From Saving Forests and Seeds to Communal Harmony and Equality, Kunwar Prasun’s Quest for A Better World Never Stopped

People know him mainly as an activist of the famous Chipko movement, but the reality of the  life of Kunwar Prasun was that his yearnings for creating a better world were constantly taking him from one struggle and constructive engagement to another. A deeply committed Gandhian all his life, Prasun was guided only by his understanding of what is truth and justice in any particular context, and his uncompromising stand led him often to take  very difficult and risky positions. But this was a source of worry more for his sincere friends than for him!

The fact that he was an influential writer and journalist in addition to being an activist also increased the risks he faced from powerful persons and interests. The way in which he travelled to very remote villages with hardly any resources to bring out very important but less known facts in very well-written stories brought him praise and appreciation as a barefoot journalist.

Born in a small farmer family of Garhwal ( Uttarakhand ), Prasun was never really free from financial worries at any stage of his  life and being the only son he had several family responsibilities to fulfill. It is amazing that  this never prevented him from getting involved in the most difficult struggles ( such as the struggle against the Tehri Dam Project) and from taking very dissenting positions on several issues.

As a schoolboy Prasun got interested and involved in social activities based on Gandhian thinking and subsequently  in anti-liquor struggles of Garhwal. One inspiration was his schoolteacher Dhum Singh Negi in whose company he later together fought many courageous struggles, always addressing him as Guruji or respected teacher. Both of them came under the wider influence of senior-most Gandhian activists of the region Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna, and worked with them for the greater part of their life, while also retaining their very independent identity and views. Dhum Singh recently received the prestigious Jamna Lal Bajaj award for social work.

Prasun soon joined the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, a youth group which accepted JP as their main leader, and established a reputation as a  state level courageous leader. He barely escaped being arrested during the emergency. After the  emergency he was very closely involved in a leading role in  the famous Chipko movement in Tehri Garhwal district, particularly in Henvalghati, or valley of Henval river. Here he was actively associated with protests at sites of auctioning trees as  well as in forests   which actually involved hugging of trees as contractors and workers came to cut trees. He stayed in forests for several days in very cold weather, went from village to village to spread the message, faced policemen and went to prison.

This phase of the Chipko movement in Tehri Garhwal district in forests like Advani, Salet and Badiyargad had very wide impacts in terms of moratorium on felling of green trees in a vast area of Uttarakhand ( then a part of Uttar Pradesh).

However there was another phase of the movement later in which Prasun had a very decisive role in protecting several thousand endangered trees. This was at a time when the power transmission lines of Tehri dam project  were being set up and in the process  over a hundred thousand trees were to be cut. This included those trees in Advani forest which had been saved by chipko actions earlier. By now the fame of the movement had spread and taking advantage of this Prasun contacted officials to conduct a new survey to save as many as trees as possible. Meanwhile with his colleagues he also started mobilization activities in several villages. The officials were influenced by this as well as the reputation of the movement. They agreed to a new survey which resulted in saving thousands of trees in Himalayan forests.

Around this time Prasun also participated in a prolonged protest in Dehradun district to check indiscriminate quarrying which was playing havoc with the ecology and livelihoods of several villages.

Soon the movement to prevent the construction of Tehri Dam Project demanded the time and attention of Prasun. This movement under the leadership of Virendra Dutt Saklani and Sunderlal Bahuguna had obtained the opinion of several eminent experts and by now it was well known that apart from displacing thousands of households  from their fertile fields and green environs, this project had much more serious safety implications for tens of millions of people. How could Prasun remain uninvolved in such a protest? As he and his friends in Hemvalghati mobilized more people to join the protest in Tehri, the movement appeared to pick up for some time. But this was really the toughest struggle of the region as very powerful interests were behind the construction of Tehri project to be followed and accompanied by the construction of several other hydel power projects in the region. Despite many courageous efforts to stop it, the Tehri project went ahead.

Meanwhile Prasun’s colleague in Henvalghati Vijay Jardhari had initiated efforts on a movement for saving traditional farming patterns and the diversity of traditional seed varieties. This work appealed much to Prasun and he increasingly devoted his time and talents to this effort, organizing several travels and foot marches to spread the information as well as to collect information, finally coming out with invaluable documents on traditional rice and wheat varieties.

This was a time when temple-mosque disputes had started getting spread by very powerful interests and Prasun was soon in the forefront of resisting this. He emerged as an uncompromising champion of communal harmony in his region.

In addition he emerged as an influential champion of dalit interests. His reports on bonded workers created a stir. He made many –sided efforts to promote and help dalit folk-artists of his region and inform the world about their unique talents. He also participated in night-long performances and use the folk-idiom in written format to spread important messages.

As the demand for separate state of Uttarakhand spread, instead of joining the bandwagon  he objected to one aspect of some leaders of the movement—that of repressing the dalits. This again brought him to conflict with powerful persons and trends but he held his ground firmly.

Around this time it was said about him that if the rest of the world is on one side and Kunwar Prasun alone is on the other side, then he will still hold his ground!

As a close friend I became increasingly worried about his well-being and safety, but he would waive off my concerns lightly. I was also aware of the economic hardships and growing opposition within which he was fulfilling his twin duties of an activist and a writer-cum-reporter, and so my worries did not stop.

He was ill and was hospitalized, but friends and family members generally considered this to be a relatively minor illness. Then very suddenly, in July 2009,  we received the news of his sudden and untimely death at the age of only 56, leaving behind his father, wife and three children.

As a social, environmental and peace  activist  as well as a writer on these issues, Prasun had so many  achievements over a period of four decades and his record of always standing up for justice and truth had been so remarkable that it was strange that he was known so little outside Uttarakhand, while those with much lesser achievements received widespread fame. Sitting on the Ganga bank with Prasun and my family members I once asked Prasun this question—Do you regret that you never got the wider recognition and fame you so richly deserved? He remained quiet for some time, as though asking himself this question once again, then said softly—no, not really, because it is not for this fame that I was working and struggling all the time.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and the Struggle Against Tehri Dam Project.


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