Even as Pakistani troops continue to violate the ceasefire, the Indian Army is bracing up for another battle on the home front. Ahead of 2014 assembly elections, political parties in Jammu and Kashmir want the army to vacate all the 10 field firing ranges so that they can be developed as tourist destinations.
The army may lose its field firing ranges in J&K as their 50-year-lease period comes to an end by the end of next year. The state government seems to be in no mood to re-notify them as firing ranges. Notified field firing ranges are supposed to be re-notified from time to time by the respective state governments.
Over past two decades, the number of firing ranges has gone down to 50 from 104, which include 12 acquired and 38 notified ranges. Out of the 38 field firing ranges, 17 may face the threat of de-notification by the end of 2014. Ten of them are in Jammu and Kashmir. These ranges are Karbuthang (Kargil), Tosha Maidan (Srinagar), Tartar (Leh), Rajauri, Mahe (Leh), Kullun (Jammu), Kalith (Udhampur), Jhalas, Chorkhund (Poonch) and Garhi (Naushera).
One of the ten ranges, the problem is more acute with the 400-acre Tosha Maidan located at the foothills of Pir Panjal range. Defence officials told dna that Tosha Maidan (Tosha means gift) is the range where big guns can be tested. Its lease expires in July 2014 and the locals are opposing the extension of the lease. The state revenue authorities have also unofficially conveyed to the Army that their political bosses were in no mood to extend the lease. The state government wants to covert this huge meadow into a tourist resort due to its proximity to Gulmarg.
But, in Delhi, army is making all efforts to retain the ranges. “Tosha Maidan is only field firing range in the Valley where artillery fire can be opened. If it closes the other option is the firing range in far flung district of Leh or Jammu,” said a senior army officer.
Making it political issue, Congress has said that the lease should not be renewed. Addressing a public meeting in Shunglipora of Khag, state Congress chief Saif-u-Din Soz recently said he would take up issue with Congress high command. “I assure you that lease (of all the firing ranges) would not be extended, but you people have to make our candidate Nazir Ahmed Khan successful during the elections. Congress is the only party which has access to power corridors in New Delhi,” he said.
Sitting MLA and opposition PDP leader Mohammad Shafi Wani has threatened a ‘satyagraha’ if the lease is renewed.
Mustafa Kamal, National Conference leader and brother of Union minister Farooq Abdullah said that the issue of firing ranges, especially the Tosha Maidan, was becoming another irritant between the ruling party and the Army after differences on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.