On Embracing the Hills: Reflections on Himachal Pradesh on Its 50th Anniversary

A little over two years ago, just before submitting my PhD at Cambridge, I decided to thank a landscape as the first entity in my list of acknowledgements. This was the terrain of Himachal Pradesh, where I had grown up as a child and adolescent, and which I had fondly come to call my home despite not being born there. My doctoral thesis had nothing to do with the Himalayas, for it was after all a study of British fantasy fiction and the ways in which the genre crafted magic.

But for all the ostensible disconnection between the terrain and the topic, the two did bear a relationship: Himachal was the foundation of my imagination, magical and otherwise, and who could deny that its geography came closest to the ambience of the fantastical? With a good part of my life spent by the riverbank of the Kullu Valley as well as in the forested-flanks of the Shimla Ridge, I had experienced the intimate joy of living amidst a special kind of nature, distinct from the majority of the subcontinent’s tropical setting. If there was one privilege I was happiest about without an iota of burden, this was it: the gift of growing up in the mountains, a privilege that was intrinsically rooted in the contours of ecology and the culture emerging out of it. No wonder that this geography had been christened “dev bhoomi” since ancient times – “the land of the gods.”

Over the years, Himachal imprinted upon my identity through both direct and subtle aspects, the most enduring among which were the songs and the skies. The folk ditties springing from its undulating territory first introduced by my mother, and the perpetually azure umbrella overhead exuding the thrill of freshness and vastness (not to mention the prospect of snow and sunsets) became my everlasting companions. Now that I live in the pollution-infested plains of Delhi-NCR, I harbour these elements as sources of balance and abundance within my memory and imagination at all times. Or perhaps it is the other way around: they shelter me within their enormous, generous folds of beauty and rhythm.

The Dhauladhar mountain range in the Kangra Valley, overlooking a web of fields. Photo: Siddharth Pandey

As the state celebrates its 50th anniversary on January 25, it is instructive to remember that the glory and wholesomeness we automatically associate with it evolved out of a hard-fought battle by its people. Before January 25, 1971, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi proclaimed Himachal Pradesh as a full-fledged state of the Indian Union amidst a fresh snowfall on Shimla’s Ridge, the territory had been subjected to massive political commotions. From it status as a centrally administered unit governed by a Chief Commissioner immediately after Independence, to its designation as a “Part C” state in 1950, and then its demotion to a Union Territory in 1956 where no real democratic rights existed for its population, Himachal remained under “suspended animation” until the late 1960s, to use the historian M.S. Ahluwalia’s phrase.

It was only in 1966, when Punjab was reorganised on a linguistic basis, that its hill areas of Shimla, Kangra, Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti were transferred to Himachal Pradesh (already containing other hilly districts such as Mandi and Chamba), much to the satisfaction of its people who had long cherished the idea of having a “hill state”. With this new, larger size, the Parliament passed the State of Himachal Pradesh Act in December 1970, paving the way for the inauguration of India’s 18th state on January 25 the following year under the care of Dr. Y.S. Parmar, Himachal’s maker since the early days of Independence and also its first chief minister.

What Jawaharlal Nehru was to India’s formation, Parmar was to Himachal – and the comparison has been frequently made by admirers of all hues. It was Parmar’s vision for holistic development, his keen sensitivity to the challenges posed by the state’s tough geography, his attunement to folk culture and his philosophical disposition that lifted Himachal out of the throes of neediness. From the mid 1950s, when the state fared better only than Bihar, Odisha and Manipur, to the next three decades in which it underwent an extraordinary economic transformation – the people had Parmar to thank.

The 1972 Tenancy and Land Reform Act in particular gave land rights to even the poorest of workers, and even today, old citizens remember the comfort and dignity that this Act brought in its wake. But the public also recalls Parmar for the elegance and bonhomie he brought to various cultural events and cultural identity as such, so that it was under his rule that the use of the word “pahaadi” (“of/ from the mountains”) came to be imbued with a sense of golden pride, from what once connoted inferiority.

While Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze astutely observe in their 2013 book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions that Himachal has achieved some of the best public services among most of India’s states owing to to its constructive policies, the lived reality is far from perfect. Caste continues to haunt social relations and derail progress (discrimination against the Dalits has been recorded in various instances), and urban development has been taking a highly haphazard course for the past few decades at least, not to mention the unsavoury politicisation of various institutions like those of education and charity organisations.

Still however, viewed from a macro, comparative perspective, Himachal stands tall and wondrous. Nowhere do these qualities get attested to in the most vigorous fashion than in the impressions of common people hailing from other states. I am yet to meet a person who has not smiled with a sense of satisfaction upon hearing me say that “I belong to Himachal”. It is as if the identification of my state with my sense of the self involuntarily rubs off the imagination of my converser, transporting him or her to a land of the eternal snows and harmony. For all those smiles, for whatever they are worth, I will remain grateful to my beloved homeland.

Happy 50th, dear Himachal!

Siddharth Pandey hails from Shimla and is currently writing two histories of his hometown.