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Why Local History Matters 

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Bygone Doon

By Pradeep Singh 

The nation is being reminded that the year 2022 is the seventy-fifth year of its Independence from the colonial rule foisted on a great culture by the British. The images that are etched on the pages of history are those of events at Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Delhi that rose in revolt against the rule of the English East India Company in 1857. The spirit of resistance spread like an uncontrolled raging fire across much of the subcontinent and figures like Rani Laxmibai, Tantia Tope, Nana Sahib and Bahadur Shah Zafar, miles away from each other, came together in a single resolve to overthrow the yoke of servitude to a foreign power.

The events that are today recalled as the great uprising for independence of 1857 were local episodes and the principal participants were local citizens whose understanding too was to a large extent limited to the immediate region. Their grievances also were of a local nature. Yet, in the writing of history of this landmark event, the focus was not so much local as on understanding and explaining the phenomenon as a pan-India occurrence.

The obsession with the mega picture in history has underplayed or even ignored the criticality of local events of historical importance even when the latter were intensely participated in by citizens under able local leaders with a vision. It is the putting together of these local episodes in a larger patchwork of explanation that gives life and blood to an historical narrative. Thus, the seemingly unconnected non-violent satyagrahas of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, in Champaran or in Kheda and in Ahmedabad in the second decade of the twentieth century did in reality give Gandhi the needed insight to evaluate the political might of the British in India. This helped him to prepare the nation for the long but successful anti-imperialist struggle by the common people for achieving independence that ultimately came in 1947.

The above, and a bit long, preface I have attempted is to highlight the necessity of not losing sight of the importance of local narratives on important issues that had appeared as challenges and were effectively resolved by local leaders with determination to provide solutions to the crisis at hand. Local traditions around these successes gave confidence to the common people.

Dehradun as a geopolitical unit of the subcontinent has had an atypical position in the region and its polity. It was always an enigma for those who ruled the country and who viewed the Doon Valley as a mysterious paradox that was seductive as well deterring.

In phases, Dehradun remained in splendid isolation and again it was intensely sought after by Indian ruling elite as well as foreign powers. This provided for a range of historical episodes that occurred within the Valley and had left strong impressions on the culture and tradition of Doon that has remained somewhat aloof from the rest of the country.

For the people of Dehradun, it is indispensable that they know their local history which is surprisingly rich and layered many times over with events that would make them proud of their heritage.

This long isolation from the rest of the country was due largely on account of its geographical features. The Siwaliks and the Himalayas locked in the Valley from the south and the north, respectively, while the Ganga in the east and the Yamuna to the west enclosed the Doon Valley. Yet, despite this topography, the Valley gradually acquired a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural demography as people from different regions settled and colonised the district bringing in their individual culture and traditions which in turn interfaced with those of the previous social groups.

People of the Valley were representatives of political powers at times and this aspect is embedded in the history of the Valley. The Valley was already popular with religious elements like sadhus, sages, fakirs and hermits but more distinct was the spiritual hue added by the coming of Guru Ram Rai in 1676. He came and set up his Udasi (Udaseen) centre in the heart of the valley and since then it is known as the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai.

With Guru Ram Rai’s presence and the efforts of the Mahants of his Darbar, Dehradun became an attractive political object for ruling elite of the country.

While the Darbar’s activities in the Valley added avenues for growth of agricultural surplus and increase in prosperity, it also invited attention from neighbouring Saharanpur’s Governor Najibuddaula. This able and enterprising Rohilla Chief occupied much of the Valley in the middle decades of the eighteenth century and encouraged planting of mango orchards on a large scale, remnants of which lie hidden to the unobservant.

In 1804, the expansionist Gorkhas of Nepal occupied Dehradun after the Battle of Khurbura and for the next ten years Doon felt the oppression of a foreign power. This was ended by the emergence of another non-Indian political force, the British East India Company. The British supplanted the Gorkhas by virtue of a difficult victory in 1814 of which the Battle of Nalapani (Khalanga) is a living memory for many a Dehradun veteran.

The British presence in the Doon Valley was to last till independence in 1947, as a consequence of which the district obtained a special place in the British Raj as a congenial haven for the English and other Europeans to settle down and impart a very distinct and enviable character to the region.

A number of positive initiatives by the colonial authorities were undertaken such as the once famous canals of Captain PT Cautley, the dozens of tea gardens across the valley, the ubiquitous leechi orchards. A few army cantonments brought in a hitherto unknown feature to the outskirts of the town. Educational and professional institutions like the FRI, RIMC, IMA, and a host of schools all enhanced the value of the town, making it coveted by those less privileged in other parts of the country.

The rationale for making a plea for focusing on local history is emotional as well pragmatic. Positive awareness of the historical past of the city strengthens the vision, and resolve, too, of the executive arm of the government and the bureaucracy to endeavour to keep the necessary development initiatives in sync with the heritage of the city. Such a vision only makes the citizen participatory stakeholders in the development strategy. It was never better than today to remember that:

“Democracy is a rule of the people, for the people and by the people”. If done, there is hope.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the “Suswa Saga:A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun” (2011) and “Sals of the Valley:A Memorial to Dehra Dun” (2017). The author can be contacted at: chpradeepsingh@gmail.com)