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Posted at: Aug 24, 2015, 12:09 AM; last updated: Aug 23, 2015, 11:22 PM (IST)

Delicate hand at cradle, firm in struggle

Neena Sharma

Tribune News Service

Dehradun, August 23

The picture perfect smiling visage of an Uttarakhand woman hides many a tale of triumph and sorrow. A tale of steady resolve to keep her forests safe, of shedding a silent tear in the memory of her young son sacrificed while defending the country and equally displaying a deep sense of stoicism in the face of frequent natural calamities. To that end, these discerning qualities of resilience and heightened  awareness about her surroundings have pitchforked  the  women of Uttarakhand  to the centre of  several social and ecological movements.

Despite lack of proper education, several women in Garhwal and Kumaon spearheaded movements and actively participated in them. Women here have a special connection to the environment through their daily interactions with it.

Historians attribute the first sprouting of dissent or the culture of protest to the freedom struggle that saw active participation by women, first in Kumaon and later in Garhwal. “You see, we have very few written documents that shed light on the women’s participation in mass movements before Independence. Women were not literate and played second fiddle to men.  However, in our folklore there are several songs dedicated to extraordinary women who defied prevailing norms. Their acts of heroism could rival with those of men and I feel they must have inspired our women who started mass movements in the 70s,” said Dr Yogambar Singh Bartwal, a local historian and author of several books, including  “Chander Kunwar Barthwal Ka Jeevan Darshan”.

Bironkhal woman who took on Katyuri rulers         

Tilu Rauteli, who was called Rani Jhansi of Uttarakhand, hailed from Bironkhal in Pauri Garhwal. She became a martyr fighting the Katyuri rulers, who were known for their plundering and looting. She donned  the battle gear at the age of 16 and died at the age of  27. “Rani Guleri  of Tehri Garhwal in 1896  imposed a ban on the sati practice and encouraged women to take up education. She favoured education for both men and women. In fact, she was also the first woman to encourage a communion kind of arrangement for widows at the time when remarriage was a taboo,” said Bartwal. Rani Karnavati, wife or Raja Mahipat Shah of Tehri Garhwal, in the 16 century had trained a team of men in warfare so that they could defeat Aurangzeb’s forces.

Demi Devi used Kandali to drive away British officers

Shyama Devi hailing from Pokhari Banthal village in Chamoli district was sent to jail for taking part in the Quit India Movement in 1942. She was given a warm send off, complete with beating of drums and singing of  songs as she made her way to the jail in Pauri, where she remained for six months.

“Locals in Pauri recount the story of Demi Devi, who used locally growing Kandali (bichoo ghaas) to drive away British forest officers. These  women with Kandali proved quite ticklish for forest officers,” said Bartwal. Taking inspiration from her, Mangal Dals headed by women in Chamoli used Kandali in anti-liquor protests in Chamoli from 1999 to 2000.

In the jungles of Adwani, Bachani Devi rebelled against her contractor husband who was given a contract to fell trees in the 80s.

Anti-liquor movement

In early seventies and during the heydays of the Chipko movement, an anti-liquor movement was also launched. Later during the Janata Party rule, a ban was imposed on liquor in the state only to be revoked. However, liquor sales continued to soar. “Ayurvedic concoctions were introduced to the hill folk that contained 80 per cent liquor. They were manufactured in distant cities but sold in remote villages. Anti-liquor stirs were launched from time to time but the root cause of the problem remained unidentified. As women were the worst sufferers, they  actively participated in these movements,” said Shamsher Singh Bisht of the Lok Sangharsh Vahini that spearheaded the anti-liquor movement and gave the slogan, “Sharab nahin, rozgaar chahiye”.

In the 80s and 90s more women started organising anti-liquor rallies. “They could no longer endure physical abuse by their husbands and started speaking openly against it. Women are now standing up against domestic abuse, and also organising daring raids on liquor vends, often smashing bottles,” said Geeta Gairola, project director, Mahila Samakha.

Chamoli women took it upon themselves to save sacred trees

Even as the world was waking up to the hazards of water and air pollution in the 70s, the Chipko movement had already gained traction in the country and abroad. Here was this band of women from remote Reni village in Chamoli who had made it their mission not to let anyone destroy trees so that the next generation could enjoy their fruits. “We understood what it meant to keep our forests intact, long before the world took notice. Our songs are rich in their tribute to the wild and how could we not be moved by them,” said Vimla Bahuguna, wife of Sunderlal Bahuguna.

The Chipko movement was spearheaded by Gaura Devi, a resident of Lata village in Chamoli district, and her friend Baali Devi, who clung to trees preventing contractors from felling them which they said were like Gods to them. In March, 1974, a group of forest officials along with some labourers started moving towards forests. A young girl saw them and she went running back to report the matter to Gaura Devi. “That day there were no men in the village. All of them had gone to Chamoli. Undaunted, Gaura Devi along with 27 other women from Reni village marched to forests and ensured that the contractors left our trees untouched,” said Baali Devi. As the movement was mostly led by illiterate women, soon Gaura Devi was pushed to the background and she died a lonely death at her Reni village in 1991.

There has been ancient culture in India to look upon forests as a life-enhancing force. This was displayed in all its diversity in contemporary times by women led by Gaura Devi in the Chipko movement. In the ancient culture, people worshipped tree gods and goddesses, sacred trees as images of the cosmos and sacred forests and groves. This also reflected eco-consciousness among Garhwal villagers since ancient times. In the 19th century, British colonialism in combination of the 20th century development programmes created environment problems that affected women’s subsistence, especially in forested areas.     

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