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Still Existent Traditional Power Structure in the Western Himalayan Mahasu Desh

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Mahasu deity institution of himachal pradesh

By – Dr. Devender Sharma, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Centre of Excellence Government College Sanjauli, Shimla (Himachal Pradesh).

This piece focuses on the Western Himalayan Mahasu Desh or Mahasu sub-region which cuts across areas of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Effort is made to understand the social structure setting, still prevalent traditional authority structures and the role of the Mahusu Deity in this area. Focus is also laid on the societal change which is taking place due to internal and external influences over the recent years in the area.

Introduction

Mahasu Desh (not a political entity) according to Arik Moran, represents an area which belongs to the cult of the dominant divine ruler i.e., Mahasu Diety (or Mahasu Devta). The area presents a setting of Desh, Lok and Kaal within the greater Western Pahari Belt in the Western Himalayas and majorly includes parts of the Shimla administrative division (Himachal Pradesh) and some parts of the Dehradun and Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. The area has plenty of folk beliefs and legends associated with deities’ and cults which play an important role in the customary practices and strengthening rural power structures. Mahasu Desh mainly cuts across the boundaries of the erstwhile princedoms of Shimla Hill States, (Sirmour, Jubbal, Throach and Rampur Bushahar etc.), the rulers of which played a significant role in the preservation and continuity of the Mahasu Cult.

Who is Mahasu Devta/Diety?

Sticking to the Mahasu cult, it needs to be highlighted that according to folk lore ‘Mahasu’ Devta or Deity is the collective name for four deity brothers who came into existence to protect a Brahmin named Huna Bhatt and his family. According to one of the mythological stories associated with the diety, a demon named Kirmir casted an evil eye and desired to have Kirtaka, wife of Huna Bhatt; when they had an encounter she prayed to Lord Shiva to protect her chastity. In response to her prayers, Lord Shiva blinded Kirmir which helped her run away to her husband. They then prayed to Hateshwari Devi of Hatkoti (Incarnation of Durga) who advised the couple to go to the Kashmir mountains and offer prayer to Lord Shiva for help. Then, Lord Shiva granted their wish to kill Kimir and other demons in his army and told Huna Bhatt to go back to his home and perform certain rituals and worship Devi. On doing so a power emerged from the ground with flames around and told Huna Bhatt to plough on every Sunday a part of his field and promised that on the seventh Sunday the Mahasu brothers with their ministers and the army will come out and kill the demons. Huna Bhatt did accordingly, and instead of the seventh Sunday the deities emerged on the sixth Sunday. The first to come out was Botha, then came Pavasi and later Vasik and Chalda. All the four are called by a common affix of Mahasu (Char Mahasu). Also, from the fifth furrow appeared their heavenly mother Devladli Devi and their ministers. After their emergence they killed the whole army of the demon.

This is probably one of the reasons why for centuries Shaivism (centered around Lord Shiva) and Shaktivism (centered around Devi Shakti) sects of Hinduism grew in popularity in the region as such folk lore’s established links of these sects with smaller cults like Mahasu. Due to the same reason Shaivism and Shaktivism establish deeper roots and became entwined with the network of diverse indigenous beliefs that collectively exists in the Western Himalayas. This is also one of the reasons why at the village level non-mainland religious practices were central to the belief system of majority Hindu communities living in the Western Himalayan region, as they discouraged vegetarianism and believed heavily in animal sacrifice.

But on the flipside, a major problem also emerged in areas like these, as from the 11th century onwards many areas of the Western Himalayas were occupied by especially Chauhan and Rathore Rajputs who migrated from the mainland plains and used the whole Devta/Diety concept in close nexus with the Brahmins they had brought with them. This led to the start of a patriarchal and elitist structure of mixing people’s beliefs with power politics as a tool to establish social and economic dominance in the region for centuries. The same also led to practices relating to discrimination against women and people belonging to the lower castes.

Likewise, Devta/Diety system in the Mahasu Desh with time became very influential and was seen as an important medium of justice, used mainly to further the upper caste hegemony in the region majorly prior to independence. But even after the merger of the Mahasu princely states with the Indian Union, the system did not completely vanish. As even after constitutional authority structures replaced the traditional authority structures and ignited the hope amongst the discriminated communities that all kind of inequalities and discrimination would be replaced by equity and social justice, nothing significant has happened. 

