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Story of an unsung hero from Uttarakhand (IANS Book Review)

Book: 'Johaar Kinkar: Babu Ram Singh'; Author: Gajendra Singh Pangti; Publisher: Dolka Innovations, New Delhi; Pages: 128; Price: Rs.150

Nestled in the higher Himalayas, near the Milam glacier, is Johaar valley -- home to the Shaukas. Before the India-China war of 1962, the Shaukas, then numbering a mere 5,000, were engaged in Indo-Tibetan trade, a tradition dating back to the 3rd or 4th century BC.

Traversing treacherous valleys and high mountain passes in what is today Uttarakhand, the Shaukas traded with the Tibetans until war forced them to abandon their pristine land for mainstream occupations -- a fate shared by many communities which lived lives that took no note of political boundaries.

Their fate could have been worse but for a visionary in their midst. Babu Ram Singh helped the community survive and make a transition to modernity. Also, the orally handed down traditions of the Shaukas have been chronicled, thanks to him. This book tells his inspiring story.

Babu Ram Singh wanted the community to be prepared for any calamity and showed them the way - for instance, he tasted, at great personal risk, almost every wild leaf and fruit around to ascertain which was fit for human consumption. He recorded his findings, helping his people survive adversities such as famine.

He was prescient enough to have seen that the Tibetan trade could become unviable or cease altogether due to unforeseen circumstances. As a Gandhian and a freedom fighter, he propagated the idea of producing and trading in swadeshi goods.

Babu Ram Singh was a reformer as well. He spoke against social evils and, to foster change, he launched a local newspaper and built organisations tasked with empowering women and promoting agriculture. He also set up cooperatives for swadeshi goods and started schools. But his greatest contribution to the community and to the history of Uttarakhand is his documentation of the Shauka story.

There was hardly any written history of the community and Babu Ram Singh -- who preferred to be called 'Johaar Kinkar', or one who serves Johaar -- took upon himself the work of meticulously recording the oral history of the Shaukas and to prepare genealogical charts. Most of the known history of the Shaukas would have been lost but for him.

For a man without formal education, the work that Babu Ram Singh did in his lifetime makes him a historian, social activist, freedom fighter, writer, poet, agri-scientist, journalist, social entrepreneur -- all rolled into one. Thanks to this book by Gajendra Singh Pangti, a former CEO of Nepal Life Insurance, the life and times of this unsung legend have now been documented for posterity.

The book is rich in biographical detail, but also goes beyond Babu Ram Singh to give a tantalising glimpse of the life of the Shaukas - who now number around 25,000 -- their struggle against the vagaries of time and nature, and their fragile and harshly beautiful land.

It is tough today to imagine the times when the Shaukas had to walk all the way from Johaar to the Himalayan foothills and proceed to cities like Delhi, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai) for trade. Even now, Babu Ram Singh's village, Milam, the largest in the valley, is a three-day trek from the nearest roadhead.


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