Class Struggles in the Formation of Himachal Pradesh

This article has been written for a Festschrift published to honour my father, Javeed Alam. The book, edited by Prof Akeel Bilgrami is titled Marx, Gandhi and Modernity: Essays presented to Javeed Alam, and published by Tulika Books, New Delhi. The book was released on 19 July 2014. The article here draws on the research I had done for my PhD and argues that a political struggle between two emergent classes among the peasantry of the Western Himalayas informed the formation of the state of Himachal Pradesh. 

My first memories of my father are from the mid-1970s when he was active in the anti-Emergency political struggles in Himachal Pradesh University and the town of Shimla. This was a time when I would often return from school to see my father sitting with his comrades discussing political affairs and planning political work. This was also the time he was travelling around Himachal Pradesh’s (HP) villages working on what was to become his first book, Domination and Dissent (1985). He would be away often for weeks and return with many stories of the people he met and the things he saw. Perhaps it was these stories which got me involved in the world of the Himalayan peasantry, which later became my focus for my doctoral studies.

Domination and Dissent was an attempt to foreground a class analysis of the politics of the peasantry in HP at a time when class was not a fashionable academic term or methodology. Its attempt was to study the 1977 and 1980 general elections to understand popular political activity and consciousness and the ways in which the ruling  class(es) maintain their domination (Javeed Alam 1985: 125). As he put it,

The strife of the opposites was seen in the massive mobilization of popular energies struggling to break through the constraints imposed by a certain type of class society and the efforts of the ruling classes to channelize and control it for their limited class needs.

The book linked this focus to the larger crises of capitalist development in India, the manner in which class struggles were refracted and constrained in parliamentary democracy and the critique of radical politics which was failing to channelize the mass dissent of the people. It describes, through extensive reporting of the interviews he conducted with working people in the small towns and villages of HP, the manner in which people understood their oppressions and exploitation, of how they expressed their dissent and how the ruling classes used their mastery of the parliamentary institutions to tame the popular, while providing space for their articulation.

The popular upsurge during this period [1975-1980] revealed once again… the very different capabilities displayed by the people in the arena of militant popular struggles as against those in the sphere of constitutional-parliamentary politics. The people’s capacity for initiatives and self-mobilisation, so badly constrained and kept in check in the constitutional-parliamentary politics, reveals itself sharply when conditions allow them to build up militant movements. In agitational forms of politics they are capable of unthought of initiatives and often defy the limits set by the ruling classes and the dominant leadership. They also throw up from amongst themselves an independent leadership that in spite of all possible disruptions, can stand up to the dominant leadership. (ibid)

The Emergence of Class Stratification

The present article goes three decades previous to the time studied in Domination and Dissent, to the period of the mid to late 1940s, when various peasant movements erupted in the Western Himalayas demanding land reforms, political democratization in the Hill States that dotted this region, and independence from British rule. It hopes to illuminate the nature of class politics which had a crucial role to play in the formation of Himachal Pradesh as a State of the Indian Union at the moment of independence.

The Western Himalayas is a region stretching roughly from the south-west of Doda in Jammu to the end of Kumaon. This region was conquered by the British between 1815 and 1849. The parts west of the Tons river (a subsidiary of the Yamuna) was part of the Punjab province and was known as the Punjab Hill States. The region between the Tons river and the Kali was a part of the United Provinces of the Bengal Presidency. State formation was mostly “retarded” in this geographical region, with strong lineage based clans sharing political power with the incipient States. I have discussed the process of retarded state formation in the Western Himalayas in my book (Aniket Alam 2008: 97-146), arguing that with the coming of the British, all these different forms of political power were straitjacketed into one single form of state form, the colonial “native state”. These states, over the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, went through the process of having their land and forests measured for their extent and value, and their produce and revenues settled, their political powers encoded and the administration regularised and “reformed”.

The social structures in the Western Himalayas differed from those of the plains adjoining them in the Punjab and the United Provinces. For one, clan and lineage was the primary social identity and marker of social stratification, and in this the Western Himalayas differed from the caste-based societies of the plains. (Aniket Alam 2008: 60-72). Secondly, marriage was what anthropologists term polygynandrous, or what has been termed group-marriage by Fredrick Engels. It was non-sacral, non-monogamous, based on bride-price and easily dissoluble, with brothers marrying as a group to one woman at a time. Property and inheritance too were markedly different from the Hindu mitakshara or dayabhaga codes. Given the difficult geography of the region, human settlements were cut-off from one another. In effect, this meant that each valley contained a population ranging from a few thousands to just about ten thousand people, organised politically in clans and in families based on group-marriage, with low levels of surplus available for appropriation and no money store it in.The economy of the Western Himalayas was almost entirely non-monetised (Singh 1998, Aniket Alam 2008: 72-83). Together, these factors made both social stratification and the emergence of a state difficult in most parts of the Western Himalayas. In other words, not just state formation, even class formation was retarded in the Western Himalayas, one feeding into the other.

