In Kashmir, an imperilled zone of peace
At the entrance to Tosamaidan, in Budgaon district of Kashmir
Tosamaidan, a high-altitude pastureland in Kashmir’s Budgam district that was until recently the site of a firing range of the Indian Army and a virtual death trap for civilians, is today a symbol of community-driven sustainable living.
On a flight to Srinagar in late June, we witnessed the dazzling spectacle of snow-encrusted Himalayan peaks giving way to the beautiful wide valleys of Kashmir. As we landed, it started raining. Stepping out of the airport after the rain eased, a sense of siege became apparent. There was an eerie normalcy to the check posts encircled by barbed wire and trucks with machine guns on their turrets on the road leading to Srinagar. Of course, we were aware that there was nothing normal about the presence of “security” forces in the Kashmir Valley; and the events since then have made this even more apparent. It has been three months or so, but the warmth of Kashmiri hospitality and the inspiration of visiting Tosamaidan, a remarkable zone of ecological peace, already seems like a distant dream.
The Sukhnag river snakes through the panoramic Tosamaidan landscape
Few other places in India come close to Kashmir’s extreme contradictions. It is home to one of the most astounding landscapes, and an ancient civilisation known for its mehmaannawazi (hospitality) and culture and knowledge. It has also been an intense “conflict zone” since Partition, with a majority of peace-loving people caught between the senseless warring of two nation states. Will the voice of the Kashmiri, who wants only to get on with a normal life of dignity, be drowned out even more now with the revoking of the State’s special status under Articles 370 and 35(A) of the Constitution?
Flocks of sheep graze in the grassland
This, however, is the story of a remarkable initiative at creating a zone of peace, ecological sensitivity and dignified livelihoods. Of course, this story has a bearing on the state of conflict, and vice versa, so it is worth reminding ourselves of this context.
Caught in “friendly” fire
In August 2018, 22-year-old Wajid Bashir, from Zugu-Kharein village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, set out to attend a meadow festival in Tosamaidan, a series of high-altitude grasslands above his village. He never returned. An unexploded shell lying in the meadow, which he accidentally came in contact with, triggered a blast. While Wajid died, another boy, Waseem Majieed, lost one leg. We met Waseem, and Wajid’s brother Rameez Bashir. Their simple question to us was: what did we do to deserve such a fate?
These unlucky boys are amongst hundreds of people who have been affected over the last few decades by an Army firing range in the Tosamaidan landscape. These high-altitude alpine meadows, well above 3,000 metres, are set amidst the Pir Panjal range of the Himalaya, in Khag tehsil of Budgam district. Bounded by dense forests and snow-capped peaks, with silvery rivers snaking through them, the meadows are home to diverse wildlife, and are crucial pastures for the livestock of villages at the base of the mountains. Legend has it that Emperor Jehangir once visited this spot, intending to set up his signature Mughal gardens, but found the meadows so exquisite that he realised he could do nothing to enhance their beauty. It is said that he exclaimed “tu shahe maidan”, which later transformed into the name it is now known by.
In 1964, the Jammu and Kashmir government signed a lease allowing the Army to use the meadows as a firing range, and to conduct artillery drills. Neither were the local people consulted, nor were adequate warnings issued about the possible threats. What followed was huge environmental and human damage. Until the 1980s, only small weapons were used, but later the Army began using bigger weapons such as the Bofors guns. People recall that air bombing started around 1987-88.
Tosamaidan, the largest set of pastures in the area, three miles in length and 1.5 miles in width, is made up of three meadows: Pathra, Guttemarg and Badshamarg. Several rivers, which thousands of people in three districts downstream depend on, originate either here or in the neighbouring meadows. Many pastoral and farming communities, including the Gujjars, the Bakarwals, the Pohls, the Paharis and the Kashmiris, depend substantially on the meadows for their livelihoods and survival. Hundreds of families move with thousands of livestock into the area in summer and spend three or four months there before returning to their villages in the foothills.
The huts of pastoralists
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, passed by Parliament, received the President’s assent on August 2019. It resonstitutes the State into the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir, and takes effect on October 31, 2019
Bakerwal pastoralists moving into Tosamaidan
Rameez Bashir in the meadow where he lost his brother Wajid to an explosion
Over the last few decades, however, this annual exercise has been fraught with risk. Official records show that 67 people have been killed either due to misfired shells or because they came into contact with unexploded shells littering the meadows. There is no record of how many sheep, goats, or cattle have perished. There has been no compensation for these losses. For decades, people’s complaints were hushed up, no media carried the news, and entire communities lived in perpetual fear. Several village residents told us that they could not sleep at night when the military exercises were under way, owing to the loud noise. They were even fearful of sending their children to school.
Mohammad Maqbool, a retired schoolteacher from Chilbrass village, said: “When people complained, police never filed an FIR except once in 2013. A 12-year-old girl and her brother picked up an unexploded shell while playing, mistaking it to be a ball. They were both killed, and this incident riled the people. Ten thousand people gathered at Lal Chowk.” Maqboolsaab was a key figure in the formation of the Tosamaidan Bachao Front (TBF) in 2013, which led a peaceful movement against the firing range. “I was elected as a sarpanch and all I wanted to ask for was basic constitutional rights, the right to live peacefully. Is it too much to ask?” adds Maqboolsaab, serving us the ubiquitous nun chai (salt tea) in a room in his house where the TBF was born.
