Kashmir, the Himalayan bone of contention between India and Pakistan, has been in the news of late, and for the wrong reasons. Unilaterally going back on an agreement that had enabled Kashmir to join the Indian Union, which guaranteed it autonomy on most matters and its own constitution, the Government of India has turned its back on dialogue as a powerful means of brokering peace. Kashmir (and the adjoining region of Jammu) have become a Union Territory, directly ruled from Delhi, with no state legislature that its citizens can elect. In this way both the Indian government with its militaristic presence and the non-state hardline Islamic actors (so-called ‘militants’) who have been responsible for several violent incidents, have ignored the potential of engaging a largely peace-loving population in working out lasting solutions, based on centuries of inter-faith co-existence that has characterised Kashmir.

In June this year, we were witness to this potential when we travelled to the Tosamaidan area of Budgam district of Kashmir. We were hosted by a remarkable movement that had recently, completely non-violently, freed a huge Himalayan landscape of devastation wrought by decades of operations by armed forces.

Tosamaidan is a landscape of high-altitude grassland-mountain ecosystems in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalaya. Rich in wildlife, and for centuries in use by pastoralists (including Gujjars and Bakarwals) who move through the area in summer, Tosamaidan is also the origin of rivers on which tens of thousands of people downstream depend. It is said that the Mughal emperor Jehangir on a visit, exclaimed “tu shahe maidan ast” (you are the king of pastures), one of several stories for the origin of its current name.

Unfortunately such a landscape is also ‘ideal’ for target practice by an army keen to hone its weapons and ammunition and bombing skills. In 1964, the Jammu and Kashmir state government leased the area to the army for use as a firing range. None of the local communities were asked (India’s democracy has always stopped short in such instances), and they were also not properly warned about potential dangers. The meadows were intensely bombed from the base of the hills, for decades.

The result was a string of human and ecological casualties. As we travelled in the area and met pastoralists, farmers, activists, social workers, priests, teachers, and others, we heard story after harrowing story. Parents who lost their children, youth who lost their brothers or sisters, men or women who lost their spouses, and families with maimed members, all victims of either misdirected firing or (more commonly) of unexploded (ready to burst) shells that they handled (some thinking it's a ball!) or stumbled upon. Official figures, accessed by activists using the state’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, record 67 ‘accidental’ deaths. There is no record of livestock that would have perished.

Residents recounted other impacts. One was constant fear, including of sending children to school as often the firing was early morning, and of taking livestock into the pastures because this was post-winter when the army also commenced its operations. Others included cracks in walls of houses, health impacts of heavy noise, visible impacts on domestic animals, and deforestation of the hills for army operations (including ostensibly to reduce cover for ‘militants’). At one point it was accidentally revealed by an army official that some of the ammunition being tested had uranium, so to add to all the fears was that of radiation in the water descending from Tosamaidan. In almost all instances including that of death, the local police refused to file complaints; indeed some people were threatened that they would be charged with trespass into army area if they persisted in wanting their complaint registered!

It was in this context that a crucial role was played by Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, a government medical practitioner posted to Tosamaidan area in 2008. As an avid nature-lover, Shaikh had noticed some of the deforestation and started enquiring about it. He was also startled when he realised that one or every three women he treated was a widow; he found that their husbands had been killed in explosions. On being stonewalled by the bureaucracy, he used the RTI Act to obtain information about various aspects of the army operations. He trained a resident, Nazir Lone, running a tent renting business, on how to file RTI applications. Together they unearthed information on casualties, water contamination, types of ammunition, and other aspects of the firing range operations.

It was in this process that they came across a surprising fact, that the lease for the range was renewed every 10 years; till then they had been told that it was for a 90-year period. It was due for renewal in 2014. They realised that if they could mobilise local people in sufficient numbers and with sufficient evidence, they may actually stand a chance of stopping the next renewal.

A number of influential local leaders and respected elders, like Maulvi Maqbool who would take the daily namaz, and teacher and once-Sarpanch (head of the panchayat) Mohammad Maqbool, had already been taking up the firing range issue in their own way. Shaikh joined them and others, and together they decided to launch a movement under the name of Tosamaidan Bachao Front (TBF). Then began a remarkable process of mobilization across 64 villages living at the base of and dependent on the Tosamaidan landscape.

Awareness about the issue was raised in multiple ways, other than the meetings; for instance Maulvi Maqbool would talk about it post the evening namaz. Islamic values of conserving nature and living in peace were invoked, as were more political messages of taking control of the landscape back into their own hands. As a highly symbolic action, all villages took an oath called the Halafbardari; Shaikh said this was a commitment “to work towards saving Tosamaidan, peacefully and beyond their respective self interest, keeping party politics away”. Demonstrations, always peaceful, were organised locally, as also in Srinagar. Government officials were met, all the way up to the Chief Minister. And finally, after years of neglect, the local media also gave TBF’s activities and demands wide coverage.

The local people’s resolve, and positive response from the public at large, helped TBF leaders survive the occasional targeting (including inducements for dropping the campaign, harassment and intimidation) by the armed forces. And it all paid off when, in 2014, the state government announced that the lease would not be renewed. The entire population celebrated with a Jashn-e-Tosamaidan, a huge celebration on the meadows, which has since then become an annual feature. Till this year, when it was rudely interrupted by the Indian Government’s unilateral decision on Kashmir’s legal status.

This decision has also put a big question mark on the ambitious plans of TBF and the local people, to regenerate damaged ecosystems, create local nature-based livelihoods, and showcase a zone of peace. After the 2014 victory, TBF and a new civil society group that emerged from the movement, the School for Rural Development and Environment, set about planning such a future. A Community Driven Adventure and Rural Eco-Tourism (CDART) plan was conceived after local consultations, focusing on locally driven, ecologically sensitive visitation, very different from what has happened in many of Kashmir’s over-run tourist destinations. A resolution was adopted by local panchayats to promote such an approach, and in 2016 the state government also accepted it. In 2017, an official Tosamaidan Development Authority (TDA) was established with the objective of ‘developing’ the area mindful of its ecological and cultural attributes. A budget of Rs. 40 crores (400 million) was approved for this; refreshingly, the head of the TDA told us that he would much rather spend this in the way that local people and SRDE proposed, rather than how ‘experts’ and bureaucrats sitting in Srinagar wanted to.

All this was in June 2019. But 5th August onwards, the future of Tosamaidan has become completely uncertain. What will Delhi’s perspective be, towards attempts at local self-determination by any set of communities in Kashmir? How will its appointed nominee who will now rule over Kashmir, with no accountability to citizens who have not elected him or her, view something like CDART? One can only hope that the peaceful resolve shown by the Tosamaidan movement will evoke the respect it deserves, and that local residents will be able to determine a sustainable, equitable future for themselves.

Article by Ashish Kothari and Shrishtee Bajpai. Shrishtee Bajpai is a member of Kalpavriksh, and helps to coordinate the national Vikalp Sangam process.