SRINAGAR: Ahead of the parliamentary elections, much-demanded relocation of the Indian Army’s firing range from Tosmaidan meadow in central Kashmir’s Budgam district to elsewhere is becoming an election-maneuver for pro-India politicians who usually concentrate their poll campaigns on issues like bijli, sadak, and pani.
The 1964 lease deed between Army and the state government allowing use of 11,200 hectare picturesque meadow as an artillery training range is ending next month. And the uncertainty maintained by the government vis-à-vis extension of the lease has fuelled the protest campaign from the residents of Budgam.
However, the issue is now appearing frequently in the speeches and statements issued by various political parties contesting Lok Sabha polls, including the ruling National Conference (NC). They are openly opposing the possible lease extension and promising to meet the public’s demand for relocation of the firing range.
Since the beginning of the agitation over Tosmaidan, the main opposition party People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been siding with the civilians opposing the possible extension of the lease.
“Tosmaidan highland has tremendous tourism potential and the fact needs to be considered by taking a decision on the subject,” PDP president Mehbooba Mufti had said in one of her statements late last year. “I had taken up the issue of extension of lease of Tosmaidan and other related matters a few months back with Defence Minister A K Antony who expressed the hope that the whole issue will be sorted out amicably without allowing it to develop into a confrontation.”
Ironically, it was PDP which had refortified Tosmaidan as a firing range in 2004 when it was ruling the state in alliance with Congress.
In the initial days of the agitation, PDP had attempted to stage rallies in Budgam focusing only on Tosmaidan issue. “A local PDP member staged a rally in Khaag area of Budgam, and the rally was all about Tosmaidan issue. It happened early on when we had only started our agitation, but they felt discouraged later,” Nazir Ahmad, a member of Tosmaidan Bachao Front (TBF), told Kashmir Reader.
Now, it is the ruling NC speaking about Tosmaidan just when the elections are round the corner. In its statement released on Monday, NC’s provincial president Nasir Wani said the party supports the demand for closure of Tosmaidan firing range and opposes extension of the land lease in favor of the Army.
“We urge the state government to take up the matter with the authorities concerned so that the issue is resolved in the public interest,” Wani said. “Tosmaidan and Drang possess enormous tourism potential and these should be developed as exclusive tourist destinations.”
The NC statement had evoked response from the TBF. “If NC is really serious, it shall come up with an order of lease cancellation because the present government belongs to the party,” Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool of TBF told Kashmir Reader.
Rasool, who heads a crucial component of TBF–J&K RTI Movement, admitted that the issue is being used for gaining political mileage ahead of elections.
“However, we have been discouraging it. Only a handful of people have been attending the rallies held anywhere in Budgam. Consequently, less rallies are being held in the district these days,” he added.
The agitating civilians have already threatened to boycott the upcoming parliamentary polls even as dozens of panchayat members have threatened to resign if the lease is extended.