Two recent events have helped focus on what progressive environmentalists in this country may well sense, deep down in their hearts, but have no way of proving. It often involves, on the opposing side, a green activist’s inchoate thoughts and feelings and may not always be made explicit. This is the sometimes nebulous connection between green and saffron, or Hindu chauvinism.

The first and ongoing event is obviously the campaign against corruption by Annasaheb Hazare. One may hazard a guess that a very high proportion of his followers are not even aware of his green credentials, and his pioneering work in his village Ralegan Siddhi in the drought-prone Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. After many fits and starts, Anna pointedly has chosen to ally with Baba Ramdev – who, on the other hand, has never been known to be concerned about the preservation of the environment. (Surprisingly for a man who has amassed a Rs 1,100 crore empire as a TV yoga guru and received large tracts of land for his work from BJP-led states, his own probity is in question and hardly equips him to fight against black money.)

On the contrary, media reports make it clear that Baba Ramdev has administered the flailing Anna campaign a huge dose of oxygen; it was otherwise now not attracting the numbers it was used to. Last year, at Jantar Mantar, the novelty and sheer fever-high pitch of Anna’s campaign did not depend on Baba Ramdev to bring his cohorts.

Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics (Permanent Black). Author: Mukul Sharma.

The other event is the number of deaths – around 100 – on the Amarnath yatras. A TV talk show made it clear, and Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science & Environment in Delhi, who is on the government committee to advise on the yatra made it doubly evident, that Hindu religious groups were pressurizing the J&K government to start the yatra before the administration was prepared. As Narain observed, half the deaths took place in the first ten days, when the snow had not been fully cleared. The Hindu groups were also egging on the faithful, mindful no doubt that their “constituency” would grow.

The Himalaya are a geologically relatively young but unpredictable mountain chain, and the yatra should have the carrying capacity of the terrain in mind. The crowning point of the talk fest was a devotee’s observation that Narain, like other secular interlocutors, should have the faith to believe in the protection that the Himalayan deities afford ordinary mortals. That people (read Hindus) should assume that pilgrimages are governed by the celestial deities who inhabit the Himalaya rather than the pragmatic views of environmentalists who realise that you cannot push nature to the brink by overcrowding a narrow, treacherous path to the holy Shivlingam, is the suspension of belief even by those “saffronites” who revere the Himalaya for its pristine beauty and want to preserve this sacred environment.

As it happens, a new book by former environmental journalist Mukul Sharma titled Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics (Permanent Black) has explored this rich vein of precept and practice. Coincidentally, of the three case studies in the book, the pride of place is given to Anna’s movement in Ralegan Siddhi. Even the cover has a blurb to this effect (with an eye on sales, no doubt!). Sharma, who is now an independent scholar in Delhi, has previously authored – among 16 books and booklets in Hindi and English – Human Rights in a Globalised World: An Indian Diary (2010), Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (co-authored, 2008).

His elaborately drawn-out thesis is that the saffronites among environmentalists have harked back to a non-existent Golden Vedic Age where – among other attributes – the slaughter of cows was prohibited. Notions such as “purity versus pollution” and the worship of rivers have gone hand in hand with the project of idealized self-contained communities. Such votaries think along three strands: eco-nationalism, primitivism and eco-naturalism.

Many well-meaning environmentalists have made common cause with saffron parties, even to the extent of sharing a platform with them as in the Enron struggle. While there are alliances of a strategic nature in any battle, the danger is that the saffron ideology, which brooks no opposition, can swamp the movement.

 •  Patriot, not chauvinist

The Akhil Bharatiya Grahak Panchayat, an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has named the US as the main enemy of the environment due to its “consumerism”. One has only to recall, which Sharma omits, the spirited campaign by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, another RSS outfit, against the Enron power station in the Konkan, where it joined hands with the “genuine” greens and locals who were opposed to the coastal project in Dabhol in the 1990s. For that matter, Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief, vowed that if his party came into power in Maharashtra with the BJP as an ally, he would “throw Enron into the sea”. As things turned out, when the saffron alliance came to power in 1995, the then glamorous chief of Enron International, Rebecca Mark, visited the Tiger in his den, and the matter was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both, with Enron being given the green signal.

The blind condemnation of the US, incidentally, is by no means confined to the Hindu right. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would see “the foreign hand” of the CIA in every nook and corner. During the campaign against the Silent Valley hydel project in Kerala in the late 1970s, CPM cadres regularly accused those opposing the dam of being lackeys of US imperialism who wanted to stop Kerala from being in the vanguard of the Revolution!

