A firing range in a pristine Himalayan meadow finally shuts down after 40 years due to a community movement
In the beginning was a meadow, an open grassy expanse surrounded by snow-tipped peaks. Scattered around the lea were little settlements and villages whose inhabitants were mostly farmers and shepherds. Fruits, rice and maize were the main crops and the meadows had enough fodder for grazing cattle. That was Tosh Maidan before the 200-acre land was leased by the Jammu and Kashmir state government to the Indian Army to use as a firing range in 1964. Since then, unexploded shells, weapons discharges and bombs have taken the lives of many while physically disabling hundreds.
By some accounts — including the Guinness Book of World Record’s Kashmir has the dubious distinction of being one of the most militarised zones in the world. The region has seen widespread allegations of human rights violations from international organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. As recently as 2016, India denied UN envoys entry in the region to assess allegations of torture, extra-judicial killings, mass detention and enforced disappearances.
Since 1984, 65 people had been killed and over 150 disabled in the area due to the ‘practice’ that took place in Tosh Maidan. Community Correspondent Sajad Rasool visited the Tosh Maidan area in 2012 and made a video with the villagers about, allowing them for the first time to air their grievances about the destruction and danger caused by the firing range. He also filed a petition under the Right to Information Act asking the government to account for its actions that have endangered so many lives. This movement, which started with just four activists from the region, including Sajad himself, grew to include thousands as more and more aggrieved people joined in. Sajad raised awareness by sharing his video through WhatsApp and holding screenings in the region that made more people aware of the issue. The community also enlisted the Jammu and Kashmir ‘Right To Information Movement’. Thus was born the ‘Tosh Maidan Bachao Front’ (The Save Tosh Maidan Front).
Their relentless campaigning ensured that when the lease expired in April 2014, it was not renewed, and the firing range was shut down. .
Today the residents of Tosh Maidan are free to graze their cattle and roam freely without fear. In fact, it is one of the chief tourist attractions in Budgam district in Kashmir and has been declared as a nature preserve. The victory at Tosh Maidan offers immense hope to the beleaguered people of the valley who so rarely prevail in their struggles against the Indian state.
Article by Madhura Chakraborty