Death Trap

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As the army’s authority over the use and misuse of Tosamaidan meadow expired after five decades, the fascinating but tattered landscape is in sharp focus. Many think the issue is more explosive than the 2008 land row. Bilal Handoo meets the five elected leaders of the area – the Sarpanchs, who help get the issue down the hills and make it everybody’s pain across the Vale

Tosamaidan-Cover-Photo

Death and destruction have shaped up their lives. Some of them were kids; while a few weren’t yet born in 1964—when army came, and ‘occupied’ the vast meadow adjacent to their villages. Their childhood was akin to nightmare, as loud bangs in the meadow instilled a sense of terror in them. They couldn’t do much except to endure the deadly bangs in silence. But once the ground beneath their feet started shaking up, they realised: we are living in the firing line, where dead are ‘desecrated and even denied a full body burial’.

It took the five Sarpanchs of central Kashmir’s Budgam district five decades to break their silence. And today these elected panchayati members are the five leading faces of protest under Tosamaidan Bachao Front (TBF)—a body, which is pressing hard against the lease extension of the meadow to Indian army.

Leading from the front is Mohammad Maqbool Magray, 60, President TBF and Sarpanch Chill village of Tosamaidan. When army fire shells from the meadow, they fly over his village. In case the shell is misfired, the village faces a doom-like situation. He is witness to light and bang of shells every other day. In a recent past, a flying shell hit the village and killed two villagers on the spot. “Last year, a shell fell on the house and reduced it into rubble,” he says. “Nobody heeded. And the family still awaits compensation.” Magray who is representing the 52 Panchayats of Budgam district says people living around Tosamaidan should be allowed to live like humans. But he isn’t alone to pitch that concern.

Molvi Mohammad Maqbool, 39, Vice Chairman TBF and Sarpanch Zogokhani village of Tosamaidan is equally vocal against the lease extension of the meadow to army. A graduate in Humanities, Maqbool says  villagers first raised the issue in 1985, but the campaign faced the ‘wrath of state’ and thereby couldn’t maintain a long run. It was the same period, he says, when Dr Farooq Abdullah promised villagers to throw the meadow into the rural tourism, “but the vow was never delivered.”

Notified as firing range in 1964, the picturesque Tosamaidan meadow lease agreement ended in 2004. It was renewed for another 10-year-period by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed led coalition government. And since then, the meadow continued to be a death trap for scores of locals as unexploded shells lay scattered in the meadow. In 2005, the villagers were again up in arms against the army and state to end the lease. But as state and army presided over, it appeared a storm in a teacup.

Five Sarpanches of Tosamaidan  area and members of Tosamaidan Bachao Front(TPF).

Five Sarpanches of Tosamaidan area and members of Tosamaidan Bachao Front(TPF).
Pic: Bilal Handoo

Now being the part of TBF campaign since the last summer, Maqbool says the meadow has became a tragic point for the villagers. He hardly remembers anyone being taken dead out of the meadow with whole body. Like a class 8 student, who went to graze his cattle to the meadow but never returned.

It was a sunny day in 2013, when Shabir Ahmad, 14, from Sutaharan village of Tosamaidan stepped inside the meadow. In late afternoon that day, a loud explosion shook up the villagers. In panic, some of them ran towards the meadow, but the scene on the spot left them shell-shocked. They saw Shabir scattered around the meadow in bits and pieces! It took villagers a few days to collect his body pieces for the burial. “But he isn’t alone to meet such a brutal end,” Maqbool says. “We have seen scores of such cases before.” In fact, the death trap started in the summer of 1972 itself.

It was Ghulam Ahmad Ahangar who became the first villager to lose his life that year (1972) when he stepped on a stray shell on his way to Tosamaidan, little knowing that this would be his last step. And as the heap of death bodies piled up along these years, Bashir Ahmad Malik became the latest victim of shell explosion in July 2013. The plot of both deaths, however, remained the same: like Ahangar, Malik lost his life while taking his cattle to the meadow for grazing. As death and destruction peaked, villagers floated TBF.

But the moment villagers sat together to deliberate on their course of action, a doctor-duo showed up in Tosamaidan. Both of them had given up their medical practices for the sake of fighting ‘systematic flaws’—important being, corruption. They had floated a much-touted JK RTI Movement in the state. And many results had already to their credit—which includes, disclosing charges of chopper ride by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. But the RTI movement became synonymous with Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, who was its media face and convener. And hardly anyone knew Dr Shiekh Ghulam Rasool, the chairman of JK RTI Movement—who, continued to carry the activities of RTI Movement at the backend.

After taking the locals on board, the duo started the campaign. “We found gross human rights violations at the place and thought it needs an instant attention,” says Dr Rasool, a physician hailing from the HMT on the outskirts of Srinagar.

And then in August 2013, bodies like Rural Voice, JK RTI Movement, Panchayat association Budgam and local citizens floated the coalition front in the form of TBF. Soon, the front started a large scale awareness campaign to gain more support to their agitation. Besides, they threatened to boycott parliamentary elections and mass resignation of Panchayat members.