Property rights in land, forests and pastoral herds and labour were undeveloped. None of these could be sold, nor bought but only inherited from one generation to the other. Transfers of the rights to land or other resources happened, if in the rare case they did, through the mediation of the clan deity or through gifting. The peasant family had entitlements to natural resources, political rights and obligations of providing food, commodities and labour to the deity, its representatives and to the state, where it existed, which were based on their membership of the clan and existed irrespective of the size of holdings and resources commanded.

By the end of the 19th century this situation started to change; and drastically. First forests and then land got commodified as a result of the settlements and then labour too, which till then was only a duty given to the temporal and supernatural overlords in the form of Begar. As the peasantry started becoming land-owning cultivators with each peasant family having a fixed plot of land and its rights and dues fixed in money terms, class stratification started emerging too. The growth of the British “Hill Stations” introduced, relatively very large, markets where the Himalayan peasantry could sell both their agricultural produce and their labour and their pull brought increasing number of the Himalayan peasantry into the market each year (Kanwar 1999; Aniket Alam 2008).

These changes were paralleled by peasant rebellions (which were locally called the Dumh) throughout the period of British rule. Starting from a total rejection of the land settlements and their new monetary principles of calculating rights and dues, the demands of the early 20th century Dumh shifted to asking for lower rates of land revenue, lower demands of compulsory labour (Begar) and higher rates for it when given, and greater access to forest and pastoral resources[1].

There were other changes too where the growing role of money was visible. Most prominent was the manner in which bride-price transformed in the early 20th century into a commodification of women, where rich men from the plains were using this form of marriage to buy women for the brothels of Delhi and Lahore[2].

With these symptoms of the monetisation and commodification of land, agricultural produce, artisan manufacture, labour and even the human being, clear signs are visible in the late 19th century itself of class stratification. This was most clearly visible in the land settlements and district gazetteers[3]. While literacy and formal education spread slowly in the Western Himalayas, by the end of the first World War, there was a significant number of young men (and some women) who could read and write, had travelled outside the western Himalayas, some even to other countries, and had been exposed to political, social and cultural ideas which radically changed their world views (Aniket Alam : 221-232). The position of Simla as the headquarters of the British Raj also played a significant role in this “education” which cannot be calculated only in terms of literacy numbers.

The influence of these was most clearly visible in marriage “reforms”, in the movement to abolish Begar (which was the compulsory labour dues as part of the revenue demand by the State) and in the move of the peasantry to classifying themselves as Rajput (and in some cases, Brahmin). All of these were initiated by college educated men of the region in the second decade of the 20th century. In reforming marriage, their main effort was to replace bride-price (which by thenwas often used to “buy” and traffic women) with kanyadaan (father’s “gifting” the bride to the husband; often accompanied by dowry), converting the marriage into a sacred rite to end easy divorce and disallow polyandrous relations by the woman (Ibid : 234-252). This campaign was successful in achieving its aims with laws changed by the 1930s.

With regard to Begar, the peasant leadership demanded its replacement with a cash levy, if not abolition, as it was seen to be “demeaning” to their new found status of Rajput. The peasantry of the region identified themselves into lineages of a single tribe – the Khash – which claimed its descent from the Aryas. However, there was no caste name among them and the stratification was not horizontal (as in caste) but vertical (between the different lineages). In revenue records, this proprietory peasantry was referred to as the Kanet, a word which meant cultivating peasants (even if at times with help from agricultural labour). Their revenue demand included food crops, animal produce and labour (Begar). In the British records, they are often referred to as the Khash-Kanet. From the time of the first census (1872), reports suggest that sections of the Khash-Kanet wanted to be classified as Rajput or Brahmin claiming a caste status due to their “Aryan ancestry”. Over the eight censuses under British rule, the proportion of population of the Western Himalayas classified as Rajput or Brahmin increased exponentially while the number of those listed a Khash kept falling.

The Peasantry and its Stratifications

This classification of the proprietary peasantry as Rajputs and Brahmins helped to distance their identities from the other major section of the agricultural population – the Bethus. This term referred to those who had to give compulsory labour, not to the State, but rather to the social and religious institutions of the Khash-Kanet, as well as on the farms of this proprietary peasantry and the Rajas and Thakurs of the Hill States. These populations were known by various names depending on the work they did and suffered many of the discriminations of the Dalit castes of the plains, including some forms of untouchability (Negi 1995). The movements for marriage reforms and the abolition of Begar were careful to leave the Bethus out of their definition of compulsory labour. Over the colonial period, the Khash-Kanet were classified as proprietary peasants with a clear caste Hindu identity (Rajput or Brahmin), while the Bethus were classified as tenants-at-will, with a scheduled caste identity.

However, markets (particularly of labour), education and exposure were also permeating the Bethus and leading to political consequences. The clearest example of this was the rebellion of the Bethus of Koti Hill State, abutting Simla town, in 1939 (Aniket Alam 2008: 201-07). They refused to give Beth labour, ritually expected from them by the proprietary peasantary and the hill State and which had been codified in the land settlements. They wanted, on par with the Khash-Kanets who were successfully demanding abolition of Begar, an end to the unpaid labour and service demands on them from the Khash-Kanet proprietary peasantry, and a property rights on the land they cultivated as tenants-at-will[4].

