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From Askot to Arakot: hills have tales to tell

The 2014 Askot-Arakot Abhiyan begins on Sunday, May 25. After a week apiece in Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts the marchers shall enter Garhwal. Several weeks later they will reach Arakot for their concluding meeting. Ramachandra Guha writes.

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2014 08:24 IST

On May 25, 1974, four young men set out on a long march across the Himalayas. They were activists in the Uttarakhand Andolan, a popular movement that asked for a separate state to be constituted from the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh. These districts had long felt victimised and condescended to: Used as a source of cheap labour and natural resources, yet never treated with dignity or respect. In both cultural and ecological terms, the Pahar considered itself distinct and different from the Maidan.

The march began on May 25 in Askot, in eastern Kumaon, abutting the Nepal border. The day was deliberately chosen — it was the birth anniversary of the patriot Sridev Suman, who had died after an 84-day fast in jail in 1944, protesting the autocratic rule of the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal. Through the summer of 1974, the four young men walked westwards, crossing pastures, forests, fields, streams, and rivers. They stopped each night in a different mountain hamlet, where they acquainted themselves with the opinions (and problems) of their fellow Uttarakhandis. Their seven-week, 1,000-km-long march ended in mid July, just before the monsoon broke. Their last stop was the village of Arakot, at the western edge of Garhwal, abutting Himachal Pradesh.

When this Askot-Arakot march took place, I had just finished high school in Dehradun, the town where I was born and raised. Some years later, while beginning research on the social history of Uttarakhand, I was sent in the direction of one of the marchers of 1974. Shekhar Pathak then taught history in DSB College in Nainital. He struck me on that first visit as a man of considerable intelligence and courage, which of course his profession and political orientation required him to be. What surprised and delighted me was that unlike other activists of my acquaintance he had a wonderful, self-deprecatory, sense of humour.

In October 1983, Pathak invited me to Pithoragarh to celebrate the first issue of a book-length journal being launched there. It was called, simply, PAHAR, an evocative acronym concealing the rather more cumbersome name of the group behind it, the Peoples’ Association of Himalaya Area Research. The journal focused on the Himalayas in general and on Uttarakhand in particular. It covered a range of subjects — geography, history, politics, culture, ecology, these written about in a variety of genres: Poetry, essay, memoir, travelogue, short fiction. Pathak was the chief editor, assisted by a group of dedicated pahari intellectuals and activists.

I carry vivid memories of that PAHAR ‘vimochan’ in Pithoragarh in 1983, where the main talk was delivered by the Chipko leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt. The next summer Pathak set off on a repeat of the Askot-Arakot Abhiyan. I was invited to join, but as an unfit asthmatic thought it prudent to merely wish them Godspeed.

Pathak went on this extremely arduous padayatra again in 1994, and for a fourth time in 2004. (In between, in the year 2000, the new state of Uttarakhand had been created.) Each time, groups of friends joined him for part of the way. As always, they observed, interviewed, and took photographs. The march of science had made their research somewhat easier. In 1974 the participants had but one Agfa Klik-3 camera and a handful of reels between them. The next time around there were as many as four different cameras at hand. In 1994 there were high-quality digital cameras, while in 2004 they could even use GPS technology.

I lack, as I said, the physical capacity to join Pathak on these journeys. But in conversations over the years I have absorbed his knowledge and understanding at second hand. And I have attended many of his wonderful illustrated lectures. He is a compelling speaker in Hindi, the wit and the eloquence leavened with a solid core of historical and geographical knowledge. As his photos take you through the landscape, his words link particular valleys with individuals or social movements, trees and plants with their cultural, economic, and medicinal associations.

The knowledge that the PAHAR team has garnered is communicated orally, and in print through the 18 solid volumes of their journal that have thus far appeared. Sixty other publications have also been published under the PAHAR imprint. In 2006, the journal issued a two-volume biographical account of the pioneering explorer Nain Singh Rawat, whose travel diaries from the mid 19th century Pathak had recovered from descendants of the explorer living in rural Kumaon.

The 2014 Askot-Arakot Abhiyan begins on Sunday, May 25. After a week apiece in Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts the marchers shall enter Garhwal. Several weeks later they will reach Arakot, at whose government inter-college they shall hold their concluding meeting.

For young (and fit) Indians who might wish to be part of this unique march, the detailed itinerary is available at I envy those who can join, and not merely for the beauty of the terrain they shall pass through or the kindliness of the people they shall meet. For they will have as their guide a scholar-activist who is more-or-less the living embodiment of the history of Uttarakhand itself.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him at @Ram_GuhaThe views expressed by the author are personal