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How Raini’s women stood up against company men to save forests

ByJayashree Nandi
Mar 25, 2024 02:09 PM IST

This is the 51st anniversary of the Chipko movement that happened at Mandal but the 50th anniversary of the Raini movement

You cannot overlook the relationship of people with forests and the stance the women in Raini village in Uttarakhand took on March 26, 1974, was a representation of that intimate relationship they shared, said Chandi Prasad Bhatt (90), who led the Chipko movement and gave birth to its parent organisation, Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS) in 1964.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt. (HT Photo)
Chandi Prasad Bhatt. (HT Photo)

This is the 51st anniversary of the Chipko movement that happened at Mandal but the 50th anniversary of the Raini movement, Bhatt said. The victory for Raini’s forests did not come easy. The movement had already started gaining ground in Gopeshwar, Mandal, Phata-Rampur (all around Chamoli) before it reached Raini.

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In December 1973, there was a resistance movement among locals in Phata- Rampur after the forest department tried to divert forests in May-June 1973.

“There was a man called Hayat Singh Rawat, whose in-laws lived in Raini village. He used to visit us often. He informed us that the entire forest in Raini has been also marked by the forest department for felling. We decided to visit the place and understand the concerns of the area north of Joshimath. This was a very sensitive area, also because it is our international border,” recollected Bhatt when he met this reporter at his house in Gopeshwar.

“In those days there were several comrades who were also block heads and we were members of Sarvodaya. As you understand Sarvodaya members did not have a very good relationship with comrades, but we had to work together to save our forests. In November 1973, we took out a huge yatra which included participation from some of these comrades. For two days we only appreciated the block pramukhs so that they participate and help us in saving our forests but on the third day we went to a village which had suffered a landslide. I asked why did this landslide happen? Someone said trees had been cut here in 1970 and that is why. So, people were gradually seeing the relationship between disasters and forests,” said Bhatt.

Bhatt and other Gandhian Sarvodaya activists also held a meeting in Raini. No women participated. “We asked the men what should be done about felling of forests? The men said forests have to be saved. So, we made watchdog committees of men from Tapoban, Lata, Regri, Raini etc. In 1968 there was a huge landslide in Raini so people understood the connection very easily,” he added.

In early 1974, Bhatt was informed that Raini’s forests were being auctioned by the forest department. “I immediately left for the auction which was to be held at the townhall in Dehradun. I stopped at a friend’s place. Someone said let college boys protest and stop the auction of Raini’s forests. But I said no. Because we are from Sarvodaya movement and that would create violence. So, I said let’s warn authorities by sticking posters around the townhall,” remembered Bhatt.

Also Read | Unsung heroes of Chipko movement, women look to gain rightful place

The conservator of forests hit the auction table at 4.75 lakh—the price for nearly 2,500 trees in Raini. “By then I had already written to chief minister HN Bahuguna that felling these trees in Raini would be calling for a disaster. Raini was an extremely border sensitive area. After the auction, the DFO (divisional forest officer) told me that as per the working plan, which is like the holy scripture for the forest department, these trees will have to be cut,” said Bhatt.

The Sarvodaya activists organised a big protest meeting in Joshimath on March 15, 1974 with members of all political parties including Jan Sangh, Congress, CPI and Sarvodaya members in attendance. “Members of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), IB (Intelligence Bureau), local journalists etc had also joined the meeting. But I could see pressure was building up on activists and comrades to allow felling of Raini’s forests. After 2 days, a lot of labourers reached Raini with their lumberjacks to cut trees. I, however, had full confidence in the watchdog committees,” said Bhatt.

All of a sudden, Bhatt was informed by the Conservator of Forests that he would meet Bhatt on March 26 in Gopeshwar. “Incidentally, they also called all the men from most border villages to Chamoli for compensation for border roads that cut through their villages and at the same time they called me for a meeting in Gopeshwar. Other men in Sarvodaya needed permits to enter Raini area. So there was nobody to oversee Raini’s forests except the women,” he said.

On the evening of March 26, the conservator, ranger, DFO etc came to Gopeshwar to meet Bhatt.

“The conservator kept praising me, got 3-4 rounds of tea, different kinds of sweets etc and got me very busy with unnecessary banter. Hayat Singh, in the meanwhile, also reached Gopeshwar from Raini. He looked at me but did not speak. After the conservators left, he told me what had happened in Raini that afternoon,” recalled Bhatt.

When forest officials and labourers reached Raini’s forests that morning, some girls had spotted them going to the forest. All the women decided to gather together. Gaura Devi and 27 other women ang girls headed to stop the men. “They had to struggle a lot, I was told. But women did not budge. Some women also broke the small road connecting to the forest so that the men don’t go to the forest at night. Next morning I was impatient to reach Raini,” said Bhatt.

Bhatt recalled that Gaura Devi informed him not only about the struggle they had with the agents and labourers but also how the men had insulted Raini’s women.

“She asked me not to inform anyone about this because these officials would lose their jobs. Raini women were also scared if they would be arrested for going against the law. I said there should be no violence in this because we are Sarvodaya members and that is very important. We decided that we will do a rally to recognise the women’s struggle on March 30. I stayed on in Raini for those days. I wanted to ensure nobody insults the women of Riani,” he said.

On March 30, Bhatt recalls seeing something which appeared surreal- all these women from Lata, Raini and other border villages wearing their traditional Bhotia attire and carrying drums etc from Mahila mandals.

“The rally started from Rishi Ganga. I used to have a protest song which they also sang. They were carrying Chipko banners. Ber Bhao todne dil ko dil se jodne, rok ne tabahi chale shanti ke sipahi (To end discrimination, to bring hearts together...there go soldiers of peace...). I believe people and forest have a relationship and you cannot oversee it. In Raini you could see that if forests are cut there will be landslide,” said Bhatt.

During the 1970 flood in Uttarakhand, Bhatt noticed that wherever there was a loss of trees there were landslides. “I gave this note to all senior officials involved. I also gave it to Jayprakash Narayan in Delhi, we were very influenced by his philosophy. Forests is a matter of subsistence and if that relationship is destroyed, communities will face disaster,” Bhatt said.

“There have been several active phases of this movement. In 1980, women in Dungi Pantoli protested their men for handing over their common forests to the forest department. Delhi University professor, Gopa Joshi and I were gheraoed by men during that andolan. So, every andolan will have a different anniversary date,” said Bhatt.

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