Unlike the reform movements on marriage, or the rebellions against Begar, this rebellion of the Bethus of Koti ended in failure and none of their demands being met.  This was partly due to the fact that it was a rebellion which was not so much against the Hill State and British colonialism, as against the social structures and domination of the Khash-Kanets. It was also partly due to the fact that since the late 1930s, the British authorities were extremely hostile to peasant agitations in the Western Himalayas. This was in stark contrast to the previous periods when the British officials often posed as the supporters and allies of the peasantry against the “tyrannical” Hill States’ rulers. The 1939 Dumh of the Khash-Kanet peasantry in Dhami Hill State, a few miles south-east of Simla, was put down with force by the local ruler with the full cooperation of the British authorities (Aniket Alam 2008 : 187-200). The Dhami Dumh was significant also because it was the first rebellion organised by the Praja Mandal and was also the first to attempt building solidarities across India – the leaders appealed for, and received, support from MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and also carried out a campaign in the national press. In 1942-43 the Pajhauta Dumh in Sirmaur was put down with much greater ferocity, again with the full backing of the British authorities and with the leaders of the rebellion trying to get the support of the nationalist leadership.

In was in this context that on 20th May, 1946 the Cabinet Mission published its recommendations which made it apparent that British rule was soon to end in the Indian sub-continent, even though the exact manner of its end was still intensely disputed. As a result of these proposals, in the Western Himalayas, Praja Mandals were formed where none existed and older ones were re-activated. More importantly, conflicts within the leadership of these Praja Mandals came to the fore in many of them, many of which were directly related to the class interests of the contending groups which struggled for supremacy within the Praja Mandals and their umbrella organisation, the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council (known as Himalaya Riyasati Praja Mandal in Hindi).

The leadership of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council was controlled by those who had come into prominence in public life as a result of being the most politically conscious section of the first generation of Himalayan peasantry to receive higher education and urban employment[5]. They belonged to that emergent class within the Khash-Kanet proprietary peasantry which had been able to increase the area under commercial crops and integrate with the market most effectively. Apart from this emergent class of rich peasants, individuals from those families which had traditionally been involved in the administration of the Hill States, also formed part of this small group of pioneer Paharis who received higher education and employment in the professions of law, medicine, education and civil service. The Praja Mandals therefore reflected the concerns and interests of this new class of rural rooted but urban-based intellectuals. This emergent class looked to increasing its access to political power, and removing those social and cultural markers which relegated them to a lower status in the national mainstream.

These representatives of the Himalayan rich peasantry were politically immature and economically weak vis-à-vis the other propertied classes which were jostling for power on the “national” stage, and lacked confidence. On the other hand, their class position was also not sharply etched as the process of market penetration and commodification was still to fully unfold in the Western Himalayas. This also meant that while a rich peasantry and a middle peasantry had emerged in the political economy of the region, they were still not fully “class for itself”. The clan / lineage ties of Bhaichara (brotherhood) tied them to social relations which resisted class stratifications.

This leadership of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council had led few peasant movements; most of the Dumhs had been led by organic intellectuals and peasant leaders who emerged in the struggles. The claim of the Simla leadership derived primarily from their social position and status based, based both on their modern education and professions as well as their positions within the clans. By the time the Cabinet Mission published its proposals, a vibrant leadership, distinct from the Simla based leadership, was already developing within individual Hill States. This leadership had gained experience and confidence in the various struggles of the peasantry under the banner of the Praja Mandals – like the ones in Dhami, Koti, Kunihar, Bilaspur, Mandi, Jubbal, Sirmaur, among others. While these struggles politicised the peasantry, the resultant persecution often led to the destruction of the Praja Mandal organisation within many of the Hill States. Many activists were imprisoned or de-politicised through fines, harassment and “good-conduct” bonds that they were made to sign; some escaped to Simla, Dehra Dun, Lahore and Delhi, and carried on their activities from there.

The attempts of the proprietary middle peasants among the Khash-Kanet to profit either from commercial agriculture or the working of the larger colonial economy was hampered by their vulnerable economic position as well as by the various traditional imposts and taxes which had been fossilised under the land settlements. While middle peasantry among the Khash-Kanet opposed the Begar labour conscription of the Hill States and British governments, they were crucially dependent on the compulsory labour requisitioned from the Bethus (as also on labour-pools within the Khash-Kanet community). The bulk of the Khash-Kanet peasantry (the middle peasants) was consequently trying to abolish (or at the least reduce) the Hill States’ demands on them for compulsory labour while at the same time fighting to preserve their own entitlements to similar compulsory labour from other, subordinate, sections of the rural population.

The Himalaya Prant Praja Mandal

The rich peasant leadership had been successful in pushing through marriage reforms and was in control of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council of the All India States Peoples’ Conference. In Hindi, this body was known as the Himalaya Prant Praja Mandal. It claimed representation for the entire Western Himalayas stretching from Chamba to Garhwal, and actively rejected the political division of the region between Punjab and UP[6]. They argued, and rightfully so, that the social and economic structures, and cultural patterns in this entire region were similar. They also were clear that uniting the entire pahari population of North India into one political unit would strengthen them within the All India States Peoples’ Conference and in national politics.

