In a movement which gained its momentum in part because of the sheer potency of the word ‘Chipko’, who uttered it first and who first hugged a tree to save it have become matters of importance. There have been arguments, and some Chipko leaders have not been above posing with the trunk of trees for photographers.
Not everyone agrees that Bhatt was the first person to suggest the concept and use of the term ‘Chipko’. Ghanashyam Raturi (Sailani), in a taped interview with Dehradun-based journalist Navin Nautiyal, claims that he was there first, in a song he says he wrote in December 1972 with the words “Chipko pedo pe jungalo bachounda” (Stick to the trees and save the forest). The song was later to become popular in the Tehri protests.
Not all claims by Chipko activists should be taken at face value, say others. H.K Singh of the Degree College in Gopeshwar, who is writing a book on the involvement of CPI workers in the forest movements of Uttarakhand, believes that nothing more than commercial motive inspired the crucial confrontation with Symonds’ & Co. He says that Subedar Bachhan Singh Bist, the traditional Symonds’ contractor and a Chamoli man, did not get the contract for 1973. For that reason, a meeting was called on 18 March 1973 (14 days before Chandi Prasad Bhatt is said to have come up with his ideas) to plan strategy.
“Bhatt was away at the time,” says Singh, “The minutes of that meeting, which are with the Bist family, show that all the people attending threatened to stick to the trees and not let them be cut down if Symonds’ brought in outside contractors.” And the outsider, in fact, was another hillman named Jagdish Prasad Nautiyal, of Mussoorie.
To some, Chipko was an economic movement and nothing more. Forest cooperative societies and organisations like DGSM got involved in Chipko in order to promote-small-scale cottage industries; student groups wanted to emphasize their birthright to hill country resources; and small contractors only desired to wrest contracts from the big businessmen of the plains. Nowhere in these motives does one detect the much-vaunted environmentalism that is said to have energised the villagers of Uttarakhand. which is what has made Chipko famous worldwide.
To say that Chipko was Gandhian and non-violent might also have been an embroidery. According to one version of the Reni Peng incident, the Garhwali women turned back the contractors with more than pleas and persuasive words. Down to Earth magazine quotes villagers who say that the women set fire to the forest labourer’s hut, threw stones, and gave a chase. A forest department worker was tied up. According to one version, the Tolcha Bhutia widow Gaura Devi who led the fight against the Symonds’ contractors was put up to the task by a clansman who did not get a contract from the company.
While there is certainly a streak of female militancy indicated in this version of the Reni Peng incident, there are others who claim that the feminist mantle of Chipko is undeserved and that it was Placed there by Delhi academics.
So, does Chipko begin with Sailani’s poems? Or does it start with Bhatt’s brainwave? Or does Chipko become Chipko only after Dhoom Singh Negi hugged the tree in Henvalghati? Are only the incidents in Chamoli to be called Chipko? Or does the name ‘Chipko’ also apply to the more political movements of Kumaun? Are the Communists to be allowed to call their involvement, Chipko’? Can subsequent movements, such as against quarrying in Doon, also appropriate the name? Just choose your Chipko.