Societal Setting and Configuration

Destroying the evil and administrating reward and punishment, behaviorally, Devta, as a human projection, assumes the role of a divine ruler in many areas of the Western Himalayas. In its societal existence and in relation to its believers, a Devta tends to be multi-dimensional and multifaceted. Spatial organization of the Mahasu Devta has also formed into the structures of Shanthi (also called Shathivil) and Panshi (Panshivil) that are partly mythical and partly political-cultural. The Mahasu cult phenomenon has grown on the local structure of power politcs in which the pyramidal structure of sayanas still occupy a pivotal place although the office of the sayana does not carry any legal legitimacy in today’s times but still plays a role. Management of the Mahasu Cult is also carried through a system of Wazarat, which is caste based and hence, hierarchical and feudal. Wazarat (ministry personnel) consists of two levels of hierarchy: at the administrative level, the strongest in terms of hierarchy, are the Rajputs and Brahmins who fill the roles of the Wazir (ministers), Pujari/deopuzia (priests), Mali (mediums), Thani (priest assistants) and Bhaṇḍari (equipment keepers). At the second hierarchical level are the Bajgi/Dhakis (drummers) and Kolta (carriers). Wazir fully controls and directs the Devta institution but under the authority of Sayanas, who may or may not belong to the clan of the Wazir.

In the hierarchical and pyramidal structure of Sayana (called Syanachari), there are discernible four levels of office viz., the village Sayana, the Khag Sayana (Khag is the subdivision of the Khat), the Khat Sayana (Khut is a subdivision of the tehsil) and the Chauntru or the Chauntra Sayanas (Chauntru consisted of four most influential Sayanas). The Khag Sayana controls the village Sayanas falling under his Khag, but under the overall supervision of the Khat Sayana. Where the Khag organization does not exist, the village Sayana works directly under the Khat Sayana. The four most influential Syanas bearing the title of Chauntra, constitute a senate.  Both Wazarat and Sayanachari move hand to hand. Despite this nexus of power both on the economic and political level, Wazir remains dependent on the Sayanas. The Sayanachari system during the days of national movement was linked to the undemocratic and autocratic system of Zamindari, but after independence nothing has been done to deal with this feudal system, especially the Mahasu sub-region.

The Discriminatory Caste-Structure

The caste structure of Mahasu Desh is in consonance with its usual universal pattern. Yet, it has its own peculiarities. In the structural setting, the Rajput and the Brahman own and cultivate a major part of the land, which has been and even today is a major source of wealth and power. Among the scheduled castes, mostly the people are part of the unskilled labor. Occupationally, they work as agricultural laborers besides working as potters, curriers, tanners, sawyers and wood cutters. There are several discriminatory social practices against people belonging to lower caste groups that continue even today. The most prominent is the Khumbri Panchayat which is predominantly controlled by upper castes and usually discriminates against the lower caste groups. This Panchayat allegedly does not allow the lower caste communities to approach the police for lodging complaints against upper caste groups. Khumbri Panchayat also uses bizzare methods of compensation in cases of heinous crimes, wherein the culprit is ordered to offer a goat and one meal to all villagers. Another such practice during the elections is that of LoonLota, in which salt is mixed with water in a Lota (utensil) and people are asked to take an oath in the name of the Mahasu Devta to side by a particular candidate in elections, and, if one fails on his promise, then he is categorized as a sinner and cursed. Lower caste groups in the area many of whom are not well educated still believe in this practice, while the upper caste groups use it to establish dominance. Budu/Budiachu is also a practice which makes this list and involves lower caste groups mainly Bajgi, performing dance and music at houses of upper castes on Diwali for at least three days. Refusal to do so means social boycott and some other forms of punishment. People belonging to the Lower caste groups are also denied a role in managing devta/deity temple affairs and there is discrimination in participation in rituals along with the denial of entry in some places.

Tracing Social Change

Over a period, growing impact of modern economy does create constraints in the traditional management and certain changes are being witnessed in this respect, but on the surface the political economy has not changed much. During my fieldwork other social changes that can be seen over the years is the increasing influence of the Hindi-heartland centric Vaishnavism in the Mahasu sub-region through many self-proclaimed reformist organizations who further the notion of Pan-Hinduism. But the same is invariably promoting Sanskritic notions which are alien to the region and may lead to more segregation between communities. Also, propagation of vegetarianism and animal worship is also being aimed at and is gradually changing the Pahari way of lifestyle in these areas. Further, there are also many instances of conversion of lower caste groups to Christianity, but most of the groups operating in the region are from the Evangelical school of thought, that again promote rigidity and orthodoxy which may further segregate communities. Thus, greater progressive change based on the constitutional principles of social justice and equality is still missing, due to which soon the social development of the area may suffer which may invariably also target the economic prosperity.

