Tosa Maidan – A ticking time bomb in Kashmir

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Kashmir’s blighted history is about to repeat itself. On 17 June 2008, nearly six years of peace and development under a coalition government of the Kashmiris’ own choice came to an end when, at a crowded press conference, the secretary of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board announced that the transfer of 40 hectares of forest land to it to meet the needs of a rising tide of pilgrims would not be temporary, as was explicitly stated in the enabling Act, but permanent. This lit the fuse that has, in the ensuing six years, dragged Kashmir back from the brink of peace to a state of something close to war.

Prior to 17 June 2008, militancy had been on the wane, and the Hurriyat had more or less decided that it would not make a serious effort to boycott the Assembly polls in October. But the polls, postponed to December, were held literally under the barrel of the gun, with a unified boycott call by the separatists and curfews in all areas not going to the polls. All separatists issued boycott calls and these were uniformly heeded in the urban areas. The sole beneficiary of the boycott was the National Conference (NC), which won all the urban seats in the Valley and thereby staked a successful claim to form the government.

Today, history is about to repeat itself. The 2014 General Election has clearly demonstrated that if the polls are peaceful, the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will sweep the Valley. Kashmir will once again have a government of its choice even if, for many, it will be a second-best choice. And over the next term, this could put not only the separatists, but also the NC out of business.

For all of these disparate groups, the only hope of staying politically relevant lies in turning this year’s Assembly polls into another crisis election held under the barrels of Indian guns. That crisis has been quietly and systematically fomented for the past two years. On 19 May, barely three days after the PDP’s sweeping victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the extreme separatist elements that were fomenting the crisis have lit the fuse. The bomb is set to explode on 25 May.

The bomb is buried in Tosa Maidan, a high-altitude bowl of land not far from Gulmarg, in the higher reaches of the Pir Panjal in southern Kashmir, which has been an army and air force firing range for the past 62 years. The army had leased the land in and around the firing range and the lease has been renewed every 10 years for the past more than five decades. The latest lease was to expire on 18 April, but last year, as New Delhi continued to trumpet that militancy in Kashmir had ended, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and the army’s continued occupation of large tracts of land in the Valley came under increasing criticism, a Tosa Maidan Bachao Front (TBF) came into being, which began to campaign relentlessly for the termination of the lease.

In March, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah succumbed to the agitation and announced that his government would not renew the lease. Quoting NGOs and RTI activists, he said that 63 people had been killed by unexploded shells and shell fragments over the past 62 years. The lease duly expired on 18 April. Since then, the army has not used the range, but nor has it withdrawn from the area.

This has turned the Tosa Maidan issue into a time bomb. The fuse got lit on 19 May when two children, Simran Riyaz and Fayaz Ahmad Parray, allegedly found an unexploded shell that had been swept down to Drang village in a stream that flowed down from the firing range, and stepped on it when it exploded. Simran was killed in the incident. For the TBF, this was one death too many. It has, therefore, given the army time until 25 May to withdraw from the firing range, before it begins a Valley-wide agitation.

The army has expressed its willingness to move to another suitable area if the Union government so decides. In the meantime, it has stopped all firing practice on the range. The last test firing took place last October. It is also exploring ways of meeting at least some of the villagers’ demands. But the TBF knows perfectly well that no army will allow itself to be chased out in this way, and that no government will succumb to such peremptory demands. Thus, if it carries out its threat, blood will flow. That may suit its purpose. It may even, as a bonus, create conditions more conducive for the NC’s return. But for ordinary Kashmiris, it will mean a return to the dark days of curfews and killings.

Before they are dragged back to the 1990s, therefore, Kashmiris would do well to acquaint themselves with what really happened on 19 May. The Kashmiri newspaper reports were virtually unanimous. According to Greater Kashmir: “Police said 12-year-old Simran Riyaz died on the spot, while her 5-year-old brother Fayaz Ahmad Parray lost both his legs when they walked over a littered shell in Drang, Parraypora area around Tosa Maidan… ‘The kids were returning from the school when the explosion took place at around 1.40 pm,” a senior police officer said. ‘The boy is undergoing treatment at B&J Hospital at Barzulla. The shell had drifted via Suresh nullah passing through the area’.”

