Spread over around 3000 kanals of land, Tosa Maidan meadow in district Budgam was taken over by army on lease in 1964 for conducting artillery drills. As the lease period is nearing its expiry, the army has approached the state government for extension of the lease, but locals have vowed to oppose the renewal. Bilal Handoo narrates the “ordeal” of villagers living in the line of fire.
There are deep fissures on the walls of old as well as newly constructed houses in most villages of Khag tehsil in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. And most of these living abodes lack proper windows and doors. Ground often shakes in Khag, though not because of seismic waves. The minaret of a local mosque has crumbled above 50 times due to violent waves, which often put life at risk. All this and more has been happening in Khag since 1964, when 3000 kanals of Tosa Maidan meadow was awarded by state government to Indian army for conducting firing drills.
Forty-nine years down the line, sixty persons of Khag – which is part of Tosa Maidan – have been wiped out, while same number of people has been left without hands, legs and other organs due to persistent firing drills of heavy shells and mortars.
Located at distance of 33 km from the summer capital of J&K, Khag houses nearly 42,000 people. Every summer the people of Khag and the adjoining villages of Tosa Maidan are served notices exhorting them to stay indoors. “The continuous firing practices made us feel, as if, we are living in a war zone,” says Sattar Malik, a local villager, who lost two of his fingers to shell explosion while taking his cattle for grazing in Tosa Maidan.
Tosa Maidan pasture is visited mostly by locals from Beerwah, Khag and some adjoining areas. People from these villages spend nine months in a year in meadow rearing their cattle. “Tosa Maidan is a historic valley which once was a city,” Mohammad Akram Sheikh, Sarpanch Shanglipora-Khag, says. “It is the collection of three meadows: Pathra, Guttemarg and Badshamarg. Further on, there is spot called Kralmarg, where one can have a view of whole Srinagar.”
As the artillery regiment undertaking firing practices, not only humans, but also cattle become collateral damage. Some 50 thousand cattle make their way to Tosa Maidan on daily basis for grazing. “Our cattle often return home bleeding and sick,” Mushtaq Ahangar, a local villager in Shanglipora, says. “They get caught in razor wires while roaming in meadow, which leaves them with blood oozing injuries. Besides, they often feed on leftover food of army in meadow, which makes them sick and usually leads to their death.”
Mohammad Akram, Sarpanch Shanglipora, who speaks in chaste Urdu, was hit by shell in 2002 while on his way to Tosa Maidan. He was accompanied by his mother when loud bang left him numb on spot. “On that day, I was in Tosa Maidan to take a stock of my buffalo, whose one leg got injured by shell,” he said. “In between, troops fired without any prior warning and one of the shells hit my leg.”
When Akram regained his composure after a while, he was bleeding profusely, though he didn’t lost any of his body parts unlike his fellow villager, Abdul Malik. Malik lost his right hand two years ago, when a sudden bang in meadow left him handicapped forever. “This village might appear beautiful and scenic, but it is fatal in reality,” Malik says.
Ghulam Ahmad Ahangar was the first villager who lost his life to firing drill in 1972, when army started firing practice in Tosa Maidan. Villagers still remember how Ahanger lost his life when he stepped on a bomb shell on his way to Tosa Maidan. “Ahangar’s death was the grave reminder for villagers that their life can end anytime now,” Akram says. Bashir Ahmad Malik is the latest victim in the village, who got killed only a month ago while taking his cattle to meadow.
Bofors and other artillery guns are fired from the banks of Sukhnag River near Chill village towards Tosa Maidan, which has been declared as a firing range by the army. “The sudden and violent sounds by firing drills have drastically impacted hearing ability of people here,” says a medico, who treats patients in his clinic in main market of Khag. “Besides, violent sounds have given rise to heart ailments, mental trauma and other health complexities in villagers.”
Nazir Ahmad, 27, a J&K RTI activist from Drung village in Tosa Maidan, is known for his social activities in adjoining villages of Tosa Maidan. This skinny man took me and my colleague to Pathri, the army base camp for firing drill in Drang. The base camp is about 8 km away from main market of Khag. While moving over the dirt road, an army convoy was returning from base camp in our opposite direction. We were instructed to stop. While army convoy was passing on, two young girls set their eyes on the convoy behind the bushes. “People here are living with a sense of fear,” says Nazir while catching my glance on girls. “Movement of convoy is daily affair here, which has curtailed the free movement of people.”
