In February 1948 – shortly after Gandhi was murdered – his adopted daughter Mira Behn (formerly Madeleine Slade) sent a note to other close disciples of the Mahatma, outlining her own personal plans to honour his memory. She had identified a large area of land in the Himalayan foothills, between Dehradun and Rishikesh, which she wanted the State to acquire and run, under her supervision and direction, to promote Gandhi’s economic ideas.

The tract had forests, grasslands, rivers, fields and hamlets, and Mira’s hope was that it would “be developed beautifully as a model of Bapu’s ideals through model villages, self-supporting agriculture, cottage industries, etc.” The project already had a name that Gandhi had approved of – Pashulok, the Abode of Animals. A prime focus would be on the animal most greatly beloved of master and disciple, the cow. Mira hoped that “within a few years Pashulok should become a land of beautiful and happy cattle”.

…Towards the end of 1948 Mira went to Delhi, where she stayed for ten days with Devadas Gandhi and his family. One section of the Mahatma’s followers, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, were running the Government; another section were active in constructive work. Mira naturally saw herself as part of the second group; but worried that that the activities of individual members were “becoming as unconnected as ourselves”. In the columns of the Mahatma’s own newspaper, Harijan, she issued this plaintive plea ‘for unity’:

“Bapu had been the central power round whose physical form we all foregathered in common devotion. Are we to lose that cohesion because the bodily presence has passed away? That would indeed be a tragedy of tragedies, for the first and the greatest memorial we can raise to Bapu is unity of purpose and action among ourselves.”

Mira was unhappy with the lack of cohesion of the Gandhian movement in civil society, and disenchanted with the priorities of the new Government itself. In January 1949, she wrote a short but pungent article with the telling title “Development or Destruction”. The article began: “Development schemes are going on apace in India today. But are they all wise and far-sighted? Are they all for the good of the people?”

Mira thought they were not, adducing, among other things, the ploughing up of grasslands when fodder was so scarce, the water-logging and salinity caused by “huge new irrigation schemes”, and the preference for chemical fertilisers over compost mature, which increased dependence on foreign exchange while depleting the soil. She urged that technical experts collaborate closely with farmers, to ensure “that development does not lead to destruction”.

Some months later, in a letter to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mira unburdened herself of her reservations with the direction India after Gandhi was taking. She said the system of rationing and controls introduced by the State had increased corruption, adding that the Government’s policies were “very dangerous for the permanent well-being of agriculture and animal husbandry”. Her letter continued:

“Now that I have opened my heart to you about the food crisis and controls, I had better say the rest. As I feel it, India is being taken down the common road along which all countries are running to perdition; big industries, huge armies, centralisation, mechanisation and the rest; and along with this the old Imperial Grandeur has never been thrown off. Every time I come to New Delhi it cuts me to the heart. What connection is there between New Delhi and the Mother – Rural India? None! We won our Freedom by means of Bapu’s weapons. Why then have we so completely cast away Bapu’s ideals in the consolidation of that Freedom? Perhaps the answer is that those who have capacity to rule have not that faith, and those who have that faith have not capacity to rule. What a strange thing it is! And for one like me, who came from the other end of the earth to serve Bapu’s cause, it is a heart-rending tragedy.”

“I have written all this,” said Mira in conclusion, “simply because I do not want to think these things, or say them to others, without saying them to you.”

Nehru took the criticisms of his fellow freedom fighter in good spirit. He replied that they were “making some progress on the food front”, though it was not as much as he would have liked. However, he thought controls were necessary, for otherwise opportunistic merchants would engineer artificial shortages and profit from them.

As for Mira’s broader disenchantment with the direction the nation was taking, the Prime Minister somewhat disarmingly remarked: “I can understand your distress at the way things are working out. To some extent, I share it myself.”

On 26th January 1950, India became a Republic, shedding all ties with the British Crown. Mira’s old friend and comrade, Rajendra Prasad, became the Republic’s first President. In March 1950 he came to visit her, spending the night at her ashram. For all the support she got from the formal Head of the Indian State, Mira found the politicians and administrators she had to deal with obstructive in the extreme. “I must confess,” she wrote in Harijan, “that I am worn out by my long struggles with the machinery of Government.”