The Kashmir Times published the ultimatum that the TBF issued to the state government without comment: “Killing of a minor and critically injuring two minors of the same family near the Drang area of Tosa Maidan by littered explosive is the worst example of brutality and barbarism… The army has been given a licence to kill and is on a mission of killing spree, especially the youth, in order to sustain their illegal occupation of Tosa Maidan. They are continuing bloodbath in Tosa Maidan to suppress the sentiment and they have crossed all the possible patience we could stand with… Tosa Maidan Bachao Front has no other option but to initiate an uprising against the illegal occupation of Tosa Maidan if the lease cancellation order is not issued.”

On hearing about the accident, the army sent a fact-finding mission to Parraypora. Its findings were as follows: “The explosion took place not in a rubble- strewn open area on, or near, the path back from the school but inside the Parray home, midway along the base of a wall of the room. The explosion was small — far too small to be of an artillery shell, for all it did was to make a small, blackened crater at the base of the wall. The smallest artillery shell would have demolished not only the wall, but the entire house. A cotton razai (duvet), which was lying on the floor with one corner only six inches away from the blackened cavity, was completely undamaged, but a large bloodstain, almost a foot across, upon it about two feet from the cavity showed where one of the children had been injured and possibly died. As the amateur picture shows, it appears that a small explosive, possibly a grenade, exploded at the base of the wall, probably in a niche below the floor level. The explosion sprayed upwards, thereby missing the edge of the razai, but not the children a few feet away.”

The army claims it was told by members of the household that the explosive had been kept in a gunny sack, and was trying to recover fragments that may have escaped destruction. It also claimed that about four days before the fatal accident, the local police and Rashtriya Rifles had conducted a search of the house for weapons or explosives, but apparently found nothing. While these claims would need further verification, the fictitiousness of the TBF’s version of events is patently, even ludicrously apparent.

The Parray home is nowhere near the Suresh nullah, but separated from it by two low ridges. For the stream to have carried an unexploded shell to the neighbourhood of the Parray homestead, it would have had to roll it uphill not once, but twice. The injured boy, Fayaz, was taken to a local hospital, but in the dead of night, the parents, fearing that he would die there, contacted the nearest army post and asked for him to be taken to the base hospital. Knowing fully well the danger of being accused of having caused his death if he could not be saved, the colonel concerned nevertheless ordered that he be admitted to the base hospital in the Badami Bagh cantonment in Srinagar. The boy lost a limb but is now out of danger.

What followed the explosion typifies the way in which narratives are being fabricated in Kashmir. Within hours of the explosion, Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, a leading RTI activist and the head of the TBF, arrived in Parraypora and tried to organise a protest against the army. The villagers told him they would have none of it. Undeterred, Sheikh moved to another location near the local school but, according to the reports the army got, no sooner had he started than the headmaster asked him to stop and stay away from the students. None of this was reflected in the press statement that he sent out later in the day. And no newspaper in Srinagar even thought of questioning it.

Scepticism is the lifeblood of journalism. It is the duty of the media to question, verify and, when necessary, refute. But in Kashmir, this has become an increasingly dangerous pursuit. The uniform reportage of virtually any militant claim and the near complete absence of dissenting voices reflect, for the greater part, the deepening alienation of educated Kashmiri youth from an India they are now convinced will never give them respect, equality and trust. But, it is increasingly backed by threat and intimidation.

I got a glimpse of how the intimidation worked on a visit to Tosa Maidan in April. The army had arranged the visit in the hope that someone would report its side of the story. However, my purpose was also to assess the long-term effect that the half-century existence of the firing range had had on the development of the area. It did not take long to see that this was a genuine local tragedy that had been seized upon by Kashmiri nationalists as one more stick with which to drive at least the army, if not the Indian State, out of Kashmir.

