“Nature and nationalism” by Frontline Magazine, Mukul Sharma
Sharma, M. “Nature and nationalism.” Frontline Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 3. 3-16 February, 2001.
By Mukul Sharma
Harping on ‘Gangatva’, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad seeks to use its campaign against the Tehri dam to score communal points.
OCTOBER 19, 2000: At the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, a few hundred sadhus and activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) sit in dharna in makeshift tents protesting against the construction of the Tehri dam. A sadhvi addresses the gathering, exhorting th e activists to be prepared to make any sacrifice in the name of mother Ganga, “The Tehri dam is being constructed to imprison the Ganga forever. This is an organised conspiracy to demolish our religion and culture. The way we had to demolish the Babri mo sque at our own risk, we have to get ready now for the demolition of the Tehri dam.”
October 15: A week-long dharna begins at Tehri Garhwal under the banner of the VHP and its front organisation, the Ganga Raksha Samiti. VHP leader Ashok Singhal threatens to launch an Ayodhya-type movement if the government does not stop further construc tion of the dam. He says: “The Ganga is the source of inspiration and salvation for all Hindus and any attempt to tame the waters of this holy river would be opposed at all costs. The government should take a lesson from what happened in Ayodhya.” Sunder lal Bahuguna, well-known environmentalist and a long-time crusader against the Tehri dam, joins the meeting.
A few months earlier on July 26, sadhus began arriving at the VIP ghat in Har ki Pauri, Hardwar, carrying their burdens of water pots, tridents and cloth bags. Soon after the arrival of Ashok Singhal and of prominent sants and mahants such as Kaus hal Kishore Das, Ramvilas Vedanti, Mahamandaleshwar Bhakti Hari, Swami Vishwamitranand and Kalyanand, the worship of the Ganga took place amid chants of Bharat Mata ki Jai, Sri Ram Janmabhoomi ki Jai, Kasi Vishwanath ki Jai, Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ra m! Jaikara Hai Veer Bajrang and Har Har Mahadeo. The six-day (July 26-31) Ganga Raksha Yatra from Hardwar to Delhi via Bahdarabad, Roorkee, Purkajee, Muzzafarnagar, Khatauli, Modipuram, Meerut and a number of villages and kasbas, then took off .
Away from the media glare, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Ganga Sabha, the Dharamyatra Mahasangh and the Ganga Raksha Samiti have organised a series of programmes in the recent past in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring States, against the 260.5-metre high ea rth and rock-filled dam under construction near the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Bhilangana, downstream of Tehri town. Beginning with the Ganga Raksha Yatra, the programme included region-wise yatras and meetings in September-October covering Kas hipur, Jaspur, Sultanpur, Khatima, Gadarpur, Dineshpur, Pantnagar, Nainital and Sitarganj in Uttar Pradesh, culminating in the dharnas at the dam site and in Delhi.
The VHP hopes to rekindle Hindutva passions by playing the Tehri dam card. But its anti-dam stance is not new. And the reasons are not far too seek. In the mid-1990s, the VHP had argued that the dam would destroy the Hindu pilgrim centres along the river , especially since the ashes of the dead are immersed in it. It would be simplifying facts to view the VHP’s engagement with an environmental question as a crude political attempt to harness votes for the BJP. One central question that emerges from the V HP campaign and from the sharing of the dais by Bahuguna is whether both have common environmental values and strategies. But there can be no doubt about the objective of the VHP strategy if Ashok Singhal’s statement at the Sanatan Dharma Prakashchand Gi rls College in Roorkee is considered. He said: “I am here not to talk about the seismic condition at the dam site or about the cost-benefit analysis of the project. I am talking about Gangatva. Gangatva is Hindutva. Hindutva is Rashtratva.”
Three well-carved raths, carrying an idol of mother Ganga and an earthen pot of the “immortal” Ganga water, were at the head of the caravan of over two dozen vehicles during the yatra. The route taken by the yatra is otherwise totally closed to ve hicular traffic in July. The procession passed thousands of kanwarias who at that time of the year mostly travel on foot, carrying Ganga water on their shoulders. The priests seated in the raths, offered food and blessings to devotees along the way, while bhajans and devotional songs were played through loudspeakers. The processes of ritualisation of the Ganga continued throughout the journey, blurring the boundaries between the few hundred sants and sadhus, mostly from Uttar Prades h, and thousands of pilgrims, allowing the yatra to broaden its canvas and strengthen its appeal. Thus the well-timed yatra on its chosen route produced a kind of holy Hindu body.
The yatra for the ‘holy Hindu Ganga’ has to embody information, beliefs and values that can influence events, not just environmentally, but locally and politically too. Thus, the ritualised Ganga and the question of constructing a dam over it, carry the political soul they inhabit as a result of this ritualisation. The yatra, the prayers, the meetings, the announcements moved in with the spiritual, the sacred and the pure, but often conveniently also inhabited the sphere of the material, the political a nd the national. For Ram Vilas Vedanti, a mahant from Ayodhya, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is Ram and the sants and sadhus Lakshman. At a meeting in Budhana on July 28, he said: “It was after Sri Ram’s victory over Sri Lanka and his coronation th at Lakshman came to worship his brother. The guard informed Ram, but Ram had forgotten who Lakshman was. After being reminded of his brother, he came down from his throne to receive him. Our Vajpayee will do the same thing with us sadhus.” The yatra occa sionally came down to specifics – a particular State, a territory and certain societies. At Roorkee, the VHP leader made a special announcement about the repeal of the Religious Bodies Act by the U.P. Chief Minister; how he came all the way to Hardwar to assure the sadhus; and how some people dared to doubt the integrity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and decided not to participate in the yatra.