Adding to Mira’s troubles with the bureaucrats of the UP Government was a return of the malaria that had previously plagued her. She lay in bed for weeks with the illness; after she had recovered, Mira decided to move out of Pashulok into the inner hills, where the air was more healthy. In the valley of the Bhilangna river, she found a plot to built a new ashram, with a magnificent view of the snows. In the middle of a pine forest she laid out a vegetable garden; which prospered, until it was discovered by porcupines.

A young Garhwali who joined Mira as her secretary has left a vivid portrait of her at work in her new “Gopal Ashram” in the Bhilangna valley. She lived in a small room, ten feet by twelve feet, with a string cot in the middle, where she slept during the night and on which she sometimes sat during the day. The room had “two or three wooden cupboards containing books and odds and ends, and a couple of bamboo mats spread on the floor for visitors”.

In the mornings, Mira dictated letters to her secretary, after which she went to attend to the animals. “First there were the cows – two or three of them. She spoke to each tenderly, stroked them, picked ticks off their backs and underbellies and let them out to graze. She then groomed the horse, petted the dogs and gave suitable instructions to the stable hands. The animals done with, she made for the compost pit. She spent quite a while mixing dung with other refuse to get the compost just right. Then it was time for the vegetable garden where she spent an hour and more, digging out stones, weeding, watering and caressing the plants.”

After lunch – which consisted of two chapattis, and some dal and vegetables – Mira would take a short rest. On getting up a short tour of the premises followed, whereupon she would dictate more letters before dinner. After the meal – as simple as the first – she would read aloud from some of her favourite books, which included (as per the secretary’s recollection) “The Little Flowers of St Francis, Nehru’s Discovery of India, William Vogt’s Road to Survival, Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and a variety of tracts on organic farming.”

… Ever since she moved up North, Mira had sent a steady stream of articles to The Hindustan Times, the newspaper edited by Devadas Gandhi. The articles often dealt with environmental themes. An essay of October 1949 deplored the devastation of zamindari forests by large landlords whose properties were being taken over by the State. “Lakhs upon lakhs of trees,” she wrote in anguish, “have fallen in this shameless scramble throughout India. Trees are the precious wealth of land, giving shelter, drawing rain, and protecting the soil. It takes no time to cut them down, but it takes years and years for trees to grow.”

Another essay, published a few months later, dealt with the degradation of the forests of the Himalaya. This was, as she pointed out, “not just a matter of deforestation as some people think, but largely a matter of change of species”. In the years that she had been living in the mountains, Mira had observed how, especially on the southern slopes, pine was replacing oak as the dominant species. Oak was immensely valuable to the rural economy – as a source of fuel and fodder – whereas pine was far more profitable for the Forest Department, since it yielded both timber and resin. So the Department was quite happy to encourage and promote this change of species, to augment the state’s revenue.

The promotion of pine over oak discriminated against the interests of the hill peasantry. It was socially unjust, but also, as Mira noted, environmentally disastrous. For oak forests had a dense undergrowth of bushes and creepers which effectively absorbed the monsoon rain, whereas the bare ground underneath pine trees led to rainwater crashing down the slopes, taking stones and mud with it, and leading to floods in the plains down below.

Mira urged that the Forest Department and the villagers co-operate to bring back oak at the expense of pine. For, as she remarked, “the Banj [oak] forests are the very centre of nature’s economic cycle on the southern slopes of the Himalaya. To destroy them is to cut out the heart and thus bring death to the whole structure.” Her article ended with this heartfelt plea: “The forests of the Himalaya are the Guardians of the Northern Plains, which, in their turn, are the Granary of India. Surely such guardians deserve the utmost care and attention that the Government can give them.”

Apart from articles in the press, Mira also wrote directly to the Prime Minister, urging him to take account of nature’s laws in his plans for economic development. These letters are not available; but we do have his replies. Thus we find Nehru responding defensively to Mira’s criticisms of artificial fertilisers, by saying: “Reliance on them alone is, I think, dangerous, but there is no harm in some fertiliser being used in addition to organic materials. There is no doubt that they have produced good results in various parts of the country. What the long term result is likely to be on the soil remains to be seen.” Another letter acknowledges the receipt of a book sent by Mira, Farming and Gardening by the great prophet of organic agriculture Sir Albert Howard, adding that while he was “terribly busy” he “shall certainly look through this book, more especially the pages you have suggested”.

