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Despair in the hills could be BJP’s doom

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

NAINITAL, FEBRUARY 11: IT’S a state whose dreams have died young. In Uttaranchal today the predominant poll issue is a sense of betrayal which no threat of war, religious fervour or film star can diminish.

After convulsing over the demand for a separate state for three decades what the hills got was not Uttarakhand but Uttaranchal as the BJP would have it. They wished Gairsain, a small hamlet in the centre of the state, would be their new capital but Dehra Dun was the BJP government’s choice. The women activists who had led the movement from the front wanted total prohibition. Chief Minister Nityanand Swami didn’t keep his promise and his successor Bhagat Singh Koshiari didn’t make any. Those who had participated in the agitation wished their honour to be redeemed by making the culprits of the 1994 Muzaffarnagar mass rape incident pay dearly but the BJP government took the plea that the courts had already dealt with the issue. And finally, the hills demanded development but the BJP government failed to deliver.

‘‘Although a state was created, it neither has the name, nor bears any resemblance to our dream,’’ laments 40-year-old Prof Sheela Rajwar of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch (UMM), a progressive women’s organisation.

So last winter when the state was formed, hope rode on the euphoria. This winter the snow and the icy breeze blowing over the Naini lake has brought disillusionment and despair to the first election in this new state. While the regional parties, which emerged during the various phases of the movement are raising the unfulfilled demands, the Congress is hoping to gain from the anti-incumbency factor. The party has agreed to change the state’s name to Uttarakhand. And in a gesture to the women who were so crucial to the movement, it has also fielded a woman candidate, Jaya Bisht, from Nainital.

‘‘Uttarakhand is tied to Devbhoomi, a country mentioned in the Markanday Puran. It has enormous emotional significance,’’ admits Bisht.

Yet, the other issues of the stir are missing from the Congress manifesto which focuses on general development. ‘‘Vikas is our main agenda, the BJP brought vinash,’’ says the 44-year-old Bisht. ‘‘If vikas had continued under the BJP, there was no reason to create a separate state.’’

The leader of regional parties disagree. ‘‘We need local solutions to our regional problems which were highlighted by the Uttarakhand movement,’’ points out Prakash Pandey, vice-president of the UKD, a local party formed in 1979.

The regional parties are open to supporting a Congress Govt. Admits Pandey: ‘‘No truck with the BJP but we are open to other alternatives.’’ The Congress still hopes to make it on its own but is secretly searching for alliance partners.

In order to prevent splintering of the Opposition vote, the UKD has formed a third front the Uttarakhand Joint Front with four smaller parties: the Uttarakhand Jan Vikas Party, the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini, the CPI and the CPI-ML. The Front has fielded Narayan Singh Jantwal, an advocate and a UKD activist, from Nainital. The Front’s wishlist includes most of the issues raised by the movement, including renaming of the state and shifting of its capital.

But the most popular demands are linked to women. ‘‘After all, women constitute the backbone of this economy as they do most of the work in the forest and fields and at home. Most of the men either work as migrants outside the state or are simply unemployed,’’ says 50-year-old Prof Uma Bhatt of Kumaon University, who is also a UMM activist.

Memories of the Muzaffarnagar mass rape makes them simmer with rage. ‘‘None of the culprits of that rape has been punished almost eight years after the incident despite a CBI inquiry and a favourable high court judgement,’’ points out Kamal Negi, a 55-year-old woman activist of the UMM. The BJP government finds an escape route in the fact that a 1999 Supreme Court order had set aside the high court order which had ordered a Rs 35-crore compensation package for the victims.

Prohibition is another sore issue. The UMM’s election slogan is: ‘‘Jo sharab pe chot karega, usko hamara vote milega.’’ The state BJP has realised its folly. The party has fielded a woman candidate, Shanti Mehra, who was a social activist during the Uttarakhand movement. She was the state president of the women’s wing of the BJP. The BJP’s new poll slogan is ‘‘Naya rajya bhi diya, surajya bhi denge’’ (We gave you a new state, now we will give you good governance). Ironically, that’s a straight admission of the BJP government’s guilt.