Conclusion

Thus, the still existent traditional power structure in the Western Himalayan Mahasu Desh is consequently affecting the merger of the region with the wider constitutional setup of the country and the global political economy. These traditional authority structures have some peculiarity, due to which they are still predominant amongst the masses, but better sense needs to prevail in order to slowly create a positive change. Inter-community dialogue based on regional progressive lines can be one way out to eliminate the social evils such systems propagate in this 21st century.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Himachal Watcher or its members

Opinion

Development, Displacement, and Biodiversity: With Special Emphasis on the Forest Rights Act, 2006

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By – Aagam, Ph.D. Scholar at the Faculty of Law, Himachal Pradesh University.

The piece deals with the issue of development, displacement of indigenous people, and biodiversity. The article suggests that indigenous communities are closely linked to the forest and other similar resource-rich areas because they are the original inhabitants of such areas and are wholly dependent on that setup. In fact, they can be considered as the real protectors of biodiversity.  The work also highlights issues concerning the displacement of thousands of people through various development projects. Further, various pivotal provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the problem concerning their ground implementation are discussed.

Development according to Amartya Sen is a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. It is the process of enhancing individual capacities to avoid various deprivations such as starvation, malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality. But nowadays the definition of development has changed. It has been limited to the GDP and prodigality. Constant destruction of nature has been a norm due to the coming up of many development projects in rural and tribal areas, at the same time all this plays with the interests of the inhabitants of these areas. In essence, when we discuss the term nature or forest, it does not mean only plants and trees rather it includes biodiversity and ecology. Everything is linked to ecology, from little plants and insects to large creatures and humans. Each component of this ecology serves a purpose, and each maintains a natural balance. Human beings are the ones who disrupt this balance, whether for the sake of development or to make indiscriminate profits. In the current Indian context, a lot is happening in this concern and various legislations enacted by the British colonizers have been used to grab the land in resource-rich tribal areas. The Indian Forest Act, 1927, can be seen as one such enactment which is wrongly perceived by many as an important legislation for the conservation of forests. But that is not the case, as it was only enacted to meet commercial and military demands for timber. By recognizing forests as state property, the enactment attempted to overthrow customary rights and forest management systems which gave an open license for timber exploitation.

Eventually, almost sixty years after independence, the Parliament passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 (hereinafter mentioned as the Forest Rights Act, 2006). The legislation deserves praise as it admitted the historical injustices suffered by Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers whose rights had been inappropriately recognized throughout the colonial period as well as in independent India. In essence, it has multiple progressive provisions like  Section 3(1)(a)  which provides that the members of a forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers have the right to hold and reside in forest land under individual or common occupation for habitation or self-cultivation for livelihood. Then, Section 3(1)(c) gives the right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries. Section 3(1)(d) provides for other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fishing rights in water bodies, grazing (both settled or transhumant), and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities. Section 3(1)(g) then provides for the rights for the conversion of Pattas or leases or grants issued by any local authority or any state government on forest lands to titles. This legislation also grants the rights to protect, regenerate, conserve, or manage community forest resources under Section 3(1)(i). Furthermore, Section 5 empowers the holders of forest rights or other village institutions to protect the wildlife, forest, and biodiversity. It further puts a duty upon the holders of the forest right to ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources, and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected. They are empowered to ensure that their habitats are protected from any destructive practices that would harm their cultural and natural heritage. Further, they must have to stop any activity which adversely affects wild animals, forests, and biodiversity. Apart from this, the Gram Sabha has provided the authority to initiate the process of determining the forest rights.

Consequently, at the global level, all this can be related to the first half of the 19th century where imperialist powers had made most of the third world their colonies and implemented conservation strategies to loot natural resources. Then, in the late 60s, the strategy slowly changed, and neo-colonialism started getting implemented in these areas. This wave had a deep nexus with the corporates, who slowly and steadily in the decades to follow started running alternative propagandas with the help of the newly created NGO mechanism centered around campaigns which portrayed the opinion that people should plant more trees, save the environment, etc., and very consciously and cleverly were able to side-line social movements centered around environmental protection. Even with the emergence of the climate emergency, these powers did not halt their profit-hunger; instead, they vigorously promoted forest conservation propagandas whose main motive was never to protect the environment. In such conservation programs, many areas have been declared nature parks, wildlife sanctuaries, etc., and local people of the villages who lived in and around forests for hundreds of years were displaced from their lands. Moreover, as per the available data, Adivasis constitute 40% of those displaced in India between 1951 and 1990 as a consequence of large development projects. These are mostly poor and vulnerable people who are dependent upon primary production. They are dependent on natural resources such as water, grass, wood, fruits, flowers, and medicinal plants for their livelihood. Many forest dwellers who lived in and around forests were evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation and very consciously they were made culprits and tagged as “encroachers”.

