New social movements in India

In the 1960s and 1970s, European and American Societies witnessed the emergence of large-scale movements around the issues which were basically humanist, cultural and non-materialistic in nature. The goals and values of these movements were essentially universalistic. The NSMs rejects the idea of revolution, and in the revolutionary overthrow of the system of governance of the state. The goals and strategies of the new social movements have little in common with movements of past which struggled for the issues such as raising labour wages in industry, and against economic injustice and class exploitation.

It is assumed that with the expansion of state and market force, civil society is getting diminished and there is some kind of invasion of these institutions into every aspect of a citizen’s life. Consequently, the NSMs raise the issue of self defense of the community and society against the increasing expansion of the state apparatus; agencies of surveillance and social control. In other words, NSMs are action by civil society against the increasing encroachment of the market and state on the private spheres of life of individuals in society.

The sites of the NSM struggles go beyond the traditional workplace of industries and factories and fields and farms. The core concern of NSM struggles is post –bourgeois, post- patriarchal and democratic civil society. Unlike the classical movements, the sites of NSMs are generally transnational. The field of their action, strategy and mode of mobilization is transnational. These movements articulate, project and struggle for human issues and for issues relating to the conditions of human existence, possibly for a sensible existence in the future. A number of their goals and targets are therefore, located at the trans-societal global human site. Their conception of conflict and tension are international, and their overarching width and spread cover the entire human kind. NSMs seek answers to question relating to peace, disarmament, nuclear pollution, nuclear war, relating to the defense of the planet, ecology, environment, and human rights.

Most of the NSMs, are defined by their non-class, non-materialistic focus and emphasis. Their ideological articulation of goals and values go beyond the Marxist method of explanation in terms of class and class formation. Marxism saw all forms of struggle as class struggle and all forms of human groupings as class groupings. The social actors of the NSMs are generally drawn from the non-segmental, broadly generalized social base cutting across the social categories of gender, education, occupation or class. The actors are not confined to such divisions such as the proletariat, the labor class, the industrial workers and the peasant. NSMs struggles such as anti-racism, disarmament and feminist movement are not class struggles, nor do they reflect a movement of classes. In the case of NSMs the site of struggle is not the political economy of a nation but the very existence of the humans, irrespective of their nationalities and their varying systems of political economies.

Generally NSMs evolve a grass root politics, grassroots actions, often initiate micro-movements of small groups, targeting localized issues with a limited institutional base. They produce horizontally organized democratic associations that are loosely federated on national level. The struggles against nuclear war, arms race, and for ecology and environment, peace and civil liberty, individual identity, freedom and personal dignity are struggles which bring people of different nationalities, culture and political system together. Issues relating to patriarchy, gender, state, culture, language, and identify are major concerns of the NSMs


The word chipko means to stick to or to hug and refers to the method used to protect the trees of the Himalaya from commercial timber cutters who have devastated the forests. The movement’s activists embrace the tree trunks to interpose their bodies between the trees and the axemen. The Chipko movement is located in the mountainous northern segment of Uttar Pradesh, immediately west of Nepal.

Uttarakhand was a relatively inaccessible land of precipitous slopes, thin and fragile soils, and ample water and forests, populated by subsistence farmers who derived a secure livelihood through their diligence and skills in a combination of terrace agriculture and animal husbandry. After the Indian-Chinese border conflict of 1962 an extensive network of roads was built throughout the region. The motive was clearly strategic, but a significant consequence was the sudden opening of the region to traffic of all kinds, which made its rich supply of natural resources accessible to entrepreneurs in the resource-hungry plains of India. Timber and other products, ranging from limestone for use in cement, the principal building material in India, magnesite, and potassium to rare metals, became the objects of intensive exploitation and removal by corporate contractors.

When the roads came, other opportunities for profit presented themselves to outsiders. Land previously cultivated by local farmers for subsistence crops or devoted to pasture and fodder for livestock suddenly became accessible for cultivation of luxury and commercial crops. Accordingly, large industrial firms vied with lesser capitalists in buying up and exploiting the newfound agricultural bonanza at the expense of local people. The shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Jumnotri, and other places sacred to Hindus became accessible to pilgrims and tourists in a day or two of travel by bus and taxi from the plains rather than the weeks or months of trekking formerly required. This new form of mass tourism taxed the capacity of the Himalayan environment heavily by populating the pilgrim- age routes with hotels, restaurants, shops, and other businesses. At the same time and often on the same routes secular tourism flourished, attracting plainspeople and foreigners alike to areas featuring snow views and wildflowers, trekking, hunting, fishing, and mountain climbing. The effects of the tourists on the environment and local people receive little or no attention.

The Chipko movement began under the leadership of C. P. Bhatt and other male Sarvodaya (Gandhian movement) workers, organized as the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh (later, the Dashauli Gram Swarajy Mandal, or DGSM); initial demands were for the limiting of commercial exploitation of the forests and for local participation in their management. The Sarvodaya workers lectured the local people on the importance of ecological balance, citing the frequency of floods and the consequent soil erosion that made cultivation more difficult.

In 1973 protests by the DGSM were successful in preventing the Forest Department from allotting rights to a set of ash trees to a tennis racket company from the plains, and in persuading the department to grant rights to a smaller number of trees for the manufacture of farm tools to the DGSM. Following this, the movement spread to three other districts. Still, in 1974, the government made plans to allow the cutting of 2,500 trees in the Reni forest. C. P. Bhatt suggested that, when the time came, the people hold on to the trees (chipko means “to hug”) to protect them. When the lumber company arrived at the forest, the men of the community were nearly all away and it was the women who quickly mobilized, confronted the contractors’ men, and forced them to back down.

Seeing the active role women played, it was decided to build their capacity and to empower them to take action. Women, who had never before done so, began to attend village meetings and to demand a voice. The confidence and motivation of the women grew. This was particularly evident in an incident in 1980 in Dongri Paintoli village. Here, the members of the all-male village council agreed to a deal with the U.P. government whereby a local forest would be given to the Horticulture Department for felling, in return for which the government would provide the village with a new road, secondary school, hospital, and electricity. The women of the village, who lacked formal political power, declared that they did not accept the decision of the village council and would fight the felling of the trees. They were, in turn, threatened by the men. Nonetheless, when the tree cutters arrived in February 1980, the women came out in large numbers and succeeded in driving the workmen away; the government, within a month, acted on the recommendation of its own committee and banned the felling of trees in the area. The Chipko movement added a new dimension to the perception of what constitutes “women’s issues.”

The concept of sustainable economic development and the importance of ecological conservation were introduced as issues of central concern to women. While the movement raised problems, particularly the sharpening of disagreements between women and the men of their communities, it also heightened women’s participation in public forums and their awareness of their own potentialities. Both in its expression of empowerment of women and in the public issues it proclaimed as being of concern to women, the Chipko movement was an important inspiration to further organizing. As can be seen, the movement was not a class struggle but rather an ecological and empowerment one. It clearly dealt with the community defending itself against state forces. The movement also generated a lot of international attention as it was something which anyone could relate to. The movement largely emphasized on equity and justice in the context of ecology.


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