Few know that 94-year-old activist and environmentalist Sundarlal Bahuguna, who breathed his last on May 21, not only fought for the environment, but also for human rights. He was instrumental in ensuring Dalits were able to enter a temple in Uttarakhand’s Tehri.
Born in a small village called Maroda on January 9, 1927, Sundarlal Bahuguna’s whole life revolved around fighting for the rights of the people who lived in the hilly state. His father Ambadatt Bahuguna served in the forest department in the then Princely State of Tehri Garhwal. This was when the country was fighting for Independence from British rule.
Bahuguna was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for ‘strength of non-violence and fasting’ and he remained his hero. Besides Gandhi, Bahuguna admired Sridev Suman who fought for the complete independence of the Tehri from dynastic rule.
Impressed by Gandhi and Suman, a 14-year-old Bahuguna actively participated in the movement to free the Tehri Garhwal region from dynastic rule and even spent seven months in jail. At 24, Bahuguna joined the Congress party. Though India got Independence in 1947, the fight for Tehri’s independence continued. Almost two years after that, the princely state merged with the Republic of India on August 1, 1949.
“Bahuguna was instrumental for Tehri’s merger with United Province (now Uttarkhand) even as a section wanted Tehri to be part of Himanchal Pradesh,” said Jay Singh Rawat, a writer based in Dehradun. Interestingly Bahuguna’s political innings came to an end in 1956 when he got married. His wife Vimla, who put down the condition that he should discontinue his political activities. Vimla stood as a true companion of the Gandhian activist as both lived a simple life.
Despite hailing from an affluent Brahmin family, Bahuguna fought for the entry of Dalits into temples. In the 1950’s Bahuguna along with several Dalits entered a temple at Budakedar. Several locals said that the act was unthinkable during those times. In the 1960’s, when alcoholism was gripping hills, he led an anti-liquor movement and was jailed thrice.
It was in the mid-70s that the ‘Chipko Movement’ movement began in the Garhwal hills. In 1974, local women of the Raini village on the banks of Rishi Ganga River in Chamoli began hugging trees in protest of a government order to axe them. Activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt was also part of the movement. This was a village that saw devastating floods each year that claimed several lives. Bahuguna too joined the tree-hugging movement and was catalyst in spreading movement beyond the hills of India.
In a bid to spread the message and seek attention for the ecological cause of the Himalayas, Bahuguna scaled Himalayan states from Kashmir to Kohima on foot. In 1978, the union government decided to construct a hydro-power project in Tehri, on the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers. The locals stood against the decision. A local freedom fighter, VD Saklani, led the movement. The turning point came in 1989 when Saklani fell ill and Bahuguna was asked to lead. He led from the front and went on hunger strikes to highlight the cause. His longest fast lasted 74 days. It was in New Delhi when HD Devegowda was prime minister.
Despite assurances by two prime ministers – late PV Narsimha Rao and Devegowda, the work continued at the Tehri dam site. In early 2001, the Tehri town was submerged in the swelling waters. Later Bahuguna was shifted to a locality –Koti and finally he returned to Dehradun where he was staying with his daughter.