Pong Dam, District Kangra (Source: Indian Express)

At the same time, in India, thousands of people have been displaced from their lands due to the coming up of large projects in the name of national interest. In many cases, even rehabilitation was not done. For instance, many displaced people from the Bhakra Nangal and Pong dams have yet to receive their land or compensation for rehabilitation. According to a study, 90,702 people have been affected by the coming up of the Pong Dam, and 2,108 families were displaced due to the setting up of the Bhakra Nangal Dam. Approximately 8,000 ousted families which lost their land in the construction of the Pong Dam are still waiting to be rehabilitated because they were either denied land in Rajasthan or had their land allotments revoked by the Rajasthan Government. The tribals of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh are also one of the communities affected in this relation. The entire region is threatened by massive hydroelectric power projects. Heavy blasting is done during excavation and construction, causing cracks in the houses, and in some places, entire villages are in danger. The ecology has been damaged, and serious environmental threats are prevalent. In many villages of Kinnaur, claims filed under the Forest Rights Act by the villagers have been rejected. Though many organizations are working in these areas, New Delhi seems to be adamant about resource exploitation of these areas and pushing successive state governments in this concern. As hydroelectricity generated from these areas is very useful for the mainland and it’s developmental needs.

On the flip side, it also needs to be stated that, especially in post-colonial India the movement for environmental protection against the capitalist forces and their NGO brigade was started by anarchist and radical forces who also used the affected people as a tool to further their ideological propaganda. But in that process, they degraded and weakened the statist and socialist forces who stood the best chance at creating the change in the Indian context. Certainly, I believe that people who are fighting for forest rights i.e.,  jal, jungle, jameen are not against development. But development should be progressive, support-led, and aimed at social justice. Development must focus on the use of natural resources to fulfill the genuine interests of mankind. Development that is growth-mediated and profit-centric is not in the best interest of humanity as it segregates the larger community, as well as in the context of the environment causes massive destruction of natural resources and millions of inhabitants get evicted from their lands. The development of the Himalayan geographical region is of vital importance to the entire country and the sub-continent. The region has abundant natural resources, and these resources can lead to equitable prosperity and wellbeing, however, they must be used sustainably. Thus, there should be Himalayan-specific development policies in India as the conventional model of development of the plains is unsustainable for the mountainous areas.

Livestock of pastoral communities                                                        (Source: Discover Himachal with Surjeet)

Nonetheless, more autonomy should be given to the region and a decentralized approach should be preferred. Though, an attempt was made to decentralize forest management by enacting the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the previously stated Forest Rights Act, 2006. Both these acts give supremacy to the inhabitants by empowering the Gram Sabhas to determine the forest rights, protect and preserve natural resources, and other individual or community rights. Even the authorities are required to take a nod from the Gram Sabha for any development works like road construction or acquisition of the forest lands. In this context, another point which emerges is that the Forest Rights Act is being opposed by corporate conservationists, a few retired bureaucrats, and pseudo-environmentalists. The monopoly of the forest bureaucracy on forest management, as well as compensation and rehabilitation for resettlement, are among the major causes for opposition to this legislation. The moment Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers are declared as illegal inhabitants or encroachers, it becomes much easier to evict them from their native lands. So, this legislation is becoming an obstacle in their respective agendas.  Although as stated above the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 are progressive, but the ground implementation is missing and Gram Sabhas are typically bypassed, and bureaucrats, as well as the forest department, take precedence over them. Moreover, claims filed by the people are being rejected without valid reasons.

In conclusion, forests are inseparable from forest dwellers and thus have the best chance of survival if communities are actively engaged in their conservation and regeneration. Conservation, in the genuine sense, is impossible if local communities are tagged as ‘encroachers’ and further excluded. Ecological balance or biodiversity is not disrupted by forest dwellers. Indeed, the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who depend upon forests maintain biodiversity and the ecological equilibrium by protecting and preserving such areas. Finally, I would like to point out that in the Himalayan geographical region agricultural land is scarce and inhabitants of the region are dependent upon the primary production of the forests. Giving them certain exclusive rights will help in protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity. They are not threats to biodiversity; rather, they are the protectors.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Himachal Watcher or its members.

