National

Tears Of The Hills: Uttarakhand's Disastrous Date With Modernisation

Besides sweeping away a simpler way of life in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, rapid changes have cast a long shadow on the fragile ecology

Forest without the Sky by Sangita Maity Woodcut print Courtesy: Shrine Empire
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Each time I visit my hometown Almora in the Uttarakhand hills, or the capital city of Dehradun, I see change. The old hillsides have lost most of their trees. In their place have sprung up fancy new bungalows, all cem­ent and glass—the summer vacation homes for the well-heeled non-locals. Shiny SUVs, private clinics, spas and English-medium schools are everywhere. Very few locals now speak the local dialects. The old roads to the old houses remain congested and potholed. Water supply and sanitation are a major headache during the tourist season. In the last five years I have repeatedly heard complaints from groups of unemployed youngsters roaming the streets, and from elders sitting on benches in parks or tea shops. They grieve over being colonised by the moneyed people from the plains. About a general decline in everything, from governance to the environment. Yet, in the just-concluded elections to the state assembly, they’ve voted back the incumbent party with a clear majority.

Why? In the pregnant phrase of a politician, “Aap chronology samjhiye”, the state of Uttara­khand has existed only for 20-odd years, since November 9, 2000 to be precise. But it is a mind-boggling mish-mash  of cultures and gods and demi-gods that successive tribal clans, Brahminical, Buddhist and meandering yogis have introduced in the region for the past five centuries. From Adi Shankaracharya to the heretical founder of the Gorakhpanthi sect, Guru Gorakhnath, to Guru Nanak, all have come to the Himalayas on spiritual journeys. All these have dotted the land with countless temples and mutts to various gods and goddesses. Only some belong to mainstream Hindu dharma. Most of them are the presiding deities of hill ranges, rivers and waterfalls.

The original tribal inhabitants of Utta­rakhand are today reduced to a mere 5 per cent of the state’s total population of an estimated one crore people. Upper caste migrants who arrived in waves over the centuries now dominate the landscape. When Islam, sword in hand, sent many Hindu Rajput rulers scurrying, they and various Brahmin clans they had patronised,  sought shelter in this region. Today, 83 per cent of the population in Uttarakhand is Hindu. Dalits are pegged at 19 per cent, SCs at 5 per cent and Muslims and Sikhs are 14 per cent and 2.34 per cent respectively.

Rajputs and Brahmins—currently 62  per cent of the total population—have dominated politics in the region even in the post-Independence years. Earlier, these were  semi­-­sp­ontaneous groupings. Half-a-century after India became a Republic, the idea of a state of Uttarakhand was born. A local group, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, led a popular movement for the people who believed that the central Himalayan part of Uttar Pradesh was neglected. During  the post-Mandal years, then chief minister Mulayam Singh mocked the pahadis—the hill-dwellers—as only fit for domestic work, saying that if the region did not have enough OBC people, he’d flood the area with them to avail of the new ‘reservation’ policy. Mulayam’s arrogance provided more ammunition to the statehood movement.

The original tribal inhabitants of Utta­rakhand are today reduced to a mere 5 per cent of the state’s total population of an estimated one crore people.

Why must our state be run by leaders from the plains who, like the British, treat pahadis like slaves? As the anger grew, stoked by Mulayam Singh’s political rivals, in came Mayawati. But there was little change, or hope, for the pahadis except for the creation of a few new districts. But since Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, much water has flown down the Ganga and Yamuna. And the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal is just a pale shadow of its once formidable self. In the just-concluded elections, it lost in both the seats it contested.

Initially, Shaivism and its branches were the popular religions in the area. Sanatan Hindu ideology entered the area with Adi Shan­karacharya’s establishment of Badrinath Dham.  After right-wing politics took firm roots in the region, the BJP gave a new direction to its Hindutva-driven agenda, branding the state as the sacred Dev Bhumi—the land of the gods. This pleased the locals, long ignored and marginalised in mainstream politics. As a new state needed a well-coded new identity, the BJP dug out historical legends. In the last decade, a systematic embellishment of the area’s temples, including humble stone huts dedicated to anc­ient anthropomorphic goddesses and local gods, was carried out with funds from MLAs’ development allotments.