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A villager displaying shell scrap.

Eight months after floating TPF, Dr Rasool says the matter is well before the public. He claims the death toll runs in hundred contrary to 63 deaths claimed by state. “Most deaths never made it to police FIRs,” he says. “And above 200 people have been left handicaps permanently.”

A vast area adjacent to the firing range has been notified as ‘danger area’ where civilian movement is not allowed. Dr Rasool says 6400 kanals of the land have been transferred completely to the Army for a consideration of Rs 15.34 crore which included the cost of trees, herbs, medicinal plants found in abundance in the area and other assets.  This works out an average price of around Rs 9467 per kanal. “They have violated Article 370,” he says. But Deputy Commissioner Budgam Khursheed Shah turned down the land transfer claims.

Around 30,000 trees have been destroyed by the army in the forest area using gunpowder, claims Dr Rasool. Besides, 40 per cent civilian population living around Tosamaidan has turned depressive, while 20 per cent has turned deaf.

Tosamaidan is one among the 12 firing ranges in J&K—out of total 66 such ranges in India. Firing ranges do not exceed 2-3 in all states except Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which have seven and six firing ranges respectively. “People in peripheries of Tosamaidan have suffered more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Dr Rasool claims. “Harmful chemicals emitted from artillery shells have wreaked havoc in the area.”

“The artillery shells have a particular date of expiry and before that date the shells need to be destroyed and the majority of the firing exercises undertaken by the army in Tosamaidan are done to destroy such shells,” claims Dr Raja Muzaffar, RTI activist and Aam Aadmi Party candidate for Srinagar-Budgam Parliamentary seat.

The human cost of the military exercises is now causing an outcry not only in the affected villages but across the valley. The front has already filed a petition with the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC). It was this sustained campaign that forced the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to admit that 63 deaths have occurred in the area due to unexploded ordnance (UXO) till date. “Since 1965 till date, 63 persons have lost their lives and 41 received injuries due to unexploded shells in Tosamaidan,” Omar said last year in state legislative council. He had also disclosed that neither compensation nor jobs have been provided to the affected families.

But the perils of firing drills don’t end there. Dr Rasool claims explosive material enters into food chain through water, and thereby threatens the healthcare. “This otherwise means, the whole population of J&K is under the threat—as they end up drinking the same water,” he says. But there are other conflicts in place which the ‘occupied meadow’ has managed to breed over the period of time.

The latest being: man-animal conflict—which has further escalated death toll around the meadow. Dr Rasool’s fact-finding claims that 20 people have lost their lives due to it and more than 50 people have sustained serious injuries. “And the strange part of the story is: these numbers never figure in official death toll data, which stagnates at 63,” he says. Besides, the relentless firing drills have taken toll on glaciers which are receding very fast and has also affected the green cover in the area, he says.

With the notification expired on April 18, 2014, the army has asked the state government to re-notify the 11200 hectares land as a firing range till 2034. But the demand has evoked widespread criticism from the locals who have been badly affected by the artillery exercises. This huge meadow in the foothills of Pir Panjal range is becoming the new rallying point for protests in the area.

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Pothole created by shell explosion in Pathri area of Tosamaidan

As the tempers started soaring, senior National Conference (NC) leader and Finance and Ladakh Affairs Minister Abdur Rahim Rather on April 14 declared that the state government won’t extend Tosamaidan lease. Apart from Rather, the senior Abdullah and NC patron Dr Farooq Abdullah said no extension to Tosamaidan lease should serve as a first step towards revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The opposition PDP has also warned of mass agitation in Budgam district in case the lease is extended. While Peoples Democratic Front (PDF) chairman and MLA Khan sahib, Hakim Mohammad Yasin said if government claims that the lease won’t be extended, then it should notify and identify a new place for firing range.

Reacting to the demand of mainstream politicians, a political science student of Kashmir University, Mir Tariq told Kashmir Life, “where was PDP’s conscience when they extended it in 2004. Why is NC talking about revocation of AFSPA now at the end of their government when they had it in their election manifesto?”

“Congress is playing both NC and Congress in the name of National Interest,” he adds.

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Locals from Tosamaidan area protest against the leas renewal.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Separatists are also on the same page. Hurriyat Conference (M) chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq called for a strike on April 12 against government’s intentions to extend the lease. He even claimed that 150 people had died due to unexploded artillery shells in the area. And fresh from his Delhi visit, Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Geelani has also evolved a strategy to prevent government from extending the lease. National Conferences senior leader and additional general secretary Dr Sheikh Mustafa Kamal was in unison with both heads of Hurriyat when he said, “on Tosamaidan, neither Mirwaiz nor Geelani is wrong.”

On Nov 12 last year, the Civil-Military Liaison Conference (CMLC) chaired by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah decided that a high-level panel headed by Chief Secretary (CS) Iqbal Khanday would suggest viable solutions to the issue. In the three-hour meeting at Army’s 16 Corps headquarters in Nagrota, Jammu, Omar Abdullah had conveyed that a panel led by CS would find out viable solutions to the issue.

