The ninetieth and ninety-first cups of nun chai


It was morning when I sat to have nun chai with Uma and Basi. We were in Nainital, a small city by a beautiful lake in the hills of Uttarakhand, a north Indian state that was made independent of Uttar Pradesh only 12 years ago.

After explaining in careful and deliberate detail how Cups of nun chai came about I soon learnt that many of the memories that flooded my own story were, due to Uma and Basi’s personal involvement with the Uttarakhand struggle, not entirely unfamiliar. Although Uttarakhand’s independence was from the state of Uttar Pradesh and not the nation of India, as our conversation unfolded it became clear that Uttarakhand’s modern history had more in common with Kashmir than one might first expect to find. This included not only stories of state repression but also corresponding periods of time, the cultural politics of the hills in relation to the plains, tactics of protest and also stone throwing.

Historically, Uma said, women in the hills of Uttarakhand had been more active than those in the plains of Uttar Pradesh. They had been working in the fields and in the jungles and so when the time came it seemed only natural to move into the political sphere as well. They told me about Sarla Behen, an Anglo-Indian from Uttarakhand, who went underground (nazarband) during the National Movement in the early 1940’s. Sarla Behen would visit village homes in the night, bringing supplies and information to women whose husbands had been imprisoned by the British. I asked if Sarla Behen was a figure Uma and Basi had known of since childhood. But hers was a story they uncovered only after attending college, and it was after Uttarakhand attained independence that such histories were beginning to enter the curriculum of the state’s education.

Although the sentiment for an independent state had been in the air since the early 1950’s Uma said it was not until 1994 that the movement really caught fire. This was in response to the implementation of reservations that privileged the plains people of present day Uttar Pradesh.

Basi described their role as women, as being distinct from the men, for their ability to intervene calmly and to give direction and clarity when the movement became too fiery or chaotic. She said at one point there had been shooting and stone throwing between the police and male civilians in Nainital. Some of the women intervened and pleaded with the police to stop firing at unarmed men. The police told the women if they convinced the men to drop their stones, the police would leave their guns. The women turned to the men, but once the men dropped their stones the police continued firing. There is a deep sense of betrayal here that has not been forgotten and it forms a memory that allows one to empathise more closely with present day Kashmir.

Uma and Basi were the keepers of many stories of state repression but the one that stood out most dramatically was the state’s strategically planned violence at a place called Muzzafarnagar. The street lights had been turned off, in wait for bus loads of protestors on their way to Delhi. Their buses were stopped by the police. Men were beaten and killed. Women were raped and found naked in the fields, in what came to be known as Muzzafarnagar Kand.  Uma said it was too difficult to speak of this in more detail. There were tears in our eyes. Yet out of this event a women’s group called Uttarakhand Mahila Manch formed, which in November 1994 brought women together from all over Uttarakhand in Nainital for a major female only protest.

All these events were taking place concurrently with the first years of armed struggle in Kashmir. I asked Uma and Basi what they had heard of Kashmir during the Summer of 2010. They knew it well. Uma spoke of curfews and fear. Basi criticised the media for distorting the truth of the situation. She had once travelled to Kashmir with her family for a holiday. A man named Ahmed had been their tour guide. At some point an army man had abused Ahmed, throttling him around the neck and calling him a ‘saale’ (fucker). Shocked, Basi asked Ahmed what this was about. Ahmed looked at her with faint tears in his eyes and simply said this was life in Kashmir.

This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Rupin Maitreyee as translator.

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