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Photograph: Getty Images

But the more artificial the genesis, the more precarious and hysterical its regionalism. This has reflected in the preparations for the recent elections, mounted as early as 2020 at the Haridwar Kumbh Mela, when Covid was ravaging the plains. The BJP fought off the stigma of launching a pandemic-spreader by changing its chief ministers. But leaders saw to it that the new narrative of this area as Hindus’ Dev Bhumi, was not diluted. Religion was then tied up neatly with promotion of tourism. This meant construction of new roads and widening of the already existing ones leading to the four holy dhams—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. The concerns of ecological scientists were dismissed as a new link road through the protected Corbett National Park was given the go ahead. The locals were assured it would facilitate religious tourism in their Dev Bhumi and generate huge revenue for everyone. This silenced them. The hill districts that had suffered the most damage to their lands in the 2013 Kedar valley flash floods, usually voted for the Congress. This time they voted for the BJP far more firmly and decisively than their brethren in the plains. The Congress was a poor second with its 20 seats in the plains districts of Udham Singh Nagar and Haridwar.

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Uttarakhand’s hill districts have a long history of their able-bodied men migrating to the plains. It still continues. Earlier, farming and cattle-rearing were jobs performed by young wives,and boys left behind to care for the land and the elders. Literacy levels in Uttarakhand, for both men and women, averages nearly 79 per cent. It is also a state with a highly skewed sex ratio—963 women to 1,000 males. Given all that, when young men come home seeking  good wives, the educated girls want assurances that they will not be forced to gather firewood, cow dung, fodder and/or help till the fallow fields. And if their men migrate, they would like to go with them.

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The waves of migration had resulted in a demographic change that ideologically brought the state closer to right-wing thinking.

These waves of family migrations from Uttarakhand had resulted in a demographic change that ideologically brought the state closer to right-wing thinking. In towns where better schools, hospitals and district courts are located—Almora, Ranikhet, Nainital, Mussoorie or Narendra Nagar—joblessness has doubled in the last decade. The agitated youth hang around, often drunk or high on hemp. They badly needed assurance. Enter Modiji, wearing a designer pahadi cap with a Brahma Kamal emblem, and addressing the youth directly. As the PM, he has been flying in and out of Keda­rnath, and visuals of him offering prayers, meditating in a cave had already created an aura which was a huge help near election time.

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Uttarakhand is a state that owes its sudden 30 per cent bulge in population to the huge publicity it has received in the last five years as a tourist destination. This has resulted in furious building activity. In areas with fragile identity, a stagnating economy and a majority of upper caste Hindus, public perception can be turned away from its dangers. With narratives supportive of purity of blood and race, the middle-classes took the bait easily. This has resulted in a strange alliance between the remnants of the racist colonial past and moral self-righteousness of the new Hindutva of the well-to-do. They defeated CM Dhami but put the state back in the BJP’s arms.

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How such survival may lead ultimately to a social, emotional and moral autism is encapsulated in a cunning local tale about a mouse and its wife. Long before humans, it was they that came up from the plains, holding paddy seeds in their mouths. Once there, the mouse tilled the soil and its wife sowed the seeds. Soon they were growing lots of rice and producing many children. One night a bull entered the field as they slept, and ate all the standing crops and then fell asleep in the middle of their paddy field. In the morning, when the mouse and its wife saw the bull sleeping in the wrecked field, they cursed him and said, “You pahadi bull, may you be castrated and pull the plough for Man. We, the rodents, shall not cultivate these fields hereafter, but live off the rice of the men who are coming here!”

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The men are here. So are the rodents.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Tears of the Hills")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Mrinal Pande is a journalist and author, and ex-chairperson, Prasar bharati

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