The Chipko Movement: A People’s History by Shekhar Pathak, translated from the Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, is the winner of the 2022 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize. The Chipko Movement was jointly published by Permanent Black and Ashoka University.

The winner was picked from a shortlist of five, which also included Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility Among India’s Professional Elite by Swethaa S Ballakrishnen, Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, by Rukmini S, Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, by Suchitra Vijayan, and Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India, by Ghazala Wahab.

This is the first time since the inception of the prize in 2018 that a book in translation has won the prize. The award includes a cash prize of Rs 15 lakh.

The winner was selected by a six-member jury panel including political scientist and author Niraja Gopal Jayal (Chair), entrepreneur Manish Sabharwal, historian and author Srinath Raghavan, historian and author Nayanjot Lahiri, former diplomat and author Navtej Sarna, and attorney and author Rahul Matthan.

In The Chipko Movement, Shekhar Pathak uses newspapers, books, articles, and interviews with rural activists who were at the forefront of the movement to construct a ground-up narrative of the movement. Using multimedia material and his own experiences of interactive exchanges with the activists, Pathak shows that in leadership and ideology Chipko was diverse and never a singular Gandhian movement.

The Jury citation reads: “This is the definitive history of the Chipko movement by a scholar who has practically lived it. It is fitting that a book that tells the story of a movement through the eyes of the local communities, especially women, should be as readable as this one is. Translated from the Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, Shekhar Pathak’s book is a salutary reminder of the transformative power of collective action, and not just an important work of history but one that speaks to the contemporary moment and its twin crises of ecology and democracy.”

Read Ramachandra Guha’s article on the book here.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“I am collecting material on Chipko from newspapers, books, articles, interviews from the real rural activists . . . there is a dominating lie in all the publications. You cannot find the real Chipko anywhere. One can feel that Chipko is a movement made by the media. I am doing my best to present the actual Chipko in its total historical perspective.”

— Shekhar Pathak, reporting to his publisher in August 1988 on progress with The Chipko Movement: A People’s History

In March 1965 a cross-party meeting of Uttarakhand legislators took place in the state capital, Lucknow. It was chaired by a respected medical doctor and freedom fighter, Kushalanand Gairola. Later, its members met the chief minister and demanded a moratorium on wood being exported from the mountains to feed paper industries in the plains. They urged that the natural wealth of the mountains be used to establish industries that benefited locals.

Later in 1965 there was a conference of the forest ministers of all states in Ranchi (Bihar). A proposal that co-operative committees be made operational in forest areas was tabled. In June 1966 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reached Ranikhet with Chief Minister Sucheta Kriplani. At a public meeting Mrs Gandhi spoke of the backwardness of Garhwal and Kumaon and promised efforts to ensure real development. She was urged by several who met her to stop the loot and plunder of wood and resin.

The state forest management’s bias against local interests was a recurrent theme in the debates of the time. In May 1967 the legislator from Uttarkashi, Krishna Singh, said in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha that the boundaries of reserved forests remained much too close to villages; it was becoming very difficult to find construction wood at concessional rates; people were forced into cutting trees and then having to pay fines; fruit trees planted by villagers at numerous places in the jungle were being eyed by the Forest Department. In his speech Krishna Singh highlighted the pitiable state of the pastoral Jad community. They had already suffered by closure of the Indo-Tibetan trade. Now they were not allowed to take their sheep into the jungles of lower Garhwal. The legislator also spoke of the over-exploitative extraction of medicinal herbs by contractors.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was perhaps the first political organisation to raise the forest question with the required seriousness. A meeting of communist activists held in Uttarkashi in the last week of May 1967 demanded that vacant land within forests be leased to peasants for horticulture, and that farmers be given construction wood at concessional rates. They urged that the existing system of auctioning forest lots to contractors from outside the region be replaced by community management. The real wealth of Uttarakhand, its forests, were being plundered by the rich and the state; they should instead be given over to villagers to manage.

The CPI had for several years been commemorating 30 May, the day of the Rawain killings in 1930, as Martyrs’ Day. In 1968 Sarvodaya and Congress workers joined their commemoration. Thousands of people assembled and paid a silent tribute to those shot in cold blood thirty-eight years earlier. A threnody was played by musicians and it was resolved that the day would henceforth be called Van Diwas (Day of the Forests) . . .

On the same day, 30 May 1968, a seminar was held in Badkot in which Sarvodaya workers and officials of the Forest Department and civil administration were participants. Sunderlal Bahuguna, among others, emphasised the need to establish forest labour co-operatives and wood-based industries in Uttarakhand. Other proposals included an expansion of the road network, the development of horticulture, the afforestation of barren hillsides with the co-operation of panchayats, and an end to the harassment of villagers by forest officials.

Through the 1960s these forest issues became central in hill society and politics. Activists of political parties became more aware than ever before of their urgency, while Sarvodaya activists integrated them within their concept of village renewal. The manifesto presented on Van Diwas shows a congruence in the thinking of Gandhians, the CPI, and the Congress, though they never succeeded in running a joint programme or movement.

In the last week of October 1968 Jayaprakash Narayan came to address a Sarvodaya camp in Gopeshwar. About 200 workers were present as he outlined with clarity his views on the issues facing Uttarakhand. He said he was opposed to large states and argued the need for an autonomous Uttarakhand. He praised the work of the hill Gandhians, singling out Vimala Behn and Chandi Prasad Bhatt. Through his speech and conduct he made a deep impression on those present at Gopeshwar.

