STORIES FROM INDIA

THE STORY OF THE PEOPLE WHO HUGGED TREES.

A story based on true events at Advani, India, version written by Alison Chaplin

In November 1977, the forestry department marked out 640 trees for felling near the village of Advani. The villagers resolved to stop the felling, and the women tied a sacred thread around the fated trees. Tying a sacred thread is a symbolic gesture in Hindu custom. It symbolises the bond between brother and sister, and by tying a thread around the trees, the women were declaring that they would save the trees, even if it cost them their lives.

The forestry officer visited the village, and tried to persuade the women of the benefits of the felling. But he had no success.

Eventually he said, "You foolish village women, do you know what these forests bear? Resin, timber, and therefore foreign exchange!"

And he insisted that this was the way that development would reach the hill villages.

The women in charge of the meeting replied:

"Yes, we know.

What do the forests bear?

Soil, water and pure air.

Soil, water and pure air,

Are the basis of life."

This was echoed by the hundreds of men, women and children who were gathered at the meeting. So the forestry officer left Advani empty handed and reported the situation to higher authorities. Meanwhile, the villagers were full of enthusiasm for their new slogan.

The next day the officer came back, this time with armed policemen and hired woodcutters. The villagers formed into groups of three or four and each group surrounded a marked tree. Whenever the woodcutters advanced towards a particular tree, the group would clasp their arms firmly around its thick trunk. The woodcutters could not fell a single tree.

The policemen had no solution to this unique form of tree protection. The only thing they could do would be to drag each villager away from the trees, and then make an arrest. And all the while the people continued to affirm their non-violent protest, repeatedly shouting slogans such as:

"No matter what the attack is on us,

Our hands will not rise in violence!

The policemen are our brothers,

Our fight is not with them."

The police had no fear that the villagers would show violence towards them, but they were unable to take any drastic action against a gathering that showed such warmth and friendship towards them, and who kept saying that their only intention was to protect the trees, not to create any disturbance.

After waiting for several hours, the officials consulted one another and decided to move away. Some of the police congratulated the people on their success. As the vehicles roared away, the joyous people reassembled to repeat their message: "We will offer our own bodies before the axes fall on the trees."

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