 

 

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Opinion

Nij Path Ka Avichal Panthi by Shanta Kumar, Review – The Uncompromising Idealist from Himachal Pradesh

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shanta Kumar autobiography review

By – Shashwat Kapoor, MBA from INSEEC Business School, Paris, France. He currently works for the Bhartiya Janata Party

From Palampur to New Delhi, the journey of Shanta Kumar has been inspirational. His journey is hard to sum up, but he is definitely an uncompromising idealist from Himachal Pradesh who always stood up against the two evils of corruption and communalism which have always marred Indian society.

It was a usual winter afternoon at the Constitution Club of India in New Delhi, but the ongoing event was a rather special one. The prestigious club whose membership was only reserved for parliamentarians was sort of cheerful that afternoon.  The venue was not new to renowned faces of Indian politics, but that day had a somewhat odd gathering. Interestingly, Veteran journalist Prabhu Chawla was attending a BJP event and former BJP MP and current Congress member Shatrughan Sinha was also present in the hall. Veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi concluded the event in a speech celebrating the remnants of a long-forgotten ideology of the BJP, talking about the values that shaped the political organization during its early days. That day marked the launch of the autobiography of Sh. Shanta Kumar, the veteran politician from Himachal Pradesh who stood up for everything ideals represented.

“Nij Path Ka Avichal Panthi” the title of the book which literally translates to “the unmoving traveler of an individual path” is paradoxical in nature, the book’s title itself stands for an uncompromising, unwavering spirit fighting for its ideals. Kumar’s journey from a rather humble household to the top of Indian politics and the struggles in between has been covered. The book as a whole is not only about the journey of Shanta Kumar but also about the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party over the years. From the post-independence Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s Kashmir Andolan to the JP Narayan’s Emergency Andolan and the Ram Rath Yatra, he provides a first-hand experience as an agitator and an organizer working from the right side of the political spectrum.

I had the opportunity to attend the book launch event and later also had the honor of meeting him.

Sharing a part of the conversation I had with him:

“What is the message that you want to give by writing this book?”

– “There is no message to be given, this book serves as a historical document to my life’s experience as I’ve lived it, as an uncompromising idealist.”

“But don’t you feel that sometimes we have to compromise on our ideals?”

– “No that is not the case, we do not have to compromise ever, but we end up compromising because it’s easy.”

 

Shashwat Kapoor with shanta Kumar

Shashwat Kapoor with Shanta Kumar

I came to realize that like his real-life Shanta Kumar was unapologetically truthful in his autobiography also. Throughout the book, he talks about his life’s journey, from humble beginnings to rise to the apex of Indian politics. The book is a sacrament to the ideology and his life’s principles. It sheds light on the experiences of a young teenager Kumar, a revolutionary dedicating his life to the ideals of the RSS, jumping in Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s Kashmir Andolan and fasting for his rights as a political prisoner in a post-independence India. It talks about the journey of modern India and the shifting principles of the various political ideologies with time. How the independence that millions of Indians laid their life for, was not much different from colonial slavery is also an important point he raises.

Kumar unhesitantly also talks about love, a rather strange and rare trait seen amongst Indian politicians. In a country going head over heels over the mahatamization of politicians, Kumar talks about the importance of family and his love for his wife. He very openly accepts the importance of his life’s partner in shaping up his career. Shanta Kumar is a romantic and his feelings on love can be read in this document.

His rise in the RSS, moving out of his peaceful hill state to the capital of India, and then his plunge into the politics of the local Panchayat after returning, Kumar has climbed every step of the political ladder right from the bottom. However, his time in politics was always at the cost of his personal endeavors. The book talks deeply and greatly about his time in jails and how impactful they have been as a turning point in his life. JP Narayan’s Andolan and Indra Gandhi’s emergency landed Kumar in jail for a long time, and he states that the time spent in jail was rather transitional as he devoted it to exercise and extensive reading.  In fact, from my understanding, he went inside the jail as a revolutionary, and came out, as a statesman.

As after coming out of jail, he toured extensively and drew large crowds, larger than any other politician of the state. The post-emergency elections made him sit from state prison to the highest administrative position of the same state. Now, was his time to pay back to the teachings of his Guru, Swami Vivekananda. An able administrator, the decisions taken by him shocked the sleepish administrative machinery of the state.

He was in fact, the youngest non-Congress Chief Minister of the state. Shanta Kumar’s ability to feel so deeply set him on a journey for the upliftment of the underprivileged. His tenure became historical, he provided taps to every household at a time when most of the general public walked kilometers to the nearby handpumps to collect water. He also started the Antyodaya Yojna providing cheap groceries for the impoverished, inspired by Deen Dyal Upadhyay’s Antyodaya concept meaning “rise of the last person”. But his government was short lived, and Shanta Kumar had to resign with the fall of the Janata Party. But as stated in his book instead of luring legislators with power and money, he chose to let his government fall. Uncompromising once again with his ideals, Kumar resigned as Chief Minister.

