Uttarakhand’s challenge


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THE creation of Uttarakhand (Uttaranchal) marks the end of one stage in the process of granting political autonomy to the Himalayan belt. The 27th state fulfils the aspirations of the hill people who for a long time harboured a grouse that theirs was the only region in the entire Himalayan belt which had been denied the opportunity to govern itself in a manner suited to its peculiar topography.

It is after a gap of about 25 years that a new state has been carved out of an existing state, the last being Meghalaya, created out of the Jayantia, Garo and the Khasi hills of the then Assam state in the mid-’70s. All other states created thereafter already existed as Union Territories; their creation was only by way of elevation to full-fledged statehood.

It is important to note that unlike the other states created alongside Uttarakhand – Chattisgarh and Jharkhand – this hill state is not based on any ‘ethnic’ consideration such as the predominance of tribal population pitted against the ‘settlers’. Nor is it a linguistic state like those created in the 1950s and the 1960s. Linguistic-cultural identity has certainly lost ground to the existential needs of development, and Uttarakhand is a good example of that.

While development, or the lack of it, always lay behind most demands for separate states, the linguistic factor had actually camouflaged this factor in the initial decades of the Republic. The demands for Vidarbha, Telangana, Marathwada and Saurashtra have equally undermined the linguistic principle by elevating the issue of development over and above the lingo-cultural identity.

Identity formation in Indian politics, as perhaps elsewhere, has largely been a matter of creating instruments for mobilisation. Identity, in this sense, has always been an instrumental category tracing its origin to the politics of development. Ultimately, all questions of social existence are political and, therefore, demand their resolution in the public realm which politics tends to monopolise in a democratic polity.

The elements that make the construction of these identities possible are not static and change according to socio-economic situations. While in the ’50s and the ’60s the perceived unilingual distribution of economic resources in the multilingual states created a facade of cultural homogeneity, in the ’90s the issue of ‘development of under-development’ and ‘peripheralisation of the periphery’ came to the foreground.



The less developed regions of the larger linguistic states that aspired to gain from a greater proximity between the politico-administrative setup and their cultural community soon realised that issues of hard economics overshadow the emotional dimension of lingo-cultural identity. The latter, in fact, was reduced to a category which was only instrumental in facilitating better bargaining by enlarging the numerical strength of the group, so important in an electoral democracy.

In ‘non-linguistic’ states like U.P., Bihar and M.P., this became easier as there was no correspondence between cultural identity and the political boundaries of these states. Large territories and unevenness of centuries of economic (under)development, coupled with the heterogeneity of dialect-related cultural identities, made these sub-regions more amenable to the idea of politicisation of the feelings of deprivation.

The centripetal political culture of the Hindi states however, stood as a rock against the forces of regional assertion. It is for this reason that while better developed states like Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and even Haryana, could clamour for a better deal from the Centre, the socio economically backward states (pejoratively termed as BIMARU) could not muster sufficient political will to force the Centre or its politicians to lend a sympathetic ear to their problem of development of under-development.



The lack of a regional identity in fact made it near impossible for any leader from these states to galvanise the people’s support on the issue of economic development. Consequently, either ‘general’ issues like the Ram temple dominated politics (in U.P.), or ‘localised’ caste identities captured the imagination of the populace.

It is this trap which made the ‘mainstream’ politics of the Hindi region responsible for the ‘peripheralisation’ of the ‘heartland’ in the last five decades of post colonial ‘development’, almost bypassing the ‘cradle of Indian civilisation’. The developments in Uttarakhand, however, mark a break by making it possible to rally people around issues of existential realities that the hill dwellers had faced for years. Even though the other two regions of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are also part of the centripetal Hindi belt, they constitute islands of distinct tribal cultures which are somewhat autonomous of the ‘dominant’ culture of the Hindi political elite, hegemonised for decades by upper caste leaders of the Congress-BJP culture.