These demands, raised by the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, were mainly two: a merger of all the Hill States with the directly administered terretories of the region into one province and pending which, “constitutional monarchies” within each of the Hill States based on universal suffrage and the abolition of Begar.

In effect, what these demands meant was that the administrative control of all the Hill States and the directly administered areas would pass on to the leadership of the Praja Mandals (the rich peasantry). This leadership of the Council started negotiations with the different Hill States rulers to “reform” their administration, hold elections and transfer administrative control to a “popularly elected” prime minister. There were also protracted discussions on which town would be the best to host the government headquarters of the Himalaya Prant – Simla or Dehra.

The Praja Mandals in each of the Hill States were constitutive units of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, sending delegates and electing the Council’s leadership. This leadership consisted of Yashwant Singh Parmar and Padamdev Gautam. Initially the leadership of the local Praja Mandals kept voting for the installed leadership of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council. However, this changed over time and primarily due to the changes in the Praja Mandals in two of the largest Hill States – Rampur Bushahr and Tehri Garhwal.

One Hill State, Two Praja Mandals

In Bushahr one peasant organization existed through the 1940s – the Bushahr Sewak Mandal. Its work was a combination of social reform propaganda among the peasantry and representations to the authorities on various issues like grazing rights, Begar and land revenue[7]. It was tolerated by the Raja, as it had not led any major agitation. In November 1946, the Bushahr Sewak Mandal organised a “‘Praja Sammelan” (State Subjects’ Conference) where about 1,300 peasants gathered and passed resolutions listing demands for representative government in Bushahr, reduction in land revenue, greater expenditure on schools and hospitals and abolition of Begar. It also changed the organisation’s name to Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal and sought affiliation to the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference[8].

However, a couple of weeks before the Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal was established, another group of Praja Mandal activists in Simla formed their own organisation called the Bushahr Praja Mandalunder the leadership of Padam Dev Gautam who was an office bearer of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council[9]. The Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal was not recognised by the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference, which granted that recognition to the one led by Padam Dev Gautam.

After the “Sarahan rebellion” of December 1946, involving a few thousand peasants of Rampur-Bushahr refusing to comply with Begar demands, it became clear that the organisation with the mass support in this Hill State was not the one led by Padam Dev Gautam, but rather the one led by Satya Dev Bushahri. In March 1947, the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference sent a representative to Simla work out a compromise between these two but it unravelled within a day, with the Satya Dev Bushahri led Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal accusing the central leadership of favouring the “official” faction led by Gautam[10]. For the next few months, both the Praja Mandals of Padam Dev Gautam and Satya Dev Bushahri called themselves the Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal[11]butthe national leadershiprefused to accept the legitimacy of the Satya Dev Bushahri led organisation. But over the next few months, again, they were forced to grant them recognition, de facto at first[12] and officially later[13], due to the continuous struggles and political activities of Satya Dev Bushahri led Praja Mandal in Bushahr over issues like illegal taxes and the continuation of Begar levies.

In the second week of March 1947, after the failed attempt at bringing the two factions together, the Praja Mandal led by Satya Dev Bushahri started a Satyagraha for representative government which the Raja finally acceded to.  In the elections which were finally held the nominees of the Satya Dev Bushahri faction won a large majority of the elective seats but one election dispute gave a handle to the Bushahr administration to postpone convening the elected constituent assembly.

Control of the Organisation

In the meanwhile, elections were held on 10 June 1947 for the executive and other leading posts of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council. The electoral college for this was composed of delegates who were themselves elected, and at places nominated, by the Praja Mandals of the constitutive Hill States. The number of delegates given to each Hill States was in accordance with its population. Thus Tehri Garhwal had 24 delegates, Mandi 11, Sirmaur 8, Chamba 7, Bushahr and Bilaspur 6 each and all the other Hill States together accounted for the remaining 20 out of the total of 82 delegates[14]. But the highest memberships were in Tehri Garhwal and Bushahr with 11,500 and 3,130 members on their rolls respectively. Other populous Hill States like Sirmaur and Bilaspur only had a 1,000 and 700 members respectively. It seems that this qualitative difference in the membership numbers reflected the difference in the character of the respective Praja Mandals and strengthened those who represented larger numbers in the internal struggles of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council.

By the time of this election to the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, two distinct political groups were clearly in evidence, struggling for supremacy within and popular acceptance outside. The group representing the older leadership of the Praja Mandals included Yashwant Singh Parmar and Padamdev Gautam apart from others like Suratram Prakash, N.D. Ratra, ShivaNand, S.R. Verma, Santram Shastri and Daulatram Shankhyan. They were all educated, in government jobs or other urban professions and belonged to rich landed families. They had the support of the Praja Mandals in the States of Sirmaur, Mandi, Suket and Bilaspur. Sirmaur had experienced an extremely militant peasant rebellion in the pargana of Pajhauta in 1942, where the more radical elements of the State’s Praja Mandal had participated and were subsequently jailed or exiled. Therefore the Praja Mandal now was controlled by Yashwant Singh Parmar. In Bilaspur and Mandi the Praja Mandals had supporters of both groups but the Padamdev Gautam — Yashwant Singh Parmar group pre-dominated.

The Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal and the Tehri Praja Mandal were the principal opposition to the dominance of the Padamdev Gautam–Yashwant Singh Parmar group. Satyadev Bushahri of Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal, Bhagmal Sautha of Jubbal who had been in the forefront of the Dhami and Koti peasant rebellions of 1939, and Paripurnanand of the Tehri Praja Mandal led this group. Most of the local activists supporting this group in the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council were primarily peasants who continued living and working in their villages and were often not even literate. Later, sections of the Bethu population too joined this group, some through The Himalayas Scheduled Caste Association[15].

Soon after these Regional Council elections it became clear that the more radical elements of the Praja Mandal, led by the Bushahr, Jubbal and Tehri Garhwal Praja Mandals had gained dominance and controlled it. The group led by Parmar and Gautam was effectively sidelined from the leadership of the Himalaya Prant Praja Mandal.

The Importance of Tehri Garhwal

The Tehri Garhwal Praja Mandal had led major struggles even before 1946. The Tehri authorities had imprisoned the foremost leader of the Tehri Praja Mandal, Sridev Suman, in 1944. Suman went on hunger strike in May 1945 against his torture in prison and demanded the rights of a political prisoner. After 75 days, his condition became precarious and he was shifted to the hospital where he died three days later[16].

This incident became a rallying point for the Praja Mandal activists, not only in the Himalayan regions but all over the country. 25 July, the day Suman died, was commemorated by all the Praja Mandals affiliated to the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference and public meetings were organised to highlight the lack of civil liberties in Princely India. In the Himalayan States it became an occasion for the re-launching of the activities of various Praja Mandals and the beginning of Praja Mandals in States which had remained without any political organisation till then.

Throughout 1946, the Tehri Praja Mandal launched a series of mass actions of the peasantry to force the Raja to reduce by half the revenue rates, abolish Begar and appoint popularly elected ministers in his administration[17]. These agitations came to a climax during August 1946 when the entire leadership of the Tehri Praja Mandal was jailed by the State and all expressions of public dissatisfaction with the ongoing revenue settlement were met with fierce repression. The jailed leaders went on a hunger strike in jail demanding their release and their treatment as political prisoners till then. This hunger strike went on for more than two weeks but did not result in any change in the policy or attitude of the Tehri Durbar with regard either to its revenue settlement operations or political activity in its territories. This intransigent attitude of the State’s administration led to the local Praja Mandal activists and the peasantry in general becoming increasingly restless and impatient and the breaking out of many small rebellions in villages of the State.

It was at this time that the first reports of Praja Mandal activists being members of the Communist Party came to light. The Communist Party had a relatively active unit in Dehra Dun. By 1946 at least two of the members of the Tehri Praja Mandal executive were from the Communist Party. The growing radicalisation of the peasant movement in Tehri Garhwal and the increasing influence of the Communists in it led to the intervention the central leadership of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference. They negotiated a compromise with the Tehri Garhwal ruler whereby representative government was promised and an offer was made to rehabilitate those political prisoners of the Praja Mandal whose property was attached and auctioned by the State. It is interesting to note that this compromise did not cover the few Communist Party members who were jailed along with the Praja Mandal activists. The necessity of political unity of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference and the Princes to combat the growing influence of the communists was stressed in many places and made explicit in one letter sent by Jai Narayan Vyas, General Secretary of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference, to the prime minister of Tehri Garhwal.

Radicalism and the need to Pacify

In the struggles that were launched in Tehri Garhwal, the local Praja Mandal activists found themselves in close affinity with the Praja Mandal activists of neighbouring Punjab Hill States like Bushahr, Jubbal and Keonthal. By 1947, the central leadership of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference made it quite clear that disruption of peace or even “peaceful” Satyagraha was not welcome in the circumstances where the Congress was about to assume power and repeatedly told the local activists that nothing should be done to “complicate matters” for them. They were alarmed by the increasingly strident voices that were emerging from the local units of the Praja Mandals in the different Hill States and by their unilateral action without waiting for “sanction” or “permission” from the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference[18]. To bring about a greater control over the working of the individual Praja Mandals in the small Hill States of the region, they increasingly started using the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council to put brakes on them.

As mentioned earlier, Tehri Garhwal was administration of the United Provinces but the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference grouped it under Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Councilaccording to their policy of bunching Native States, which shared similar culture, history and regional features into the same Regional Council[19]. Tehri Garhwal’s closest links were with the Punjab Hill States of Bushahr, Jubbal and Sirmaur, criss-crossed by ties of marriage, religion, trade and pastoralism which facilitated the political unity of the area.

Over the twenty months, between the revival of political activism in the Western Himalayas and the final showdown between the two groups in February of 1948, the relative distance between their politics increased. There was a growing radicalisation of the newer leadership. This was evident in the growing political ties between this leadership and the communist party in Tehri Garhwal and the manner in which it mobilised the landless Bethus in Bushahr.