Then, he also talks about how with the formation of the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Ram Rath Andolan, he once again got a chance to head the state in 1990, and he like his earlier tenure continued his work for the poor, although with a new focus on generating state revenue. He added on greatly to Himachal’s earnings by privatizing hydroelectricity and tapping the untapped potential. But this led to widespread strikes, in retaliation to which he imposed “No Work No Pay”. With a single stroke, Kumar had the entire government machinery and employees under his control, the strikes died down, but it gave birth to the employee’s dissent against Kumar.

Although, even after all this he continued to work towards his vision for the hill state, to create a utopia of principles where Antyodaya was a reality and the community worked for each other. It was during the tenure of Kumar when Himachal Pradesh became the first province in the country to get a royalty on its waters, and his public policy approaches were reaping a lot of benefits. But fate had other plans for Kumar as with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kumar’s government was demolished too, even after he categorically stated that he was against the unfortunate incident of demolition of the masjid. Such was his fate that although having been the CM twice, not once could he complete the full tenure.

But he got another chance to pursue his dream of Antyodaya, when he was made the Union Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government in 1999, his policies were praised by many but due to his firm stand against corruption, communalism and petty politics, this time people from within his own party and ideological circle crushed him and forced him to resign in early 2003.

But even after all this he remained an uncompromising idealist and has always stood up for what he felt is right, even if that means going against his own party or its leaders.

“You know if god makes a list of the happiest people on earth, my name will be the first one. I lived and did whatever I could on my own terms, never did I compromise my ideals, and such is fate.” His final words to me during our conversation concerning this matter.

Shanta Kumar Statements against bjp government

Lastly, his autobiography is proof of how a man of principles fares in the game of politics. An extremely interesting and gripping book, it sheds light and puts perspective on the in-between stories of the government. He talks openly about political leaders and his experiences and private conversations with them. For anyone interested in the politics of the state and the BJP, the book gives a holistic view of the events that have shaped our present. It also provides deep insights on the administrative machinery and policy making techniques that Kumar used in taking historical decisions. Accordingly, the book touches upon the most personal and intimate aspects of Shanta Kumar, the writer’s personality, his unconditional and unbounded love for the people of his state and the sole companion of his journey, his wife.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Himachal Watcher or its members.

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Opinion

Language and Scripts: With Special Focus on Western Pahari and Tankri

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Western Pahari and Tankri

By – Nirmal Joseph and Megha Manju Promodu.

Nirmal is a Research Scholar at the Central University of Karnataka and Megha is a researcher based in Kerala who previously worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, New Delhi.

The piece deals with the importance of a script for a language. It attempts to understand the following concerns: Why every language should possess its own script? What are the advantages languages with script have over those who lack it? How is the survival of a language complemented by its written form? Special emphasis is given to the Tankri script of the Western Pahari dialects which is at the verge of extinction. The attempts of linguists, especially Yatin Sharma from Himachal Pradesh, is outlined at the end. This piece is a call to authorities and language enthusiasts to fully recognize the need to preserve minority and scattered linguistic entities.

Emergence of Languages

Communication with the use of a complex system of language is a defining feature that distinguishes humans from other organisms. The same has also kept scientists, linguistics and even historians interested in studying languages and how it shapes the world around us. Initially, language developed as a communication tool and the primary objective was to pass on information in daily life. As man settled down in river valleys and ended the life of hunter-gatherers to farmers it was required that simply passing on information directly to a person was not enough, there was now a demand to retell the information from one person to another. If man wanted to survive, gather, and spread the information he learned of agriculture to his peers then a more complex way that could accommodate retelling of information was required. Slowly it evolved to be an expression of self and humans required more complex ways to express themselves hence language also evolved to meet the demands. Storytelling was an important aspect of language development. It was an act of self-expression as well as storing information for posterity through simple connected bits of information sewed together in the manner of a story. Folklores for children are an example of this.

