By Rajiv Rawat
January 18, 2007
With the second state assembly elections poised to descend into an alphabet soup free-for-all, the prescient words of veteran Dehradun-based activist, Biju Negi, remind me of the pivotal times ahead. Back in 2000, Negi made the observation that the formation of “Uttaranchal” was only the beginning of a more intense struggle that would pit brother against brother and neighbour against neighbour (Indian Express, January 2, 2001). Previously, the banner of Uttarakhand united all and sundry, as its single point demand allowed everyone to imagine for themselves their own future. In the post-statehood period, this unity would inevitably fragment, but Negi cautioned that the political choices in this new era would prove just as important as those made by the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.
In Arjuna’s dilemma before the great battle of Kurukshetra, Negi identified a crucial flashpoint between contending visions of Uttarakhand’s future. Interestingly, a similar conflict was recently vividly brought to the screen in the 2006 grand-prize winner at the Cannes International Film Festival. A powerful and heartbreaking film, the “Wind that Shakes the Barley”, relates the story of Ireland’s War for Independence from the point of view of two brothers that would find themselves on opposite sides of the subsequent Irish Civil War.
For many years, I have felt that Irish experience was particularly useful for understanding Uttarakhand’s current predicament, not only for the incredible historical and cultural parallels (both being very musical and pious people if in a heterodox way) but also for Ireland’s evolution as an independent state. Representing much more modest political goals of autonomy within India, the Uttarakhand struggle was thankfully several magnitudes less intense than the Irish “Troubles”. However, the struggle for political and cultural identity and the right to govern one’s own destiny, were similar, as were many of the catalyzing events. The film only reminded me of these connections in all their tragic dimensions.
Let me explain by beginning with the two seminal events in our respective histories. The 1916 Easter Rising that launched the modern Irish independence struggle with the “terrible beauty” of its martyrs proved to be as much a turning point as the 1994 Muzaffarnagar massacre that shocked the conscience of the nation and made the creation of Uttarakhand all but inevitable. The significance of each event were that much more enhanced by the dates on which they fell, with Easter reminding the highly religious Irish people of the sacrifice of that original Christian martyr, and the Muzaffarnagar incident falling on Gandhi Jayanti, the original father of the nation whose memory was betrayed by the violence visited upon the Uttarakhand rallyists.
Moreover, in both cases, it would take only six years for the respective struggles to reach a decisive juncture, with Ireland achieving partial independence through treaty in the form of the “Irish Free State” in 1922, and for Uttarakhand, statehood as “Uttaranchal” in 2000. As the “Wind that Shakes the Barley” so movingly depicts, the partially independent state, was fatally compromised from the beginning. The occupying British army and the hated “Black and Tans” regiments that had terrorized the country were withdrawn, only to be replaced by the Free State army, derisively referred to as the “Green and Tans”. Many of those that had sacrificed their utmost in the independence struggle, felt betrayed as their dreams of economic liberty and revolutionary change lay shattered. In a final act of perfidy, Ireland itself was partitioned, with the northern counties passing perhaps forever out of the hands of a united Irish nation.
Thus the British succeeded in dividing the Irish nationalists so deeply that civil war rapidly erupted between pro and anti-treaty forces. The Free State, with the full backing of the British government, did initially overcome the disorganized republican forces and establish itself for a short time. However, the original dream of an Irish Republic was soon achieved through general elections. In 1937, oaths of allegiance to the British monarchy were abrogated, the country renamed, and a free Ireland or Eire was finally, after so many faithful generations, born. And although it would take many more decades for Ireland to come into its own as the much heralded “Celtic Tiger”, the country itself never forsook the dignity it regained by reclaiming its true and ancient identity.
The Uttarakhand struggle was likewise shortchanged in the final inning with the establishment of a rump state of Uttaranchal with little control over its resources and even less renovation in the decayed functioning of parliamentary democracy or the bureaucracy. As in Ireland’s case, Uttarakhandi activists felt let down, particularly as the new power elite in Dehradun replicated the same power structure that existed in Lucknow. In a twist on the Irish situation, Uttaranchal acquired more than its traditional territories to the point where lowlanders would come to outnumber highlanders, confusing its identity and altering its intended development paradigm. Thus the hills would continue to experience heavy out migration with economic policies geared towards industrialization of the plains. The disillusionment would come to run so deep, that energy and passions that were so evident before 2000, evaporated as if there never was a mass movement for the separate state.
Yet in a hopeful note, just as the Irish Free State was eventually replaced by the Irish Republic, so has Uttaranchal been finally renamed Uttarakhand, its authentic and traditional name. And while just like Ireland, this change hardly affected any socio-economic change in its time, the re-assertion of “regional pride”, as noted by Pradeep Kumar, a historian of the Uttarakhand Struggle, may enthuse “a new spirit and energy among the people to outgrow the image of non-development acquired over centuries.” (“Uttarakhand’s Challenge”, Seminar 497, 2000).
Today, the Irish Free State is a historical footnote, a transitional period in Ireland’s march to freedom, as hopefully “Uttaranchal” will come to represent in our textbooks. However, the quiet rebirth of Uttarakhand does mark the next stage in the evolution of the state, one where many big questions will need to be answered. Hopefully, the coming assembly elections will not lead to another unassailable hegemony of one party or another, but a balance of forces that will need to work hard to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Unlike the Mahabharata, there are no Pandavas or Kauravas here, no pro-treaty or anti-treaty, but only residents of Uttarakhand united in our “regional patriotism”, who must work out their differences through dialogue and cooperation. Yet only then as the Irish have done and as Pradeep Kumar notes, can we “break the trap of cynicism, self-denigration and pessimism” and “come out of a cycle of non development which has made people look down upon themselves and their region as incapable of redemption.” The fact that we could do this democratically and through peaceful means makes us very lucky indeed, however it does mean we need to get to work!