The general secretary of Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal, Anulal Dhairak, led the mobilisation of the Bethus in some well mobilised agitations, one of which was violently attacked by the State forces and there are reports of the loss of many lives. Police reports suggest that many of the leading activists of the Praja Mandal were thrown into the Sutlej river in the final act of quelling the revolt. Apart from Bushahr of 1947-48, there is no other example in the entire history of the Western Himalayas where the Khash-Kanet peasantry demanded the abolition of Beth tenures and their other “disabilities”. In fact, even in Bushahr it is doubtful how enthusiastic the peasantry was to the agenda of Beth reforms being incorporated in the Praja Mandal agitations[20]. The foregrounding of the Bethu demands may also have contributed to the exceptional violence with which this struggle was suppressed. However, that this issue was raised, and foregrounded, by the Praja Mandal leadership is a clear sign of their growing political radicalism; and could well also be a partial cause of their eventual political defeat at the hands of the more politically conservative forces led by Parmar and Gautam.

Leaders like Gautam and Parmar, who had been eased out of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, still retained influence both with a sizeable section of local political opinion and with a majority of the central leadership[21]. They dominated Praja Mandals in important Hill States like Sirmaur, Mandi and Bilaspur. However, given the dominance of Tehri Garhwal in terms of population, membership numbers and delegates, they could never hope to regain control  over the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council. After 15 August 1947 events moved with great speed and the older leadership, which had just lost control of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, did not have time to reassert its dominance within the short time at hand. Moreover the radical political agenda of the new leadership of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council was proving to be popular with larger masses of the region’s peasantry[22]. In this situation, it seemed a distinct possibility that this older leadership would lose political power in the new province that was imminent. It became imperative to regain the popular support for their leadership.

The Three Point Counter-Attack

Padamdev Gautam and Yashwant Singh Parmar followed a three-point strategy to reduce the influence of the Satyadev Bushahri led group in the politics of the region. At one level they started a concerted effort to render the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council an ineffective body. At another level they launched a massive movement to introduce popular government and end repression in the Hill States of Suket by involving Praja Mandal workers from all the Hill States of the region. Lastly, they used their influence with the States Ministry and the administration of the Hill States to crush the movements launched by the other group.

Since elections were a route closed for them, due to the clear majority of Bushahr and Tehri Garhwal in the electoral college of the Regional Council, Parmar and Gautam floated another Council which was initially composed of self nominated members. This new Regional Council was named the Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council[23]. The only difference in the composition of this “Sub”-Regional Council and the earlier Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council was that Tehri Praja Mandal was not included; Tehri Garhwal not being part of the Punjab Hill States of which the Simla Hill were a part. Interestingly, they included those Hill States of the Punjab, like Chamba, Mandi and Suket, which did not form part of the British defined Simla Hill States. The ostensible reason for the formation of this new body was the specific needs and historical ties of the Hill States, which formed the Simla Hill States and the supposed lack of historical ties with Tehri Garhwal[24]. That this was a specious reason can be made out from the inclusion of Chamba, a Hill States bordering Pathankot and Jammu and which was separated by the Dhauladhar range, in this group but the exclusion of Tehri Garhwal which had a border with Bushahr, Jubbal and Keonthal.

The Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council was granted recognition by the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference almost as soon as it started working[25]. This recognition was made easier as the leadership of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council did not object to it as they thought this was a good way to ensure that the Parmar – Gautam group kept out of the Regional Council. The new body was, technically, under the Regional Council. But once the Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council was formed, those involved with it started claiming the affiliation of the Praja Mandals of the Punjab Hill States which was earlier vested with the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council.

The Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council claimed that while it was the legitimate body to grant affiliation to the local Praja Mandals, the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council should deal with it and grant affiliation to those Praja Mandals which were not part of it but were part of the Himalayan region. Thus the Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council provided an organisational platform to unite the older, rich peasant, leadership of the Praja Mandals, which had lost out to the newer, middle peasant, leadership. Once this Sub-Regional Council received legitimacy from the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference its leaders stopped attending the meetings of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council on various excuses, thus rendering that body an exclusive domain of the Satyadev Bushahri group, who seem to have initially relished the absence of their rivals.

It was only after this alternative organisational structure to the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council was firmly in place that the other two components of the Gautam — Parmar group’s strategy could work.

The Emergence of Himachal Pradesh

In February 1948, both the Praja Mandal groups launched massive mass movements; the Satyadev Bushahri group in Bushahr and the Parmar – Gautam group in Suket. While the Bushahr agitation was put down with a heavy hand by the Hill State’s administration, headed by the Dewan of Bushahr who had been vetted by the Indian National Congress government and appointed by its States’ Ministry, the Suket Satyagraha launched by Parmar was provided all help by the government in Delhi and Simla. Among the reasons for the successful suppression of the Bushahr rebellion was the organisational weakness of the Praja Mandal, the excitement in the promise of independence which made the peasantry somewhat willing to listen to the exhortations of the national leadership and the foregrounding of the Bethu question, which found lukewarm acceptance among the proprietary peasantry dependant on the agricultural labour and other services of that group.