This question poignantly underlines the story of Zainab bi, as told to us at her makeshift hut in Srinagar. She recounted the day, 20 years ago, when her husband Babu Kataria had gone out with their livestock to the other side of the river they were camping at. She heard a loud explosion, and when she and others of the community rushed there, they found three people, including Babu, lying dead, killed apparently by an unattended shell that went off. “I went to the thana to file an FIR, but they refused to take it, instead they threatened to file a reverse FIR for incursion into the firing range.” Zainab bi got Rs.75,000 compensation. She pointed out that Amarnath yatra victims get Rs.12 lakh. Why the discrimination?
Zainab bi lost her husband to a stray shell explosion
Initially, people were scared to raise their voices against the Army. Slowly, the TBF infused confidence in local people. Dr Ghulam Rasool Shaikh, a government medical practitioner posted to Shunglipura village around 2008, played a crucial role in bringing about this change. Shaikh noticed that every third woman he treated was a widow, a shockingly high figure. On enquiry he found that many had lost their husbands to explosions. He also saw the forests in the area being recklessly cleared.
A hillside near Tosamaidan deforested by the Indian Army
Being an environment enthusiast, Shaikh enquired with some active community members, who told him that this deforestation was partly owing to Army operations to remove cover that “terrorists” might use, and partly by community members as they had no other source of livelihood.
Mohammad (‘Master’) Maqbool and Shaikh Ghulam Rasool
No further information on the matter was available publicly. To understand the situation better, Shaikh filed right to information (RTI) applications. Inspired by him, a local youth, Nazir Lone, then conducting a business renting out tents, also filed multiple applications (from Tent Nazir he is now known as “RTI” Nazir). Between them, they covered all relevant government departments in order to get information on casualties and injuries owing to the firing range, the ammunition used, the contamination of water, and the authority responsible for giving the lease. A response from the Forest Department mentioned that the lease was renewed every 10 years, and not every 90 years as was locally believed. The next renewal was due in 2014. This brought a ray of hope among local activists who saw in it the opportunity to mobilise people to seek the cessation of the firing range exercises.
Nazir Lone (‘RTI Nazir’)
Village-level meetings were organised in all the 60-odd villages situated at the base of, and dependent on, the Tosamaidan landscape. Awareness about the issue was raised in other ways too. For instance, Maulvi Maqbool of Zugu-Kharein village would talk about it after the evening namaz. “It was important for people to realise why conserving Tosamaidan was crucial, and that they could also do something about it,” said the Maulvi, as he fed us a delicious meal at his house. Meanwhile, Shaikh had resigned from his job, and become involved almost full time in mobilisation and RTI activism.
Members of the TBF and the School for Rural Development and Environment undertake ecological restoration.
As we sat at the TBF office along with a dozen youths, Shaikh said that all the villages had taken an oath called the Halafbardari, “committing to work towards saving Tosamaidan, peacefully and beyond their respective self-interest, keeping party politics away”. “From Khag to Ringrabal, we mobilised people; a number of peaceful protests were organised here and in Srinagar and no incident of violence was ever reported,” said the Maulvi with pride. Shaikh added:“Even the Police Commissioner of Srinagar appreciated our self-discipline.”
Youths of the TBF at a get-together
Tosamaidan Bachao Front members in the high-altitude landscape
A number of consultations were organised with the Jammu and Kashmir government as well. The then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah understood the plight of the people, and promised to look into the matter. Meanwhile many of the activists received threats, both directly and in a veiled manner, but they stood firm. They were rewarded when, in 2014, the government decided not to renew the firing range lease.
A Bakerwal boy herding sheep
It has been six years since the TBF was formed. Its aim was achieved in 2014, but it decided to carry on envisioning how the landscape should be restored and conserved, how it could become a source of sustainable local livelihoods, especially for young people, and how it could be an inspiration for working towards peace. An annual Jashn-e-Tosa festival is held to celebrate the liberation of Tosamaidan and bring together residents of all the villages and sympathetic outsiders.
Along with the School for Rural Development and Environment (SRDE), a group set up by Shaikh, the TBF has come up with a plan for community-driven adventure and rural eco-tourism and has been training local youths as nature guides. In the process the attempt is that people stay connected to their cultures, conserve Tosamaidan’s ecosystems and biodiversity, generate local livelihoods, and provide a meaningful experience for visitors. In particular, they are keen that tourism to the area is not of the destructive form that has engulfed Kashmir’s other destinations. Meanwhile the State government has set up the Tosamaidan Development Authority (TDA), with the objective of “developing” the area keeping in mind its ecological and cultural attributes. Around Rs.40 crore has been sanctioned by the government for the area. The CEO of TDA, Haneef Balki, said that he preferred local people, with help from experts like Shaikh, to draw up the plan for utilising this money.
An upland buzzard in flight
As we plan to leave after a week’s stay in Tosamaidan and Srinagar, Maulvi Maqbool’s words ring in my ears: “The Army officials told me that we are trying to protect you, why are you resisting? I told them that you are right, it is your duty to do what you can to protect us, but how can you do this by killing us? This is not right. How can protectors be killers?”
First published by Frontline on 8 Nov. 2019