By: Lisa S. Harney,
About two years ago I began to make a documentary film about a little known group of saints in India who had, for the past 15 years, been protecting the Ganges River from environmental destruction by mining companies and multinational dam projects on the river in the Himalaya’s.
The way they did this was to go on Satyagraha, what we would call a hunger strike in the west. But there are subtle differences between our understanding of a hunger strike and their version of it. Satyagraha translates as ‘truth force’ or ‘soul force’. The saints believed that by fasting, they were conducting a spiritual practice which would ultimately negate the damaging consequences of development on their sacred river.
The term was originally coined by Ghandi, who employed it to gain spiritual power and internal strength to overcome the British in India. Subsequently, the phrase has entered the Indian set of languages and means loosely, activism.
When I filmed in 2011, the saints had just embarked on their 32nd Satyagraha. This is no small feat, some of them lasted for 73 days. What was astonishing ultimately, was just how successful they were.
For the past 15 years, the state of Uttarakhrand in Northern India had allowed unchecked mining on their holiest river. Every day hundreds of trucks and tractors, even JVC machines would dig up the river bed wholesale, the lime and sulpher rocks they dug up were a precious commodity, and they would be crushed and turned into cement which in turn would build the bridges, roads, dams and other developments along the river.
When Swami Shivanand of Matri Sadan opened his new ashram in 1998 just south of Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganges. The tiny plot of land he had secured to build his ashram was mostly jungle, nevertheless, he and a handful of his disciples camped out on the land in makeshift brush and wood huts while the structures of the yagyashalla (fire ritual pit) and simple rooms were being built. Every evening they would take a short walk to the river to perform the evening Aarti. A celebration of the goddess Ganga and an offering to the river. Aarti is performed everywhere along the 1500 mile length of the river and every night.
That cold November evening, as Swami Shivanand walked towards the bank of the river, he claimed to have clairvoyantly heard the word ‘Ganga’, from a disembodied voice that had no origin. Later, he discussed the mysterious, metaphysical experience with his disciples, trying to work out what was meant by it. The next day, they had their answer, dozens of tractors were digging up the river bed directly outside their ashram. In response, the saints began to undertake Satyagraha.
At first they sat quietly outside the local government offices, known as the administration in India, under banners which agitated against mining. They were promptly arrested for disturbing the peace. After that, they fasted in their ashram, not disturbing anyone’s peace. As much as the government tried to ignore the fasting saints, their quiet protest built local momentum. In 1998, the mining was so bad that it almost took down a bridge that crossed the Ganges, many of the miners were operating illegally under the nose of the government whose officers were often paid off to turn a blind eye. Millions upon millions of tonnes of free stones directly delivered by the river to their stone crushers which were situated next to the bank of the river. That year, the saints managed, through legal means and through their protests to ban mining the Kumbh Mela or holy area of Haridwar. Despite the judgement of the Supreme Court of Uttarakhrand, mining continued unabated.
In 2000, Swami Shivanand was arrested and placed in prison. The charge against him was ‘attempted suicide’. In prison, he continued his hunger strike, challenging himself not to lose weight thus giving the administration ammunition to force feed him. His diet consisted of lemon and water, and a little salt, he was doing fine and maintaining his 40kg weight, until suddenly, 21 days later, he became extremely ill. The authorities sent to the local district hospital, where he was treated for poison and survived. He kept samples of his hair and nails, which were sent to a devotee in France, who had them analyzed at a lab, the results stated that he had ingested high levels of arsenic poison.
There were further attempts on his life, and eventually, according to the saints, the mafia organizations who owned the mining companies were successful. Swami Gopalanand, Shivanands disciple, was murdered in a remote forest area over a hundred miles away, his death was never investigated and the official police report stated he died from a lightening strike. Swami Shivanand was assigned two armed policeman to protect him and his disciples from the mining mafia. After that there was an uneasy truce, they did not mine the holy area of Haridwar for almost eight years, until the local government redrew the map in 2008, reducing the size of the Kumbh Mela area, effectively allowing mining again.
I first met Swami Nigmanand, a disciple of Shivanand, in 2010 by complete co-incidence. I had been filming a story about the Pasig River in the Phillipines, and was on holiday in India after an exhaustive filming schedule recovering in the glorious mountainous area of Badrinath. When I started speaking to the young sanyassin who sat on the wall above where I was staying, it was just a friendly greeting, but it wasn’t long before we were talking rivers. We stayed in touch.
In 2011, he told me he was about to undertake another satyagraha, they were mining again on the banks of Misrapur and Agitpur, inside the Kumbh Mela area. Swami Shivanand escalated their protest by stating that they would continue fasting until all mining on the river was halted. He and the government were at odds, what he considered to be illegal mining, they presented as legal. Nigmanands fast lasted for a heroic 68 days before he was admitted to hospital. I was in contact with him throughout the satyagraha, so I can personally vouch for their story. He recovered in hospital, there are video clips of him speaking on the phone, laughing, talking with friends and devotees’ of the ashram but within 3 days, he had fallen into a coma and he subsequently died. Shivanand told me he had been poisoned.
Just a few months later, I was back in India to investigate his death. When I arrived, I was told that the CBI, India’s bureau of Investigation was about to launch an investigation into his death, effectively leaving me impotent, I couldn’t involve myself until their investigation was complete, it was going to take at least 6 months to a year. At the same time, the government decided to begin mining again at the banks of Misrapur and Agitpur, the lots that Nigmanand had died for. When Swami Shivanand announced his satyagraha, we cobbled together some film equipment and began filming his satyagraha. The results are a feature length documentary, following the details of Shivanand’s fast and telling their story of the river. A river that is sacred and being destroyed.
You can see the trailer of the film here: www.satyagrahamovie.com