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 in the lower Himalayas that was made independent of Uttar Pradesh only 12 years ago.
I explained in careful and deliberate detail how Cups of nun chai came about, and soon learnt that Kashmir’s story was not entirely unfamiliar to Uma and Basi’s experiences either. 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 recent history had more in common with Kashmir than one might first expect to find. This included not only stories of state repression and violence but also corresponding periods of time, the cultural politics of the hills in relation to the plains, tactics of protest, stone throwing, and sexual violence. Uma and Basi were wise, experienced women who, despite having children who were now adults, still stood against injustice with the fire burning strong in their bellies.
“The sentiment for an independent state had been in the air here since the early 1950s, but it was not really until 1994 that the movement took shape.” Uma explained, “This was because of a reservation that privileged the plains people of Uttar Pradesh, over our hills.”
“It was a dangerous time,” Basi added, “But women were part of the movement in big ways.”
“Historically, women in the hills have always been more active than those in the plains. We’ve been working the fields and in the jungles, so when the time came it only seemed natural to get to work politically as well.” Uma and Basi told me about Sarla Behen, an Anglo-Indian from Uttarakhand, who went underground during the National Movement in the early 1940s. Sarla Behen used to visit villages 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 since childhood, “No, no” said Uma, “We only uncovered her story at college. But now after Uttarakhand’s independence, Sarla Behen’s role in our history is beginning to enter the school system. Bit by bit we’re making sure our own histories are get told.”
“Our role as women in the movement was different to the men. Women can intervene calmly, we give direction and clarity when situations become fiery and chaotic” said Basi. At one point in Nainital, they said, there had been shooting and stone throwing between the police and male civilians. “We intervened, and pleaded with the police to stop shooting at unarmed people. They told us, if we could convince the men to drop their stones they would drop their guns. But when our men dropped their stones the police continued firing.” This event instilled in Basi and Uma a deep sense of the state’s betrayal, which allowed them to empathise more closely with present day Kashmir.
Uma and Basi spoke a lot about the state repression that took place during Uttarakhand’s struggle for independence. The instance that stood out most occurred in early October 1994 at a place called Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Uma and Basi said the streetlights had been turned off, in wait for bus loads of people demanding an independent Uttarakhand who were on their way to a sit-in protest in Delhi. In the cover of darkness the police stopped the buses. The men were beaten and killed. Women were raped and found naked in the fields. This evening came to be known as Muzzafarnagar Kand, or the Rampur Tiraha firing case. Uma said it was too difficult to speak in more detail. There were tears and fire in her eyes. After this event a women’s group called Uttarakhand Mahila Manch formed, which in November 1994 brought women to Nainital from all over Uttarakhand for a major female-only protest in response to the state’s violence against women.
The first of these sets of events in Uttarakhand were taking place concurrently with the first years of armed struggle in Kashmir. I asked Uma and Basi what they knew of Kashmir during the summer of 2010. Uma spoke of curfews and fear. Basi criticised the Indian 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 our tour guide.” At one point a man from the army had throttled Ahmed around the neck, right in front of the tourists, and called him a ‘saale’. This is a derogatory term used across South Asia, almost always in the first person that implies you have ‘taken’ the listener’s sister in legal marriage. The fact this was spoken by the army to a Kashmiri civilian is illustrative of the state’s coercive use of sexual violence and its perceived legal ‘ownership’ of Kashmir as a territory as much as a body. “I was shocked.” Basi continued, “I asked Ahmed what it was all about and he just looked at me with faint tears in his eyes and said: this is life in Kashmir.”
This conversation was made possible with the assistance of Rupin Maitreyee as translator.