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Op-Ed: Appealing to NRUs with A Clear Vision and Alternative

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, 26 October 2006

As a past office bearer and long-time member of both the Canadian and US Uttarakhandi associations, I look with sympathy upon the UKD’s attempts to generate funds (Garhwal Post, 25 Oct) to counter the powerful political machines of the BJP and Congress in the upcoming elections. Everyone loves an underdog, and the UKD is definitely there in its uphill battle for even the attention of Uttarakhandi voters.

Moreover, as a long time supporter of the Uttarakhand movement and its distinct demands, I do understand how the UKD’s political marginalization has resulted in the shortcomings of the state that exists today — from its very name, to the choice of capital, to the even more lopsided development favouring the plains vs. the hills (Indeed, this is part of my doctoral research topic). However, while small parties are always at a distinct disadvantage in first-past-the-post electoral systems like that of India but also Canada and the US, there are additional reasons why the UKD will find outreach to overseas communities difficult. Unfortunately, these relate to some of the same reasons in why NRU communities have been relatively ineffectual beyond laudable personal efforts in intervening in the development of the state.

First migrants abroad face double assimilation, first into the general Hindi-speaking Indian culture (Dehradun and Delhi are already there), and then into the host country’s society. In all this, Garhwali or Kumaoni culture usually comes last except for perhaps some nostalgic reminiscence of the Devbhumi. This assimilation no doubt favours the national parties. Lingering insecurities around religion, as well as the class basis of the migrating families (largely upper middle class) also favours the BJP who have been able to corner the cultural market despite its inherent contradictions. Only those that have taken a keen interest in their homeland would look upon the UKD as an authentic alternative, representating the people’s voice in the region.

In addition, migrants’ associations are also generally apolitical to prevent differences in opinions from deepening the already strong divides in the communities (yes, caste and regional divisions exist abroad as well). Unlike larger groups such as Sikhs or Tamils who have poured millions from abroad into their respective political struggles, Uttarakhandi associations are also very weak and quite unable to even generate funds for their own functioning. Unfortunately, this perpetuates the weak identification with Uttarakhand amongst highlanders, as most potently symbolized by the meek acceptance of the name “Uttaranchal” since 2000.

Hope for the UKD does lie in the general disenchantment with political parties prevalent in India as well as the West. If the UKD can stress the “Kranti” in its name, where participatory democracy based on social equity are clearly articulated as a move beyond “business as usual”, then the party might have a chance of breaking the logjam of cynicism and apathy aflicting the electorate. This would also give the party a chance to break out of its highland vote ghetto and build an Uttarakhand for ALL who live here. Working against this of course is that very same tendency of citizens to withdraw from electoral politics. Getting these same people to the ballot box will itself be a major undertaking.

Similarly, as noted in a previous Garhwal Post editorial, a clear unified alternative remains the “Holy Grail” for small parties who cannot alone match the media, muscle, and money power of the traditional big parties. The UKD can follow the CPI(M) in seizing on the huge issues of forest rights of rural communities, dam-induced displacement, and social justice for the poor that continue to be ignored by both BJP and Congress whose eyes remain firmly fixed on national politics to the detriment of the local. Before doing so however, the UKD would need to sort out its own internal divisions and forge a pact with other parties along the lines of the Jan Morcha in UP.

In these last two endeavours, I reveal perhaps some of my own yearnings as manifest in the dismal state of politics in the West. There too, parties like the UKD are marginalized even while voter turnout declines in every election, even as elections are increasingly rigged! As such, my fervent hope is for a new politics to emerge in the next few months that will persist past the elections and into a general movement for real democracy. In this, the UKD and any other group will get at least my support.

(The author is a past secretary of the Uttarakhand Cultural Association of Canada and a past director of the Uttaranchal Association of North America)