Ironically, while caste politics for a time undermined the possible emergence of regional identities in the Hindi belt, it was the politicisation of these caste identities in the post-Mandal era that eventually paved the way for the emergence of sub-regional sentiments by highlighting the political interests of social groups dominant in certain districts of the larger states. This, though not overtly done in the name of the region, had implications that went beyond caste identities. It was an extension of the 27% reservation quota for OBCs to the Uttarakhand region in U.P. that sparked off the agitation for a separate state in mid-1994 and strengthened the regional identity of the hill people.

Even though caste was not an issue in the construction of a regional identity in Uttarakhand, the near absence of OBCs in the hills where the upper castes are overwhelmingly present, inadvertently became an instrument of regional mobilisation. This was reinforced by the violence perpetrated on the Uttarakhandi activists in October 1994 by the U.P. Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was seen as symbolic of the rise of OBCs in the U.P. plains. The reaction against the U.P. government’s violent (and malicious) handling of the agitation for a hill state was transformed into a regional assertion, drawing on the ‘neglect’ and ‘humiliation’ at the hands of a government that did not care for them.



The demands for the creation of a Harit Pradesh (West U.P.) by Ajit Singh, and now for a Purvanchal (East U.P.) by some political leaders, has gained strength largely on account of uneven development in the wake of the green revolution which has unevenly benefited the two regions. Here again, the more prosperous Jats in the western districts have traditionally been supporters of a separate state; equally the Yadavs and some other OBCs in the central and eastern districts may lend support to the demand for a Purvanchal state. In a way it is natural for the locally dominant castes to become votaries of political autonomy since they constitute that influential core of regional politics which aspires to gain, both economically and politically, from any reorganisation granting political autonomy to these regions.

If the Hindi heartland was strongly centripetal in its political culture, the Uttarakhand hills were even more so. This made the construction of a regional identity that much more difficult despite topography being a favourable factor. The overwhelming representation of the region in the armed forces and location of Hindu sacred places (chaturdhams) in these hills, have kept the region firmly integrated into the ‘mainstream’ political culture which sees itself, even if erroneously, as the centre of Indian nationalism. It was decades of socio-economic neglect, coupled with administrative anomalies arising out of the distance from the state capital located in the plains of Lucknow, that over the years made it possible for regional sentiments to emerge.



Even this might not have constituted a sufficient condition to construct a strong regional identity, had the mid-1994 mistakes of perpetrating violence on the Uttarakhandi agitators not been committed by the U.P. government. The tactless and insensitive handling of the problem deepened the feeling of alienation and eventually helped the movement gain momentum. Key issues in the hills have always been existential, and not ideological. The Coolie Utar movement (Kumaon) and the peasant rebellions, dhandaks (Garhwal) in the colonial period, and the anti-liquor, forest and the Chipko movements in the post-colonial phase, followed a trajectory set by the existential realities of everyday hill life which brought people, literally and metaphorically, close to nature and its many manifestations.

The reconciliation between the divergent and apparently contradictory sentiments of regionalism and centripetal nationalism was greatly facilitated by an emergent BJP. The party’s emphasis on ‘nationalism’, its strong opposition to the ‘Mandalisation’ of the polity, its anti-Mulayam postures in U.P. politics, and its emergence at the national level as a party trying to occupy the political space created by the rapid and continuous withdrawal of the Congress – all helped the process of a gradual appropriation of the movement by the BJP.

The only regional hill party, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), which initially spearheaded the movement, soon found no takers, and its candidates were humiliated at the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls held in the 1990s. The UKD’s lack of organisational ability, absence of grassroot workers and, above all, its ‘regional’ overtones in an area proud of its nationalism (read centripetalism), heavily weighed against the UKD, which was totally marginalised in the wake of the rising electoral gains of the BJP.

It is, however, important to remember that the BJP’s sweeping electoral gains, more particularly in the Lok Sabha (1998) and Vidhan Sabha (1996) elections, in no way marked the appropriation of the movement by the party. From the beginning the movement was kept out of the reach of conventional political parties. It was only the compulsions of electoral democracy, where a party has finally to articulate the grievances of the people by transforming them into seats at the time of elections, that pushed the people into eventually voting for a political party which could formally pass a bill in the central and state legislatures to create a separate state.



