Bramhachari Atmabodhanand: The River Warrior

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One man’s struggle to save the Ganga


Bramhachari Atmabodhanand smiles in response. “North Indian or South Indian?”

“Either,” I say. “Give me your top three.”

“Well, there’s puri, if fried in ghee; then dosa, and then moong khichdi.”

We spend a few beats admiring his picks. “Do you miss it?” I ask.

His smile disappears. He turns away and looks at the floor. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. The silence is mortifying. Atmabodhanand had been on an indefinite fast for the past 43 days when I met him at his Matri Sadan ashram in Haridwar. But minutes before this afternoon in early December, when I hesitated from accepting a glass of buttermilk his fellow sanyasi had offered me, Atmabodhanand had told me to go right ahead. It didn’t affect him whether people ate or drank in front of him, he’d assured me. He was above such temptations.

Now it’s been nearly half a minute since I raked up memories of his favoured food and he hasn’t spoken a word.

“I consider myself lucky,” he says slowly, “that I can lead this struggle. I feel a connection to it. Maybe I’ve done the same in my past life, like during our Independence movement.” Dawn breaks on his face. You would’ve thought the 26-year-old was almost getting nostalgic.

I wasn’t going to needle him any further.

In the three days I spent at the Matri Sadan ashram in the first week of December, it was evident to me how much its sanyasis loved their food. A placard on the kitchen door said the rules were ‘Khao man bhar, chhodo na kan bhar.’ Eat to your heart’s fill, finish up the last bit. It was usually simple vegetarian fare: subzi and daal with chapati or rice. Light on spice, easy on oil. Lunch followed dessert, served as prasadam. These were shared by all residents: cats, cows, peacocks, the three policemen on guard, the 10 sanyasis and the odd visitor or two.

“When things are all right, sab jumm ke khaate hain (we all eat together),” a sanyasi had told me at one point. “But when we decide to do something, we give it up.” By ‘something’, they mean attempts to coerce the government into acting against the pollution in Ganga. By ‘give it up’, they mean all food, until their demands are met.

The struggle to save the Ganga is over a century old. Thousands of crore have been spent on its upkeep, maintenance and detox over the years. Every assembly election held in the Ganga-belt of north India—Uttarakhand to West Bengal—candidates across flanks chant homilies on preserving its sanctity, restoring it to a state where a cleansing dip in its holy waters doesn’t risk skin infections. Prime Minister candidate Narendra Modi too had pledged to clean up the river by 2019 during his 2014 General Election rallies in Varanasi. Rs 20,000 crore was allotted for its clean-up after he was sworn in. Last year, the National Green Tribunal noted that the pollution indicators had shown no significant improvement in spite of Rs 7,000 crore spent in the previous two years. The Ganga, it said, remains a ‘serious environmental issue’.

The motley bunch at Matri Sadan have been pressing for the river’s clean up for over 20 years. On June 22nd last year, one of their contemporaries, GD Agrawal, a noted environmentalist- turned-sanyasi, went on a fast-unto-death on the ashram premises. He listed his demands in numerous letters to the Central Government: stop all under-construction and proposed dams, infrastructure projects, mining and forest-cutting along the river and its flood plains; form an autonomous body for its conservation; and pass an Act of legislation to help the river flow ‘aviral’—uninterrupted.

“I consider myself lucky. That I can lead this struggle. I feel a connection to it. Maybe I've done the same in my past life, says ” Bramhachari Atmabodhanand

Agrawal died last October after fasting for 112 days. His IIT and University of California education and a long stint at the Central Pollution Control Board meant his demise made headlines internationally. Prime Minister Modi tweeted he was ‘saddened’ but the Prime Minister’s Office remained mum on why it hadn’t responded to the three letters Agrawal had sent them since February 2018 requesting action against polluting the river.

A day after his death, 26-year-old Atmabodhanand, Matri Sadan’s youngest member, announced he will continue Agrawal’s activism and cut down his intake to only water with honey. Another colleague, Swami Punyanand, too cut his diet to fresh fruits. By the time this piece is published, their fast would have entered its 80th day.

It is the 60th attempt by Matri Sadan to keep the Ganga alive. It’s also their most ambitious. Most of their agitations until now were limited to river conservation in and around Haridwar. This time, their battle is for the entire 2,525-km stretch.

LOCATED AT THE foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, Haridwar is split between two worlds. The first is built around the riverbank, functioning as a Brahmin-run, saatvik-first industry of Ganga worship. It’s centrepiece, the famous Har Ki Paudi ghat, conducts a Ganga aarti every evening. Millions of pilgrims come for it every year. They wake up before the sun, head to the river to rinse their sins, feed the poor queued outside the temples and hope to attain moksha. A few kilometres away is the industrial and administrative zone of Roshanabad, a relatively modern township with wide roads, shopping malls and restaurants offering meat and alcohol, caste no bar.

‘If you stop quarrying, how will you build houses, roads or bridges?’ ask villagers forced out of farming by illegal quarrying

The two worlds are 10 km apart. Both accept payments in cash and PayTM.

