This 9th November was the 20th State Foundation Day of Uttarakhand. At twenty, the state is a callow youth, raised through calamities, and now ready as always to meet life head on. This is a brief foray into Uttarakhand State's birth in fire and storm, a story that few outside the state know.
Neolithic man has left his imprint in Uttarakhand, which was called Uttara Kuru in the Mahabharata. Tradition says that when Hiuen Tsang visited India, he mentioned a region in the hills that was governed by women, called Brahmaputra or Brahmakhand, one of the oldest names for the region. Through the centuries after that, living in prosperity, near universal education, progressive social mores, female emancipation, largely absent casteism, and fighting and killing each other, the two halves of Uttarakhand – Garhwal and Kumaon – entered the 19th Century. The horrifically genocidal rule of the Gorkhas in Garhwal ended with the Anglo-Gorkha wars, and eventually, both halves fell to the British, when they hadn’t fallen even to the Mughals. The British maintained a separate system of governance in the hills, sought vast estates for themselves, and institutionalised felling of enormous tracts of timber through the Forest Act of 1878 and extraction of minerals.
In 1887, the British raised the independent Garhwal Rifles in Lansdowne. Of the 5 Victoria Crosses awarded in WW1, 2 went to the Garhwal Rifles. The Kumaon Regiment, even older, went through many name changes to become one of the most decorated in the Indian Army. This was the first of many wars where we faced heavy casualties (1962 being one where Kumaon didn’t celebrate Diwali for three continuous years). With that, the *Money Order Economy* of the region started. The men fought India’s wars. The women stayed home, tended the farms, and raised the kids. While the British did away with Coolie and Begar, two pernicious forced-labour practices, Uttarakhandis still fought with Neta ji as part of the Azad Hind Fauj in the 40s. In the Saalam Salia Satyagrah, led by Ram Singh Dhoni, numerous folk lost their lives, but shook the foundations of British rule in Kumaon.
Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the Northern hills of India know that Pahadis don’t look like plainsfolk, nor sound like them. Neither their food habits, nor attire, nor history, culture, tradition, folklore, nothing is in common with the folk with whom their destiny was yoked when India gained independence. The most populous state in India saw the hills as a never-ending supply of forest and mineral wealth and cheap labour, yet that exploitation was not the primary reason for the desire for separate statehood, as was the case with Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. An intriguing creature called "Pahadi Asmita" was.
When the demand for a separate Uttarakhand was raised before independence, it was GB Pant himself who shot it down as the then UP CM. Through the 70s and 80s, folk kept making a case for this separation. Migration from fertile village land was leading to a Pahadi brain drain. The Terai (foothills) land was virtually seized by settlers from the Punjab. Those who stayed back, were fighting an indifferent administration, killer floods, natural calamities, disrupted trade routes across the Himalayan regions. Pressing socio-economic issues like horrific deforestation had to be combatted with home-grown, citizen-led movements like the Chipko Andolan which was spearheaded by women, the infirm and elderly, and students. A sort of indifferent, internal colonialism had destroyed the socio-economic and governance fabric of the state, with prime jobs, raw materials and land going to settlers and plainsfolk. Finally, with the formation of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal in 1979, the amorphous movement crystallised. That year, over 15,000 folk had marched in bitter Delhi cold to support a separate state.
But nearly all political parties in the Golden Age of Coalitions were staunchly against this ask. From Rajiv Gandhi to Charan Singh, to ND Tiwari, all rejected the demand for a separate state. The movement was also going on against the backdrop of the two most seismic public movements in modern Indian history - the Mandal Commission report and its implementation, a former Prime Minister VP Singh’s last game to break the spectre of Hindu unity, a phenomenon which had raised its head during the second seismic public movement, the Ram Janma Bhoomi Agitation. Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, had already had the dubious distinction of ordering the shooting of unarmed kar sevaks by the UP PAC in 1990.
The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendation of 27% reservation of jobs for the OBC across Uttar Pradesh directly meant that most govt. jobs in the hills would be filled in by default by plains folk where such castes were dominant. The hills were predictably up in arms at this further erosion of their already limited means of employment. Ex servicemen marched with their medals, students protested, shopkeepers shut down, teachers and govt. employees turned out in huge numbers. Old women, their hair falling out and backs bent like a bow due to unrelenting decades of work, chanted “1-2, 1-2, Mulayam Singh Khantu (toothless)”.
Police brutality in handling these protests went untrammeled in all major hill towns. Dead activist numbers were underreported, the missing were simply unreported. September 1st, 1994 saw a fuller glimpse of what the MSY administration was capable of. At Khatima near Nainital, police opened fire at 10,000 rallyists, killing seven on record and with hundreds injured and missing. Further killing of demonstrators happened the next day in Mussoorie. The police was lucky in that most of the buses carrying protestors back had already departed, else there would have been a massacre on their hands because no Pahadi was willing to give an inch. “I can't understand why the administration is doing this,” wondered Prof. Punjabi of the UNCHR on record, “in Kashmir, one can still find the insurgency, the foreign hand...but here?”
The worst though, was yet to come.