When finally army passed, we resumed our journey and within few minutes a meadow occupied by scores of makeshift tents sheltering troops appeared on the scene. The ‘breathtaking’ beauty of the place has a delightful effect for the senses. At this vantage point, the whole Srinagar is visible on its one side, while the other side is planted with pine trees. There is stream flowing from its right side, while lush green meadow bordered by concertina wires stands on the left side of Pathri.
“Isn’t it unfair to use this mesmerizing meadow for firing drill?” Nazir questioned while showing me the scores of potholes created in the centre of meadow by shell explosions. “Can you see that place where trees have been planted in a circular manner,” Nazir asked and I replied in affirmation. “Well, the place used to house Tourism bungalow earlier, which was destroyed in all these years with an intention to discourage the tourist activity in the place.”
There were few young girls collecting firewood from the nearby forest. The forest is thinning, owing to mass dependence of villages on it. “People still use traditional chulas here,” Nazir informs, “besides, due to lack of other avenues and rising unemployment here, dependency on the forest is ever increasing.”
Among the shepherds roaming in the meadow along with their cattle, Wali-ud-din appears the eldest. He lives nearby the place where firing drill is being carried out. Broken windows and doors of his house reflect the ‘ordeal’ he has been through. He is witness to events in Tosa Maidan before and after 1964.
“Before occupied by army, Tosa Maidan was literally a heaven,” Wali-ud-din says, “but unfortunately, the decision of state government to hand over this place to army for firing practices badly marred the prospects of this place.”
Wali’s grandson, Gulzar, below 10-year-old seldom pays his attendance to local school due to abject poverty at home, besides, loud explosion of shells and mortars often force him out of school. “His is not the only kid, whose studies are being affected by these firing drills,” Nazir claims. “There are scores of such kids here who no longer attend school due to violent explosions.”
Whether there is bang or lull in Tosa Maidan, female folk and shepherds, compelled by the exigencies of survival, make their presence felt in the meadow, at the risk of their lives. “Perhaps, villagers have learnt to live in the line of firing,” Nazir says.
But the costs of leading such life are heavy and often fatal in consequence, especially when it rains. With gushing rain waters, sometimes live heavy mortar shells also come down from the Tosa Maidan meadow towards residential areas. “Since army vehicles cannot reach Tosa Maidan in bad weather, ammunition is carried on the back of horses,” Nazir says, “and sometimes these shells skid from the back of horses and remain suspended on hilly tracks hidden in bushes and come down to residential areas once it rains.”
Many villagers collect the used up shells and mortar scraps for the living here. This fetches them some quick bucks. But fiddling with shells sometimes proves lethal for villagers. “Like in case of one blacksmith, who found a live shell, but mistook it as dead rubble,” Nazir says. The blacksmith went on to heat and hammer the shell, causing an explosion that ripped him apart. It took villagers three days to assemble the body pieces of that blacksmith for last rites.
The firing drill from last five decades has badly affected the economy of these villages in spite of the fact that the area has a great potential for adventure as well as winter tourism due to its perfect makeup. One can trek to Gulmarg from Tosa Maidan towards its south-west side and Poonch through Noorpur galee and China galee.
Of late, this huge meadow in the foothills of Pir Panjal range is becoming the new rallying point for protests in the area. The lease of 3000 kanals of Tosa Maidan as a firing range comes to an end in July 2014. Locals have been urging authorities to ensure that no extension be granted for the same as they want it to be developed as a tourist resort. Dozens of locally elected village headmen and civil society groups have floated the Tosa Maidan Bachao Front to press for their demand, besides, Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani and other separatists as well have taken up the villagers’ cause.
For somebody like Nazir who has lost three brother-in-laws in 1990’s to leftover ammunition, renewal of lease is unacceptable. “They were kids then, when a shell exploded and tore them apart and scattered their body pieces around the meadow,” Nazir recalls, “We couldn’t even perform last rites of their bodies.” Apart from Nazir, Bilal Ahmad, whose right limb was devoured by firing drills in Tosa Maidan, renewal of lease is simply “atrocious”.