In December the same year Sunderlal Bahuguna wrote an essay on Uttarakhand’s economic deprivation. He noted that the price of electricity in the hills was 50 per cent higher than in the plains. In the districts of Uttarkashi and Tehri (where Bahuguna worked) the forest cover was, respectively, 84 per cent and 68 per cent of the land area. He stressed the importance of forest management with a special focus on community needs. These themes recur in a speech Bahuguna made in January 1969 at a Sarvodaya meeting in Sevagram. Here again he spoke of the replacement of oak forests with monocultural coniferous stands and the consequent negative impact on hydrology.

In the winter of 1968-69, as mid-term elections to the state assembly approached, politicians from the region began to raise issues such as the establishment of a Kumaon University in Nainital, the need to give land to Dalits, the extension of horticulture, better roads and schools, and so on. The Garhwal leader Shivanand Nautiyal, in a letter to the chief minister, noted other issues as well: that intensive farming in the mountains went against the grain because mountains were the natural region of forests. He enumerated the cottage industries that could be started using forest produce: resin, catechu, medicines, paper, dyes, hardboard, pencils, toys, packing cases, walking sticks, matches, sports goods, baskets.

On 15 December 1972 an impressive demonstration was indeed held in Gopeshwar. It began and ended with Ghanshyam Sailani’s poem. The district headquarters there resounded to the beat of drums and the ring of slogans:

Van sampada par pehla haq vanvasiyon ka, gramvasiyon ka (Forest dwellers and villagers have first right over forest wealth)

Gaon gaon ki ek pukaar, panchayat ko van adhikaar (The call of every village – forest rights for the panchayat)

Vanon ki raksha desh ki suraksha (Protecting the forest is protecting the country)

Uttarakhand ki ek Lalkaar, panchayat ko van adhikaar (The war-cry of Uttarakhand – forest rights for the panchayat)

Jangalon ki loot band karo (Stop looting the jungles)

Vanon ki thekedaari band karo (Stop Contractor-Raj in the forests)

Vanvasiyon ka adhikaar, van sampada se rozgaar (The right of the forest dweller – employment via forest produce)

The resident population of Gopeshwar – approximately 3000 people – was augmented for the occasion by men, women, and children from villages many miles distant. Drums traditionally beaten to call upon the gods and during marriages were now used for the first time as a clarion call for resistance. The demonstration ended in a public meeting in the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Bhawan, where Chandi Prasad Bhatt narrated bits of his own life and that of the organisation. He spoke of how they were once associated with contracts for road construction, and of how they had then taken on contracts for forest work – such as the collection of rare herbs and the exploitation and production of gum and turpentine. He criticised the government for its indifference and said he had dedicated his life to protecting the rights of hill people.

Many others spoke too, among them several of the headmen of villages in the Alaknanda Valley. They made reference to people’s resistance during the time of the British and regretted that, though the Raj was over, the forest laws had not changed. Those attending left with the feeling that the time for requests and petitions had passed; it was now the time of direct action.

The movement that became famous as “Chipko” was born in the following year, four months after this demonstration in Gopeshwar. Its ideas were immanent in this mass meeting and in the poem Ghanshyam Sailani had composed en route to attending it. These had laid the groundwork for the now celebrated incident at Mandal village on 27 March 1973, when loggers of the Symonds Company were thwarted from felling a stand of angu (ash) trees. Earlier that year the DGSM had asked permission to cut those same trees for the making of agricultural implements; they had been denied permission, and the lot had been handed over instead to this sports-goods company from distant Allahabad.

Angu wood had traditionally been used in the making of ploughs and farm implements. Then, once this wood had been found suitable in the making of sports goods, the Forest Department put commerce over community and handed over its angu trees to Symonds. To add injury to injustice, a senior forest officer told the DGSM that they might like to consider pine wood for making their farm implements instead. The suggestion showed a shocking ignorance of mountain life and farming in the hills, pine being entirely unsuited to such use.

In January 1973 Chandi Prasad Bhatt visited Dehradun and tried to reason with senior forest officials. Two public meetings in Gopeshwar were held on the question and petitions sent afresh to the administration. On 5 March 1973 Bhatt resigned his membership of the Uttar Pradesh Small Industries Board. The DGSM in Gopeshwar kept a dialogue going with the local representatives of political parties. The district administration and state administration were sent reports and letters of protest by post and in telegrams. An extraordinary openness was throughout visible.

But the government was deaf to reason. On 27 March 1973 loggers from the Symonds Company arrived to cut the ash trees. As soon as he heard this, Chandi Prasad Bhatt angrily declared: “Tell them, we will not let them cut the trees, we will embrace the trees, we will stick to them.” Bhatt used the Garhwali word for embrace, “angavaltha”; this was later Hindi-ised in popular parlance to “Chipko.”

The loggers brought in by Symonds retreated from the forests, defeated by this inspired demonstration of collective non-violence. Ironically, on their way to and from Mandal they had stayed in the DGSM hostel in Gopeshwar – the town had no hotel at the time. This Sarvodaya campus had often given shelter to villagers, tourists, and travellers, but there seems to have been a rather special and very Gandhian twist here – the hosting of the workers of a company whose activity the hosts implacably opposed.

Excerpted with permission from The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, Shekhar Pathak, translated from the Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.