The creation of Uttarakhand state has thrown up a real challenge, not merely for its leaders, but for those emotionally charged and mobilised people who had led the apparently leaderless, spontaneous movement in the mid-1990s. The non-involvement of professional political leaders had, at the time, kept the movement out of the mechanics of electoral politics. This helped it establish credibility in the national media which otherwise ascribes everything to the politicians, who in its opinion, keep motivating (read dividing) people to make political capital by harping on newer and newer vote banks.

While this credibility was a factor that eventually smoothened the process of the state’s creation, it generated a political vacuum in the state. The actual ‘leaders’ of the leaderless movement were not conventional politicians, and those who were to ultimately pass the bill for a separate state as also to subsequently form the government in the state were not perceived by the people as legitimate leaders of the movement.



The real dilemma is created by a paradoxical situation where politics abhors a vacuum but at the same time people see the politicians as distanced from the genuine concerns of their existential problems. In an electoral democracy there is no real escape from this situation as someone needs to be voted to power to form and run the government. No wonder, at the time of the Lok Sabha elections in May 1996, the call for boycott by the Uttarakhand Samyukta Sangharsha Samiti evoked little response. People realised the futility of such a boycott when the actual process of the creation of the state was to be initiated, carried through and completed by the political elite, the spontaneous grassroot nature of the movement notwithstanding. This created a peculiar situation with the people expressing cynicism at the sight of political quarrels and differences over issues like those of selecting/locating the capital for the state, a pahari/non-pahari chief minister, drawing of district boundaries, and the inclusion/exclusion of some districts in Uttarakhand state.

Needless to say, it would be sheer fantasy to imagine a situation where people’s grievances are articulated, expressed and transformed into political decisions without the agency of politicians who actually garner support through the nitty-gritty of electoral politics. To exert pressure on political leaders from below is understandable and desirable, but to conceive of a blueprint which leaves them no place amounts to making them puppets in the hands of those workers who owe no accountability to the people.



Such tendencies have resulted in a kind of a dictatorship, if not fascism. Politics is not merely about administration or governance, but touches upon many other concerns of the people for which periodic accountability is ensured through elections. This, however, is not to paint a bleak or black or blank scenario. In fact, the ‘non party political politicians’, as these grassroot workers and mobilisers are characterised, can definitely compel conventional full-time politicians to correct their priorities. This they must do, both by forcing the leaders to reset their agenda and, more importantly, by politically educating the people to understand their own priorities.

Often what are seen as the dirty tricks of politicians, are nothing but a reflection of the priorities set by the masses themselves. If divisions such as Garhwali-Kumaoni, upper caste-lower caste, tribal-non tribal, and indigenous-settlers, do exist today in Uttarakhand, surely these are not merely a result of political manoeuvring. It is not only futile but unfair to expect politicians to bridge these gaps. This must be done by grassroot ‘non political’ workers who usually look down upon conventional political leaders. But to keep the latter out, or be cynical about them, would eventually end up creating greater cynicism about politics qua politics, which is dangerous for any democratic society.



It would be equally self-defeating if the ‘people’ were expected to ‘rise’ above local and sub-regional considerations by not raising such issues in the future. These include criteria for delimitation of district and Vidhan Sabha boundaries, the pahari identity of the chief minister, reservations for various categories of people, the location of a future capital, and sub-regional neglect. There are various communities in Uttarakhand which live on the periphery of the periphery in terms of development indices. These are both sub-regional as well as ethnic. The Jaunsaris, Bhotias, Buksas, Tharus, Rajis (Van Rawats), Gujars, besides the Shilpkars and other backward communities, are not only not at par with the caste (savarna) Hindus but differ among themselves in terms of the distance they have travelled on the socio-economic scale. The Bhotias and Rajis constitute the two extremes of the spectrum. Similarly, even in terms of numerical strength, which makes all the difference in the bargaining power of a community in a democratic set up, the Jaunsaris and Rajis find themselves at the two extremes.

