The tourist on the way to Mussoorie or Nainital, Uttar Pradesh’s hill stations, passes the beautiful green, yellow and golden fields of the Himalayan foothills. But appearances are deceptive. In the Western U.P. tarai, violence has erupted again and again in recent years.
Uttar Pradesh’s tarai is different from the old settled villages of the Gangetic plain further to the south. Most of the settlements here are of recent origin, results of colonisation of marshy lands and forests. Interestingly, the inequalities
spawned by these newly settled lands of “socialist” India are no less acute than which exists in traditional Indian village society. In fact, the inequality is even more glaring because the mansions of big farmers of the tarai are adjacent to the humblest of shanty colonies.
The virgin lands were opened up at great public expense in the 1950s, with the primary aim of resettling the Partition refugees from Pakistan. The state also provided land to demobilised defence service personnel and “political sufferers”. The pioneers flourished: irrigation was abundant and land was cheap. Soon, opportunity seekers arrived from all over, buying up hundreds or thousands of formerly forest lands at throwaway prices. Slowly, a breed of gentlemen farmers grew out of the western tarai, which is the closest you come in the Sub-Continent to large country ranches in the style of the American Wild West. A new kind of “secular zamindari” was created.
The U.P. tarai is one of the few areas in India that has combine harvesters: the American-funded Pantnagar university was only next door to show the way. It was fashioned after American land-grant colleges, with mechanised farms attached to it. The university is a major supplier of high-yielding seeds, and therefore became the Mecca of so-called progressive farmers. The Sikh gentleman farmers settled here, particularly near Rishikesh were among the first, like the Punjab farmers, to incorporate green revolution technology in their fields. However, especially among the smaller farmers, there is today a drift back to traditional seeds.
Because the big landowners could not cultivate the vast tracts they had accumulated, they needed farm labourers, who arrived from eastern U.P. and Bihar. At the same time, “refugees” of population increase and environmental dislocation in the hills also came down to the tarai, hoping to improve their prospects. The Garhwalis descended to the Dehradun-Rishikesh area while the Kumaonis settled around Haldwani, Pantnagar and Rudrapur in the Nainital tarai. But the best land has already been cornered by the relatively few landowners, and the stage was set for friction. Some families started encroaching on the Forest Department’s land.
In all the coming and going of outsiders, the indigenous people of this portion of the tarai, the Buxa and the Tharu, were forgotten. Their property gradually passed to others and they were pushed into unproductive land or had to work as landless wage labourers. They have been victimised by the frontierman’s tradition of coercion, violence and manipulation.
All of the U.P. tarai is not equally problem-ridden. For example, relatively the Nainital sector is marked by more inequality, conflict and violence. Other areas are relatively calm. However, there are some features that hold common for most of the region.
Firstly, the indigenous inhabitants are increasingly marginalised. There have been occasional, ineffective campaigns to wrest out the original tribal lands from the landowners and return them to the Tharus or Buxas. In the Pauri Garhwal-Bijnore border under a movement started by Vinova Bhave, the effort to deprive Buxas of bhoodhan land given to them led to violence and incidents of torture.
Secondly, there is the question of land rights of those who have settled on Forest Department land and remain there under uncertain conditions. Recently, there has been widespread incidents of repression in the Bindulkhatta area of the Nainital tarai. Even elephants were reportedly let loose on the huts of the poor settlers.
Thirdly, there are numerous land struggles as various organisations of the poor strive to get landlords with above-ceiling holdings to let go of their property. After suffering through a prolonged campaign and for their rights the poor of Tehriwala in Dehradun district actually succeeded in wresting land from the rich.
Fourthly, there is the general demand of the farm workers for better working and living conditions. The most violent incident in this context occurred in 1978 at the Pantnagar university, when a massive police firing took the life of at least ten workers, possibly many more. Today, the demand for better working and living conditions is more muted, but it continues.
But as more awareness of the politics of socioeconomic and human rights permeates the bustis of tribals and the landless poor in the Uttar Pradesh tarai, the demand for a fair deal will become more strident.
If the past is any indication, then more violence is in store for this region of the tarai.
Dogra is founder-editor of News from Fields and Slums, a news feature service based in New Delhi.