When desires sharpen their teeth on the rocks...

ajay

Ajay Singh | July 1, 2013


Broken roads near Srinagar.
Broken roads near Srinagar.

Two members of Mahatma Gandhi’s inner circle, Swami Anand and Kaka Kalelkar, were both great prose stylists, great authorities on Indian culture and religions, and both were smitten by the Himalayas. They made a pilgrimage to the Char Dham (religious quartet) together and returned to write travelogues – in each other’s mother tongues: Swami in Marathi, and Kalelkar in Gujarati. Both works are classics.;

In his “Himalaya-no Pravas” (journey to the Himalayas), Kalelkar mentions an old tradition associated with Kedarnath. In the bygone days, he says, pilgrims used to carry a copy of their horoscopes during the journey. After seeking blessings from the Shivalinga -– actually a block of a triangular stone jutting out of earth -– they would tear the horoscopes into pieces.

Kalelkar offers two explanations to make sense of this ritual. One, you have been, as it were, face-to-face with the great lord, and now no harm can come to you from those planets. Two, after this most arduous and greatest of the pilgrimages, your mission on earth is accomplished; for the religious-minded, life is over.

Kedarnath thus is the place where life as we know it ends. A reminder of this belief stands right behind the austere, weather-beaten temple in the form of the samadhi (memorial) of Adi Shankaracharya. Legend has it that the great advait vedantist left his body, that is, achieved videha mukti, at this spot. Like the temple, the samadhi too has Spartan aesthetics; it has only a mace-bearing hand coming out of a wall.

During the past weeks, a heap of bodies were lying around the place where pilgrims in previous centuries used to symbolically end their lives, offering torn horoscopes to the winds from the valley. The Shankaracharya’s samadhi has also borne the brunt of the flash floods and needs to be reconstructed, like the lives of the thousands of survivors of the June 16 Himalayan tsunami. 

How do we make sense of the tragedy, of lives lost? That is the question that every natural disaster leaves in its wake. For the January 1934 earthquake in Bihar, Mahatma Gandhi’s explanation was that it was a divine retribution of the barbaric practice of untouchability. Rabindranath Tagore admonished him with a scientific explanation: “Physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts.” Both the attitudes, religious and scientific, would however point to the same thing in the case of the latest tragedy: degradation and exploitation of the pristine environment of Uttarakhand. Gandhiji would have seen the tragedy as a divine retribution for denuding the verdant hills and damming the holy rivers. Tagore’s rationalism too would have concurred.

Lantern on a Mounatain

More than four decades later, in 1974, Mangalesh Dabral, a celebrated Hindi poet and son of the Garhwal mountains, wrote poignantly about the struggles and exploitation of the mountain people in ‘Pahad Par Lalten’ (Lantern on the Mountain). Here’s the poem (translated from Hindi by Robert Hueckstadt):

Unconscious under bundles of wood

In the jungle are children

Buried before their time

In the jungle barefoot old men

Afraid and coughing disappear in the end

In the jungle blood has slept.

 

Behind the cliffs heated in the sun

The cries of centuries of pain

And just a little grass-quite ancient

Swaying in the water;

Trees reaching the jaws of the next season

Night after night become naked;

In the stillness like the point of a needle

The burning earth rolls on her side

And the sky revolves like a huge millstone.

 

The mountain your ancestors brought this far

Every year breaks more and more, like grief

All the years all the centuries

Freeze like ice in dreamless eyes

In your soul

In the domestic darkness of the hearth

Your helpless words are spread

Like grain gathered in a famine.

 

In the distance glows a lantern on a mountain

Like a luminous eye

Twinkling slowly becoming a fire-

Look at your mortgaged field,

The jewellery taken off sobbing women,

Look at all the people dead

From hunger, from flooding, from disease

Who’ve risen up on the cliffs

Wiping away infinite snow with their hands,

Look at your own hunger

Becoming a quick claw;

From the jungle comes a constant roar

And desires sharpen their teeth

On the rocks.

 

In snatches the poem reveals that the rumblings of the catastrophic cloud burst of June 16 may have begun as far back as four decades or more. These rumblings were heard in a series of floods in the seventies and earthquakes in the eighties and nineties. But these dire warnings were lost in the din of development.

Let’s hear it in Mangalesh Dabral’s own words:

“This poem tries to see the life in the hills under the dim light of a lantern, popular in the hills till today. The images that gradually unfold express the agony of toiling masses, particularly women of that region which has a long history of living either under the feudal monarchy or the British rule, both equally oppressive and exploitative. By combining the people and nature, the poem also tries to underline how the two are inseparable in the hills. And in the end, this grief-stricken reality is transformed into preparation for a combat, a fight with the oppressors. It involves nature also in this eventual protest. Nothing has changed for better in what is now called Uttarakhand. Only things have worsened since its inception. The entire development project running without a policy suitable to the specific local and ethnic conditions has played havoc with the common man as well as nature. Big dams, river projects, roads, big hotels and resorts, and development of tourist heavens are for the elite and not for the common people.

“Today Pahadis are facing great dislocation and migration towards the plains, thus losing their centuries old identity. They are becoming Maidani, losing their language, milieu, their trees, water, air, and fields. If I were to write this poem today, there would be depiction of the sense of loss on a bigger scale. And a call to fight back. Even though the essence of the poem remains relevant today, I would add certain details and images from the contemporary reality, from the immediate ground. I feel happy that some young poets , such as Anuj Lugun, an aadivasi poet, are saying in their poems that the dim flame of the lantern has now turned into a fire, and the oppressors and exploiters are feeling threatened by it.”

Give it today, give it now!

