“Electioneering normally is not a heartening process, but in these high valleys, cut off by difficult passes from the rest of the country, even electioneering can be exciting.” JL Nehru
In 1952, India celebrated the greatest festival of democracy; the first ever General Elections after the dawn of Independence. However, the remote land of Spiti Valley could not participate in this festival because of many difficulties; primarily snow.
With 1957 came the second general elections. A hundred and ninety million people, probably world’s largest electorate in 1957, went to the polls. Spiti couldn’t participate in 1957 again.
However, the decision of excluding Spiti from the electoral process was challenged and that called for filling the two Vidhansabha and two Parliamentary Seats of Spiti, which were a part of Kangra District.
A group of fifty people and nearly 200 mules started their journey on 27 May 1957 from Dharmshala, the district headquarters, to reach the unknown land of Spiti.
Onward to Democracy! Rain or snow we would go, for the elections must be completed.
Men and Mules on a Mission of a Democracy is a book written by Parmanand Sharma, a retired teacher, who has made the Dhauladhars’ his home.
When the Spitian Challenge was first thrown open to babus by the authorities, the author was then serving as a school teacher in Dharmshala. He heartily accepted the offer to be the Deputy Leader of the contingent that was to embark on a 400 mile ‘pad yatra’ to conduct first ever general election in the Spiti Valley.
The contigent starts from Dharmshala in a bus till Rampur and from there on, those men and the mules walk the next 550 kilometers on foot, across many high passes, crevassed glaciers, and snow laden landscape of Spiti.
From Rampur, the narrative moves to the frozen lands of Kinnaur where the team hires porters and adds more ‘mule power’ to its contingent because of scarcity of resources of all kinds. On top of that, the unsaid rules of porters of one villages working only within the boundary of their village, irrespective of the size of the village, make mule and porter hunting a daunting task.
Back then not many people could speak Hindi in Kinnaur as well as Spiti and that made matters even worse.
The on foot journey along the old Hindustan Tibet road goes through many ups and downs, and river crossing adventures.
River crossing in Spiti is a problem as it is, but with a hundred mules fully loaded with documents of ‘National Importance‘, it was nothing less than a herculean task. The Spiti contingent crosses roaring Spiti and Sutlej many times with many narrow escapes.
One such river crossing incident must be quoted here.
“What if the rope breaks or the pulley gives way? some whispered.
Back to Namgiah, into the Sutlej, and then to the Arabian Sea’.
The Spiti of 1960s was completely different from what we see today. The only source of livelihood was agriculture. People couldn’t speak or understand Hindi, there was literally no contact with other parts of India, although they did visit ‘Free Tibet ‘ via traditional trade routes. That they were a part of the free and Independent India was also an alien thought to them.
Despite all that, Spitians participate in the electioneering process and finally exercise their right to choose their representatives, whom they haven’t seen or even heard about.
After 25 days and nearly 200 miles, the election parties successfully reach their respective polling stations. The author was scheduled to conduct polling in the Pin Valley. The voting days were nothing less than a festival for the Spitians.
The difficult task of conducting elections was finally over. The worse, however was yet to come. The return journey was to be made via Kunjum Pass and that meant crossing the fierce Chandra River near Batal.
Back then there was no bridge across Chandra. Just a makeshift bridge made of wooden logs.
The party reaches back to Kullu via Rohtang on July 19, 1957. An arduous journey to establish democracy in the remotest regions of Himachal successfully ends after 54 days.
Only one mule got killed throughout the journey. No loss of human life. Moreover, they befriended a dog named Dogia Dundup, who traveled with them from Kinnaur to Kullu. A faithful ally in the Himalaya.
Onward to Democracy! 🙂
About the Author
I started looking for the book and fortunately, with the help of my friend Arvind Sharma, I not only managed to get the book but we actually found the author.
Born in the planes of Punjab, educated in the city of Lahore, Parmanand Sharma settled in the valley of Dhauladhars in Dharmshala. Born in the year 1923, he worked with many organizations, including the Armed Forces before he made these mountains his home.
There was only one copy of the book available with the author, so he allowed us to reproduce photocopies of his book. A blessed privilege for us, I must say.
What sets Sharma Ji apart is his connect with the mountains. Empathy with the remote lands of Himachal is also noteworthy. Photographic gems and appendices to match route and day-wise progress throughout the journey also gives great insights into the unseen land of Spiti.
[Edited: 20/11/2016] Focus Himachal has translated this book review in Hindi. Those interested can read it by clicking on the image provided below. Those who want to read this book can head towards the Indru Nag Library in Dharmshala. That's one of the coolest libraries you will ever see.