Dissecting Prem Shankar Jha’s reportage on Tosa Maidan

A Kashmiri freelance journalist expresses his reservations about Mr Jha’s article on Tosa Maidan.

BySheikh Saaliq
Dissecting Prem Shankar Jha’s reportage on Tosa Maidan
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“Scepticism is the lifeblood of journalism. It is the duty of the media to question, verify and, when necessary, refute. But in Kashmir, this has become an increasingly dangerous pursuit”, writes Prem Shankar Jha in his article titled “Tosa Maidan – A Ticking Time Bomb In Kashmir”. The article was published in the web issue of Tehelka (later to be published in the upcoming print issue).

Agreed, scepticism is engendered when one reports sham, fabricates truth, quotes people but doesn’t name them, trivialises the issue with false juxtapositions and imagery, and of course, changes the whole “narrative”. So it happens in the case of Mr Jha’s “fictional appropriation of Tosa Maidan”. Scepticism is brought forth by Mr Jha’s treatment of an issue like that of Tosa Maidan, where thousands of people have been affected, with over 60 people losing their lives.

For readers who are unaware of what Tosa Maidan is, Mr Jha writes (too late in his article), “Tosa Maidan is a high plateau, more like a vast bowl, cradled between two high ridges of the Pir Panjal range. At a height of 2,500-4,500 metres, its lower reaches are forested with vast stands of fir and spruce interspersed with emerald green meadows to which villagers take their cattle for grazing in summer. Its higher reaches are well above the tree line, rocky and barren, with patches of sparse, thin grass. The safety zone of the firing range covers 11,200 hectares of forest land, but the actual impact zone, where the artillery shells fall, is a sixth of this, 1,809 hectares, and all of it is at an average height of 4,000 m”.

What he forgets to mention is, “For centuries, Tosa Maidan had served as grazing land for the villagers’ livestock. But, since 1964, from May to October every year, the meadow sees scenes of simulated warfare carried out by the army. During this period, the villages reverberate with the barrage of shelling and deafening explosions, forcing the villagers to stay indoors most of the time” – reported by a senior journalist of the same organisation in an article titled, “Kashmir village demands that Army range be shifted out of Tosa Maidan”.

I went to Tosa Maidan a day after Simran Parray, a 7-year-old girl, was torn apart by a “littered shell”  which the Indian Army uses during their firing sessions in Tosa Maidan. In the explosion, her brother, Fayaz, also lost his legs. The explosion happened outside the Parray house and not inside the room along the base of its wall, as mentioned by Mr Jha in his story. He attributes the statement to the fact-finding report of the Indian Army.

“The explosion took place not in a rubble-strewn open area on, or near, the path back from the school but inside the Parray home, midway along the base of a wall of the room. The explosion was small – far too small to be of an artillery shell, for all it did was to make a small, blackened crater at the base of the wall. The smallest artillery shell would have demolished not only the wall, but the entire house. A cotton razai (duvet), which was lying on the floor with one corner only six inches away from the blackened cavity, was completely undamaged, but a large bloodstain, almost a foot across, upon it about two feet from the cavity showed where one of the children had been injured and possibly died. As the amateur picture shows, it appears that a small explosive, possibly a grenade, exploded at the base of the wall, probably in a niche below the floor level. The explosion sprayed upwards, thereby missing the edge of the razai, but not the children a few feet away.”

The picture shown above is testimony to the huge difference between what Mr Jha wrote and what I saw.

This in no way looks like the interior of any room. Looks like Mr Jha never bothered to visit the victim’s home, which seems to me an important part of doing a story like this. In fact he seems to have believed the version of the Army and reported it. Scepticism, Mr Jha, eh?

The other picture I clicked at the house of the Parrays shows Manzoor Ahmad Parray, grandfather of dead Simran, holding a gunny sack – with wires entangled around it – and showing it to the gathering outside his house. The place is the same – this is where the explosion happened.

The picture show above is a testimony to what has been “neglected” in the story written by Mr Jha.

 In his story, Mr Jha writes; “The Parray home is nowhere near the Suresh nullah, but separated from it by two low ridges. For the stream to have carried an unexploded shell to the neighbourhood of the Parray homestead, it would have had to roll it uphill not once, but twice”.

Mr Jha’s logic seems sound, but he has missed a very valid and serious point. If Mr Jha had bothered to go to the place himself, (by the looks of the story that doesn’t seem to have happened), he himself would have seen various “unexploded shells” lying in the fields, streams and mountains of Drang and Shunglipora. One question comes to mind – how did these “unexploded shells” reach the villages? Littered shells don’t travel.

The villages of Drang and Shunglipora are littered with these “unexploded shells” and this remains a fact. One can see these shells lying in the open, clearly a threat to the human population.

The first picture of the shell was taken just few meters away from Simran’s house.

The pictures shown above were taken when few young men, mostly in their Twenties, when asked by a group of journalists, led us to few places where these shells were lying in the open. Agreeing with Mr Jha, no way can these shells roll uphill with “Suresh Nalla” even once, leave aside the “twice uphill roll theory”. Now here’s a reasonable question – which streams flow uphill?

Mr Jha also writes, “What followed the explosion typifies the way in which narratives are being fabricated in Kashmir. Within hours of the explosion, Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, a leading RTI activist and the head of the TBF, arrived in Parraypora and tried to organise a protest against the army. The villagers told him they would have none of it. Undeterred, Sheikh moved to another location near the local school but, according to the reports the army got, no sooner had he started than the headmaster asked him to stop and stay away from the students. None of this was reflected in the press statement that he sent out later in the day. And no newspaper in Srinagar even thought of questioning it”.