Besides these socio-economic categories, there are various sub-regions within Uttarakhand which have distinct identities of their own. These were, however, fused together in the last decade or so to create a common Uttarakhandi identity in the wake of the movement for a separate state. The Garhwal, Kumaon, Jaunsar-Bawar, Terai and the Doon valley constitute such sub-regions, besides the areas which are either too far-flung (high altitude) or too close to the plains of U.P. (like Hardwar, Kotdwar or Kalagarh) to identify with the dominant political and economic interests of the mainland Uttarakhandis.

While the solidarity expressed by such smaller identities during the active phase of the movement was admirable, there is no guarantee that it would continue to characterise the politics of the new state in the future. Nor should this be expected. In a way, expectations of the ‘enlightened’ sections of the population against raising sub-regional or sub-identity issues, which apparently ‘divide’ a society, are somewhat misplaced. It is the raising of such issues by smaller and still smaller communities (or regions) that makes democratic politics trickle down to the lowest levels. A cynicism often marks the creation of any new state in the wake of raising issues that are not seen as legitimate by its intellectual elite or the media. This is reflective of the distance that an elite travels from the grassroot realities during the course of mobilisation, forgetting that its own existential problems were once seen as ‘divisive’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘primordial’ by mega elites of the parent region against whom they had originally mobilised.



The raising of smaller and divisive issues should not make us cynical about the future trajectory of political developments in the state. What is more important is to constantly maintain pressure on all political bodies to follow a development oriented agenda. What this means is that even if development related issues are raised in a partisan manner around social and regional cleavages, this need not necessarily be seen as antithetical to the overall interests of the state. In fact, a smooth and abstract development oriented agenda is simply inconceivable in an economically under-developed society characterised by a politics of scarcity. Such comparisons are often drawn with the countries of the developed West. This is largely responsible for an overdose of cynicism among the intelligentsia.



One way to keep a constant vigil on priorities of political leaders would be by generating, reinforcing and maintaining some kind of ‘regional-patriotism’ among the people of the new state. While this may itself sound ‘divisive’ and parochial, what is being suggested is not regional chauvinism but regional pride capable of enthusing a new spirit and energy among the people to outgrow the image of non-development acquired over centuries. It is necessary to break the trap of cynicism, self-denigration and pessimism to come out of a cycle of non development which has made people look down upon themselves and their region as incapable of redemption. Most other states in the country have shown zeal and pride in their history, culture, capability and human resources, which made them move faster on the development path.

Development is not merely about the hard facts of economics as defined by dispassionate economists, but relates to the political will of the people who alone set priorities; this often compels a government to take decisions that may not sound economically tenable or wise to hard-core economists. This is what development is all about in a democratic polity. It becomes possible only when the self-confidence of people is reinforced through constantly reminding them that they are capable of taking inspiration from their history to not just catch up, but even forge ahead of other states of the Union.

This feeling is essential if we are to rejuvenate the politics and culture of the entire Hindi belt (particularly U.P.) where self-denigration is a favourite pastime, and most people seem to derive masochistic pleasure out of it, unimaginable in most other states of India. More than blunting the growth of regional pride it has made most people internalise their characterisation by others as spiritless, indolent and backward. To acquiesce in this state of political culture and psyche has so far been the plight of the region; hopefully regional patriotism in the new state will mark a break with this retrogressive political tradition.




Forging a sense of regional patriotism will not only help evolve a development oriented agenda by overthrowing the complex of guilt acquired over the years, but also contain many of the local sub-regional and social cleavages within manageable limits. Such a process of constructing a regional identity does to a region precisely what nationalism is capable of doing to a nation. Of course, the construction of a regional identity is as much an ‘imagining’ as is the idea of a nation, but it is just that much more functional as well.

The political capital generated and acquired during the movement for a separate state of Uttarakhand also produced such an identity as a by-product. It would be worthwhile if the gains of the movement were invested for future profit. The spontaneous nature of the Uttarakhand movement has heightened people’s expectations; any leadership is likely to find the task challenging.