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Commentaries on Inception of “Uttaranchal”

A historical look at the commentaries that appeared at the debut of Uttaranchal reveal much about the current trajectory of the state. Although almost universally pessimistic in tone and critical of the way Uttaranchal was formed, many of the commentaries at the time also focused on the continuing struggles of Uttarakhand’s popular organizations. The difficulties of the new government were highlighted, and despite their attempts at gaining the public’s trust, had only achieved a “wait and see” attitude among the people anxious for the long deferred promises that statehood would fulfill.

These articles were compiled back in 2000 and their links are provided here to better ground the support network in the political circumstances and realities that confront Uttarakhand as it moves into a new phase of the struggle. – R.R.

  • Tale of Two States
    Daily Telegraph (11/18/00)
  • No reason to smile
    Deccan Herald (11/19/00)
  • Round One to the Lobbyists, Politicians and Bureaucrats
    Indian Express (1/2/01)
  • Uttarakhand: Problems and Possibilities
    People’s Voice (10/1-15/00)
  • Uttaranchal: plain tales from the hills
    Tehelka Online (11/15/00)
  • Stones unto Stones
    Down to Earth

A Tale of Two State

Ramachandra Guha, The Daily Telegraph November 18, 2000

In January 1939, a great adivasi mahasabha was held in the town of Ranchi. Twenty thousand people had assembled for the meeting, Oraons, Santhals, Hos and Mundas, as many women as there were men. This “vast crowd of people” had “gathered to vindicate their political rights”. The presidential address was delivered by Jaipal Singh, a 36-year-old Munda Christian who had taken a degree at Oxford and also played hockey for India. Jaipal was already known to the adivasis as their “marang gomke”, or supreme leader. In his speech at the Mahasabha he insisted that the tribals of Chhotanagpur had suffered grievously at the hands of Bengal and Bihar. The adivasi movement, said Jaipal, “stands primarily for the moral and material advancement of Chhotanagpur and the Santhal Parganas, for the economic and political freedom of the aboriginal tracts and, in sum, for the creation of a separate governor’s province…with a government and administration appropriate to its needs. In separation alone lies the salvation of Chhotanagpur.”

The record of Jaipal Singh’s speech, along with the memories of those who heard it, come to us courtesy the anthropologist, P.G. Ganguly, who in the late Fifties conducted an oral history of the adivasi mahasabha. Unfortunately, no comparable scholarly account exists of a public meeting held in the Terai town of Haldwani in the summer of 1946. It was at this meeting that the demand for a separate Uttarakhand state was first articulated. The main spokesman for the demand was the lawyer and political activist, Badridutt Pande, a man with 25 years of work in the service of his people. Known as Kumaun Kesari, Pande had previously led movements in defence of peasant forest rights and against the system of begar or forced labour in the hills.

This is the first similarity between Jharkhand and Uttarakhand: that behind their very recent creation lies a long history of often heroic struggle. Jaipal Singh continued the movement for a separate state after independence; the cause being taken up after his death by such leaders as Ram Dayal Munda, N.E. Horo, A.K. Roy, and Shibu Soren. The demand for a separate state of Uttarakhand was placed before the states reorganization committee of 1955. It was rejected, but in the Seventies and again in the Nineties the movement was renewed through protests, petitions, and demonstrations, with university students, boys as well as girls, in its vanguard.

Why did these movements take so long to bear fruition? In either case, the parent state was bitterly opposed to separation, for these areas provided it with abundant natural resources at low cost. The Chhotanagpur plateau and the central Himalaya are both rich in forest cover, mineral wealth, and hydro-electric potential. The politicians and businessmen of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could not therefore allow the creation of Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. In both areas there have been major social movements protesting against the loot of natural resources by outsiders. The best known of these movements is undoubtedly the chipko andolan, which was at its height in Garhwal and Kumaun in the Seventies. In Jharkhand, too, there have been struggles against unregulated mining, against commercial forestry, and against the siting of large dams.

In the late Seventies the adivasis protested vigorously against the conversion of their sal forests to teak plantations, a scheme intended to benefit urban consumers, timber merchants and the forest department. The protesters who uprooted the teak saplings suggested that sal means Jharkhand, sagwan (teak) means Bihar.

The third point of similarity is that in both these new states a longstanding popular struggle has been hijacked by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The people’s movement is associated in the one case with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, in the other with the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal. In both instances the BJP entered the struggle late, and opportunistically, but with its greater access to money and to power in the Centre, was able to attract to its side previously autonomous individuals and groups.

The Uttarakhand story, which I know better, is as follows. In 1994 the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, insisted that the recommendations of the Mandal commission would apply to Kumaun and Garhwal, although in these districts only two per cent of the population come from the backward castes. These areas have a fairly high proportion of Dalits, who already enjoy the benefit of reservation. However, about 70 per cent of the hill population is composed of Brahmins and Rajputs. Notably, in Uttarakhand these high castes are often poor and economically insecure, smallholder peasants who plough and cultivate the land themselves.

Mulayam Singh’s proposals which, if implemented, would deny local people jobs and also lead to an influx of state employees from the plains, evoked strong protests. In the summer of 1994 there were bandhs and dharnas aplenty. In two separate incidents, in Mussoorie and Khatima respectively, the UP police fired indiscriminately on a peaceful crowd. Thus far the movement had been led by organizations such as the UKD. But with the firings the BJP stepped in, and gave the struggle an unfortunate casteist overtone.

The national party offered itself as a protector of the high castes against the predatory Mulayam. The Uttarakhand movement had previously rested on different grounds: it stood against the exploitation of natural resources and the rule by indifferent or hostile politicians from the plains. Under saffron direction these older and more authentic reasons for statehood gave way to the poisonous rhetoric of caste. One incidental consequence of BJP leadership is that the older name for the state, Uttarakhand, has been replaced by Uttaranchal, this change made silently and in clear violation of popular desire.

A BJP tribal, rather than the charismatic Shibu Soren, is the new chief minister of Jharkhand. In Uttaranchal, the BJP has stoked discontent by appointing a plainsman, Nityanand Swami, in preference to a proper son of the soil. Being in power in the states’ early days might not be to the best advantage of the BJP. What they do will excite opposition, and in time popular movements might crystallize to recover the true voice of Jharkhand and Uttarakhand.

In both these states, to get rid of the interloper BJP shall be the first priority. What follows then is very much an open question. Will the heroes of grassroots protest, men such as Shibu Soren and Kashi Singh Aire of the UKD, re-invent themselves as calculating and greedy politicians once they come to power? Will they sanction the unsustainable exploitation of forests and minerals in the name of “progress”? Or will they, with the help of thoughtful advisers, put in place a transparent government and a welfare-oriented administration?

As a historian, I have followed these two struggles for many years. As a citizen, I shall now watch their future with nervous expectation. The creation of Jharkhand and Uttarakhand has been hard work: years of protest in which countless unselfish people have participated. One must now hope for models of governance and development that shall decisively set these states apart from the cronyism and corruption of UP and Bihar.