Associated with the Chipko movement, Kumar was a botanist with a difference. He saw elements of botany as part of natural evolution intertwined with the social demands that humans made on it.
Remembering Virendra Kumar: a humanist, botanist and scholar
Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
In the many down turns in his life, it was to Emily Dickinson that Virendra turned to. As his favourite poet, her poems spoke to him of all that he considered important in life—simplicity, humane relations and nature as source of life and as succour to troubled souls.
Virendra Kumar was an exceptional being, a man ahead of his times, cut from so different a cloth that he did not reflect the patriarchal society he hailed from or the hardships he had experienced. He was, until the end, a person so giving to others that he overlooked his own needs.
It was scholarship, deep, interdisciplinary, and meant for the betterment of humankind and the earth that he was dedicated to. Although trained as a botanist and having set up the botany lab at Zakir Hussain College (at Ajmeri Gate or old campus) and later establishing the Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environments (CISMHE; Delhi University), Virendra Kumar saw elements of botany as part of natural evolution intertwined with the social demands that humans made on it. He wanted to complete his work on the Ganga, tracing its geological history and its social and botanical variations as it traversed down to the plains.
He had ideas of seeing the complete restoration of the Himalayan floral diversity and richness, which he had so carefully documented. And, he had wanted to travel and study the North-East regions, especially Meghalaya, which he considered a treasure trove of ecological and botanical wealth. His magnum opus is the book, Chromosome Atlas of Flowering Plants of the Indian Subcontinent, an addendum to which he was working on until his death.
While much ink has been spilt on the Chipko movement and the excessive attention that it had received also accounted for the slow death of the movement, it was Virendra Kumar, who as botanist and friend of key leaders and peasants of the Garhwal region, first noted its significance.
Heading the commission to enquire into the Chipko unrest, Virendra Kumar had stressed the deep ecological degradation that the region was experiencing, which had also resulted in the Alakananda floods, and had called for a complete ban on the felling of oak and rhododendron trees.
He had met with and impressed upon Indira Gandhi the need to safeguard the Himalayan flora and he had focussed on the beautiful rhododendrons (including photographing them and rendering them into postage stamps) of the region which he saw as being eradicated in their place of origin even as they gained popularity and were the source of a lucrative industry in the United Kingdom.
As a member of the Planning Commission he had expended his energies to have better environmental safeguards for all major projects and he was keen that the ideas of social impact and environmental analyses be integrated into all economic projects. He was to rue the construction of the Tehri dam, which he considered a rupture to the very foundations of the Himalayan region but, as was and is wont of our ruling apparatus, none of his concerns were heeded. Even as he witnessed the ebbing of Chipko and other ecological movements, he reposed hope in new movements such as that of Kalpavriksh, which he often considered to be the beacon of future ecological concerns.
Appreciative of Anil Agarwal’s work and special energy, he had become a board member of the Centre for Science and Environment and followed its work closely. His administrative skills were limited and the financial crisis in the CISMHE while at the South Campus of Delhi University, were periods of intense anxiety for him. In this he represented the sad story of Indian science administration which expects scholars to also act as administrators and fund raisers, privileging those who are able to work the system rather than those who can contribute to knowledge production. That the baton at CISMHE went to R Pandit, his former student whom he liked and admired very much, was one of the few academic decisions which gave him some satisfaction.
Despite his frail health over the past decade, he persisted in wanting to complete his research and was working on several manuscripts. A mentor to many students and faculty, I was fortunate to have been one among those who benefitted from his concern and friendship. He closely followed my work on droughts and on agricultural distress and saw these also as aspects of the larger ecological erosions which were expressed in social terms.
“Hope” he wrote to me once, citing Emily Dickinson, “is a thing with feathers, which perches in the soul, and sings in tune without words”. And, it was our responsibility to persist despite the hurdles we faced. Such was Virendra Kumar’s spirit and impact that despite distance and differences he reached out to make us understand that life’s travails were lessons to help humans realise their true potential. A naturalist who saw the social in nature, and a philosopher who called attention to the centrality of nature as a compass in human life, Virendra Kumar was that rare humane scholar who privileged ideas rather than positions. He did not get the academic recognition (retiring as a reader) that he well-deserved or the comforts that result from being close to India’s science establishment. But, in an attitude true to his inner mettle he neither sought such recognition nor resented his relegation to obscurity. For those of us fortunate to have had him in our lives, he will be part of our ecological and social consciousness.
A R Vasavi is a Bengaluru-based social anthropologist, who has known Virendra Kumar since 1982.
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