Tosa Maidan is a high plateau, more like a vast bowl, cradled between two high ridges of the Pir Panjal range. At a height of 2,500-4,500 metres, its lower reaches are forested with vast stands of fir and spruce interspersed with emerald green meadows to which villagers take their cattle for grazing in summer. Its higher reaches are well above the tree line, rocky and barren, with patches of sparse, thin grass. The safety zone of the firing range covers 11,200 hectares of forest land, but the actual impact zone, where the artillery shells fall, is a sixth of this, 1,809 hectares, and all of it is at an average height of 4,000 m.

The area was chosen in 1962, partly because, with the population of Kashmir a quarter of what it is now, the plateau was not used even by the villagers, but also because it lay across the Line of Control (LoC) between Gulmarg and Poonch, at the end of the strategic Haji Pir bulge held by Pakistan. It was, therefore, the easiest infiltration route from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) into south Kashmir.

Because of the heavy snow cover in winter, the army uses the range for only five-six months a year. The gun emplacements are at a minimum of 500 m from the nearest homes. In order not to disturb the villagers, there are no firing exercises in the night. During each exercise, the army mans observation posts above the impact area to record the accuracy of fire. These posts also record the shells that do not explode and send in specialised units to explode or defuse and recover them.

There is army aplenty along the LoC in Gulmarg and Poonch, but neither area has seen an agitation to force it out. What has made Tosa Maidan different? The answer is that in Poonch and Gulmarg, where the army was present in strength, it has created a large number of permanent or seasonal, assured jobs for the local people. To them, therefore, the army’s presence means economic security. To this is added the ready availability of medical and other forms of help at moments of crisis. A symbiotic relationship has, therefore, developed between the army and the local people.

But Tosa Maidan is not a regular army base. Instead of divisions of soldiers, it has a handful of companies (100-110 men each) that secure and maintain the gun emplacement sites and observation posts. The artillery units come and go and are largely self-sufficient. So, the army has created very few jobs in the villages surrounding the range. The symbiosis that exists in the border region beyond Uri, and in the mountains above Baramula does not, therefore, exist here.

My first impression of Drang, the highest village on the edge of the field firing area, was not only of great poverty, but an overwhelming feeling of insecurity, bordering on despair. On the road up to it, one did not encounter a single sign of a development project. All along the road were groups of young men, sitting, talking, occasionally drinking tea, with no work to do. Kashmir may not have the crushing poverty of the tribal areas of the ‘red belt’ in central India. But it is being crushed by the absence of hope. The young men here have no future, and they know it. They remain perforce in their families’ crowded homes, unable to move out, unable to plan a future. When they eventually get married, the pressure on them redoubles.

On the plain above Drang, at the edge of the firing range, I got a glimpse of how many of them eke out a living. While talking to a well-dressed older person, who spoke with passion about the deaths caused by unexploded artillery shells, I saw, in a single hour, 20 ponies coming down towards the village from the forested upper reaches of the firing range. Each had two four-foot quarters of a tree trunk loaded on its two sides. For want of other work, timber smuggling has become the main source of income for the youth in the Tosa Maidan area. Adding up the loads on the ponies, I calculated that at least one, possibly two fully-grown, spruce or fir trees had been felled to make up the load. And this was one hour’s loot in one of the 24 villages that surround the firing range.

It was when I tried to obtain some concrete evidence from him of the civilian casualties caused by unexploded shells that I got my first whiff of the intimidation that makes the villagers all tell the same stories. He pointed to a youth standing beside him and said, “He picked up a shell that exploded and was burned all down his chest and stomach.” The young man obediently pulled up his sweatshirt to show me the scars — ugly red marks that spread upwards from his stomach.

But half-an-hour later, as I walked over to talk to the smugglers, he followed me and told me that he had actually received the scars as a child when, while sitting in front of a fire, he had been pushed into it by another child. “I did not wish to disagree with my elder in front of him, but I want you to know what really happened,” he said.

