8 May 1950 – 16 July 2006
In the summer of 2006, veteran activist and journalist of Uttarakhand, Kunwar Prasoon, passed away suddenly after a period of ill health. Prasoon is best known as one of the leading activists from the Henwal Valley, who along with Dhoom Singh Negi, Vijay Jardhari, and Sudesha Devi, among others, kept the true spirit of Chipko alive for the last thirty years. However, his life encompassed so many grassroots causes that he can be rightly called a true Loknayak, fighting the good fight for the long haul. This appeal is in his honour.
Among the many anecdotes about Kunwar Prasoon, this one was related by the concerned ex-MLA himself. The latter was then the Block Pramukh, and Kunwar Prasoon had visited him, seeking to investigate an issue of corruption in the Block. The Pramukh hosted Prasoon for three-four days and provided him requisite facilities and assistance, including boarding and lodging. At the end of it, in his report, Prasoon indicted the Pramukh strongly for his role in the said corruption. Upset though the Pramukh was, the two did not become enemies because that was the way Prasoon always wrote – with honesty, a deep sense of social responsibility and without personal rancour. And so he wrote fearlessly. Always writing only what his conscious dictated. Nothing else mattered – neither the other person’s exalted status nor his own close association or relationship with the individual. Unafraid to go against the flow of the moment or swim against the current.
Indeed, truth and fearlessness, were the abiding character of the many faceted Kunwar Prasoon – a farmer, writer, balladeer, activist, social reformer, among others. He was a Gandhian, with the firebrand streak of Lohia. One of the leading activists of the Chipko and anti-Tehri dam movement in the Tehri Garhwal region and now of Beej Bachao Andolan, seeking to preserve the traditional mountain agriculture. Always empathizing with and upholding the cause of the Dalits and the marginalized. Once, early in life, while taking admission into a college, as is the practice, he was asked to get his documents attested by a gazetted officer or an important individual of the society. He promptly got his documents attested by a cobbler plying his small trade from the roadside. When questioned about it by the college authorities, Prasoon replied steadfastly that, in his view, the cobbler was a respected individual who earned his living by the sweat of his brow, through an honest mean.
Prasoon was born Kunwar Singh Bhandari, but after coming into the Chipko and related Gandhian movements (against liquor and the caste system) in the early nineteen-seventies, he gave up the latter parts of his name which signified his caste – an upper caste – and simply added a pseudonym Prasoon (meaning flower) to his first name. In fact, till the very end, there were many-many people, and among them even those quite close to him, who did not know his complete original name. And since his name did not reflect his caste, many others (largely because of his strong and extensive writings on the caste prejudices in the society) thought that perhaps he himself was a Dalit!
A staunch Gandhian, Prasoon always believed in non-violent protests. He would say it is our right to protest and go against unjust laws, but that we must then also accept the consequences or the response of the state to our protests. And so, in the many protest actions, he would not flinch from bearing the batons of the police on his body or from going to prison.
Protests always energized him and he would come up with original and unique ideas. Once, in a movement against a mining case outside Dehra Dun, in an attempt to prevent the trucks from going to the mining site up hill, he had three waist deep holes dug in the middle of the road. The idea was that when the trucks came, the protesters would sit in these holes, with only their heads showing above the road level.
In an another protest, during the Chipko movement in the Tehri Garhwal region, when a senior forest official came to the site one afternoon, he led a march of the local people, walking in front of the official’s vehicle, holding a “lit” lantern – signifying that the forest official was so blind that he could not see the destructive consequences of deforestation, and had to be “shown” the way even in broad daylight! Yet another time, he had all villagers come out of their houses at a fixed time at night (generally 9 p.m.) and start beating tin boxes and plates to create a terrible noise. This was a traditional practice to shoo away ghosts! – in this case, the demons of Tehri dam development. His novel ideas for protest always whipped up great enthusiasm among the people, particularly the young and the women.
He was also one of the most creative writers of slogans. In fact, most of the slogans of the Chipko and other movements were his creations. The most famous of this, which became a sort of an anthem for environment and forest conservation, was
Kya hai jungle kay upkaar?
Miti, paani aur bayar;
Miti, pani aur bayar,
Jinda rehne kay adhaar,
What are the blessings of a forest?
Soil, water and air;
Soil, water and air,
The very foundations of life.
Another famous slogan -
Oopar dekho jahan khadaan,
Neeche kheti raigistan
See uphill wherever mining
Downhill the farms, a desert
Another of his famous slogans for Beej Bachao Andolan (against MNCs in seed business) was
Khet hamare, Beej tumhare-
Nahi chalenge, nahi chalenge
Fields ours, seeds yours
Will not do, will not do
Prasoon always believed the slogans must reflect (and do reflect) the core philosophy of any movement. He also believed the slogans must be seen (and developed) as part of public education.