Language developed in different parts of the world in completely different ways with different sets of rules as people hardly had any chance to mingle and travel. Though it is difficult to pinpoint, but many linguists from around the world accept six major language families and three language groups. The six language families are Indo-European (used in most parts of Europe, Iran, Pakistan, Northern India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka), Sino-Tibetan (Used in China, Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar), Dravidian (Southern India and even some parts of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran), Semito-Hametic (includes languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Libyan, Somali, Ethiopia’s Amharic), Ural-Altaic (Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish, Mongolian, Manchurian and even Japanese and Korean are included by some linguists in this group) and Austric (includes languages such as Malaya, Indonesian, Tagalog of Philippines, Malagasy of the pacific ocean and even Santali of India spoken by more than 30 lakh people belong to this family). The three language groups are the African family (Swahili, Bantu, Sudanese), American family (Mayan, Quechua of Peru), and minor language families of old continents (Georgian family, Caucasian family, and some more). Also, according to the national mission for manuscripts 30% of the languages share Dravidian scripts while the rest 70% consist of Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, and Austric language scripts.

Why a script for a language?

The discussion above majorly consisted of oral language and its history and now we delve into written language and its necessities. Scripts are understood as a symbolic representation of sounds of a particular language according to the national mission of manuscripts. To simply put it, scripts are representations of spoken language in a text format. No one is certain as to how or when written languages originated but the possibility and need for an efficient method of collecting and storing information cannot be overlooked.

Scripts are important components of language and play a major role in preserving it. Language cannot be undermined as simply a tool of communication rather it functions as the guardian of culture, history, and life histories of the people who use it or used it. It even contributes to a sense of solidarity and brotherhood among the users. The use of English to cultivate an English sensibility among the colonised subjects as suggested by Macaulay in his minutes and the subversion of Dravidian languages as layman’s language and replacing it with Sanskrit centuries back in certain areas illustrates how powerful a tool language is to establish or subvert a culture. Another example of this is the introduction of Latin in England whilst it was still part of the Roman Empire. Often the introduction of another language to a culture does not necessarily mean a negative aspect. At times this works to enhance the original language in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and complexity. But it also poses a threat of the original language being overpowered by the imposed language. One such example in this context can be that of Malayalam which as a language did not get overwhelmed by Sanskrit imposition but rather it adapted, forming a mixed language called Manipravalam from existing Tamil, Kerala bhasha (the language used in Kerala during the time), and Sanskrit. Thus, vastly improving upon its vocabulary and grammar. On the other hand, languages like Western Pahari, Santali and other minority languages are under serious threat due to Hindi imposition and various other political reasons. In short, it can work as a double-edged sword.

Another point in this context can be that of how languages began to fade without their scripts. Ganesh N. Devy, an educator, writer, and activist in the field of language study and preservation stated in an interview given to Hindustan Times that the division of British India in 1926 on the basis of languages was the turning point. During that time scripted languages were counted and non-scripted languages without any literature were completely neglected, thus no status was given to the non-scripted language speaking people. This also meant that educational institutions did not recognize these languages further alienating the people who spoke these languages. To get an education and a better chance at life students had to learn any of the already established languages and thus this paved the way for these languages to be further downgraded. While many argue the loss of a minority language may mean nothing to humanity, but Devy points out that by losing a language we lose the repository of a traditional knowledge unique to that area or community.

Consequences of the absence of a script: The Case of Tankri and its revival

There are several reasons behind the demise of many languages. Among them, as stated earlier, the lack of a script or the written form is one of the biggest reasons. The written form of a language is in a way the repository of the cultural capital of the same, whereas the spoken form, if undocumented, has a greater probability of a faster death. Also, the meaning of words in a language is susceptible to alteration in the course of time. Therefore, every word that we use today has a historical background attached to it. Only in scripted languages, this history is identifiable, owing to the presence of a paper trail that sheds light on the past of that language. The example of Latin can be drawn here. With no active speakers for the past few centuries, Latin is considered a dead language. But the language will never be forgotten due to its well-documented nature. There will be thousands of other languages that originated along with or after Latin, but have long disappeared from the face of earth, simply because they lacked their written form. The reasons for the marginalization of a language are many. It may be politically motivated, spatially relegated or culturally side-lined. But whatever be the cause, the mightiest form of resistance is through proper documentation of the language. Documentation will help the language to be etched in the realm of public memory and it will become part of the knowledge stream. Language is closely connected with the individual and collective identity of its speakers. Its flourishment is a source of pride while its decimation is a loss of cultural capital accumulated over a course of several years or even centuries. The loss of a script has irreparable consequences. When a script dies the knowledge system, associated with it also succumbs to its end. Like every other matter, language is also power-centric. Its dominance and subordinance are directly consequential to its closeness to the power structure. It is for the same reason that most of the Tribal Languages are on the verge of extinction in this urban-centric visualization of the world.