Five thousand folk were travelling to Delhi to participate in a protest on 1st October, 1994. The buses were ordered by the Home Ministry of Utyar Pradesh to be searched for weapons, even though the female police constables were on leave. There were altercations between the travellers and the state police at the administration's attempt to deny them their right to travel to the nation's capital. About 28 men and women were pulled out and then, as several SHOs reported, the buses were instructed by the district administration and the GoUP to proceed. Past Saharanpur and Haridwar, at the foothills near Muzaffarnagar, at the three way crossing to Rampur, the state govt. had prepared a reception committee. Trucks plying the highway in the night were asked to stop and all exits were blocked. Then, in that tunnel of death, with all of the buses trapped, and with hundreds of fully armed men surrounding them, the UP PAC went berserk.
“I was in a bus”, said one of the five brave women who agreed to come forward in the stigma ridden 90s for justice, “along with other teachers. Police constables got into our bus, reeking of liquor. They hit us with rifle butts, pawed at our breasts, snatched our chains, purses, anything they could lay their hands on”.
“There were 27 of us in the bus when the attack began. I pleaded with the constables and told them we were all like their sisters”, said another. The appeal fell on deaf ears.
The unarmed, defenceless folk trapped in the funnel, fell like flies. Official figure tried to cap it at 7, but 27-28 were reported dead and the missing have yet to be counted. Some of the bodies found subsequently had blackened marks that showed close range firing with stenguns. The elderly were chased into adjoining fields, brutalised and beaten, and the women subjected to the humility of prolonged torture and gang rape. When the smoke from the Rampur Tiraha Massacre settled, and news travelled back, the hills caught fire. What had changed was the assault on Pahadi Asmita, or honour, aggravated by reprehensible remarks (which I will not repeat here) on the massacre by the unrepentant Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav .
Curfew was imposed at once, the RAF and CRPF deployed. For the next two weeks, massive waves of protests engulfed the region, including in Delhi. Several people were killed in police firing during the curfew. The police arrested over 400 men and women, and slapped cases under the Arms Act against 667 activists.The administration of Mr. Yadav denied any wrongdoing, and insisted that armed rioters had forced the police’s hand. The Courts immediately transferred the case to the CBI, seeing that 66 out of 70 witnesses from the GoUP’s witnesses were state officials. Records were tampered, scrubbed, and witnesses intimidated. The GoI however, refused to intervene and pull the UP Govt. down, saying that it would further inflame matters. The PV Narsimha Rao Govt. cited fears of the China border, Arunachal, Gorkhaland, Jharkhand and all other bogeys of separatism.
The people kept up massive protests, sit ins, marches and hunger strikes in every part of the region. Pahadi women led fierce protests almost every day in Delhi, and Lucknow. During this charged time, on 7th November, 1994, Mulayam Singh Yadav again ordered police brutality against the peaceful fast and sit-in on the Sri Yantra islet from which the erstwhile capital of Garhwal, Srinagar, gets its name. Several protestors were pushed to their death into the swift moving waters of the Alaknanda and the rest jailed in UP. After the MP General Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri made an emotional speech in parliament on the brutality on Pahadi women, the Allahabad HC said that the conduct of the GoUP against the people of the hills was the same as that of Nazis during the Jewish Holocaust.
At this point, I’d like to underline that in a region that provides nearly 25% of the country’s armed forces, no one took up arms against the Govt. No school master’s son, no simpering foreign country stooge, no one fled with service weapons from the Regimental Centres, no one bombed tourists, no one sided with Lefties and went on an FCRA supported, drip-fed hunger strike.
In 1996, Devegowda promised the formation of Uttarakhand from the Red Fort. As the reds pulled out, fearful of the Gorkhaland agitation in their own backyard, the same promise was repeated by IK Gujaral in 1997. In 1998, the ABV government sent the ordinance for formation of Uttaranchal state. In July 2000 the Uttarakhand State Formation Bill was tabled, and the state came into being on 9th November, 2000.
If you thought this meant a rosy, happy ending, well, you wouldn't be exactly right. Chargesheet was filed against police and administrative officials in 12 cases. The GoUP ordered a judicial inquiry by a retired judge, Justice Zaheer Hassan, whose verdict that "the use of force was just and reasonable. Subsequently, all CMs of Uttar Pradesh, including Sri Rajnath Singh, Raksha Mantri in the current central Government, refused to prosecute any single State Govt. official, particularly the Muzaffarnagar DM Anant Kumar Singh. Relatives of martyrs and freedom fighters were promised but never given even such small tokens of administrative gratitude as subsidised bus travel. Finally, a memorial was constructed at the spot of the massacre, and national publications asked the state "to move on" from the incident.
The state emblem has the colour red to signify the blood of the activists that died so we could form the Uttarakhand of our dreams. Their relatives agitate to this day for recognition and pensions. The hills still cry for a capital in Gairsain so that development could rise to the very top of the hills, and not pool around the foothills and lower reaches. Demographic changes to fulfill the labour vacuum are slowly turning uncomfortable, since the Pahadi identity is staunchly Hindu, and many of Hinduism's most precious and revered teerth sthals are in Uttarakhand. Natural calamities in the fragile ecosystem have to be balanced by craving for jobs, infrastructure development, bridges across village to village, pakka roads. However, with Uttarakhandis populating the security apparatus of the current administration, and rising in diverse fields, the hard working, young, simple folk who've shaped the region in their image, maintain hope that it will write its own destiny yet.