Sharma is no armchair academic, but has based his case studies on visits to all three sites. The other two are the movement by so-called Chipko leader Sunderlal Bahuguna against the Tehri dam in Garhwal and the WWF-India project to preserve the mythological centre of Vrindavan in UP. His reporter’s penchant for telling the truth and being fair to both sides considerably heightens the impact of this book, which does not lead – as many environmentalists tend to – to a diatribe against inimical forces.

Thus, the crippling drought in Maharashtra of the early 1970s prompted Anna, a former military jeep driver who narrowly escaped being bombed during a war while all his fellow passengers were killed, to investigate how to augment the village’s water supply without being dependent on the “tanker culture”, with all its in-built corruption and inefficiency. He initiated a series of check dams and other rudimentary water-harvesting structures, a somewhat novel community-led movement at that time. The results were incredible: the ground water table rose from 100 feet to 50 feet. The villagers installed drip irrigation, saving every drop per crop. Importantly, landless families, who could not take advantage of this bounty of nature, were compensated in cash and kind. Per capita monthly incomes have risen from Rs 252 in 1976 to Rs 2000 at the time Sharma was writing the book.

While no one could possibly deny that Anna has made an enormous difference to the ecology and economy of his village, the observant cannot fail to discern certain authoritarian trends. Anna brooks no opposition or dialogue. His word is law, as it has been in the campaign for the Lok Pal bill. As Sharma writes: “He holds absolute power and his wish is the village’s command. His power seems all-encompassing and has emerged from a long and dynamic process of interaction with his village, activists, bureaucracy and the government.”

Alcoholism is indeed the bane of the poor, whether in rural or urban areas. Under Anna’s dispensation, anyone caught imbibing alcohol is flogged. A villager tells the author: “This village works like an army. As a commandant, Anna orders and we all follow him.” Another variant of panchsheel or five principles have evolved over time: nasbandi or restriction of family size; nashabandi or prohibition of alcohol; charaibandi or ban on free grazing (to preserve the green commons); kurhbandi or ban on felling trees and shramdan or voluntary labour for the good of the village.

Readers will be surprised to learn that no shop can sell bidis or cigarettes. Movies and film songs are also on the banned list (reminiscent of the Pope’s ban on certain books over the centuries); only religious films, like the classic Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar can be screened. At marriages, once again, loudspeakers can only blare religious songs. When a villager who is a low-caste Mahar and a driver by profession had a dish antenna installed in his house and offered connections to his neighbours, Anna chastised him and forced him to apologise. These curbs on personal freedom do not square with any notion of democratic and personal freedoms – again, the same authoritarianism is evident in the uncompromising current stand against the government. There have been no gram panchayat or cooperative organisations’ elections.

Sharma draws our attention to four dominant factors in Maharashtra’s politics: “(1) nativism and regionalism in Maharashtrian culture and politics; (ii) the structure and nature of caste and class; (iii) the agrarian environment and the rural economy; and (iv) local environmentalism.” The Marathas dominate the landscape, controlling the economy and culture. The state, like many others, demonstrates the classic features of uneven development, with the sugar lobby, of whom Sharad Pawar is the undisputed leader, calling the shots. To replicate the success of Ralegan Siddhi, the state government launched an Adarsh Gaon Yojana in 1992, led by Anna, in 300 villages, with a Rs 50 lakh budget each. But these did not touch the social stratification. In Ralegan Siddhi, a landless Chamar (low-caste leather worker) told the author: “Here Hindus mean Marathas only. We Chamars and Mahars are never called Hindus. How can we claim that everyone is equal here? People who have land or jobs in the military have a different level of development. There is a lot of difference between others and me.”

* * *

In 1984, I accompanied the late social activist Baba Amte to the deepest interiors of eastern Maharashtra (now Naxal badlands) in his march against two dams, Bhopalpatnam and Inchampalli which, if built, would have swamped valuable teak (sagwan) and sal forests in this remote region. The fact that Baba’s son, Dr Prakash Amte and his family worked selflessly in the area from a village called Hemalkasa, obviously had a lot to do with the first green campaign by a man who had devoted his entire life to the humane treatment of people suffering from leprosy. On the eve of the march, Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had carved a name for himself ostensibly as a Chipko leader from Garhwal, suddenly made an appearance, with his telltale bandana and straggly beard.

Deferential to the core, he reached to touch Amte’s feet, till the leader asked him to desist. He presented Amte with a bottle of ganga jal which, he proudly said, he had carried all the way from the Himalaya to bless Amte’s movement. No sooner had Bahuguna left, Amte asked me to pour the water down the drain, since he knew it was highly polluted!