Environmental myths were created, which were some (re)-presentations of the reality on the Ganga and the Tehri dam. They were carved to encompass the day-to-day experiences with the river and the likely impact of its taming. Simultaneously, these experie nces were anchored in a continuous medium of Hindu, giving an aggressive, nationalist meaning. The myth contained both facts and fantasies. Ashok Singhal, on the very first day of the yatra, said: “After the construction of the Tehri dam, the Ganga will become a rain-fed river. In pilgrim centres like Hardwar and Rishikesh, the rainwater will fill the course of the river and only 20 per cent of it will be the original Ganga water. The Ganga will not remain the same and her capacity for self-purification will be finished.” In the following days, through the public address system, several speakers expounded on the Ganga and how it could turn into a drain. The question is not only ‘is it true?’ but ‘whose truth is it?’
The myths were portrayed through specific texts of Sri Ram, which provide a rich ready-made source for the production of a particular national ethos and social metaphor. In the words of Swami Chinmayanand, a BJP member of Parliament, “In his journey thro ugh Ganga, Lord Sri Ram decided to bow down before Nishad. He could have constructed a bridge over it, as he did in the case of a sea.” He added conclusively, “only those who understand the issue of faith towards Ram can understand the faith towards the Ganga.”
For Jeeveshwar Mishra, convener of the yatra, the dam is being built over the place where Hanuman got the life-giving sanjivini herbs to save Lakshman. ‘Fear’ and ‘conspiracy’ are some of the strongest elements in the approach of the VHP-Bajrang D al towards the Tehri dam. The fear has many components. There is a fear of the wild effects on people and places exposed to the dam’s influence. “In the event of the Tehri dam being damaged, from Gangotri to Gangasagar, more than 1,000 cities, including Kolkata, Patna and Kanpur will be submerged in 700 feet of water,” said Vedanti at the meeting in Khatauli. The fear involves and reflects a concern for those maths and ashrams that are making large sums of money at various pilgrim centres. Swami Chinmay anand said: “The flow of the Ganga ensures enormous cash flow in our ashrams from Hardwar to Rishikesh. If something goes wrong to this flow here, the flow of money will dry up.”
The yatra focussed on the conspiracy idea through the use of the ‘other’ and oppositional archetypes. It was kept afresh by use and reuse. Listen to Ashok Singhal, Kalayanand Jee, Kaushal Kishore and almost all of them, and you will learn that the Tehri dam is a conspiracy of the West in general and communist Russia in particular, to destroy the great Hindu culture and the Hindu country. The logic is simple – first the dam will be built, then it will be destroyed either by an earthquake or by a bomb ins talled through an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent of Pakistan, and this will wipe out the religious places and people, and will lead to the death of a Hindu country. In order to stop this conspiracy, the construction of the Tehri dam must be stop ped. The way to go about it is to recall the heightened phase of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. “The way we decided to demolish the mosque and build a temple there, we have decided to stop the dam,” announced a VHP leader in Roorkee. Graffiti by Bajrang D al activist took care of the propaganda aspect of the new movement. In Roorkee, slogans such as Pukarti hai Maa, Pukarti hai Bharti, Khoon se Tilak Karo and Goliyon se Aarti! (Calls Mother, calls Bharat, Mark your forehead with blood and worship with bullets) were found on the walls. In Bahdarabad, a slogan went thus: Jis Desh mein Shastr aur Shaastr ki Puja Hoti Hai, Woh Kabhi Parajit Nahi Hota! (A country where arms and religious scriptures are worshipped, can never be defeated).
The yatras took the form of a distinct cultural politics as it tried to bind only certain religious and social groups. The yatra leaders were not even ambivalent; they were clearly one-sided. In response to a question on the presence of a sizable Muslim population along the route, and their likely response to a Hindutva campaign, Maha Mandaleshwar Swami Bhakt Hari, said, “Ganga is our mother. How can those who do not consider Ganga their mother accompany us? They are unworthy, bad sons. Even then, the G anga blesses them equally.” Thus, feelings for the Ganga crystallised around the form of an ethnically and culturally homogenous, naturally existing nation. Hindu national identity is the pre-eminent sense of belonging, and environmental politics is made synonymous with the protection of the elements of that identity.
At times the yatra sympathetically raised the name of Sunderlal Bahuguna. It did not appear to be a populist attempt to jump on to Bahuguna’s bandwagon, but rather an effort to make common cause with a particular form of environmentalism happening in Ind ia today. Thus, Ashok Singhal and others could make public statements that they had support on this issue. A constant reference to the purity and holiness of the river, belief among Hindus, cultural pollution, protection of the environment against develo pment and destruction, sound similar to the main arguments of the anti-dam activists. Thus, the VHP programme should not be measured at the level of direct political or electoral success but rather at the level of political-environmental discourse. Now i t has moved outside its familiar extremist milieu to make common cause with green issues.
After holy birthplaces, holy cities, holy temples, turning a river ‘holy’ in the vocabulary of political Hindu nationalism is what the Ganga Raksha Yatra aimed to do. The issue of the Tehri dam is a means to combine sacredness with impulse, the gravity of high politics with the solemnity of daily worship, nature with nationalism. Will this journey transform the river into a political, moral and emotional idea?
Mukul Sharma is currently engaged in research on Green & Saffron: Environment and Hindu Right in India.