It was because of his efforts that Tosmaidan came into the limelight before the state could have given a nod for the next hundred years. Syed Asma meets Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a doctor turned activist, who uses RTI to expose the indifferences that people with power have towards commoners.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a 36-year-old noted activist of J&K, talks casually. He keeps moving his hands to make emphasis on his speech. His hidden shy self is palpable whenever he avoids eye contact while conversing. But his reserved nature doesn’t seem to come in between while highlighting some significant issues in the state, including the RTI or campaign against Tosmaidan lease.
Being into activism for past ten years now, Bhat this year highlighted serious repercussions of Tosmaidan firing field on population living around. Tosmaidan is a 3000 kanal firing range field in Budgam which was leased-out to Indian army 64 years ago for artillery drills. Its lease is expiring in early 2014. The firing field so far has claimed more than 60 lives and has disabled scores of people.
Bhat started researching about the place in 2009. “Some of the motor shells fired while training are either trapped in bushes or enter into locality along with run-away rain water. Consciously or unconsciously when humans’ fiddle with them, it takes toll on their lives,” says a concerned Bhat wearing brown Pherun and black Afghan cap.
Over these years while he was researching about the place Bhat tried to get the issue into media but says he faced disappointment. Even the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) rejected his complain and said it is too early to comment over the lease.
“When I tried to register my concern about this environmentally fragile place and had quoted the human right violation cases, they [SHRC] said it is too early and I should re-register in 2014 after the lease expires,” says Raja Muzaffar Bhat. It was only last year when Bhat approached National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that he started seeing things moving. NHRC immediately took cognizance and shot a letter to union defence ministry. Presently, the case is with them and state has formed a high level committee under the chairmanship of Chief Secretary to look into the matter.
Bhat’s intervention may bring change this time around as well. He says he tries his best to highlight issues to the level wherein public interferes and get the things changed.
It was Muzaffar Bhat in 2009 who after working rigorously for four years convinced state to raise its Right to Information Act at par with that of Centre. Though, the young activist is not satisfied with the recent amendments of the RTI Act.
Bhat is academically a dentist and is into activism from past 10 years now.
In the career of 10 years, Bhat has been successful in bringing out some significant changes. Apart from raising the bar of RTI Act, Bhat has enforced the culture of publishing the draft bills.
“If we did not induce this culture of publishing draft bills, the police reform bills would have become a law and it would have been a very harsh law,” shares Bhat. “Public criticism halted the bill.”
He adds, earlier the laws were framed in four walls of our civil secretariat depicting bureaucratic hegemony but now before making a law public criticism is also taken into consideration.
Brenwar, a village ruled by landlords, in upper reaches of Budgam, changed a young professional doctor into a social activist. In 2001, when Bhat came back from Karnataka University, after completing his Bachelors in Dental Surgery (BDS), he started a new clinic in his village Waathora. He was content with his private practise, his was the first dental clinic in his area, he says.
It was at this time that he had made some friends in Brenwar and as youngsters started hanging out together quite often.
Spending time in Brenwar made Bhat realize the pain of poverty. The place inhabits both Kashmiris and Gujjars, in equal proportion.
Belonging to a landlord family, Bhat had lived a life of elites in his village and did not know much about the people around.
“It was in Brenwar where I got to know that every villager doesn’t own land and has to purchase rice from the market, ration depots,” says Bhat, “I also got to know that below poverty line (BPL) families are supposed to get it on lower costs than others. But the norm is hardly followed in villages.”
Bhat’s activism started soon after he realized that the depot in-charge in Brenwar is not abiding by the government rules but had made his own laws. He registered a complaint with Tehsildar who lodged an FIR with police. Presently, a court case is being pursued against the in-charge.
Besides, an interesting thing happened with Bhat, he says. Brenwar helped him to get proper characters for his childhood stories he had been hearing from his father and grandfather. His father before joining government services was a practicing lawyer and grandfather had worked as DC Budgam for some time and both used to discuss work at home.
“When I landed in the village nothing had changed, the elite village landlords were still cruel as they were years before and the poor class was getting exploited as ever,” says Bhat, “this was painful. I thought I should help.”
Bhat started interventions. He mobilized the locals and made them realize that the self-acclaimed village head was not in power, anymore. There are government set-ups in place which can be explored, he told them.
“They even for issuance of ration cards used to approach their mokdum (village head),” he says. “Who is he to issue a ration card, if government set-ups are in place?”
Starting from a single family, Bhat took an initiative and began to mobilize a small village. Steadily, he became a prominent face in Budgam.
“This was a time when my clinic started suffering. People started approaching me for other things rather than to seek medical assistance, and I could not say no, because I knew they needed me,” Bhat says, “This is how it all started.”
Turning out to be a ‘messiah’ in his area, many of his friends suggested him to join politics. He agreed because only filing RTIs could not help him to change the system as he wanted. He joined main opposition party in the state, PDP.
“At times only power can bring the change!” Bhat has experienced, “activism is just a catalyst.” But power didn’t suit him for long. He resigned in less than a six months.
“My consciousness didn’t allow me to be in politics after Afzal [Guru] was hanged. It all seemed useless to me, so, I thought I am good with what I am doing,” concludes the contended social activist.