Tosmaidan: Devil in the Details

Some good news on Tosamaidan: The 50-year-lease allowing the army to use the 3000 acre meadow as an artillery range will end on April 18 and, according to Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rathar, is not be renewed. For scores of villages around the meadow, the lease has been half-a-century of suffering and loss. Hundreds have been killed and maimed by unexploded shells, many houses damaged, and locals have not been able to use the meadow for grazing their cattle and other activities integral to fragile rural economies and living. The lease may be ending, but there has been no statement about compensating the locals for their losses.

Now, news that is not good, because the devil lies in the details. First, the local population is unlikely to benefit from the huge meadow as Tosmaidan as it is going to be converted into a tourist spot. Nothing wrong in that, except that the meadow, actually pasture land not under the ownership of the local people, could be leased in parts to the rich elite for hotels and other centres of leisure and pleasure. So after the Army, the land will serve the interests of the moneyed class. But the silver lining here could be that the local initiative that agitated against the lease would prevent its further exploitation. Even if the tourism angle is to be explored, it has to be designed solely and genuinely around the wellbeing of the local people and their natural environment.

Another devil in the detail can be read clearly in parts of the Finance Minister’s statement: “After thorough deliberations, the state government has arrived at the conclusion that the lease period won’t be extended to the army any further and the chief secretary-led panel would identify an alternative site to relocate the firing range.”

If the army is to be given another site for its artillery range, it simply means another Tosmaidan: giving up land somewhere and grabbing it back somewhere else. Artillery training is a major military exercise and in Kashmir there is virtually no place where humans and their environment would remain safe from its effects. Why should there be such firing ranges in Kashmir when the army that occupies the land is already well-trained? Why destroy people’s lives and environment?  Creating another Tosmaidan makes no sense. On the contrary, it is sinister.

Years ago, the government wanted the army to give up the Tattoo Ground and provided vast lands at Shariefabad in exchange. The army grabbed Shariefabad, but did not leave the Tattoo Ground. The pro-occupation political culture in Kashmir has been quite generous in granted the army vast tracts of land so much so that the army is practically the single largest occupier of land in the Valley. Kashmiri politicians feel patriotic only when they initiate the dispossession of the local people by granting land to the Army and other forces, and even suggesting the “most suitable” sites.

Informed circles, however, believe that ending the Tosmaidan lease is a pre-arranged drama with the army. Though local people have every reason to celebrate and deserve to be commended for their struggle, the government has something else in mind.

Over the past months, much thought has gone into the whole affair. The claim that the chief secretary-led panel would identify an alternative site is misleading. Actually, the army has been demanding a vast stretch of land in the Gulmarg-Apharwat area. Already, 75 percent of Gulmarg is under the occupation of the army and it wants another huge tract that would remain out of sight of the common people. This tract could be much larger than Tosmaidan. Some meetings would be held to make it sound official, and then the declaration made that an alternative site has been identified. The truth is that the army has already “identified” the site, and is now poised to grab it.