By B.K. Chum in Chandigarh
As Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections is gearing up for 2012 end – the hill state is becoming a land of controversies. The latest include the dispute between the Army and the State government over the possession of Annandale ground and the opposition to the move to disintegrate Kangra district into smaller districts.
The most unfortunate development is the public stand-off between the Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and the Army over the occupation of the 121-bigha Annandale ground, just 4.5 km from Shimla’s Ridge. It was improper for the Army to publicly charge the chief minister with acting at the behest of the land mafia for taking over of the Annandale ground from the Army. On the other hand, it was also unbecoming on the part of the Chief Minister to publically threaten filing a defamation suit against the Army if it did not tender an unconditional apology for the allegation leveled against him by the Army. No other Chief Minister has behaved in such a way in handling controversies involving the Army.
The Army’s charge against Dhumal needs to be seen in the background of the criticism by the opposition and the BJP rebels that the Chief Minister is helping the land mafia in taking over vast lands of the ecologically sensitive hill state for converting them into concrete jungles.
The Chief Minister’s position becomes more untenable as the vacation of the Annandale ground is being sought for converting it into a cricket stadium by the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association which is headed by his MP son Anurag Thakur. Dhumal’s critics describe the move as nepotism.
It is argued that getting the ground vacated from the Army has the popular support as over one lakh people have responded to the signature campaign launched in support of the demand. Interestingly, the media last week reported that only a handful of people representing various sports organisations who are behind the “Save Annandale” campaign participated in the demonstration held outside the gate of the Annandale ground. Interestingly, students of a nursing school in Annandale were made to stand in rain and raise slogans against the Army.
Before one goes into the implications of the government, Army and Cricket Association’s stands on the Annandale controversy, it is necessary to have a brief look at the facts of the case.
The ground has with the Army since World War II under a lease deed executed in 1958, with retrospective effect from 1955. The deed was later renewed up to March 1982. There was no renewal of the deed after 1982. The Himachal government continued to accept the lease rent up to 2002. While the state government wants to take it over for building a sports stadium, the ground is of paramount strategic importance for the Army. According to Western Command’s Brig. A.K. Sharma “the ground is very important for logistics, operations and disaster management on account of its location and accessibility from forward positions as well as from support echelons in the rear, including hospitals. It’s a mother helipad for helicopters from where both relief and rescue operations can be carried out rapidly and smoothly”.
The controversy has acquired political overtones. The former Himachal Chief Minister and BJP’s national vice-president Shanta Kumar has taken a line opposite to that of Dhumal’s. He said that the nation and its security were more important when compared to a cricket ground. He termed the statements made by the Chief Minister against the Army as being unfortunate.
The Himachal Congress too seems to be divided on the issue. Though the Union Minister Virbhadra Singh has condemned the demand by the HPCA for constructing a stadium at the Annandale ground, none of the state’s senior party leaders has made the party’s stand clear on the controversy. The BJP’s breakaway group Himachal Lokhit Party has endorsed statements that had claimed that land mafia is behind the Annandale drive.
The Army says it requires Annandale for its strategic needs. The state government’s stand to dispossess it of the ground is in sharp contrast to the demand the Chief Minister has been making from the Centre to expand the roads and rail network in the state because of its strategic location as it shares border with China. China has already built vast roads and Defence networks in its areas. It is for the Army Generals and not political leaders to see which areas and locations are suited for operational and support requirements. Jay Weatherill, an expert, had once said “Defence is our best attack”.
The ruling BJP state leadership should not earn the stigma of setting a precedent of creating an atmosphere of confrontation between the civilian government and the Army.
The demand for carving out new districts out of Kangra has also generated a controversy sharpening the factional divide in the state BJP. Kangra, former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar’s stronghold is the state’s biggest district. It sends largest number of members to the state Assembly. The Dhumal camp is in favour of disintegrating the district into smaller districts while the Shanta camp strongly opposes the demand. The issue also figured at the party meeting attended by some central leaders last week.
The hill state’s raging two controversies have the potential of affecting the electoral prospects of the BJP and the Congress, the main contenders for power. As is usual, the high commands of the two parties will try to end the factional feuds and “forge unity” in their respective state units. Experience, however, shows that election-eve patch-ups turn out to be farce. In the struggle for power, unity of hearts is usually an unrealizable dream. (IPA Service)