Tosa Maidan: Avoiding Triggers in Kashmir

Syed Ata Hasnain 

The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) land case of 2008 is well outside public memory because Kashmir is always looked at from the ‘crisis to crisis’ point of view. Yet, we have another similar case looming on Kashmir’s landscape as the winter ebbs and spring is upon the Valley in all its finery.No one took the SASB case seriously until it hit us in the face and led to all kinds of incorrect decisions taken in the vacuum of realistic information about the Valley, the aspirations of its people and the propensity for mischief which exists from time to time. This time it is all about a faraway meadow on the very same Pir Panjal range on which exists Gulmarg; the meadow is called Tosa Maidan. It has nothing to do with shrines and gods but this time it is all about the people who live around it and the Army which uses this small tract of ground as a field firing range.

Tosa Maidan, as stated before, lies on the Pir Panjal Range South East of Gulmarg. Access to it lies via the same road leading from Srinagar to Gulmarg; the drive has to be diverted from Kunzar towards Beerwah and then to Gogaldhara from where a mountain track(road) maintained by the Army takes you up the winding slopes to one of the most exhilarating landscapes in Kashmir. Since 1964 the area has been leased to the Army and the Air Force for use as a field firing range and the 50 year lease runs out on 18 April 2014. For the less informed on military detail, a field firing range is a tract of ground to be used for live firearms practice depicting battle conditions. Weapons are usually fired at optimum ranges as against the restrictive ranges in cantonments and military stations. Such ranges also provide scope for conduct of restricted tactical maneuvers in realistic settings under battle conditions. All the formations of the Army in the Kashmir Valley are dependent on this tract of land at Tosa Maidan which measures approximately 3000 kanals, to conduct their annual field firing which is a compulsory part of annual training. There is no population which is allowed to reside within the precincts of the range. However, on the periphery a large number of families reside in clusters, mostly from the Gujjar stock and a few villages exist in the nearby areas. Tosa Maidan provides some of the finest mountain grass for livestock. As a rule field firing areas usually exist in remote countryside where there is minimum population. Poverty is more the rule than exception and many of the villagers subsist on minimum agriculture supplemented by the sale of lead and metal scrap picked up from the ranges and sold to scrap dealers.

The Army usually turns a blind eye to them as long as they do not put themselves in harm’s way by accessing the target end of firing practice while the firing is in progress. Many a time these rural folk risk life and limb to be the first to get to the remnants of fired ammunition. Like in all other areas where field firing ranges exist the Army takes assistance of the local police to keep the area clear of civilian presence to avoid accidents but more often than not sheer poverty drives the rural folk to risk life and limb for a few pieces of scrap. The Army looks for unexploded munitions, cordons these and methodically destroys them but carelessness can sometimes lead to such munitions being left behind although clearance is invariably taken from the local police before Army units depart. Children of shepherds are usually the sufferers as they play in the areas once vacated by the Army and inadvertently initiate the unexploded munitions. On paper these are exclusion zones where no civilians are permitted but the reality is something else.

What do the villagers around Tosa Maidan want? They claim they want to lead normal lives as for four to five months in a year the area reverberates with sounds of artillery fire; they also desire the safety of their children and livestock from unexploded munitions; they state that they wish to carry out agriculture or simply to exploit the natural beauty of the landscape to put Tosa Maidan on the tourist map of Kashmir and use that for their betterment. All this is fine and the claims are obviously legitimate but let us examine the situation from another angle.

In 2008, the SASB case exploded supposedly on an innocuous issue of construction of some permanent assets on forest land near Baltal to afford better facilities for pilgrims to the shrine of Lord Shiva. There was no demographic change or attempt to swamp Kashmir in any way as was then painted. Yet the issue was exploited to raise emotions, an elected government of the day fell, Governor’s rule had to be imposed and it was the beginning of three years of strife in the Valley which brought life to a standstill. Long planned wedding programs were upset and I remember helping many a ‘baraat’ to proceed through curfew bound areas in Baramula. Fruit production reduced as did movement of fruit from the Valley; tourism all but stopped and so many stake holders lost their livelihood. The cost of a ride on a pony at Gulmarg was Rs 750 in Jun 2008 and reduced to Rs 30 in Jul. The long and the short is that Kashmir’s economic and social landscape was adversely affected. The emotions were used by the Separatists and the sponsors from across the LoC to ensure that street turbulence of the Intifada kind rattled the security forces. Kashmir was unprepared for such turbulence. Street turbulence continued for days on end along with curfew and breaking of curfew.