This is not the occasion to question how Bahuguna made a name for himself as a Chipko leader, drawing on his charisma and grasp of English. This allowed him to communicate with upper classes and foreigners, something that the genuine Chipko leader, Chandi Prasad Bhat, whom Sharma also dedicates his book to, was not able to achieve. The greater concern here is the generation of mythical beliefs about the Himalaya and “simplified dichotomies”.

People believe that Garhwal is the seat of the Holy Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Pilgrimages are par for the course here, but Sharma notes: “the pervasiveness of religion has also had several negative consequences: the accumulation of wealth and massive land-grabbing by high priests and caste Brahmins; the relegation of lower castes to supporting activities like cooking; landlessness among artisans and peasants…Thus religion is also held responsible for leading to an inegalitarian economic order.”

All this may be dismissed as symptomatic of the larger malaise in the country as a whole and not ascribed primarily to Hindutva forces. But the politics of exclusion and hate, which sullies green and turns it into saffron, is all too evident in the treatment of Muslims and Dalits. As Sharma clearly sees, “Here the environmentalists transform a diversity of understandings, myths, epics and religious histories into a fixed and singular story that promotes a homogeneous and exclusive Hindu community”. Hindu culture is made synonymous with Indian culture.

This tendency becomes crystal-clear when Sharma writes how Bahuguna narrated, in one of his evening sermons, how the Muslim emperor Aurangzeb refused water to this dying father, but “we Hindus” even offered water to the dead, which prompted two local Muslim women to walk out of the meeting, to the prolonged applause of some VHP activists. The RSS and VHP are the backbone in the movement against the high Himalaya rock-filled Tehri dam. Indeed, when I visited the site in 1981 and stayed at the house (now under water in old Tehri town) of the prominent opponent, advocate V D Saklani, he had not the foggiest idea that his host was a RSS stalwart.

There are many references to militant Hinduism waging war against Muslim Pakistan over the snowy borders. VHP leader Ashok Singhal and others of his ilk have often cited how, once the dam was built, it would be destroyed by a bomb planted by an ISI agent, drowning Hindu religious places and people in its wake. The espousal of a “green” cause – the preservation of the mountains – has melded into blind obscurantism and hatred against Muslims, with consequences that are too obvious to bear repetition.

Space does not permit any amplification of the third case study, the movement to plant trees along the 11-km-long parikrama around Vrindavan, the mythological birthplace of Krishna. For a secular organisation like WWF-India to fund such an openly religious site was plainly a grave error of judgement. A WWF-India official tells the author: “When we tried to integrate religion and environment in Vrindavan, we found that Hindus had a big heart. They were willing to accommodate any and everything, whereas this was not observed in the other community [emphases added]. A Muslim in Vrindavan will never go to the Banke Bihari Mandir, but a Hindu will go to a mosque.” Here too, the green is swamped by saffron; Sharma interviews resident Jagdish Sharma who refers to Muslims also being one of the main sources of pollution and environmental degradation of Vrindavan. They are alleged to kill cows, produce so much waste in their living and “cross their boundaries”.

Many well-meaning environmentalists have made common cause with saffron parties, even to the extent of sharing a platform with them as in the Enron struggle. While there are alliances of a strategic nature in any battle, the danger is that the saffron ideology, which brooks no opposition, can swamp the movement and eventually lead to paths of prejudice, hatred and destruction. During the emergency of 1975-77, socialists were bedfellows of Hindutva forces and the successful Janata Party joint campaign against Mrs Gandhi’s authoritarianism eventually ended with the BJP splitting and, in time, ruling this country.

Idealising nature in its pristine past may appear a harmless preoccupation of fundamentalist forces. These include the “lost” Saraswati river in the Great Rann of Kutch (though this may conceivably be one case that is based on geological fact, while not proven as yet) and the campaign to preserve the Sethusamudram as the “bridge” that Ram crossed on his way to Sri Lanka, rather than a contemporary shipping channel in shallow waters between the two countries. All are examples of such fuzzy thinking. The trajectory from romanticizing nature and an idealized past is fraught with danger: after all, the idealization of Ayodhya as the birthplace of Ram led to consequences which have caused a tectonic shift in the bedrock of Indian society.

Sharma masterfully weaves these disparate threads into a persuasive tapestry. He examines conservative environmentalism in Europe and need go no further than Hitler who also idealized the past, writing in Mein Kampf: “Man must also submit to the eternal principles of this supreme wisdom [the primacy of nature].” And elsewhere: “As in everything, nature is the best instructor”. The author concludes by observing how in this country, Anna has set the tone for conservative environmentalism: “The idea of nation or national interest provides him a readymade traditional point of reference for his environmental activities, even as on a political plank it leads him to attack China and Pakistan, criticise migrants in Mumbai, and endorse the political claims of Hindu nationalists in Maharashtra.”