SRINAGAR: With just a day left to expiry of the Tosmaidan lease deed, hundreds of residents from central Kashmir’s Budgam district joined by civil society members staged a protest here on Wednesday demanding immediate relocation of the army firing range.
The protest called by Tosmaidan Bachao Front (TBF), the body spearheading the campaign against lease extension, and supported by the civil society group Kashmir Centre for Social and Developmental Studies (KCSDS) and other apolitical associations was held at the Press Enclave after the administration denied them permission to hold protest at the ‘Haqeeqate Kashmir’ (Municipal) Park here where the protest was initially scheduled to be held.
The protesters lifted on their shoulders the persons disabled by leftover explosives at the firing range. The demonstrations were followed with a harsh criticism leveled by civil society and TBF members at the state government and New Delhi.
“A large percentage of the total artillery firing ranges in India is located in Kashmir Valley. The government of India must explain the reason for it,” Shakeel Qalander of KCSDS told the gathering.
“It is disheartening to see the civil society of India maintain silence over Tosmaidan issue which has become a cause of worry for residents of Budgam. And not just them (Budgam residents), but entire Kashmir is facing consequences of the firing drills (at Tosmaidan),” Qalander added.
Describing Tosmaidan as a humanitarian issue, chairman KCSDS Prof Hameeda Nayeem said, the issue must be resolved on humanitarian grounds.“These people (residents of Budgam) are facing worst kind of human rights abuse,” she said.
Later, when the protesters tried to march towards the Gupkar residence of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, police swung into action and foiled the attempt by detaining members of KCSDS and TBF.
Several of TBF members including their chairman Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, and KCSDS members including Qalander and Mubeen Shah were detained near Regal Chowk.
While KCSDS members were set free immediately afterwards, the others were taken to Kothi Bagh police wherefrom they were released about an hour later.
Tosmaidan meadow has been serving as a firing range for the army since it was given on lease by the state government in 1964. The lease deed is ending on April 18 and, given that the army has already asked for an extension in the lease, the local population affected by the firing drills has been demanding relocation of the firing range.
The protests, rallies, and awareness programmes organised by the civil populace, under the banner of TBF, have gained intensity in past weeks. The civil society groups like KCSDS, trade fraternity, tourism players, and NGOs have now joined hands with TBF to further intensify the campaign. Besides, a Valley-wide shutdown was observed on April 12 on call of Hurriyat Conference (M) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to oppose any extension in lease.
The government has already constituted a committee to decide on the lease extension, but its final decision hasn’t come yet.
The Minister for Finance Abdul Rahim Rather had, however, stated on Tuesday that the government will not extend the lease.
But TBF has expressed doubt over the intensions behind Rather’s statement.
“We welcome the recent statement by the Finance Minister, but at the same time we will not accept anything until a formal order is passed by the government in this regard and the protests will continue,” TBF spokesperson Farooq Kathu said in a statement later in the evening.
“We smell that National Conference has started playing politics over this issue for its vote bank, which is totally unacceptable to the people who have gone through terrible times during last 50 years,” said Kathu, adding that government should come up with a written order on April 18 to prove its sincerity.
Meanwhile, TBF has called for a ‘black day’ on April 18, appealing people across the state to wear black ribbons and traders to hoist black flags on the day in protest against possible lease extension.
“We request all people of the state to observe April 18 as black day as the lease agreement is expiring on 18th of April which is black day for all Kashmiris particularly the people who live around Tosmaidan,” chairman TBF said in the statement, condemning the government for disallowing protest at the Municipal Park.
KCSDS has extended support to the ‘black day’ call.