature titled, ‘Dekh Raha Hai Aaj Himalaya Ganga ke Rakhwalo Ko’ has been released by the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, nd.

17. V. Radhika, ‘Bahuguna Plays the Hindu Card to Widen Support Base’, Pioneer, 12 June 1996, p. 7.

18. A joint hand-note by the Rastriya Thirth Chetna Sangh and Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (1996), pp. 1-2.

19. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, Ganga Maiya ko Bachana Hai. Rishikesh, 1989, p. 2. See also, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, Himalaya ke Paryavan ke Raksha Kijiye. Tehri, nd., p. 7. Here it is said that Himalaya and Ganga are the incarnation of Krishna and the Tehri dam will be like hitting God Krishna.

20. The fear of Ganga turning into a lake is repeatedly mentioned by Sunderlal Bahuguna and others. See, Sunderlal Bahuguna, ‘Tehri Dam – Aab Tak’ in Ganga Sandesh. Amritsar, 1997, p. 34. Also mentioned in the speech in Parliament by BJP Rajya Sabha MP, Trilokinath Chaturvedi, ‘Nirmanadhin Tehri Bandh me Bhukampiye Khatere aur Bhrastachar’ in Ganga Sandesh. Tehri, 1997, p. 1.

21. Virendra Dutta Saklani, Ganga Jee ke Pavitra Jal ko Apavitra Karane ki Yojana. Tehri, 1980, pp. 4-5.

22. I have written on this elsewhere. See Mukul Sharma, ‘Nature and Nationalism’, Frontline. 16 February 2001, pp. 94-6; Mukul Sharma, ‘Down with the Dam’, Indian Express Magazine, 20 August 2000.

23. See for example, ‘O Holy Mother Ganga!’ in Manthan 6(3), October 1985, p. 6. Here through several quotations of Devi Bhagavatam, Lord Dhanwantari, Sri Sankaracharya and others, it is said that those who utter ‘Gange, Gange’ are purified of all sins and a sip of Ganga water makes one immune to Yama, the god of death. Swami Sivananda, ‘Mysterious Powers of the Ganges Water’ in Manthan 6(3), October 1985, p. 7. It is said that the water of the Ganga is extremely pure and sanctifying. Rich in minerals, this water cures almost all kinds of diseases. Even in the West, doctors prescribe Ganga water for treatment of skin diseases.

24. It has been pointed out by some feminists in the context of the contemporary women’s movement in India that not only has its language been appropriated by the Hindu Right, but a part of the movement itself is moving in that direction. See Uma Chakravarti, ‘The Myth of "Patriots" and "Traitors",’ in Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis (ed.), Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia. Kali for Women, Delhi, 1996, pp. 190-1; Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia (eds), Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays. Kali for Women, Delhi, 1995.