“While we have shifted our firing points to meet the needs of local population, we are willing to look at alternate sites should they be offered,” says Northern Command chief Gen Sanjiv Chachra.

Reports suggest that the committee headed by CS held a series of meetings to chart out the further course of action but it has not been able to identify a feasible alternate site for the army. But identifying alternate site for the firing range has drawn flak. Mirwaiz opposed the move by stating: only deserts are suited for dangerous artillery drills. Reportedly, army is in no mood to re-locate the field firing range. In CMLC meeting, Gurez and Wadwan valleys have been proposed as alternate sites. “In case the government would pursue re-locating the firing range to beautiful valleys of Gurez and Wadwan,” says Shujaat Bukhari, a senior journalist, “it only complicates the situation further. It will be a disaster for these areas.”

Tosamaidan is 3 miles in length and 1.5 miles in width which makes it the largest pasture in its surrounding areas. It has served as grazing land for the villagers’ livestock. But stray shells in the meadow has made the grazing a dangerous trap. Mohammad Akram, 43, Sarpanch Shanglipora fell to the same trap twelve years ago.

One of the TBF members, Akram lost one of his siblings to stray shells some years ago. Besides, his father and another brother have received shell injuries. In 2002, a sudden shell explosion left Akram’s leg badly injured in Tosamaidan. Bofors and other artillery guns which are fired from the banks of Sukhnag River near Chill village towards Tosamaidan hit his leg. He survived miraculously. But not everyone is as fortunate as he was that day.

Dr-Shiekh-Ghulam-Rasool-Chairman-RTI-Movement

Dr Shiekh Ghulam Rasool, chairman RTI Movement.

In his village Shanglipora, the artillery drill has resulted 43 deaths out of 63 official casualties. However, independent activists put the toll at more than 130 dead. The artillery firing has also affected the education and developmental sector in the area. “Whenever we tried to raise our voice, we were silenced,” he says. “But now we won’t give up. 52 villages around Tosamaidan will camp inside the meadow in case a lease would be renewed to army.” Apart from humans, some 50 to 60 thousand cattle which daily enters into Tosamaidan also fell to trap. Villagers say that their cattle often return home wounded after getting caught in razor wires in the meadow.

Since 1964, for six months from May to October every year, the meadow witnesses a war-like situation when army carries firing drills. During this period, the villages echo with the barrage of shelling and deafening explosions, forcing the villagers to stay indoors most of the time. For his entire life, Ghulam Mohiuddin Shiekh, 48, Sarpanch Sutaharan village of Tosamaidan has lived a life of confinement.

Shiekh says peace is the biggest casualty in his village. Four killings have been reported in his village so far. He remembers how Farooq Ahmad of his village fell to the stray shell in 1989 when Army sought his help to shift the camp. “The track was snowbound and Farooq was called for the help. After sometime, a bang was heard. Later, a dead Farooq was taken out of the meadow.” But Farooq wasn’t alone.

On September 8, 1992, three minors aged below 12 went to graze their cattle in the meadow. They found an object lying there and started playing with it. The object exploded, and ripped them off. “We had to collect the pieces of flesh and bury them,” says Nazir Ahmad Sheikh, their relative and RTI activist. Ali Khan, 40, met the same fate when an artillery shell accidentally went off. Villages such as Drang, Shanglipora, Arizal and Harthpanzre are also full of people who have been disabled or grievously injured by accidental explosions.

Cooling his heels after retirement, Lt Gen Ata Hasnain recently said that election year has triggered the Tosamaidan issue in the valley. “One part of these campaigns even talks of the radioactive substances let loose by the ammunitions fired at the range,” he wrote in an article. “As per the talk of depleted uranium, let me tell you, even Western research shows unconfirmed effects on health of human beings. It is like the effect of fertilizer based crops.”  Surely, Gen isn’t naysayer!

Apart from chemical threats, there are ominous signs of destruction in Tosamaidan. Manzoor Ahmad Rather, Sarpanch Drung says firing has left deep fissures on the households, besides marred school education in the village. But uncertainty looms large over the village owing to stray shells.

On May 9, 2012, a live heavy mortar shell came down from the Tosamaidan meadow probably with the gush of rain waters. It was noticed by an RTI activist Bashir Ahmad of the village. The deadly mortar shell was resting between some rocks just 50 to 70 metres away from the residential houses. Immediately the local Army unit at Beerwah (53 RR) was informed, who sent their Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS), and within two hours this bomb was defused. “The intensity of the blast was so strong that whole village shook up that time,” Bashir says “And the sound of the blast was heard within a radius of 10 kms.” Had Bashir not located this deadly live bomb or mortar shell, it would have caused havoc in the area.

“Our demand is democratic, constitutional and apolitical,” Dr Rasool says. “But in case army secures the lease, I fear it would trigger agitation akin to Amarnath land row.”

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