Usha Khanna nee Kashyap (1927-2016) was born in Rawalpindi in what became Pakistan into a Punjabi family. She grew up mainly in Srinagar in Kashmir. The actor Balraj Sahni and the novelist Bhisham Sahni were her maternal uncles. In late 1947, as Pakistani tribal fighters invaded Kashmir, Usha enrolled in a left-wing women's militia, the Women's Self Defence Corps, and acted in short propaganda pays as part of the Cultural Front. She was a communist sympathiser and wrote occasionally for the party's weekly paper, the People's Age. She met and later married Rajbans Khanna, a Punjabi communist who was sent to Kashmir by the party to help lead the militia, a force which was intended to defend Kashmir and support Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir's accession to India.
Usha Khanna later became renowned as the founder of the long-running and hugely popular Cafe Samovar in the Jehangir art gallery in Mumbai - the story of her life and that of the cafe is told her book The Making of Samovar, which includes many wonderful photographs. Rajbans Khanna became a highly regarded documentary film-maker.
Usha Rajbans Khanna with the artist M.F. Husain at the Samovar
Revisiting her childhood home in Rawalpindi: (l to r) Mrs Sudha Dubash, Usha R Khanna , Shobhaa De and Seher Saigol
Usha Khanna (nee Kashyap)
Interviewed by phone to Mumbai, 31 August 2008
WERE YOU BROUGHT UP IN KASHMIR?
Yes, very much, from my childhood - actually my childhood – I was born in Pakistan, Rawalpindi – since we used to go to Kashmir in summer, so we used to keep on commuting, Rawalpindi and Kashmir six months alternately. But my education was in Srinagar, in the convent – St Joseph’s convent [[actually Presentation Convent]].
YOU WERE FROM A PUNJABI FAMILY
Punjabi family, yes – but more or less Punjabi Kashmiri. Since our childhood was spent this way, it was like that. We were Hindus, but not those very strict, rigid - We were very open minded people.
DID YOU LEARN TO SPEAK KASHMIRI?
A little bit, yes,
WHAT DID YOUR FATHER DO? WAS HE A BUSINESSMAN?
My father was chief … Imperial Tobacco Company’s sole distributor for the whole state. … So he was their resident – he used to distribute the cigarettes to the whole valley, not only in Kashmir but in Jammu. So our van used to go to all the villages, and we used to sometimes hop in into the van, to go on and visit all the remotest areas of Kashmir.
HOW DID YOU START GETTING INTERESTED IN POLITICAL THINGS?
Political? Since my family, my uncles, my brother, all of them, because of freedom – we were fighting for our Indian freedom. It is before ’47. The germ of this idea that we had to throw away the Britishers was already there, and our family was very much in that – my uncles, everybody. So when – I was very friendly, got to know a very fine, super boy from Lahore who was a trade union student, a brilliant student, who was a communist, I mean leftist -
AND WHO WAS THAT?
Rajbans Krishen Khanna. He was the topmost hero. And he had been doing his college from the jails only. For four, five years he was thrown into the worst jails by the Britishers. Although his father was the Advocate General of the British regime – in those days there was no, Pakistan had not come into being – but the son was a communist. My friend who I married during the Kashmir strife, when these tribals came invading -
SO HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU MET RAJBANS?
I was eighteen years old.
WHEN WERE YOU BORN?
SO YOU MET HIM IN THE LATE 1940s [sic] JUST AS THE ‘QUIT KASHMIR’ MOVEMENT WAS STARTING TO HAPPEN
Yes. I had heard about him, that there was a brilliant man and he, after reading all those leftist books - I had been engaged two, three times before with very rich boys, but my eyes, my heart was set on a boy like him about whom I had read in the books only. And then one day he came to our doorstep to borrow some leftist books from my uncles who were leftists. So we saw each other, and instantly I knew this was the man – And he was the one who started the national militia in Kashmir.
THESE UNCLES WERE BALRAJ SAHNI AND BHISHAM SAHNI?
Bhisham Sahni was my uncle, my mother’s brother.
THESE WERE THE UNCLES WHO HE WAS BORROWING LEFTIST MATERIAL FROM?
Yes. And my other uncle was Balraj Sahni who was working in the BBC news service during the war. They were posted in London, both husband and wife. And when they came back to India, they had brought leftist books which my would-be husband, the boy I married, he came to borrow. So that’s how we met.
DID YOU THEN BECOME A COMMUNIST YOURSELF? DID YOU BECOME POLITICAL –
Of course, very much. Those days all the topmost, the cream of the cream of people, the most learned – they were all turning leftist. Now the left movement betrayed and we were horribly – later on, we came to our senses that it was a big fraud being played by the Soviets, and things were altogether different, what they were preaching to us all. And that is what we were disillusioned later on.
AT THAT STAGE WHAT DID YOU DO – DID YOU ACTUALLY JOIN THE COMMUNIST PARTY?
Of course I became a sympathiser when my husband, so-called, we hadn’t married but we were living together in Kashmir when the invasion had taken place. And Rajbans, now I’ll take his name, Rajbans was very friendly with Sheikh Abdullah, Bakshi Mohammed and Sadiq sahib and D.P. Dhar, all of them. And since Sheikh Abdullah knew about Rajbans, that he was a brilliant, brilliant boy from Lahore - they were very friendly but they knew that Rajbans was dying of intestinal cancer because in the jails his intestines were shattered, he was kept in the C-class jail, and so they used to look after him, call him to Kashmir, and give him all the equipment and send him up to Gulmarg and all those places to recover, recoup. And they were terribly under his guidance. That is how when the invasion took place, Rajbans got together all the locals and talked to Sheikh sahib, and we created this national militia.
