Uttarakhand Movement march on 2nd Sept 1994. Pic courtesy: Late Hari Singh Ghansola

By: Ganesh Saili

Some stories refuse to die down only because some people keep the lamps lit. One such story dates to around the time when the demand for a separate hill-state grabbed headlines. Seven people, Belmati Chauhan, Hansa Dhanai, Balbir Singh, Rai Singh Bangari, Madan Mamgain, Dhanpat Singh and Uma Kant Tripathi, Circle Officer of Police, lost their lives in the Mussoorie shoot-out of September 2, 1994.

To briefly recap: the movement for a separate state to be carved out of the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh, began not with the usual bang but a whimper. An anti-reservation stir into its twelfth day suddenly, without warning, changed tracks setting these hills on fire. Etched into our collective memory is the day the men in khaki, armed with antiquated Second World War .303 rifles, massed at the protest site and opened fire without warning on the unarmed activists who had gathered there to pay their respects to those martyred in the Khatima shoot-out a day earlier. Forty-seven top leaders were arrested and herded into waiting trucks and trundled into the police lines in Race Course, Dehradun. Thrashed by apprentice police recruits, they were shoved into waiting buses for a scary midnight transfer to Bareilly Jail.

Memories of another day.

One shudders to think of the carnage that might have ensued had the younger crop of leaders been present. But they had all set off a day earlier for Pauri to take part in a massive rally there. Who were left behind? Mostly housewives, young children and old men – a Remainder Theorem – together they marched towards what remained of the old protest site which had mindlessly been converted into a police camp. Things boiled over around noon when gunshots rang out as the troopers opened fire. Renting the air, the wail of sirens narrated the rest of the story.

A few weeks later, a junket of journalists crammed into Landour and Mussoorie; each wanted a special story which they could call their own. Amongst their ranks was one whom, for obvious reasons, I do not name. I had been tasked by the Joint Action Committee to coordinate the Media Cell in helping those who needed facts and information. One evening sitting in the bar of a hotel, a journo, in his forties, from Delhi jostled for attention and wasted no time in getting to the point:

Curfew Pass from the Uttarakhand Movement.

‘Where are all those retired soldiers from the hills who are supposedly training your youngsters for armed insurrection? Which is the nearest such village that I can visit?’ Of course there was no such place. It was a part of a deliberate myth spun around the most peaceful of agitations for statehood. But the image had stuck.

‘Thathyur! Go to Thathyur!’ said I, and my companion nodded. Indeed it was the most obvious place – a reasonable hour’s drive from Mussoorie down Tehri Road. However, its only claim to fame is that it happens to lie along the route to Nag Tibba, to which the Doon School boys have trekked over the years. To this day, you will catch the older fellows talking about it.

So that is exactly where he went. He had a cold coming there as the locals, on edge after the shootout in Mussoorie, mistook him for a spy or intelligence agent. Roughly, they herded him into a room to face a barrage of questions.

‘Who sent you here?’

‘Ganesh Saili and his friend.’

‘How long have you known them?’

‘Met them both last night at a bar!’

Apparently, this was not considered to be even close to a satisfactory answer. Next morning they plonked him aboard the first the bus back to Mussoorie. Scared out of a year’s growth, he was relieved to have got away and lived to tell the tale. Seeing him gulp an extra lungful of diamond air, I felt he was glad not to be sleeping with the fishes at the bottom of the Aglar river, all trussed up in rocks.

From now onwards, whenever that stranger peeps at me from the mirror. It shall be I who blinks, knowing fully well that often in life, your guides can end up successfully misguiding you.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.