The only reply to Mr Jha vis-à-vis this would be, look at this. A huge protest was carried out in Drang against the killing of Simran, in which people of all ages participated, even students. The photograph below is testimony to that.

Left picture:  Shahid Tantray –  Right picture: Greater Kashmir

Up until now, Mr Jha not only has distorted the hard facts but also believed the Army statements. Not only hasn’t he bothered to visit the place himself, he has also ridiculed what the people of Tosa Maidan and its adjoining areas have been saying since ages.

Coming to the larger context of the story, Mr Jha writes, “It was when I tried to obtain some concrete evidence from him of the civilian casualties caused by unexploded shells that I got my first whiff of the intimidation that makes the villagers all tell the same stories. He pointed to a youth standing beside him and said, ‘He picked up a shell that exploded and was burned all down his chest and stomach.’ The young man obediently pulled up his sweatshirt to show me the scars – ugly red marks that spread upwards from his stomach.

But half an hour later, as I walked over to talk to the smugglers, he followed me and told me that he had actually received the scars as a child when, while sitting in front of a fire, he had been pushed into it by another child. ‘I did not wish to disagree with my elder in front of him, but I want you to know what really happened’, he said.”

A question comes to mind. Who is this youth? What is his name? Any picture of him? Keep in mind what Mr Jha has written in the story. Scepticism.

When I was in Shunglipora, I met at least 15 such people who were left handicapped by littered shells lying open in the village. Farooq was one among them. Farooq was 10 years old when he saw an unexploded shell lying in his orchard. Not having seen anything like that before, Farooq started to play with it. Farooq’s father, Abdul Ahad, was sitting in his house when he heard a loud explosion. When he reached the spot (where the shell had exploded), he saw his son Farooq in a pool of blood.  The explosion had ripped Farooq’s right arm.

Farooq outside his home.

I just wish Mr Jha could have met people like Farooq. He would have found many like him, sitting in their rooms and lamenting their misfortune.

Mr Jha writes on “The homogenization of narrative through intimidation became more apparent at Drang, where I spoke to a group of 30-40 villagers, including some of the local leaders of the TBF. This surfaced when I asked them for some evidence, in fact, any evidence, which would explain how CM Omar had obtained the figure of 63 civilian deaths in 62 years. The question had been nagging me. One TBF leader immediately signaled a young man to show me what had happened to him. He moved his arms and I saw that one of them was a stump, cut off just below the shoulder joint. He then pulled up his trouser leg and showed me a deep foot-long sutured scar where, possibly one of the leg bones had had to be removed or replaced.

‘When he was a child,’ his mentor told me, ‘he picked up a shell and it exploded in his hands.’ Knowing the awesome destructive power of even small artillery shells, I asked him, ‘How big was it?’ ‘About so big,’ he said, marking a space of about 25×15 cm with his hand. In utter incredulity I asked him, ‘Then, how are you alive?’ ‘It was God’s will,’ came the prompt response from his mentor. ‘How can I tell you why he survived?’ When I attempted to explain to him that what the boy had described was a shell from a medium-sized gun, but that even these would kill everything within about a 10-m radius, the mood at the meeting began to turn ugly.”

Which intimidation is he talking about? The people of Drang have witnessed these hardships. They have seen their loved ones being torn apart from these shells. They have seen the maimed bodies of their beloved families and friends. There are people in Tosa Maidan who have stepped on these shells and survived. Of course, they have lost their body parts but it is not up to Mr Jha to judge which explosion will kill a person and which one can’t.

Mr Jha also writes, “Because of the heavy snow cover in winter, the army uses the range for only five-six months a year. The gun emplacements are at a minimum of 500 m from the nearest homes. In order not to disturb the villagers, there are no firing exercises in the night. During each exercise, the army mans observation posts above the impact area to record the accuracy of fire. These posts also record the shells that do not explode and send in specialised units to explode or defuse and recover them”.

Whether those five to six months are “only” that or a nightmarish time period is not for Mr Jha to decide. When I talked to the people of Shunglipora, they said that the Army does firing exercises during the nights as well. During these firing sessions, the whole area turns into a war zone. The cracks on the houses of Shunglipora are evidence to that. Also, Mr Jha mentions how Army men have observation posts above the impact area to record the accuracy of fire. Had he spoken to the people there, he would have heard of many instances in which somebody was walking in Tosa Maidan, grazing his cattle or collecting herbs and a stray shell hit him, ripping his body into pieces. Ali Mohammad Khan was among them. He was grazing his cattle in Tosa Maidan and a shell exploded on him.

The most important part of the story is the narrative. Not only is it misleading but factually incorrect.

Mr Jha writes, “There is Army aplenty along the LoC in Gulmarg and Poonch, but neither area has seen an agitation to force it out. What has made Tosa Maidan different? The answer is that in Poonch and Gulmarg, where the army was present in strength, it has created a large number of permanent or seasonal, assured jobs for the local people. To them, therefore, the Army’s presence means economic security. To this is added the ready availability of medical and other forms of help at moments of crisis. A symbiotic relationship has, therefore, developed between the army and the local people”.

In the above statement, Mr Jha wants to prove that the people of Drang and Shunglipora are dependent on the Army for their economic security. Yes, villages of Drang and Shunglipora do work as  ghodewallas and baggage carriers for the Indian Army during their firing sessions in Tosa Maidan, but the main income for the people of these villages is cattle raising. People of Drang and Shunglipora visit Tosa Maidan during the summer to feed their cattle, for woodcutting and herb collection.

Not talking about the main issue – which here lies in the loss of human life – and misleading the audience with factual errors and hiding the true narrative is what leads to “scepticism”. And Mr Jha’s article is an example of that.

Read Prem Shankar Jha’s response here.

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