The communities around Tosa Maidan paid a deadly price because the Indian Army chose to practice artillery drills there. Now, another meadow in Kashmir could face a similar fate.
“I could see nothing but blood,” said Parray, a towering, elderly man. “It was everywhere. On the staircase, the walls, and on the floor."
He saw his seven-year-old granddaughter, Simran, lying dead in a pool of blood on the stairs leading up to the porch. Next to her was her brother Fayaz. He was alive, but both his legs were missing. He was screaming.
Simran Parray, like dozens of other villagers in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was killed by a shell. Her village, Shunglipora, skirts a 3,000-acre meadow called Tosa Maidan that is as stunning as it is deadly. Its tall, wild grass is littered with hundreds of shells discharged during 50 years of artillery drills by the Indian Army. These unexploded shells are like ticking bombs: they can blow up at any time, especially when they come in contact with external force.
This — the fatal toll of the army’s firing drills — is the subject of a petition that is up for a hearing at the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi on Tuesday. The army vacated Tosa Maidan in 2014, but it’s seeking a new spot for lease: another meadow called Bajpathri, also surrounded by tiny villages.
Locals, environmentalists and humans rights groups are opposed to the army leasing land so close to villages for firing drills. “The unexploded shells have been a regular threat to the habitat of the area, and have caused death and injuries to many locals,” said the petitioner, Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an RTI activist and local politician.
Apart from asking for Tosa Maidan to be cleared of all shells, the petition also requests the tribunal to stay the army’s notification of Bajpathri as the next test firing range. If not, Bajpathri would become another “meadow of death and destruction,” the petition said.
The shells have killed at least 65 people, and maimed nearly 50 more, in Shunglipora and neighboring villages, according to official figures. The army issued a statement in 2015 that said the meadow had been “sanitized.” But, according to Bhat, the task remains incomplete.
“There are still hundreds of shells in the meadow," he said.
In 1964, the Indian Army leased land on a hill in Tosa Maidan for artillery drills. For the next 50 years, villagers said, the meadow reverberated with the sound of explosives every year between May and October.
When the army launched rockets, grenades and mortar shells from one end of the hill to the other, unexploded shells scattered across the meadow, and stayed there.
Most of the deaths occurred in the meadow itself — local villagers are shepherds or woodcutters, who use the meadow for grazing or gathering firewood. But over the years, rains, landslides and streams have carried shells down to the villages, putting even more local people at risk.
When Simran Parray and her brother, Fayaz, found a white flour sack outside their house, they didn’t realize there was a shell inside. They started playing with it. Moments later, it exploded.
“This is the place, where Simran died,” said Raja Rameez, Simran’s 18-year-old cousin. “Blood had streaked onto the tin roof and her body pieces were scattered all around.”
When Rameez got the phone call telling him Simran had died, he knew it was a shell that had killed her. He would later find out that Simran’s brother and father stumbled across the yard searching for her missing feet.
“Blood had streaked onto the tin roof and her body pieces were scattered all around.”
Shunglipora, its residents will tell you, is “cursed.” The village has lost too many people to the shells lying scattered in Tosa Maidan. Wali Mohammad, a big, burly 35-year-old woodcutter, died when a shell exploded under his foot while he was climbing a hill. His wife never saw him after that because the villagers couldn’t recover his whole body. Ali Khan, 31, died after stepping over a shell. Thirty-five-year-old Farooq Ahmed was playing with a shell in his yard when the blast ripped off his right arm. He was ten years old at the time. His friend, Bilal Khan, lost a leg the same year when he kicked a shell. He thought it was a cricket ball.
Those who are alive tell stories of the dead, and many bear the scars of their own close encounter with dying — burnt flesh and puckered skin. The traditional billowing pheran that Kashmiris wear serves a more ghoulish purpose here: its folds often hide missing fingers and limbs.
“For 50 years the army used our land, killed our people, and destroyed our forests,” said Hameed Malik, Shunglipora’s village head.
In April 2014, the lease on which the army used the meadow expired. In December 2015, the Jammu & Kashmir Government led by the People’s Democratic Party agreed to “expeditiously examine” the army’s demand for notifying Bajpathri as a test firing range. But several people, including the National Conference Party and The Save Yusmarg Movement, voiced concern that the firing range was a threat to the villages around Bajpathri.
In Yusmarg, a tourist destination a couple of miles from Bajpathri, locals believe that leasing the area to The army will not only risk their lives, but also the environment.
“We have read about Tosa Maidan in the newspapers and we know what has happened there,” said Ghulam Mohammad, who lives in a village close to Bajpathri. “We don’t want to meet the same fate.”
Three major rivers — Doodhganga, Shalinag and Sukhnag — pass through Bajpathri. Local advocacy groups such as the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies (KCSDS) are concerned that chemicals from the shells — lead, sulphur, depleted uranium and others — will seep into the water bodies, which are also a source of drinking water for the nearby villages.
“It would be biggest the environmental challenge faced by Kashmir in the recent times,” said Mushtaq Ahmed, a retired engineer.
“We have read about Tosa Maidan in the newspapers and we know what has happened there”
“The army needs a firing range to practice,” said defence spokesperson Colonel N N Joshi. “We need it for our training and we were looking for alternatives and Bajpathri is one.”
The army did not respond to questions regarding civilian casualties or environmental concerns in areas leased for artillery drills. Nor could it explain why it needs to practice these drills so close to villages.
“It is ridiculous if (the) army sets up one more practice range near a civilian area,” said Rahul Bedi, a defense expert who writes for the UK’s James Defense Weekly. While observing that the practise range is “necessary for the troops,” he said that the army "should look for other places.”
In Bajpathri, people want to know how the government expects them to live in a state of perpetual dread, wondering if they or their children will die.
Twenty five years ago, Muhammad Abdullah Sheikh allowed his sons, seven and nine years old, and his 13-year-old nephew to take his cattle to Tosa Maidan to graze.
“Do you see that snow clad mountain range?” asked Sheikh while he pointed at the hills in Tosa Maidan.
“That’s where they died. All of them.”
Web Producer: Sheikh Saaliq
Video: Qazi Zaid