The Suket Satyagraha not only managed to force the Suket Raja to accept the terms of merger with the Union, it also signalled to the rulers of the other Hill States that they needed to come to a political agreement with the Praja Mandal leadership if they wanted to retain some influence and power within their territories. The Raja of Suket had been among those who had sought to repress all political activities by the local Praja Mandal and was trying to negotiate directly with the Congress leadership and the Government of India in Delhi. Other rulers who were following a similar policy were those of Nalagarh, Mandi, Bilaspur, Sirmaur.  The success of the Suket Satyagraha and the successful suppression of the Bushahr rebellion was the culmination of the second part of the Parmar – Gautam group’s strategy.

The Suket Satyagraha set the ball rolling and within the next few weeks all the Hill States comprising the present day Himachal Pradesh fell like ninepins to the demand for merger (Verma 1995: 122-23). With the exception of Bilaspur, which still managed to get separate recognition as a type “C” State of the Indian Union, every other Hill State under Punjab was merged into a type “C” State of Himachal Pradesh.

What this meant was that Tehri Garhwal was kept out of the new state in the Western Himalayas. Without the support of the Tehri Praja Mandal with its large membership and radical leadership, the Satyadev Bushahri group, which had taken a battering in its base of Bushahr, became further weakened. This signalled the definite marginalisation of the more radical politics, which, as has been argued, represented an immature middle peasant position, espoused by Satyadev Bushahri, Bhagmal Sautha, Anulal Dhairak and the leadership of the Tehri Praja Mandal.

Also with the creation of the State of Himachal Pradesh, bodies like the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council and the Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council became irrelevant. Marginalised in the Praja Mandal movement and kept out of political power in the new State, the Satyadev Bushahri group lost much of its clout even among those who had formed its core constituency, the middle peasants and the small peasant—landless labourers.

The prime reason for this loss of support among these sections was the underdeveloped differentiation between the rich and middle peasant and the ritual distance between the latter and the Bethu landless labourers and village workers. The ties of Bhaichara were still stronger than the emergent class differentiations and therefore the rich peasant leadership did not face too much difficulty in co-opting the middle peasants as a class without co-opting their new-born leadership. Some individuals of the Satyadev Bushahri group eventually managed a foothold in the Congress politics of Himachal Pradesh but most, including Satyadev Bushahri remained perpetually in opposition politics somewhat to the left of the Congress.

In 1975, with the imposition of the Emergency, the peasantry of Himachal Pradesh was restive again, as Javeed Alam (1985) details in some length. One of the leaders of the anti-Emergency mobilisations of that time was Satya Dev Bushahri.

— —

References

  • Alam, Aniket (2008). Becoming India: Western Himalayas under British Rule, Foundation Books, New Delhi.
  • Alam, Javeed (1985). Domination and Dissent: Peasants and Politics, Mandira, Calcutta.
  • Kanwar, Pamela (1999). Essays on Urban Patterns in Nineteenth Century Himachal Pradesh. Shimla, Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
  • Negi, Jaideep (1995). Begar and Beth System  in Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Reliance Publishing House.
  • Singh, Chetan (1998). Natural Premises: Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalaya 1800 – 1950, New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
  • Verma V. (1995). The Emergence of Himachal Pradesh: A Survey of Constitutional Developments, New Delhi, 1995

[1] A detailed description and analysis of the peasant rebellions is available in Aniket Alam, 2008, chapter 4. The discussion here is drawn from that.

[2] Letter from Surat Singh, General Secretary, Himalaya Vidiya Prabandhani Sabha to the Superintendent of the Simla Hill States and Deputy Commissioner, Simla, dated Simla 12 June 1924.

[3] Simla District Gazetteer 1888-89, page 76 has a detailed description of this. Other sources are Gazettteer of the Simla Hill States, 1910 and the Land Revenue Settlement Report of Koti State 1916,

[4] The detailed account of the entire rebellion along with the translations of the statements of the leading activists is available in the file records of the Punjab Hill States Political Agent “Problems of the Koti Bethus”, India Office Records in the British Library, No. R/1/29/2217.

[5] Y. S. Parmar, who became the undisputed leader of Himachal Pradesh was a doctorate in Anthropology from Lucknow University where he had worked under the supervision of Prof. D.N. Majumdar; Padamdev Gautam was a registered Vaid and affiliated to the Arya Samaj in Simla. Purnanand, the most important Praja Mandalist of Mandi was a lawyer and had been educated in Lahore.

[6] “Report on the Formation of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference”, dated 14 April 1947, Appendix ‘A’, File No. 63, AISPC Papers; and Resolutions relating to the Ludhiana Conference of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference, File No. 191, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[7] Hindi pamphlet issued by Bushahr Sewak Mandal, undated but released after the Praja Sammelan of 11-13 November, 1946, from File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[8] Urdu letter from Girjadhar Prasad Negi, General Secretary, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal, to AISPC, Delhi, dated 22 November 1946, from File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[9] Letter from Jagat Ram, General Secretary, Bushahr Praja Mandal, Simla, to General Secretary, AISPC, Delhi, dated 26 February 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[10] Office note by Masurkar to Jai Narayan Vyas, General Secretary, AISPC, Delhi, dated 14 March 1947, along with Appendix B: “Note on dispute in Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal”, authored by Masurkar, dated 13 March 1947; Minutes of Meeting of Bushahr Representatives, Simla, dated 01 March 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[11] The only difference was that the letterhead of the Padamdev Gautam group spelt it as Bashahr Rajia Praja Mandal, whereas the Satyadev Bushahri group spelt it as Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal. Even this was not possible in the Devnagri script and thus this created many problems (and comical situations) both at the grassroots and with the AISPC leadership.