The dim light of the lantern did turn into a fire once in the nineties in the form of the movement for a separate Uttarakhand when it seemed like whatever little attention it got would be lost in the emerging Mandalised politics of the Hindi heartland. Garhwal has always existed on the fringes of India’s consciousness. In pre-independence India it existed outside the sphere of influence of the British administration. Post independence, it existed as an appendage to the most politically important state in the country, Uttar Pradesh. The hills did throw up many political stalwarts such as G B Pant, H N Bahuguna (father of the incumbent chief minister) and N D Tiwari (the four-time chief minister of UP who later became the third chief minister of Uttaranchal after it was carved out of UP in 2000). But they were all national leaders with little time to think local.

The hills of Garhwal and Kumaon were always about the rest of the country, never about the hills themselves or the hills people. They were about the pilgrims, the tourists and about the resorts and farmhouses—little islands of luxury and rejuvenation for the urban elite. And, of course, of recent vintage, about its flowing rivers and waterfalls and the hydropower they can generate to light up houses in the plains elsewhere. This existence for the sake of others at its own expense, was prone to create a yearning for some returns, some give-back. But the opposite happened. In 1990 prime minister VP Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations setting a scorching pace for the politics of the backward castes. The hills people—predominantly upper caste—were staring only at further marginalisation.

Unsurprisingly, the mountains started ringing with the cries of “Aaj doh abhi doh Uttarakhand rajya doh (Give it today, give it now. Give us Uttarakhand). In October 1994, the activists of the separate Uttarakhand movement started a protest march to New Delhi. On Gandhi jayanti, ironically, they were fired upon, maimed, raped and killed near Rampur Tiraha of Muzaffarnagar, barely 80 km from New Delhi, by the police under the charge of chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.

This brutality gave the separate state agitation a big fillip and just six years later, in 2000, Uttaranchal appeared on the map as a separate state. It helped that G B Pant, the hills’ greatest son who had crushed murmurs of separate statehood in the early days of independence with a “over my dead body” threat, was indeed dead and gone. Uttarakhand’s became the shortest and most successful separate state movement in India’s history.

Pyrrhic victory, actually. The impatience of those seeking statehood was matched by the alacrity of the political elites in conceding this demand. Neither of the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, was averse to the idea. In the Mandalised politics of Uttar Pradesh, this predominantly upper-caste hilly region stood out like a sore thumb for the dominant regional parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). With just five seats in the Lok Sabha against 80 in the rest of Uttar Pradesh, the hills were not even a blip on the political radar. Giving them up for gains elsewhere (even outside UP) was a mouth-watering proposition for politicians. Thus, Uttarakhand, the new state, came into being in the backdrop of political expediency with a distorted vision and undefined goals.

Once again Uttarakhand became just a means to an end.

Even that wouldn’t have mattered much if only that “end” had a semblance of concern for the good of the Garhwal and Kumaon hills and its people. Once statehood was granted, new rulers tipped the scales from extreme inattention to its needs to manic exploitation of its resources. “Give it today, give it now” was the slogan of the impatient protesters in the nineties. The crafty ruling elite (or politicians, religious leaders, businesses, builders and land and mining mafia) that moved in to shape its destiny in 2000 turned the slogan on its head: “Take it today, take it now”.

What ensued was a development free-for-all. The modern makers of Uttarakhand dreamed of making it the “energy capital” of India by taming its rivers, blasting its hills and building dams. A potential of 27,000 MW was discovered and a whopping 550-odd hydel projects were planned to realise it.

In the din of development, any talk of ecology and environment were seen as a fetish that deserved to be ignored. When retired engineer-environmentalist Dr GD Aggarwal protested against the hydel projects, he faced the ire of the hills people. He was dubbed anti-development. Similarly, the frail young Swami Nigamanand who starved himself to death on the issue of the Ganga, evoked hardly any sympathy from people of the hills enamoured by the growth story. The growth story was indeed captivating. For the first time, the hill region threw up an average growth rate of 9.3 percent for 2004-09, running in third after Bihar and Gujarat. The growth was, inevitably, lopsided, even double-edged. In the eleven years between 2000 and 2011, the contribution of industry to the state gross domestic product (SGDP) almost doubled to 32.24 percent (from just 18.80 percent previously). Concurrently, the share of agriculture dropped more than half to 14 percent from 30 percent. (Source: Annual plan document of Uttarakhand govt). In absolute terms, big industry took a giant leap from Rs 5,753 crore in 2000 to Rs 26,955 crore in 2011. Similarly small and medium scale industry grew from a meagre Rs 700 crore in 2000 to Rs 6,776 crore in 2011.

But the devil is, as always, in the detail. The rosy figures hide the truth about the gross distortions in the growth model. For instance, power projects which entailed usurpation of huge chunk of land and destruction of forests and mountains account for nearly 98 percent of investment in big industry. Similarly, the land-guzzling sand-mining and quarrying industry took the biggest chunk of investment in the small and medium scale sector. As Dabral says, the mountains were being flattened into plains. “In the guise of market economy, they promoted the culture of corporate mafias,” says noted senior journalist Arvind Singh Bisht.

Furthermore, the growth profited the usual suspects: politicians, builders, businesses, tourists, pilgrims and land mafias as development did not touch the masses. That is why Uttarakhand ranks a poor 14 on the human development index where Himachal Pradesh ranks a high third. There are many areas of darkness in the rural areas such as Chamoli and Pithoragarh. Once again, this growth was also about everybody other than the hills and its people.

“It would be wrong to infer from all this that the development in Uttarakhand be halted,” cautions Bisht because “that would be a remedy worse than the disease”. What it needs is a scientific and robust growth taking into account the ecological concerns and people’s requirements, he says, not the development model of the plains. The development of Uttarakhand should be about giving the hills what they need as much as taking from them what they have to offer

Brajesh Kumar contributed to this article.

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