The homogenisation of narrative through intimidation became more apparent at Drang, where I spoke to a group of 30-40 villagers, including some of the local leaders of the TBF. This surfaced when I asked them for some evidence, in fact, any evidence, which would explain how CM Omar had obtained the figure of 63 civilian deaths in 62 years. The question had been nagging me. One TBF leader immediately signalled a young man to show me what had happened to him. He moved his arms and I saw that one of them was a stump, cut off just below the shoulder joint. He then pulled up his trouser leg and showed me a deep foot-long sutured scar where, possibly one of the leg bones had had to be removed or replaced.

“When he was a child,” his mentor told me, “he picked up a shell and it exploded in his hands.” Knowing the awesome destructive power of even small artillery shells, I asked him, “How big was it?” “About so big,” he said, marking a space of about 25×15 cm with his hand. In utter incredulity I asked him, “Then, how are you alive?” “It was god’s will,” came the prompt response from his mentor. “How can I tell you why he survived?” When I attempted to explain to him that what the boy had described was a shell from a medium-sized gun, but that even these would kill everything within about a 10-m radius, the mood at the meeting began to turn ugly.

“You want proof?” the mentor asked. “You don’t believe us, and come here to poke holes into what we say. Well, I will show you proof. Just give me 10 minutes.” He dispatched another young man to fetch it, but as the time stretched from 10 minutes to 30, my army escort urged me to leave. The mentor, however, was outraged: “We waited one-and-a-half hours for you and had no lunch, and you cannot wait another 10 minutes?” I overrode my escort, passed biscuits around to the villagers and waited. The boy eventually returned with three colour photos of girls who had been blown up by a bomb or shell. This, he said, had happened at Shunglipora, the village below Drang. The pictures were awful: violent death suddenly became very real. But they were old, faded chemical prints from colour negative film. It was impossible to tell from them when the girls had died and what had killed them. But I decided not to pursue the issue of proof any further. For the mood had darkened and the looks we were receiving had become hostile.

Some of the villagers urged us to leave as soon as possible because the TBF leaders had called up RTI activists, who were on their way to “join” our meeting, and phoned their cohorts in the next three villages on the road back to Badgam to give us a warm welcome as we passed through. They were particularly suspicious of “outsiders” from other villagers, whom they suspected to be informers. Some were overheard debating whether or not to keep them in Drang “permanently”. Others decided, however, to alert the press to an impending “incident”.

When we entered our Tata Sumo, the “outsiders” forced their way in, begging my escort not to leave them behind. After a hurried phone call, and a tense 10 minutes ended by the arrival of a second Sumo with four Rashtriya Rifles soldiers in it, we left for Badgam. The next three villages were utterly deserted. A tense silence prevailed as we drove slowly through. There was not even a dog on the roadside. Only at the fourth, when we saw two women talking to each other as they filled their pitchers at a water tap, did we begin to feel safe once again.

The two-hour-long meeting with the TBF and the villagers was not, however, all confrontation. Even as the public harangue went on, the sarpanch of Drang and a founder member of the TBF, who were sitting on either side of me, told me repeatedly that they did not want the army to leave the area. On the contrary, they would welcome a greater presence because it would create more jobs and greater economic security. “The ghodawallas will have regular work and will no longer need to smuggle timber,” the sarpanch said. “But please get the firing range shifted, just a little. On one side of us, Gulmarg has developed as a tourism centre and its people are prosperous. On the other side is Yussamarg, which is being developed as a second centre. We have everything they have, but have been left behind.” When I asked why, he said, “It is the gunfire. No one wants to go trekking in an area where guns are being fired.”

But like my conversation with the young man who had been pushed into a fire, this conversation too was held in a fierce whisper, under the cover of a fierce debate between the villagers and my army escort. That contrast, between public harangue and private entreaty, summed up the tragedy of Kashmir.

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