Ground report: Why mistrust brews between army and civilians in Secunderabad cantt
The reopening of gates in the Secunderabad cantonment for passage of civilians has become a contentious issue. Last week, photos emerged of an army training drill blocking the road for civilians; the army personnel inside the cantonment seem clearly unhappy with the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) directive to reopen the roads to civilians. The civilians for their part are also frustrated – before the gates were reopened, many of them have had to take as much as an 8 km detour to reach the other side.
But while the mistrust brews – why were the roads closed in the first place, and what exactly are the issues that both sides have?
Gulshan, the wife of a veteran and a resident of Sainikpuri, has been a long-time proponent of reopening the closed roads, despite having access to the roads herself. Speaking to TNM, she argues that the rift is a result of the issue being argued on emotional grounds rather than legal.
“This rift is because no one is trying to understand the legal aspects of the issue. It is an emotional response. The law should be equal for everyone, whether we are in uniform or out of it. Whether we are a blue collar worker or a white collar one, the law of the land should be the same and we should all follow it,” she says.
TNM spoke to several officers manning the gates in the cantonment, all of whom spoke in their personal capacity and made it clear that they were not representing the stand of the Local Military Authority (LMA).
Inside Secunderabad cantonment
An armed soldier he watches civilians warily pass through a large gate that was reopened after half a decade. Civilians stop their car at the gate, show their Aadhaar or PAN card as identity proof, and then proceed into the military area to get to the other side.
"We have no problem opening the roads to the public, but they should also be considerate of our needs and cooperate with us," he says. Security has been beefed up inside the cantonment ever since the MoD issued a directive to reopen several gates.
The directive came after a meeting convened by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with Members of Parliament and elected Vice Presidents of all 62 Cantonment Boards on May 4, 2018.
While some members of the public have objected to the checks carried out by army officials, an officer manning the gate that connects Rashtrapati Nilayam to Rajiv Rahadari near Bolarum says that it is a necessity.
"We have many establishments here that need security. If we don't check the ID card of people who enter, what guarantee is there that a militant or terrorist won't infiltrate us?" he asks.
"Most civilians cooperate with us, but it is just a few of them who come to pick a fight with us. Our job is to after all protect them and the nation, so it feels bad even if a few people out of every hundred, object to the checking," he adds.
However, residents who have been fighting for the roads to be reopened contest this claim.
Is it a security concern?
“Cantonments were primarily established before Indian Independence to support British troops. This particular one in question is not a big military station, but only an area where preliminary training is done,” says CS Chandrasekhar, Secretary, Federation of North Eastern Colonies of Secunderabad (FNECS).
“It is a land mass of 40 square km, and the population stays constant as jawans are trained in batches. It is not an active unit, but rather a peace station,” he adds.
“Even if needed, the army can always provide security to the few establishments and quarters that are located inside the area. Eighty per cent of the families of serving and retired officers live amongst civilians,” he explains.
In fact, in December 2015, local citizen activists alleged that 10 roads that the LMA had cordoned off citing 'security' were shut for a golf course.
In March last year, after a two-year battle, an RTI reply from the Defence Estate Office (DEO) revealed that six out of the 12 roads that had been shut in the Golf Course area belonged to the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) – a body that has equal representation from army officials and civilians.
Citizens were furious as the roads had been shut without consulting them, and also conflicted with the SCB's own admission in the Hyderabad High Court, that all the roads being shut were A1 defence land, under the control of the LMA.
When this TNM reporter entered the area after it was recently opened, many officials were seen golfing in civil clothes, even as boards put up on some parts of the road read, “Golfers at play. Watch out for golf balls!”
Army personnel, however, want the roads to be shut again – and their misgivings about civilians entering the cantonment are reportedly based on events in the past.
History of the cantonment area
It was in the early 1960 that the Late Brigadier MK Rao, the then-Commander of Technical Services Group in Secunderabad, conceived the idea of setting up an Armed Forces Officers’ Co-op Housing Society (AFOCHS) in the area. The idea was for service officers to live together after their retirement, and on August 19, 1960, Rao registered the AFOCHS.
The Society looked around Hyderabad and Secunderabad to find a suitable place, and after a land deal in Bowenpally failed, it approached the then-Andhra Pradesh government seeking land. The state agreed to allot over 151 acres under Kapra municipality abutting the cantonment area and handed over the same towards the end of 1963.
In 1966, Rao's efforts ensured that the first Managing Committee was formed and the colony was soon developed and dubbed 'Sainikpuri' – abode of the soldier. Vayupuri, another colony set up on similar lines, soon developed next to it.
Even though the area was abutting the cantonment, there was peace between the LMA and the retired defence personnel, who were granted access to the roads. Several farmers in villages like Kowkur also used these roads to reach markets in Bolarum and Alwal.
Today, Sainikpuri is a posh locality with huge bungalows and sprawling gardens. However, the area has also become one of the main places affected by the road closure.
By the turn of the century, several large colonies began springing up around Sainikpuri, abutting the cantonment, that began hosting civilian populations. Soon, nearby areas like Yapral and Balajinagar also began to develop. Other areas surrounding the cantonment, like Marredpally, Safilguda and Trimulgherry also began to grow.
And the army did not like it.
Over the last decade, the LMA alleged that it was faced with several 'anti-social' elements, as reports suggested that drunken brawls would break out in the cantonment area, while some minor accidents also began taking place due to speeding vehicles.
And so, over a period of time, LMA shut 25 roads in the area. Some of these included arterial roads that even turned an 800-metre ride, into an 8-km detour.
The closure of roads affected hundreds of residents living in areas abutting the AOC like Marredpally, Neredmet, Safilguda, Sainikpuri, Ammuguda and Yapral, among several others, potentially affecting 10 lakh citizens.
Speaking to TNM, Telangana Congress spokesperson Krishank Mane, who has been tracking the issue for several years, agrees that the security of the army is important, but argues that it is a larger issue than is being portrayed right now.
“As soon as the announcement came, several people started celebrating it as a 'victory' over the army. However, at the root, it is a civic issue. The problem is that arterial roads have been shut and residents are facing difficulties,” he says.
He also says that the case of Secunderabad cantonment would be different from that of cantonments in Kashmir or Pathankot, as it is situated in the middle of a dense civilian population.
“Even in this cantonment, each road that was closed has a different issue. The sweeping statement by the MoD that ‘all gates’ would be reopened, at first led to confusion and ambiguity among citizens. This has led to animosity,” Krishank says.
“Residents of Secunderabad have historically enjoyed a green environment because of the army and we don’t want to lose that. The onus is on the authorities to do a study on the ground, understand the issue pertaining to each of the roads, speak to the stakeholders and chalk out a procedure,” the Congress leader added.
Chandrashekar also proposes a similar solution.
“Let a joint survey be conducted and let us identify which roads to open. Even if there is a security threat, we can discuss it and there is also a procedure in place,” he says.