Matri Sadan is a three-acre leafy spread away from Haridwar’s commercial and spiritual hubbub. Its walls are papered with campaign posters, bills and before-after pictures, often forming the backdrop to video interviews shown in the local media. These show the deterioration of the Ganga, the ill- effects of dams and the devastation caused across Uttarakhand by a cloudburst in 2013.

Ten sanyasis, in dhotis and woollens, live in a few austere cottages on its premises. They spend their days conducting havans, tending to cattle and fighting legal battles for ‘The Cause’. Their guru is 71-year-old Swami Shivanand Saraswati, a wild-beard- wispy-haired former chemistry professor from Kolkata. Interviews with him are video-recorded by his disciples. Visitors are told to keep their distance. Years of meditation has made him sensitive to touch, a disciple explains. “If you threw a pebble in still waters, it’ll create ripples.”

Shivanand first heard from God sitting under a tree in his hometown in Bihar. A voice said, ‘You must be bramhachari (celibate) for the rest of your life.’ He decided to listen to it.

Was it a male or female voice?

“Male,” he says.

Does that mean God is a male?

He’s not sure since that wasn’t the only time he’d heard ‘The Voice’. At 30, he had travelled to Haridwar and was sitting outside the Chandi Devi temple, built to one of more popular deities in town. He could see the Ganga flow from his spot, a river he was hesitant to enter. “I had several misconceptions at the time. I thought tap water was purer than Ganga’s.” Then he felt a stinging slap across his face. ‘The Voice’ said, ‘Go take a bath.’

“This time, it was a female voice,” Shivanand says. He figured it was Ganga Maa herself.

In 1998, he quit his job and set up Matri Sadan in Haridwar’s Jagjeetpur village with five others. Quarrying along the riverbank was rampant, he soon realised. Everyday hundreds of locals ploughed into the floodplains, loaded their tractors and bullock carts with sand and cut-up rocks, and carried them to the crushing units nearby. The Haridwar administration had announced closure of these units ahead of the 1998 Kumbh mela it was hosting. The promise was never fulfilled.

“We are saints,” says Shivanand. “We cannot raise a slogan. We cannot march on roads. We cannot abuse others. But we can do tapasya.” Matri Sadan’s first hunger strike was to stop quarrying in the area designated for Kumbh celebrations in Haridwar. After 14 days, the district administration assured them it would act on their demands. This promise was, again, broken. In the years since, Shivanand and his disciples have taken turns agitating against illicit unsustainable quarrying in the area that continues.

“The person conducting aartis at Har Ki Paudi knows Ganga's condition 10 km away is worse. If he still does it with a happy mind, you can't say it's not a show,” Says Atmabodhanand

At times, their protests have succeeded. In 2001, Matri Sadan reacquired and restored 108 hectares of encroached land owned by the forest department after a protracted legal battle. In 2010, the Uttarakhand government ordered the Kumbh region be made free of mining and stone-crushing after a 163-day fast by Matri Sadan’s Swami Nigamananda. But for the most part, their demands are ignored and assurances not kept.

Months of indefinite fasts, years of court battles, an often one- sided correspondence with politicians at the state and Centre have left the sanyasis bitter. At times, they have also resulted in infighting, leading to accusations of collusions with the ‘mining mafia’. Nine members have left the ashram so far. The remaining cite their example to call out the weak and the corrupt. “It’s in the nature of humans,” says Shivanand of such ‘collusions’. “Some give in to temptations.”

Others persisted, only to perish for the cause. In April 2011, Swami Nigmanand was forcibly taken to Haridwar district hospital four months into his fast. He went into a coma within days and died a month later. The doctors blamed heart attack; Matri Sadan filed an FIR against the ‘land mafia’ for poisoning the 35-year-old. Then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh blamed it squarely on the Uttarakhand government. “I myself have been to Matri Sadan twice and told the Chief Minister on a number of occasions that illegal mining is rampant in Uttarakhand, that illegal mining enjoys political patronage at the highest levels,” said Ramesh at the time, “But no action was taken.”

In 1999, Shivanand himself was beaten up by the mining mafia for his attempts to have quarrying stopped in neighbouring villages. There was a criminal case against him for ‘attempting suicide’; on at least one occasion an attempt to ‘poison’ him in jail. Today, a three-member police team stands guard outside the ashram, monitoring him, accompanying him on his rare visits outside the premises. Why can’t he convince his detractors about the benefits of his cause? I ask. “I cannot convince anyone with a monetary interest in Ganga,” he says.

Matri Sadan’s neighbouring villages have mostly rice and sugarcane farms. Their fertility and fortunes have depended on that of the Ganga. Around 1986, the state government allowed dredging and quarrying to facilitate its many infrastructure projects. Dozens of stone-crushing units came up; quarrying along the riverbanks provided stable income. By 2011, there were 41 stone crushers in Haridwar alone and 124 in Uttarakhand.

Soon, the sustainability norms lay ignored. If quarrying was allowed to a depth of three to seven feet, licensees went up to 25-40 feet in hilly areas and 100 feet in the plains. Forests were cleared, rocky banks were hollowed out and the riverbed deepened irreparably. As falling groundwater levels started affecting produce, more farmers were driven to quarrying to sustain themselves.

