By GANESH SAILI
As I write, every other house has turned into a homestay. A rash of construction explodes around me. Like mushrooms, illegal structures swamp us, helped along by a nod-nod-winkwink from those who could have stopped this. Swamped by an invasion of ruffians the hill station is packed with participants in the Great Rowdy Race.
You will find them everywhere: from Jharipani to the bend near Douglas Dale spring; from Landour’s Char Dukan to the Language School and from the corners of Park Estate to Cart Mackinnon Road you will find Car Bars operating with merry abandon. Loud catcalls of aggressive alcohol-fuelled trash smashing empty bottles on the road follow you hoping to cow you down. Their leftover plastic bags choke our drains and block our culverts. Later monsoon’s fury floods these roads making them angry rivers that rip everything in their path.
‘Never give up!’ once defined the spirit of Mussoorie. I’ve seen it bubble away just below the surface, manifesting itself as the voice of the people at the opportune moment always loud and always clear. For instance in 1974 when a shiftyeyed quarrier picked his teeth telling us: ‘Take your hill station elsewhere! Just bad luck that you are sitting on the richest limestone deposit in the country!’
Elsewhere at St. Helen’s Cottage a few senior citizens were meeting for high tea, including three ladies, two hoteliers and a school Principal. Princess Sita of Kapurthala; May Badhwar, daughter of an ICS officer and Maisie Gantzer, whose husband had been an ex-Chairman of the Municipal Board; hoteliers Prem Thadani and Pramode Sawhney and the indomitable Douglas Vegais. They needed no introduction.
With the roads reduced to a mess, they had all had a hard time getting there.
‘It was like driving on the moon,’ recalls Pramode Sawhney, adding: ‘Those Harley Davidson trucks loaded with limestone quarried from the mines at Hathipaon, Lambidhar and Chuna Khala had reduced the road to wheel-ruts!’
‘This has to stop!’ Who exactly said this, no one remembers. But what began on a lazy Sunday afternoon, led to the birth of the Save Mussoorie Society. It was a civic movement the likes of which had not been seen anywhere else in India.
When the truckers arrived at Library Chowk, they were greeted by a human barrier, led by three ladies, along with a large group of determined townspeople who had blocked the road.
‘Must be a joke!’ mocked the drivers, as they turned around and headed home believing: ‘Money fixes everything!’ When news trickled in that the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was coming on a visit to the National Academy of Administration by helicopter, the quarriers cleverly painted the limestone cliffs of Chunakhala green with roof paint. Unbeknownst to them, Mussoorie’s cloudburst was coming. The moneybags were going to get their comeuppance.
That came when Avadhesh Kaushal’s Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra intervened by filing one of the earliest Public Interest Litigation in the country. Justice Bhagwati in the Supreme Court passed a legendary judgement. It was the final nail hammered into the coffin of mining in these hills.
Once again, twenty years later, the spirit came alive on 15th August 1994 when no more than a handful of angry boys, stung by the Mandal Commission Report, marched in protest against the announcement of a 27% reservation for other backward castes. They were fearful that with only 2% OBCs living in the hills, we would be swamped by people from the plains.
State bungling saw things spiral out of control. Out of this maelstrom was born the demand for a separate hill-state when on 2nd September, the Provincial Armed Constabulary opened fire on peaceful protestors at Jhoolaghar. As the cordite fumes lifted they revealed seven dead; dozens maimed, wounded or in jail. Mussoorie had become the fountainhead of the Uttarakhand movement. Enough was enough– this was our point of no return. Our ‘never give up’ spirit had worked once more.
Around me an invasion of louts, rowdies and ruffians is underway. How long can this madness last? I wonder.
After all, the darker the night, the brighter the stars.
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.