Here be Hills, Forests and Little Folk

A sombre chronicle of the steady erasure of local histories and loss of a rich ecosystem that began in colonial times and continues

Written by Mrinal Pande | Published: May 6, 2017 3:52:03 am
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Rudyard Kipling had once asked an interesting question: “What do they know of England, who only England know?” After reading Queeny Pradhan’s well-researched and documented narrative on the hows and whys of the creation of hill stations (Shimla, Ooty, Darjeeling and Mount Abu), by the British, the likely answer would be: “Maybe, not nearly enough.”

To most of us, England today looks so small and isolated that we need to be reminded how vast the British empire was in the period 1820-1920, when the British built these hill stations in India to service their own needs, for the rest and recuperation of white British civil and military officials, exhausted after guarding the Raj and ruling the natives of the vast, dusty plains. Today, many Indians who visit these “hill stations” to escape the heat and dust of the plains and have a nice little holiday, grow all dewy-eyed over the great legacy of sprawling bungalows, churches and other stately buildings the British left behind for India in 1947. After 70 years, few realise that there is a whole history of a steady and well thought-out erasure of local histories and forests, and the brutal subjugation of the indigenous people that the exercise entailed.

Using the epistemological stance of the natives, Pradhan painstakingly presents a vast and rare treasure culled from oral sources and various kinds of archival material. By adding to these facts located through her numerous field trips, she manages to connect several dots between empire, space and culture. The matrix thus created offers many rare and insightful stories that take us beyond the usual analysis limited to rural-urban and hill-plains divides, and record the lopsided socio-economic development of India’s permanently scarred, socially reoriented and frequently deforested hill stations. Over a century, that created the basic template (followed even by the government of India) for “development” in the hilly areas.

The colonisers, to be sure, were not a monolithic category. There were several who cared deeply about the flora and fauna and the human beings who had lived in harmony with each other for centuries. But colonial rule was a complex matrix ruled by the money ethic. And even when local papers and journals began regularly to carry articles questioning some exceedingly questionable steps taken in the name of development and containing native protesters, the overarching colonial aim remained unwavering. The hills, cool, scenically soothing and picturesque spaces that they were, urgently required to be recreated into a sort of gated community for the white colonisers to retire into after long, hot stints in the plains. Here, as they shed their fatigue and enjoyed a bit of fishing and a bit of shikar and horse-riding, they would plan and develop clever strategies to maintain and mine this vast land through the next century.

From amongst a long list of such hill stations, Pradhan has selected only four: Shimla, Ooty, Mount Abu and Darjeeling. They were selected, we are told by the author, because they were all summer capitals in colonial India and as such they offer precious “insights into the workings of the policies of the Empire and the strategic position of these hill stations in the imperial scheme of things.” She could, one feels , have considered selecting at least one more hill station from Uttarakhand which housed the summer capital of the vast United Provinces and was also the largest hill camp for the Queen’s armies. Be that as it may, Pradhan has done well to also include the colourful and intrigue-laden social whirl these stations enjoyed during the busy summer season, which became the less serious (but important nevertheless) aspect of running the empire in the plains from the hills.

The work on developing these hill capitals began early in the 19th century and there seems to be a direct connection between the urbanistaion of hills through, “creative destruction”, and capital accumulation by the imperial government through rents, taxes, private property development, and chains of banks, post and telegraph centres and coversion of the population into wage labour to feed the vast British political and military system. Pradhan is quick to point out, with solid evidence, how the present ecological crisis in our hills may basically be due to a deeply flawed development paradigm followed by the colonial masters, who encouraged extensive use of timber even for infrastructure development in the plains. Thus, the irreversible destruction of pristine forests began. Their pretty summer capitals also necessitated the heartless displacement of indigenous tribes and the rural economy. This, and a total destruction of traditional methods of managing forests and water resources, were to have distrous consequences later. It is to Pradhan’s credit that she has also taken care to meticulously record the complexities, tensions, conflicts and resistance that arose around issues of providing proper health care and sanitation for the inhabitants along clearly demarcated racial lines.

The core of the book lies in the realisation that the British colonial power all through the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century bulldozed its way into the hill areas without so much as by your leave. In the process, it reconstituted and reorganised both the topography and also the lives of original inhabitants as required by the imperial template for development, forged by men far removed from the daily lives of the natives. It ejected the locals from ownership of land and forests to create urban structures that suited the British mode of life. An ecologically sensitive region was thus overburdened with motorable roads that delivered the colonial masters’ families to a life of leisure with sports institutions, health resorts and large bungalows run by a host of natives employed as menials. As the officials carried out their brainstormings in the salubrious climate from vast buildings that housed the government secretariats, they also created permanent binaries between the rulers and the ruled, between leisure and work, development and ecological degradation and the first socio-cultural chasms between those who have the power to buy out the locals, demolish their humble lifestyles and then use them as daily wage labour. These socio-cultural divides still remain. Only the colonial masters have now been replaced by the idle Indian rich who are again displacing the natives and driving them to seek employment in the plains while they enjoy their summer sojourn in the hill estates they have acquired.

Empire in The Hills is a sombre chronicle of spoliation, of the degradation of an immense habitat and of how those that do the despoiling may believe that they are developing a backward area. We Indians would do well to remember that our hills, forests and rivers are neither infinite nor eternal and colonising them in the name of development, urbanisation or tourism, is killing them with fake kindness.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and former chairperson of Prasar Bharati

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