Uttarakhand vs. Uttaranchal – the controversy is more than a debate over semantics. It strikes at the core of our identity as a people, and what our people struggled for in the Uttarakhand Andolan. The fact that a state was formed in November 2000 bearing the name “Uttaranchal” is only a historical footnote in the long history and heritage of “Uttarakhand” – the Northern Reaches, abode of Shiva, source of the Ganga, and wellspring of our culture and identity. This we cannot forget in the coming years of hard struggle, not just for progress and uplift, but the survival of the land itself.
August 28, 2002
In the first ever Uttaranchal state election of February 2002, the Congress party, on the brink of a major comeback in the hills after more than a decade in the political wilderness, promised the citizens of the new state that once coming to power, they would change its name to the ancient and true name, Uttarakhand. As the election results rolled in, it became clear that this promise had helped Congress edge out the BJP to claim a simple majority in the state assembly.
Two years earlier, the BJP moved the UP assembly and Lok Sabha to approve statehood for Uttarakhand, yet, in keeping with their long running practice of appropriating movements, chose to name the new state “Uttaranchal”, ostensibly for its less separatist connotations. However, what the BJP did not understand was that the name Uttaranchal was a slap in the face of those who truly struggled selflessly for Uttarakhand. Many saw it as a crude attempt by the politicians to steal the movement from the people, as well as suppress the identity of a region that figured prominently as Uttarakhand in Hindu legends and scriptures for thousands of years.
Indeed, the BJP was once strongly opposed to statehood, and had a change of heart only in the late 1980s when the rich electoral dividends of shifting policy became clear. However, instead of taking up the indigenous cry for Uttarakhand, upholding “Uttaranchal” seemed more palatable and amenable to their brand of politics. Rather than an autonomous state, democratically governed, with a distinct identity, and its policies answerable to the people, the BJP wanted just another administrative unit of a centralized state, where national integration meant assimilation into the amorphous Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani culture. Sadly, the BJP was able to get away with this sleight of hand as many Uttarakhandis lacked the self-confidence to claim autonomy as Uttarakhand. Settling for Uttaranchal seemed politically wise, lest the rest of India forget the many sacrifices the region had made for the life of the country and mistake the Uttarakhand Andolan for a separatist movement. In a society where assimilation into plains culture meant upward mobility and “paharis” were looked down upon, the BJP leaders also figured that the weaker, more passive –anchal would be more acceptable than what they saw as a strident call for –khand.
Even still, the irony of the BJP choosing Uttaranchal was not lost on its own ardent grassroots supporters, some of whom felt ultimately betrayed by the party leadership. For years, the BJP had positioned itself as the guarantor of Indian culture, but in changing the name, and almost doing so for Jharkhand, they misjudged the passions and pride of the people and revealed themselves to be only the latest in a series of political exploiters of people’s sentiment. This feeling was so strong, that the electorate of the new state ousted them from office in their first chance at the polls, not because the people had a great love of Congress, but because in the moment of truth, the BJP put politics over the people’s aspirations.
Uttaranchal, our current reality, remains a pale shadow of what could be. In the two years following statehood, it has become painfully obvious that the new Uttaranchal does not belong to the people, but to the large landowners of the terai, petty babus in the bureaucracy, land speculators across the hills, and the big mafia-controlled contractors that continue to exploit the natural resources of the Himalaya beyond the breaking point. While the rich prosper, the hardships of the common man multiplies and their lot grows ever more precarious. The backbreaking work of women continues unabated and they remain deprived of their political voice, despite all their sacrifices for Uttarakhand.
Moreover, a new class of colonizers has arrived from the plains and cities of Northern India where life is rapidly becoming unbearable. Land prices have skyrocketed as the wealthy from urban centers, dreaming about summer homes to escape from the wretched heat and pollution of the plains, have bought up prime land all over Uttaranchal. Overdevelopment by absentee landowners now represents a real threat, not just to the hill stations as in the past, but to the entire hills. Most grievously, the ugly concrete sprawl, land colonization, pollution, and vehicular congestion, are doing what two centuries of domination by the Gurkha and the British, coupled with the money order economy could not – uproot the patrimony of the hill people, devastate the natural beauty of the Devbhumi, and corrupt its spirit.
Despite the ravaging of the natural and cultural splendor of Uttarakhand, hope remains as the people’s struggles continue on all fronts. The confusion wrought by the formation of the state marking in the politician’s mind an end to the struggle, will take years to overcome, but the cry for Uttarakhand will only grow until justice is done and our land regained. Until then, Uttarakhand, our Uttarakhand, will remain our dream, our inspiration, and our struggle.