In the latter half of the 1970s, when India was going through Emergency, he joined Yuva Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti, that had been set up by Jai Prakash Narayan and became its convener for the state of Uttar Pradesh. During the course of this, he led a foot-march from Lucknow to Dehra Dun (a distance of over 500 km) against the dual education system. Later in life, he also participated in many other long marches in the hills – the decadal Askot-Arakot yatra (the two extreme west and east locations in the mountain region of Garhwal and Kumaon), initiated by Pahar (Nainital) in 1984 and which were journeys to understand the state of the region and its development concerns. In the 1990s, Prasoon and fellow activists of Beej Bachao Andolan, did Arakot-Askot yatra in search of traditional seeds and the state of agriculture in the region. This long journey provided impetus to the Andolan and formed the basis of his sustained writings on sustainable agriculture and food security in the hills. Prasoon also did extensive investigative writings on women, particularly on the social evils in a part of the region where they were traditionally and socially forced to go into prostitution; and he also wrote on bonded labour in the region. These journalistic endeavours became iconic, were variously awarded, and have often been quoted by latter day journalists and social activists as their source of inspiration.
Emerging from the Chipko and anti-Emergency movements as a writer of considerable merit and impact, Prasoon could have easily gone on to have a fruitful journalistic career in any of the major newspapers in the country. In fact, many young writers and journalists from particularly the latter movement did go on to become well known, senior journalists and holding the highest positions, across the country, and many young leaders from the anti-emergency era have become major politicians. But Prasoon, like a few others of his ilk, decided at the end of the movements to return to his village – for he never once thought of cutting off the umblical relationship and because he believed in the Gandhian thought that that is where the soul of the country lay, and where we must remain to confront and address the dynamics and concerns of social development. To the very end, Khaddi-Jajal – tiny roadside hamlets in the Henwal valley of Tehri Garhwal, remained the dateline in his reports and articles. In fact, if at all this decrepit location has become a familiar dateline, it is largely because of Prasoon.
For the last eight-nine months of his life, he was not keeping well. But his disease was never really diagnosed correctly, until the very end. No one really got to know what the real problem was. He lost weight sharply and everyone thought there was blood shortage (as he also had a long history of piles). But all blood tests would show nothing abnormal. It was only during his last hospitalization at the PGI Chandigarh that it emerged that he was suffering from nerve paralysis which had now affected his brain.
With this last discovery, on hindsight, his friends and associates are now able to put together the pieces of the strange patterns of his behaviour over the last six or so months. But if, during all that time, they did not feel alarmed, it was because they thought and would dismiss his strange behaviour with, “Oh, but you have never been sure about Kunwar Prasoon. He has always been strange and different!” Now, much to one’s regret, we lament that had he been tested and treated early for neurological disorder, perhaps he may still have been with us. Perhaps even Prasoon did not realize the disease afflicting him – and in his neurological state, was convinced that it was just a blood loss problem (an opinion he never gave up). Or perhaps, he did know about it after all, but was just too proud to admit it or seek help – just as he always was, almost to the point of being obstinate.
But, in a way and with a sense of resignation, we sometimes feel that perhaps it was better that he went away, that his ill-health did not linger too long – for it is unthinkable to have seen Prasoon in a degenerated mental state. Perhaps, it would have been unthinkable for Prasoon himself, to find himself in that state.
A life that was his, and the kind of fiercely down-to-earth individual, activist, writer and social reformer that he was, understanably then, Kunwar Prasoon lived and died in penury. On hindsight (trying to recollect some of his behavioural pattern and discussions and talks over the last year or two), we also realize, that Prasoon was possibly also beginning to feel a bit concerned about this as well – the not so good financial state of his family and the increasing financial demands, with his three children now going through college.
Of course, this leads us to a very serious introspection on the role of the society, and what it need to do for people like Kunwar Prasoon, who gave his all to the society that he was born in. But, for the moment, we have just two major concerns. One – how can we ensure that the education of Prasoon’s children is not cut-off suddenly (his elder son is in B.Tech 1st yr; and younger in MSc (Maths) 1st yr, and a daughter out of college, looking for a job or to be married), which means we need to address the family’s need for the next three or so years. And second, to ensure that the causes he championed and the tasks he had taken up, do not remain unfinished including the publication of his writings.
Toward this a Kunwar Prasoon Smriti Kosh (Kunwar Prasoon Memorial Fund) has been created, and an account has been opened with the State Bank of India. The bank account will be jointly handled by Ranjana Bhandari (Prasoon’s wife) and Dhoom Singh Negi, a respected senior Chipko and Beej Bachao Andolan activist.
Essentially, the target is Rs 5 lakhs (Rs 0.5 million). We have so far collected about Rs 1.60 lakhs, and another Rs 50,000 has been promised. We are seeking your valuable support and contribution towards meeting the target.
You may deposit your support/contribution directly in your bank, giving the following STATE BANK OF INDIA, DEHRA DUN’s Swift Account No. : SBININBB380 INDIA
You must also give to your bank the following details of the recipient’s account :
Address for correspondence
Dhoom Singh Negi,
via Narendra Nagar – 249197
Tehri Dstt., Uttarakhand
Or Email: email@example.com
Dhoom Singh Negi
Bina & Saab Singh Sajwan
Samsher Singh Bisht