The residents in Secunderabad’s Yapral area took to the streets after months of stand-off between the Army and civilians reached a tipping point on Saturday evening.
The residents were irked with the Local Military Authority's (LMA) decision to shut off roads to civilians, turning an 800-metre ride into an 8-km detour.
The locals alleged that the road was shut off so the LMA officials could enjoy playing golf and watch movies at the RSI Club situated in the area.
Citizens stood in front of an Army checkpost next to Valerian Grammar School and blocked vehicles coming from the LMA premises which had an 'Army Pass' sticker on them.
Heated exchanges also took place between some Army officers and citizens as they tried to wade their way through the crowd.
The anger was palpable as one protester screamed, "You have blocked the roads for three years and we must not complain? We block it for one hour and you're complaining about your inconvenience?"
Several vehicles of Army officials were forced to take a long detour to reach their destination.
After several petitions and requests fell on deaf ears, residents decided to take matters into their own hands. They took out a candlelight march from Valerian Grammar School to the Yapral Water Tank. Several people held placards as slogans of "We want justice" rang in the air.
The protesters said that students of Valerian Grammar School could earlier walk down, but now had to change three buses. What used to take 10 minutes now takes more than an hour, they said.
Earlier this year, the school had said that its student strength had dropped drastically from 2,200 to less than 800 and even started an online petition on the matter.
People from all walks of life took part in the protest, stating that they were tired of the Army's attitude against its own citizens.
"The LMA and the civilians must live in peace. What is happening here is unfair and illegal. The law must be the same for everyone," said Gulshan Gev Bamboat, the wife of a veteran who was part of the protest.
The residents were also irked that the Army shut down the roads citing 'security concerns.'
"What is inside the Army area? We all know. Only Golf Course, RSI Club and a few residences. Are we a security threat to these? Secunderabad is a peace station even for Army. Nothing violent has ever happened here. So why are you not letting us use our own ancestral roads? Just so that you can play golf? Is this fair?" the locals asked in a press release.
They also pointed to a letter issued by the Ministry of Defence in 2015, which directed LMAs to reopen roads in cantonments and say that by keeping the roads closed, the Secunderabad Cantonment has violated the 2006 Act.
Local leaders of the TRS also extended support to the protest including former MP and Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA) president G Vivekanand.
Questioning the leader
The citizens also questioned their local SCB Board Member J Lokanadham — affiliated to the TRS — at his failure to table the matter in front of the local authority.
“The Act clearly mentions that if the LMA perceives a security threat, they should refer the matter to the SCB, which will then take the decision after due process. The Board should decide, not the Army. If we keep fearing them, where will we go? We respect our soldiers but we can’t tolerate this much inconvenience so that they can play golf, watch movies and take their dogs for morning walks,” CS Chandrashekar from Green Sainikpuri said.
“They have converted the area into a resort for themselves after taking our roads. Where should we go?” he asked.
A clearly nervous Lokanadham, surrounded by citizens, could be seen nodding his head repeatedly.
Chandrashekar also alleged that the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) had discussed the matter during their board meeting, but had ensured that the talks didn’t reflect in the minutes of the meeting.
The protest was significant as it came ahead of a meeting between Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with all MPs and Vice Presidents of the 62 Cantonments spread across India.
TRS politicians who gathered assured the citizens that the issue was being taken up with the Centre, including by Minister KT Rama Rao and Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, but citizens were not easily swayed.
“We can’t trust politicians so easily. They should understand that they going to lose votes. Only then they will get scared and act. If nothing comes out of this protest, it will only be the beginning of a much larger movement that will shake the entire area,” Sunder, another protester, said.
Secunderabad was classified as a Category 1 cantonment, owing to its large civilian population, after the Cantonment Act of 2006.
The Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) is a local municipal authority, that comes under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence, and functions as a local self-government.
Half the members on the board are civilians, while the other half are military nominations. Meanwhile, the LMA is completely under the control of the Ministry of Defence, and civilians have no say over its decisions.
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).
This 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.
Demanding that the 'public roads' should be opened, residents pointed out that the blocked roads cut them off from places of worship, the school, hospitals and even the Cantonment Telephone Exchange office.