Feeding frenzy in Almora

The seemingly sedate Kumaon hills in Almora district were witness to some frenzied activity in April and May, when a nongovernmental organisation called Sahayog was on the dock for allegedly presenting a "distorted" image of Uttarakhand society. The ngo had, somewhat inadvertently, put out a report that carried some graphic descriptions of the sexual behaviour of a section of people in rural Almora. Tempers rose, mostly among the political elite it appears, and the ngo's office-bearers were jailed and generally vilified —far in excess of the presumed harm done to Uttarakhand society. Meanwhile, the civil administration kowtowed to a small but aggressive group that was playing full hilt to the gallery, using this episode as one more example of the outsiders' (read plainsmen's) insensitivity to hill society. In this case, it seems the activists overreached.

Almora is the hotbed of the movement for a separate Uttarakhand state in India, which is a legitimate demand from a hill region that has been constantly sidelined by the power brokers of Uttar Pradesh, based in Lucknow. Understandably, the activists here are on edge, as the Centre vacillates on the statehood demand. Unfortunately, the Sahayog episode does not leave the statehood proponents looking like responsible activists, people who will have to play a critical role in the days ahead to negotiate for their state, and who will have to show sagacity and courage in governance once statehood is attained. The reaction to the Sahayog booklet, instead, has projected them as reactive and insular, perhaps even sectarian, and opportunistic enough to use every convenient event to score a point and rouse the rabble.

The report in question was prepared in Hindi, titled AIDS and Us: Possibility of AIDS in Uttarakhand. It was published in September 1999, but caught attention only in April. Five hundred copies had been distributed among experts and ngos for feedback. Founded by outsiders Abhijeet and Jasodhara Das Gupta, Sahayog has worked in the villages of Almora for almost a decade now through the medium mostly of local men and women field workers. Its area of focus has been the dalit condition and women's empowerment, two areas where the hills of Uttarakhand are behind in social evolution. It does not seem unlikely that the ngo's area of focus had created an undercurrent of resentment among the majority upper castes of the region, as in the past ngos like Sahayog have been accused of diluting the "culture of movements" by "dividing Uttarakhand society on caste and gender lines".

The Sahayog report referred to the inferior quality of health services, the migration of menfolk to the plains, and the influx of plains people to the hills, all of which are high-risk conditions for the proliferation of HIV. However, the report's most contentious sections dealt with interviews indicating the prevalence of incest, homosexuality, extra-marital and premarital sexuality in the hills. It is also not clear whether it was the suggested notion that some Uttarakhandi women may be promiscuous (in a given circumstance) or the allegedly-broad labelling of Uttarakhand society as promiscuous that left the patriarchal order stunned and agitated. Male promiscuity, presumably, is par for the course.

Granted, there seemed to be methodological problems with the conclusions drawn, but these could have been challenged empirically, rather than through a politicised reaction. The study was not complete, and it was limited in analysis and depth. But it did state that the findings could not be applied to the whole of Uttarakhand, an aspect that was glossed over by the protesters. Moreover, the sexuality described in the booklet would not imply that Uttarakhand was any worse than other regions of India, as this was not a comparative study.

The reaction against hapless Sahayog was, if anything, primitive. The mood was set by two national Hindi dailies and by local Uttarakhand leaders who maintained that the report was nothing but full of obscenity and lies regarding the sexual behaviour of the hill people. On 20 April, the ngo's office located opposite the Almora jail was ransacked. The same day, a field team of Sahayog was set upon in Jageshwar in Dhauladevi Block by local toughs in full presence of the revenue police. The crowd beat up the male members and forced some of the women to read the verbally daring portions of the report. Besides seizing all available copies of the report, the police arrested 11 Sahayog workers, of whom six were detained behind bars, including the Das Gupta couple. The district magistrate thought it appropriate to recommend action against them under the National Security Act, and only widespread condemnation of the DM's action and an order by the Allahabad High Court, prevented the travesty from proceeding.

Meanwhile a social boycott of the Sahayog members was called for. Traders' groups and the bar association attempted to block bail for the accused, and the few lawyers who came forward to defended Sahayog were ostracised by the legal community. Furthermore, conservative groups like the Shiv Sena and the Uttarakhand Mahila Morcha swung into action to condemn Sahayog, as did BJP party legislators, who also demanded an inquiry into the activities of all ngos in the hill region. At the Centre, the ruling BJP kept quiet because the Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi comes from this area and had made his own sympathies obvious.

The Sahayog case threw up for discussion once again the matter of "well-funded ngos" and their commitment. Of course, ngos are never entirely blameless, but in conservative societies like the Uttarakhand hills they at least hold the potential of bypassing established structures of society to try to get at the roots of inequity, be it in terms of caste, class or gender. The non-governmental organisations necessarily have to be the subject of scrutiny, and the proliferation of ngos in the hill areas is something to be scrutinised. It is also correct that a lot of funding goes towards research in HIV/ AIDS when the health priorities within a community may be quite different.

The Sahayog case perhaps indicates a need for activists to be more careful when reports are prepared on sensitive social matters. On the other hand, a negative reaction from conservative societal leaders is as often as not a useful index of the impact of one's work. A belligerent reaction such as the one against Sahayog shows that the ills that the repor indicates, probably do exist, although no exclusively in Uttarakhand. The 'mistake' that Sahayog may have made, was to publish its report in Hindi rather than in English, as is the age-old ngo tradition. This meant that the report went closer to the 'people', which is why it got the reaction it did. Which cannot all of it be a bad thing.

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Himal Southasian