Swami Shivanand, 71, has been on intermittent fasts for two decades as part of the ashram's campaign to save the Ganga

Today, a typical quarry worker earns an average Rs 500 a day. A part of that goes to bribing officials, but it is Matri Sadan’s agitations that baffles them more. ‘If you stop quarrying, how will you build houses, roads or bridges?’ they ask. The benefits of their labour seldom reach them, however. Most of them still live in mud houses or brick-naked bunkers, connected by bad roads and with erratic electricity supply. Meanwhile, disappearing forests mean the wildlife—elephants and nilgai—venture on to their farms and feast upon crops. Most people are left with two options: guard their fields all night, or give in to the assured income from the stone-crushing industry that operates despite a ban on fresh quarrying, claiming they are processing ‘leftovers’.

“It’s a question of our livelihood,” says Ramkumar Kashyap, a freelance quarry labourer from Bishanpur. “Besides, if the Matri Sadan people are so right, why do they have to hide in an ashram?”

ON THE 37th day of Atmabodhanand’s fast, a jittery local administration charged the ashram under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure code. The law, used to pre-empt ‘nuisance or apprehended danger’, restricts people’s right to assembly and is usually applied in riot-like situations. The Haridwar police detained Atmabodhanand and took him to AIIMS Hospital in closeby Rishikesh. His blood and urine samples were tested for blood sugar, malaria and dengue. But he showed no symptoms to warrant medical intervention, the sanyasis cried out; the ‘kidnappers’ wanted to ‘poison’ him, just as they had GD Agrawal. (Both Haridwar and Dehradun police haven’t yet acted on Matri Sadan’s requests for an FIR against the ‘conspirators’ at AIIMS and the local administration.)

Manish Kumar, the sub-divisional magistrate of Haridwar who had imposed the orders, dismisses the accusations. “They claim that we’re trying to kill them no matter where we take them,” he says. And the rationale behind imposing Section 144? “These are preventive measures. Matri Sadan might not have any precedent of violence, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. Just look at the comments on their Facebook page.” (I did. They were mostly homilies to Ganga.)

Atmabodhanand was allowed to leave the hospital after three days. He is now monitored by a team of government doctors visiting the ashram daily. “If his condition deteriorates, we will take him to the hospital again, even force-feed him if necessary,” says Kumar. “To save his life.”

Atmabodhanand now spends most of his days on a cot under a mango tree, covered in a bright pink blanket. Every day, he joins his fellow sanyasis for a bath in the Ganga before daybreak. He can still walk and talk, but has lost 6 kg in the past six weeks. He speaks softly to the visitors, switching between Hindi and English. He’s happy, he tells them in a lilting Malayali accent. He’s at peace.

Growing up, Atmabodhanad wanted to be an actor. He once successfully auditioned to be part of a crowd in a Malayali college caper, in a scene where the lead actress stands up to a bunch of gun-toting hoodlums. Acting was easy money and he’d often blow it up on stimulants. At 21, he started reading books on spirituality. Within a month, he was on a train bound north, ready to shed all material possessions and familial ties, and meditate in the Himalayas. At Rishikesh, he emptied his suitcase in the Ganga, bought a dhoti and jhola, and started walking to Badrinath. He remembers crossing several dams en route. “A sign on the road across it would say: ‘Save trees, save environment’.” At Badrinath, he met sanyasis from Matri Sadan. He felt he had come home.

In his three years at the ashram, Atmabodhanand has fasted eight times. As the fast gets longer, deities start appearing in his dreams. “I saw Durga devi on the 47th day of a fast,” he tells me. “She was walking around this ashram and I was throwing red flowers on her. I said, ‘I am coming with you now.’ She said, ‘No, you have work to do.’”

Otherwise soft-spoken, Atmabodhanand has strong words for those claiming to worship the Ganga. The daily aartis at Har ki Paudi, he says, are “hypocritical”. “The person conducting it knows the river’s condition 10 km away is worse. If he still does it with a happy mind, you can’t say that [it’s not a show].” The locals burrowing into the Ganga’s ecology are “selfish”. “If there’s another tragedy like the cloudburst in 2013, Uttarakhand will drown.” In their struggle against the state, the ashram has found some sympathisers. “But most of us are at the bottom of the ladder,” a constable who had detained Atmabodhanand in the last week of November told me. “And to go up the ladder, we may have to step on someone’s neck, someone’s back. Whatever our seniors want.”

Kumar, the sub-divisional magistrate, made it seem like the state regarded the sanyasis at Matri Sadan as overzealous and paranoid, out of touch with the realities of nation-building. But they’re not anti- development, says Atmabodhanand, they’re pro-sustainability. They’re not anti-dams, they’re pro-renewables. They’re not a bunch of spiritual kooks, they seek evidence of their beliefs in science. “In Mahabharata, the rocks that Ganga flows through are described as Shiva’s dreadlocks. It’s their own way of saving it from the quarries.”

On my final day at the ashram, I ask Shivanand how confident they are of success. “It’s my duty to work, not worry about the fruit,” he replies. At what cost, though? “The truth will always win,” he says. “A crucified Christ is far more powerful than a living Jesus.”