BUT PRIOR TO THEN, WHAT DID COMMUNISTS DO? DID THEY MEET WEEKLY? WHAT SORT OF ACTIVITIES DID THEY GET INVOLVED WITH?
We used to have cell meetings. We used to have mohalla meetings. We used to pick up the brightest students and explain to them that this invasion which, since we saw those raiders – some were caught, they were only to plunder, they were heathens, they were not like human beings. They had just come, they were told to just loot – not to lost only Hindus, but Muslim women. They were let loose to plunder, they said go and loot. That time, there was no – this thing was taught to them that they had to take Kashmir and subjugate it to their philosophy and all that.
DID YOU KNOW B.P.L. BEDI AND FREDA BEDI?
Very much, they used to come and stay with us. B.P.L. and Freda, they used to be great friends with my husband [sic] Balraj Sahni and Freda was a Britisher and B.P.L. was a sardar from a good background from some religious sect. (10’45) They had three children and they were down and out but Freda and B.P.L., they were great friends of Sheikh sahib. So that is how they used to stay near Dal lake, they were given a house there. And they used to come and stay with us also.
AND WHEN THE NATIONAL MILITIA WAS SET UP, HOW WAS IT ORGANISED? HOW DID IT GET STARTED?
Oh, it was very inspiring. The local Kashmiris, we had no weaponry, nothing. The maharaja had run away locking the armoury and we were absolutely – there were no lights and we could hear the gun fighting on the borders near our homes. And they were coming nearer and nearer. At that time Rajbans, he joined some students and he said: let us save our bridges, seven bridges, which were the lifeline of Kashmir. And we used to at night have log fires, big, big fires, so that the whole city looked from outside as if was alive. And they were chanting slogans, and with their axes and their lathis, they used to roam, mohalla, mohalla, and they had this thing: ‘hamlavar khabardar, ham kashmiri hai tayar’ [[attackers watch out, we kashmiris are ready]]. And then when – we had no money, but the truck drivers, they would take truckloads of these Kashmiris and take them to the border, Baramulla and all that, and there they used to have skirmishes. But since the other side had gunpowder and all those guns, our boys, they could do nothing but only have physical fights and serve the people…. [brief interruption]
MOST OF THE PEOPLE WHO SET UP THE MILITIA, WAS IT COMMUNISTS WHO DID MOST OF THE LEADING AND THE ORGANISING IN THE MILITIA?
We started different cells. I joined the cultural cell. So we started performing plays. We used to go to the front and play the local themes, how they don’t have any – these raiders – they don’t believe in this, that they’ve come to only kill Hindus. They were doing all sort, molesting women and all that. And those plays used to be a big, big hit. And they used to bring up the morale of the villagers. …
WHAT LANGUAGE WERE THESE PLAYS IN?
Urdu. Urdu and Kashmiri. Because we had local musicians. They were also taking part, some Kashmiri songs. And the wife of – now I’ll tell you – Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, his wife Khurshid was my class mate in convent, and she also was acting in the play. And so many other girls. Sadiq sahib’s sister Zeinab, she was with me when we had gone for those things, shooting lessons and all that. Those were the great days, we didn’t know whether it was night or day, we had been roaming all over. And my name turned into, instead of Usha, Ayesha, Muslim name. And they loved me. But the party was not giving us permission to get married – the Communist party. So then they gave us permission, that was about after nine or ten months, in Delhi. And then we got married.
SO WHEN WAS THAT? THAT WAS 1948?
48-ish, yes. Near about that. In September I got married.
WHO WROTE THE PLAYS THAT YOU PERFORMED?
The plays? The locals. There were poets. Nadeem sahib, he was the greatest poet of Kashmiri. He died. He used to write songs … Those songs, now they are coming into the film distorted and all that, because that time he was writing song after song and we used to incorporate all of them.
AND TELL ME ABOUT THE WOMEN’S MILITIA, BECAUSE THERE’S THAT REMARKABLE PHOTO IN YOUR BOOK OF THE WOMEN’S MILITIA. HOW DID WOMEN GET TO BE HOLDING RIFLES?
Oh, they loved it. There was no – those days, there was no purdah. Nothing. Women, they came out – more the local women than the Indians. Because it was the winter time. Lot of the Punjabis, they go down to – because it’s too severe, cold. So it was the local women, they used to cook food in a huge vessel. We’d all sit and eat together. There was no – after reading your book, I was taken aback knowing that those very nuns who were butchered in Baramulla, later on they were taken to Rawalpindi and being looked after. It’s a very strange game by the Britishers. I tell you, it was a very, very, very sinister thing. But we know that there was a handsome man, Maqbool, who was killed in a crossing, just like Christ. They tied his hands and shot him. And all that also was so blatantly – Kashmir was being invaded by these things – later on the same Kashmiris, these nuns and all of them, they’re safely given passage to Muzaffarabad. This is very confusing. In any case, our lives were – glorious time and all that.
TELL ME ABOUT THE WOMEN AND THE SHOOTING PRACTICE, HOW DID THE WOMEN ORGANISE THEIR SELF-DEFENCE CORPS?
The army gave us the training. They used to come and give us the training. And we were given very heavy guns – three-nought-threes. And I was a crack shot. Time after time I would get it in all the positions. And when one is young, one is so full of, full of – nothing is impossible. Nothing is impossible. I wish people could live those days, that this was the Kashmir and how it has been polluted by all these horrible, horrible, these people. Religion has crept in and still they are going out, and massacres are taking place now. There were no religion, nothing in Kashmir. Muslims protected Hindus, Hindus protected – we were side by side staying together with each other. Marrying into each other. Horrible. When I think of my childhood, I am so confused how things can return. …