Of Vedas, Vedanta and the other Gandhi

Gopalakrishna Gandhi, a model ex-governor, spoke the other day on governance. It was a fascinating, multi-lingual, dramatised commentary on the state of the state that is India. He spoke softly, almost minimally, as is his wont, but as his words swished and swarmed around his rapt-audience, a portrait of India took shape. His talk

spanned the early days of the nation’s Constitution, the mood of its founders, the original version of Jana Gana Mana and the irony of the multi-directional leonine stare of the three pillars of the state that make up our national emblem. Then, spatially moving to the present, he cheered the Right to Information Act, decried the power of money in electioneering, bemoaned the tyranny of khap panchayats and exulted at the sense of justice the nation felt when Niyamgiri happened. Nothing was missed, nothing overlooked as, stroke upon unerring stroke, he painted Mother India, warts and all. Trapped in my own bias, I waited for him, at least when he broached Niyamgiri, to bring out his green brush and talk of our environment. But Niyamgiri did not go beyond tribal rights, and if I was momentarily disappointed, I could not in all honesty put the onus on the best President that India never had.
Why has Niyamgiri, the largest victory that the environmental movement has had in three decades (Silent Valley happened ever so long ago) become only a victory for tribal rights? Why has the scuppering of a disastrous mining venture, which would have, like its many contemporaries, displaced hundreds of elephants into neighbouring Chattisgarh become better known for not displacing the Dongria Konds, a tribe that was unheard of in Delhi till Avataar hit the screens? Why has our Green Minister, Jairam Ramesh, led from the front of this magnificent green victory only for it to be portrayed as a victory for which the minister for tribal welfare should take a bow? Is it pragmatism that acknowledges that for India to have a green victory against a powerful global conglomerate, our own species must take centrestage? Is it political realism that allows for the fact that our leader-in-waiting can be drawn to the spot only by aggrieved tribals and not by an assaulted Mother Earth?
“With lights for eyes, our city turns
Its secret face towards the hill,
Where yet the sacred fire burns…”
Dom Moraes was not talking of Niyamgiri but he captured in essence what many of the urban citizenry did upon waking up to the headlines announcing environment ministry’s decision to turn down permission for the Vedanta corporation to mine for bauxite in the sacred hills. A sacred fire that has been burning in all probability from Vedic times despite the ironical nomenclature of its attempted douser. What was Anil Aggarwal thinking of when he named his company Vedanta, I wonder? Which of the Vedas does he draw his inspiration from? From the Rig Veda that celebrates nature in every second verse, the Sama Veda that sings to the earth and dawn, the Yajur Veda that ritualises the offerings to the sun and fire, or perhaps the Atharva Veda that codifies many of the earlier verses? It is possible that the latter egged him on with the lines
“Whatever I dig up of you, O earth,
May you of that have quick replenishment!”,
but had he gone further down the stanza, it reads,
“Oh purifying one, May my thrust never reach
unto your vital points, your heart”
And further down, the sages extol the earth thus
“Rock, soil, stone and dust with these
Earth is held together and bound firm.
My obeisance to gold-breasted Earth...
Rising or sitting, standing or walking,
May we, either with our right foot or our left,
Never totter on the earth” (Atharva Veda 12.1.26, 28)
The Vedas glorified the forces of nature as divine and man was talked of as a dependent cosmic component. The welfare of the Dongria Konds is critical but even more so is the welfare of the earth itself. Niyamgiri is a victory for the earth and the citizenry of India will be wise to support the decision of the ministry based on that alone. I cannot underline how important it is for our green victories to be cherished and celebrated. It must be made known that the “obstructionist ministry”, that the environment ministry is being portrayed to be by some sections of the media, had in its previous avatar cleared more than 95 per cent of the environmental clearances that came to it. If a few high-profile ones have fallen in their blatant flagrance of the rulebook, and a few confidences dented in their ability to bulldoze through the ministry and the environment with equal abandon, it is a moment that must be hailed by all who care for this battered earth. Niyamgiri may have aroused the servant of the Dongria Konds in one Gandhi, may have given the colours of tribal rights to the other Gandhi, but for me and thousands of others in this country (we probably don’t add up to a million yet) it spoke for the basal colour in our national flag to fly a little stronger for a Green India.
To take that victory a little further, may I suggest a longer reach? Individual projects can be exemplary but to have more permanent impact one also needs the long reach. While short quicksilver jabs are testing non-compliance, let me give you something fundamental that this country does not have. Gopal Gandhi talked of the Fundamental Rights of India and also of the importance of the Right to Information Act. I wait for a day when our Green Minister will lead India to its first green amendment of its Constitution. Sweden has an Everyman’s Right to Nature. I wait for the day when we as a nation will finally be bestowed a cherished fundamental, the Right to Nature.

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