…Mira had great personal affection for Nehru­ – which was reciprocated­ – while retaining grave doubts about some of the policies his Government was promoting. These reservations were shared by the economist JC Kumarappa, who had likewise been part of Gandhi’s inner circle in the 1930s and 1940s. Kumarappa believed that what he termed an “economy of permanence” had to be based on local use of local resources. As he once put it: “If we produce everything we want from within a limited area, we are in a position to supervise the methods of production; while if we draw our requirements from the ends of the earth it becomes impossible for us to guarantee the conditions of production in such places.”

A theme that runs through much of Kumarappa’s work is the careful husbanding of natural resources in the agrarian economy. Thus he stressed the need to use night soil as manure, asking for subsidies to be given to individuals, as a means of overcoming caste prohibitions, for converting human excreta and village waste into organic fertiliser. Kumarappa also dwelled on the importance of maintaining soil quality by checking erosion and water logging.

Mira and Kumarappa had known each other well from their days together in Sevagram and Wardha. Their views on rural development were entirely congruent, and, crucially, opposed to Nehru’s. There were other followers of Gandhi who thought likewise. In the winter of 1950-1, Mira wrote to Kumarappa that these Gandhians should adopt villages in a contiguous area, and here promote the best practices of rural renewal.

“If only we could produce something approaching a Model State,” wrote Mira to Kumarappa, “it would be a tangible thing for people to catch hold of, and it would be [a] glorious service to Bapu. But unless we are sufficient in number, and sufficiently experienced, we shall only make a mess of it, and that would be worse than anything for Bapu’s cause, which is already suffering badly.”

Mira suggested that this microcosm of a Gandhian utopia could be nurtured in the area where she was then residing, Tehri Garhwal. After discussing her proposal with colleagues, Kumarappa reported back that one colleague thought that the Government might not agree as such a scheme would violate the Constitution, a second worried that funds might not be forthcoming, a third said that “the present situation makes this region [Tehri] almost a frontier [with China] and with the conditions prevailing in the world today, it may even become a strategic frontier and therefore, he has his doubts about the feasibility of the scheme at the present time”.

Mira, in reply, suggested that they shift the scheme away from the Himalayan borderland to a tribal district in central India. The “scheme does not depend on Tehri Garhwal,” she wrote to Kumarappa: “It is the independent area amongst simple and responsive people that we require, and it may be from all points of view better that we seek out an area in a climate in which we can all thrive…This would mean, let us say, the Santhal country or somewhere in the Bhil region or if there is any better area which your people can think of. The Aborigines would probably be even better than the Himalayan population, and to create a Gandhian Ram Raj in their midst would perhaps appeal to everybody more.”

Mira sent Kumarappa a sketch map of an area in central India that might be suitable for their Gandhian experiment. “As you will see it is about as big as Ceylon,” she wrote, “and the beauty of it is that it has only one branch Railway entering it upto the depth of about 50 miles, and motor roads are very few…At the same time this area must be full of Aborigines. Don’t you think it looks rather tempting.”

In pursuit of this scheme, Mira went to the Chotanagpur plateau in March 1952, to study the situation there at first-hand. She was deeply distressed by what she saw, by the poverty and ill-health of the tribal communities in the Ranchi region. “The whole thing makes one feel very ashamed,” she wrote to Kumarappa: “Do you not think we should make a thoroughgoing survey of their economic conditions and the root causes thereof? Do we not owe it to Bapu to try and get to the bottom of these poor innocent and dumb peoples’ suffering? A really strong statement backed by an economic report after direct investigations would be bound to have some effect on the Government…”

While the conditions of tribals in Chotanagpur depressed her, by now Mira had reluctantly come round to the conclusion that, at her age and prone as she was to malaria, she could not really do intensive work anywhere in central India. “My health became so bad in the Ranchi area,” she wrote to Kumarappa, “that I had to come back here quickly and even so, I had a high temperature all the way in the plains”. Now back in the mountains, she told her old Gandhian comrade that “they alone will give me a resting place!”

Rebels against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom

Excerpted with permission from Rebels against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, Ramachandra Guha, Allen Lane.