In South Asia one such script or written form which can be included in this category is Tankri, the script was used to write Western Pahari dialects prior to the 19th century. The dialects are still spoken in majorly the Western Pahari Belt, which includes parts of present-day Himachal Pradesh, erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir princely state, and some areas of Pakistan. The dialects of the language are also spoken by a large number of people in the United Kingdom. The script originated from Sharda which is one of the oldest writing forms of South Asia. But such is the status of the script that it is almost at the brink of extinction as is no longer being used in official spaces. Simultaneously, the same has also put in danger the future of Western Pahari in especially the state of Himachal Pradesh in which Western Pahari dialects are spoken by majority people (according to the 2011 Census).

At the same time, many individuals and organizations in the state are also working on reviving the script through various means, and in this context, we had the opportunity to speak to one such individual named Yatin Sharma who belongs to the Sultanpur area of District Kullu. He is a young linguist who understands the importance of the Tankri script in the context of Himachal Pradesh and the entire Western Pahari region. He is currently working towards formulating a nuclear Tankri script for Himachal Pradesh and believes that Tankri as a script is very easy to learn but due to it having many forms based on the area and dialect it gets difficult to share and spread it.

yatin sharma linguist in himacal pradesh

Yatin Sharma

The same also, “fails to weave the Western Pahari dialects of the province and the entire belt in a single thread”. Thus, he says “Considering this, I am trying to form a script in which Western Pahari dialects of the state could be fully written. I have worked on a few figures and am currently working on others. I am even taking help of digital methods to give this script a permanent appearance. Also, I am seeking help of persons who are experts in script formation for this purpose.” Further, he says “his primary aim is to work on a nuclear script to aid the Western Pahari, though I know it is a lengthy task but nothing is impossible and with the collective effort of all like-minded individuals I believe this can be achieved”. When asked about whether he would be happy to work on a nuclear script for the entire Western Pahari Belt which would also be helpful for the United Kingdom diaspora he said that “the whole Western Pahari Belt concept is very interesting, I recently explored it after reading the works of Dr. Serena Hussain and Vishal Sharma who are currently researching on this issue at Coventry University, England”. Further, in this relation, he says “a common script for the whole Western Pahari Belt is very fascinating, but to bring it into existence is a real challenge but it is not impossible either. The most important thing in this connection is that there are area variants of vowels and their uses in the dialects which need to be dealt with and that would take a huge amount of time and resources. But I do believe that it would be better if we have a nuclear script for this whole region which would not only be beneficial for Western Pahari but would also be important to establish more linkages in between the region as well as the diaspora. At the right time if given the opportunity I would love to work on a nuclear script for the whole Western Pahari Belt”. Then, when asked upon as to whether revising these scripts would help the languages associated with them, he says “Scripts keep revising, take Tankri for example, from Sharda to Devshesha and then finally to Tankri, the script has undergone numerous amendments as per the requirement from time to time. Not only Tankri but other scripts have also been amended multiple times to reach its current form. It is not wrong to revise a script if it is the need of the hour. But amendments should only be to the extent to which it is required. Unnecessary amendments are not right.” “I think it’s the right time to revise the Tankri script”, he says lastly.

Conclusion

Thus, without a doubt, we can concur that scripts are important for languages, particularly when the speaking population keeps dwindling. To revive a script that is hardly in use and has lost its currency is a behemoth task. It requires the collective intervention of administration, academia, experts, and linguistic enthusiasts. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance to create a sense of pride among the original speakers of the language to assert their linguistic identity. Also if possible a Western Pahari institute should be made to boost studies and research on the language group and its script. Only when the learning of a language gets rewarded occupationally or financially people get encouraged to accumulate it. We can’t overlook the role of literature in the furtherance and development of a language. Therefore the creation of literary awards with respectable emoluments to be distributed annually to the best literary outputs will have far-reaching effects. Besides, thoughts can also be directed at making Western Pahari with Tankri script as an optional subject at schools – optional because no language should be imposed. Print and visual media can enhance a language and widen its reach to the common masses. Additionally, to give the language the visibility it requires, space can be accorded for it in signboards, hoardings, advertisements, etc. along with the official language of the region. Above all, a language survives the test of time through its power to accommodate changes. English became one of the most vibrant languages in the world because of its adaptability and accommodative nature. It imbibed words and phrases from almost all other languages it ever came into contact with. English language dictionaries get replenished with a multitude of novel words every year. Regional and minority languages should also learn from these more vibrant and lively languages of the globe. It is only when a language is receptive to everyday changes happening around it, it has better odds at survival.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Himachal Watcher or its members.

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