[12] Anonymous office note, AISPC, Delhi, dated 04 June 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[13] Letter from Secretary, Reception Committee, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal, Rampur, to General Secretary, AISPC, Delhi, dated 26 October 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[14] ‘Report on the Formation of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference’, dated 14 April 1947, Appendix ‘A’, File No. 63, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[15] Satyadev Bushahri had organised a two day Dalit Sammelan under the aegis of the Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal in Rampur town in December 1946, see letter from Satyadev Bushahri, President, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal to General Secretary, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal (Delhi Branch) dated Rampur, 15 January 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, NMML. Also see letter from Balak Ram, General Secretary, Himalayas Scheduled Caste Association, Delhi to General Secretary, AISPC, Delhi dated 15.11.1947, (copy sent to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Incharge States’ Ministry and Home Affairs.) File No. 63, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[16] Statement on affairs of Tehri Garhwal State, File No. 165, pp. 100 – 103, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[17] Three main sources have been used to reconstruct the history of the agitations of the Tehri Praja Mandal, all from File No.165, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; (i) letter from Jai Narayan Vyas, General Secretary, AISPC to Jawaharlal Nehru dated Narendranagar, 13 August 1946, (ii) Press Release of the AISPC, Delhi regarding Tehri affairs (along with its enclosures) dated Delhi, 26 August 1946, (iii) “Note on My Visit to Tehri State” by Jai Narayan Vyas, undated.

[18] Letter from Masurkar, Office Secretary, AISPC, Delhi to Padamdev Gautam, Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council dated Delhi, 15 March 1947, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[19] Resolutions relating to the Ludhiana Conference of the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference, File No. 191, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[20] The leaders of the Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal made distinctions between mobilisations of peasants and State subjects in general and of Bethus and Dalits in particular, see letter from Satyadev Bushahri, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal to General Secretary, Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal dated 15 January 1947. The State officials too made a distinction between the agitations by the peasantry in general and those by the Bethus, see telegram from Chetram Thakur, Sessions Judge, Rampur Bushahr to YS Parmar, c/o AISPC, Delhi dated 03 April 1948, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[21] A study of the sources shows that the Y.S. Parmar — Padamdev Gautam group had the sympathies and support of Jainarayan Vyas, Dwarkanath Kachru, Pattabhi Sitaramaiah, Hiralal Shastri and Masurkar among those of the AISPC who were directly involved in Himalayan affairs. Only Venkat Rao, the organising secretary, supported the other group.

[22] By the autumn and winter of 1947 Satyadev Bushahri, Bhagmal Sautha and Paripurnanand were touring Hill States like Suket, Mandi, Nalagarh and Bilaspur where they received spontaneous support from the Praja Mandal activists and hostility from the State authorities. Both were symptoms of their growing acceptability in areas where they did not even have any contact till some months ago. See letters from Satyadev Bushahri to General Secretary, AISPC, Delhi dated 05 December 1947 and 09 December 1947 describing in detail their visits to these Hill States and the political conditions there, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[23] The first indication of the impossibility of both these groups working together in the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council is found in the ‘Personal’ letter from Parmar to Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramaiah, President, AISPC, Delhi dated Simla, 14 June 1947, File No. 63, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. This position is clarified in the letter from L.D. Verma, General Secretary, Himalayan States Sub-Regional Council, Simla to the President, AISPC, Delhi dated 18 June 1947, File No. 63, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, where the formation of this new body is announced and the intention of its members to communicate directly with the AISPC central leadership is recorded. It claimed that the election to the office bearers of the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council, held on 10th June was improper and the house was divided almost equally among those who accepted the election results and those who did not. Therefore it had become impossible to work the Himalayan Hill States’ Regional Council. This new sub-council claimed the affiliation of all the Praja Mandal which comprised the Regional Council. Later its letter head proclaimed it to be the Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council.

[24] The other group, it seems, tried to force matters in the other direction. In a public meeting called by the Bushahr Rajya Praja Mandal in Rohru Tehsil and attended by around 1000 peasants a unanimous resolution was passed. This called for the Congress appointed Dewan of Bushahr to follow democratic principles and not administer the State on old bureaucratic methods. It objected to attempts at merging the Hill States into Punjab or a separate Patiala State. It demanded the formation of a Himalaya Prant comprising all the Hill States from Chamba to Tehri Garhwal. It also proclaimed that if that was not feasible then Bushahr, Jubbal and Tehri Garhwal should be merged into UP as one unit. It repeatedly warned against splintering these last three Hill States, claiming that they shared strong commonality of language, economic resources, kin relations and geography. See Resolution (Urdu) passed at Public Meeting in Rohru, dated 28.03.1948, File No. 29, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

[25] Letter from Y.S. Parmar, President, Simla Hill States Sub-Regional Council to Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramaiah, President, AISPC, Delhi dated Simla, 12.09.1947, File No. 63, AISPC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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