The most serious fallout was from the lack of preparation of the Police forces which did not have riot handling equipment. It led to overkill with use of tear gas shells and bullets leading to deaths and creation of martyrs which is exactly what the sponsors wanted. Two publications come to mind immediately; Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ and Gene Sharp’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’. The first is all about selling an idea and executing it to tip it to your favor. The second is all about philosophy of non-violence and its use as a weapon. Gene Sharp is credited with giving the ideas to the initiators of the Color Revolutions of the Arab Spring and the Orange Revolution of Ukraine. Given these philosophies all you need is an idea, information people, connectors and persuaders and you have a movement going. The stone is the weapon of the weak and in the hierarchy of violence is considered almost a ‘non-violent weapon’. It took all the persuasive skills of the State, the Army and many others to drawdown the agitation of 2008-10. It was the stamina which ran out and thus helped in drawdown. Yet no one has forgotten Malcolm Gladwell and Gene Sharp because ostensibly both were read before the commencement of the agitation in 2008. In 2011, one of the consensus issues of the strategy of the State and the security forces was the necessity of ensuring that a potential trigger is identified well in time and defused before it comes to critical mass.

It is election year again in Kashmir and triggers would be sought through the year. If they are offered why would the inimical elements not exploit them? Tosa Maidan is one such potential trigger which is being allowed to cascade without realizing the nuisance potential it carries. Before examining who is at fault and how can it righted, it needs to be stated that negative information campaigns are being carried out to paint the issue as a political one. One part of these campaigns even talks of the radioactive substances let loose by the munitions fired at the range and how these collect into the water bodies lower down to the detriment of the healthy existence of the local people. Everything is being lapped up in the information vacuum and the persuaders are having a field day. A remark on Facebook reads – “The whole state is occupied by Army. I think those who are protesting and demanding such things should actually come up and demand withdrawal of Army from the state as a whole and not just relocation”. So there lies the catch. Tosa Maidan is a symbol and when one looks at the disinformation being spread about the quantum of land under Army occupation etc one realizes what the motive actually is.

A reality check offers a balanced picture. There is no doubt that 65 people have lost (150 by another estimate) their lives and 40 have been injured in range related accidents since 1965 and this is a human issue which need not be looked at from a government policy angle. Restrictions or none, it does not matter because poverty stricken human beings who the governments could not help have suffered. What is the State Government’s stance? Last known, it had constituted a high level committee in consultation with the Army, under the Chief Secretary. However, to be fair to it in an election year why should it do anything perceived as anti-people? If it takes the people’s side with the plea that Tosa Maidan has tourist potential which needs exploitation it will be up for questioning on what it has done for Yusmarg, Wular, Lolab, Verinag and The Jhelum Valley and why it wants one more name in the list of unexploited tourist potential. The Army too is not blameless. When you can anticipate a problem early enough why not work on it when time is on your hands. It banked on the age old argument of national security and hoped like hell that it would gel.

Almost six years ago it was evident that the transforming situation in Kashmir would not allow such an approach. In 2011-12, even while it was quite late the Army made a bold last ditch effort to extend in earnest its corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the villages around Tosa Maidan. In conjunction with an NGO and the outstandingly competent DC Badgam it attempted to bring rural tourism into this segment of the Pir Panjal to decongest the high profile tourist hubs of Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Srinagar. Lack of finances at that juncture could not allow what should have been a longstanding effort towards uplifting the quality of life of the people through construction of model villages and facility hubs akin to the efforts along the LoC. Everything fell through when the State Government refused to cooperate on rural tourism fearing that it would provide grounds to perpetuate Army’s presence and signature in the civilian domain.

What is clear is that the authorities both in Srinagar and Delhi need to be wary of the cascading nature of the Tosa Maidan’s emotive potential in an election year. The detailed analysis above is to allow common people to understand how a crisis emerges in Kashmir but equally is a reminder to the authorities who may have forgotten how innocuous events in Kashmir suddenly cross the tipping point. It would only be fair to point out that the concerned leaders of civil society have condemned all attempts at politicizing the issue and requested the Mirwaiz not to bring in the typical ‘bandh’ approach to the problem. Equally, the citizens of India should be aware that this issue is also being used to rake up the larger issue of the Army’s presence in the hinterland areas of the Valley. Remember, the externally sponsored internal conflict is not yet over; the Army’s presence ensures the security of the national strategic assets, the people of Kashmir besides the tourists themselves.

These issues are non-negotiable even though Tosa Maidan has become negotiable. With such a long analysis it is also fair that a reasonable outcome of the issue be outlined for consideration. If I was to sit in judgment I would be fair to all by (a) – extending the lease of Tosa Maidan range by ten years; (b) – the Army and the State Government together to undertake time bound CSR initiatives in consultation with the people to maintain the ecology and enhance the quality of life and employment potential of the people; (c) – a year on year review be conducted by an independent team comprising eminent personalities, members of the judiciary and the people to take stock of the level of implementation of CSR initiatives; (d) – Army to develop a field firing range in the Warwan Valley area with all requisite modern training facilities, to be commissioned in Apr 2024. This proposal may form the core of the resolution of the problem but its success would hinge on the joint execution of their responsibility by the State Government and the Army.

The writer is a former Corps Commander of the Srinagar Corps.Published first in The Citizen today

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