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Clement Town, A Chequered Century



Railways came to the Doon Valley in 1900 and in more than one way their coming ushered in a new phase in the growth of the district, particularly the central part of the valley. The once logistically challenging travel that visitors to Doon had always found irksome, if not outright daunting, became a thing of the past, evaporating like the steam from the labouring train engines that hauled the bogies to Dehradun.

The coming of the railways also brought in its wake a wide spectrum of people to Doon. The salubrious climate and the fabled beauty of the valley and the spell-binding vistas of the snow peaks on the northern horizon had already become a part of folk lore through the memoirs of travellers to the valley like J.B Fraser, F.V Raper,Emily Eden and Fanny Parks. Now the valley became doubly attractive to all manner of Indians especially the British from different walks of life: traders, hoteliers, missionaries, retiring civil servants and army officers who sought to be posted here. As a result land already scarce in the valley became even more sought after and fortunes were made by real estate companies while the old order of land owners frantically tried to buy any available farm land before the same was grabbed by the new commers.

While much of the central portion of the valley was near saturation the outlying areas were still good prospects for settlers come lately. Towards the northern end of the valley, the satellite town of Rajpur was already an upper crust preserve and more expensive to boot. But the other side of the valley that bordered on the northern slopes of the Siwaliks presented a viable alternative to Rajpur.

In the early decades of the last century this area was an open agricultural tract that spread across revenue villages of Sewla Majra, Sewla Khurd and Sewla Kalan. The dominant landowners ( Ahluwalia Kalals) were evidently one of the earliest settlers of the valley. This being attested by H G Walton in his Gazetteer of Dehra Dun (1910):

“Kaulagir ka Nauthal, Sheola ka Kalal, Ghate ka Sal.”

( Implying that the Nauthal Brahmins of Kaulagir, the Kalals of Shewla and the Sal trees of the Siwaliks are all coeval.) It were these land owners of these three villages, and also those of nearby Badripur, who had popularised the production of Basmati rice once the seeds had come to Doon with the exiled Amir of Afghanistan in 1840s, earning the envious and legendary tag of the Dehradun Basmati.

The window of opportunity provided by these three villages was eagerly taken by some British and Anlo Indian officials of the Railways who bought land here in 1920s. This some what planned manner of settling by these officials became the primary core that soon got the name of Clement Town. In 1934 an Italian priest, Father R. C.Clement, decided to set up his residence and more than that in 1936 he encouraged other Europeans and Anglo Indians to form a cooperative society to regulate and provide houses to its members. Land was bought and blocks of one acre and five acres were sold to its members. Many became its members and Clement Town became a toast of the district’s gentry.

Perhaps the popularity and publicity of Clement Town’s cooperative society became its own nemesis. In its undoing, Clement Town became the focus of other momentous events that were unraveling far from the sylvan fields nestling in the shadow of the the Siwaliks. World War II theatre had expanded beyond the borders of Europe and engulfed North Africa where over twenty thousand Italian soldiers surrendered to the Allied forces.

The British transported the designated Italian prisoners of war (POWs) to India and for lodging them requisitioned the Clement Town society land. It was at the time promised that on the repatriation of the POWs the land would be returned to the original owners. The trajectory of history dictated the events once the War ended in 1945 and the British found themselves in hot water immediately with the Indian National Movement under Mahatma Gandhi knocking on the doors of independent India in 1947.

The Clement Town society’s dream of peaceful days ended in a nightmare when the POW camp area was converted to a cantonment under a Cantonment Board. Further, post independence, the Joint Services Wing( later to be called National Defence Academy or NDA and shifted to Khadakvasla) was located in the barracks that lately housed the Italian POWs.

The Clement Town Cooperative Society had started with the laudable intention of becoming a self managed and self contained colony of British and Anglo Indians but the requisitioning of it’s property by the civil authorities put paid to the dreams of many and it broke the spirits of the genial Italian priest. Already a septuagenarian, father Clement suffered physically and no less the mental trauma of the failure. He was advised to go home to Italy to restore his health. He hoped that Almighty would send him back to rescue his project. In July of 1952 Clement proceeded towards Bombay to board a homebound ship and wrote to his friends in Clement Town from Gaziabad that he would return to be with them soon. Fate however willed otherwise. Reaching Italy he breathed the home country air for just three days and departed his mortal frame.

Despite the viccisitudes of the cooperative venture,some members chose to continue their lives in Clement Town like the Baxters, Balls, Lumsdens, Cockburns,McArthurs, Millars,Harts, Hardings and the Powells. Some still rest in peace in the two and half acre cemetery of Clement Town, where in a separate plot sixty six Italian prisoners of war also repose in eternity. The cooperative efforts of Father Clement and the early settlers did not transform into their dream project but their noble ideal proved to be transformative in a far more elaborate manner some years later. The Clement Town cantonment flourished ever since and retained the name of the Italian priest in its identity. More enterprises came up like the Himalayan Drugs Company. A premier University of Uttarakhand, the Graphic Era University set up its sprawling campus in the heart of Clement Town. A host of other business houses have also chosen to be located here.

The vision of founding a colony in Clement Town that started in 1920s has traversed a century and so the efforts of the goodly Italian priest come to mind once again.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the Suswa Saga:A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun (2011) and the Sals of the Valley:A Memorial to Dehradun (2017).)