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Renewing the Uttarakhand Movement

Rajiv Rawat, October 6, 2004

This past weekend marked the 10th anniversary of Kali Raat — the rape and massacre of rallyists by police that proved to be the turning point of the Uttarakhand separate state movement. However, in the region, commemorations of that awful but momentous night were muted, except for the lonely vigil and hunger strike carried out by women activists of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch at Gairsain.

Their protest speaks to the unfinished business of the Uttarakhand Andolan that more or less came to an end as a mass movement with the creation of Uttaranchal in 2000. The women have demanded three main points — a change of capital — from Dehradun to Gairsain in the geographic centre of the state, a change of name — from the fictitious Uttaranchal to the ancient Uttarakhand, and the prosecution of the officials involved in Kali Raat.

Neither trivial nor parochial, these demands have continued to resonate since the creation of the state, and prompting sporadic protests from faithful activists since even before Uttaranchal was declared in its current shape. They symbolize a deeper articulation of the movement’s goals for a decentralized state, intimately connected with the rural backbone of the hills. Gairsain as a typical hill village in the beloved land of venerated freedom fighter Chander Singh Garhwali, represents this demand for a government closer to its people, capable of sharing its lived experiences and remedying the political, economic, cultural, and social imbalances between the large urban centres and the rural reality.

Yet, whether the state or even the general population is listening anymore is questionable. Indeed, movement activists have witnessed a disillusioning process of business as usual over the past four years, as people have seemingly once again acquiesced to cynicism and inertia. So effective has been the deep sleep, that even the name Uttarakhand as an embodiment of the aspirations of highland peoples has faced erasure from public memory. Moreover, after six years of almost continuous agitation, many activists have tried to get on with their lives, disgruntled but too discouraged to work towards the Uttarakhand of their dreams.

As for the Uttaranchal, the verdict is still out. At its very best, Uttaranchal has proven to be a durable administrative unit, finding wide scale acceptance even grudgingly from the plains peoples of its southern districts. However, while those living outside the state can now proudly point to the outline of the state on maps that is no longer submerged in the vastness of Uttar Pradesh, the change has done little for local inhabitants outside the cities. Indeed, there has even been a loss of revenue for development work due to the division of assets with UP, and the resulting increase in pressure to exploit the natural resources of the region.

At worst though, Uttaranchal has empowered the people’s traditional enemies. In the absence of visionary political leadership, the bureaucracy has enthroned itself, tightening its grip on the infrastructure, resources, and decision-making power of the government. As a result, grassroots institutions like the various gram and van panchayats have faced an uphill battle to get their rights recognized. Meanwhile, the powerful mafias operating the region have also made their presence felt. Land speculation has skyrocketed and belated measures to stem the land rush has proved too little too late. There are even indications that outmigration has actually accelerated rather than decreased since the creation of the state.

In this, the movement risks winning the battle but losing the war much like Chipko, that other great movement of Uttarakhand. Just as Chipko saw the contractor system replaced by an even more voracious state monopoly over the forests, so too it seems that the Uttarakhand Andolan is confronting the devastating irony of gaining a state but losing the heart and soul of old Uttarakhand. It is thus fitting that Chipko itself is coming full circle with the renewal of struggles in places such as Kataldi over mining and the Niti Valley over state tourism policy.

Thus, in this anniversary year, Uttarakhand activists can interrupt this slow slide into oblivion by coming together and taking an unflinching look at the movement, warts and all. One can ask fundamental questions about the coherence of the movement that grew so large and so fast in its early years. While the participation of the hill people was overwhelming, it has already been noted that the movement’s ideology remained underdeveloped and subordinated to the unifying single-point demand for a separate state. Fortunately, organizations such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in the run up to statehood laid the groundwork for this type of analysis and their findings can be revisited and elaborated further as part of a political programme.

As part of this process, the role of the large parties that attempted to hijack the movement for their own ends can be investigated. Strategies can be proposed for moving beyond the dysfunctional state of representative democracy that allowed for this manipulation, to a participatory model where people and communities could in fact govern themselves. To this end, the smaller more progressive parties can be encouraged to unite their efforts to present a credible alternative that could challenge the moribund status quo. It would also include establishing connections to other issues within and beyond Uttarakhand, focusing initially on the resource struggles that seem to be intensifying as environmental degradation, displacement, and dispossession continue to bedevil development in the region.

However it is in women like Uma Bhatt and Dhooma Devi who initially sat in dharna in Gairsain where the future of Uttarakhand must lie. While women constituted the vast majority of activists during the separate state struggle as well as almost every other recent social movement for that matter, they have yet to see any benefits from the formation of Uttaranchal. As such, the time has finally come for their specific needs to take centre stage.

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