Bini Todum, a 70-year-old former paramilitary officer who served all his life with the Sashastra Seema Bal, lives along the border in Arunachal Pradesh. After retirement, this Nyshi tribal from Kamle district's Dollungmukh circle decided to move back to his native land, a farm on the banks of the Subansiri river, in Ruyu village.
But on 8 June, Todum was grievously injured and his home damaged when fighter jets — Sukhoi Su 30MKIs — from an Indian Air Force base in Assam's Tezpur dropped a live bomb over his village during a regular drill. Todum's home in Ruyu village is located well outside the bombing range, but he still sustained shrapnel wounds in his legs. He was admitted to a hospital in Naharlagun near state capital Itanagar.
"I used to take great pride in the fact that the lone Indian Air Force firing and bombing range was near my village," he said. "But now, I see that locals live in constant fear. Small splinters always come flying, and that day, I got lucky."
What happened to Todum reopened old wounds in the 11 tribal villages — home to some 3,000 people — dotted around the perimeter of the bombing range. The IAF range is located a few hundred kilometres from the India-China border, and residents of these villages in Dollungmukh all say they live in constant fear.
On 2 September, 1992, a tribal farmer, Bini Tabom, died after an air force fighter jet dropped a live bomb during a drill very close to his field. His wife, 55-year-old Yajer, recounts the horror.
"No one came to our help. The Indian Air Force did not even apologise," she said. "Do our lives have no meaning for them? I got no help from the government. Only the local MLA, who was then a minister as well, gave us Rs 10,000."
All that the air force does before it begins a drill is blow a siren, but villagers often miss the alert as they head out of the area to sell their produce and engage in other works.
"When we were kids, the target area was far," Kahma Bini said, pointing to indentations made by bomb splinters in the walls of his house. "Now, their new target area is close to tribal settlements."
Of late, several mithuns — the state animal of Arunachal Pradesh that is considered sacred — have been hit and killed during these drills, triggering further outrage. The Indian Air Force has not carried out any sorties since 8 June, when former paramilitary trooper Todum was injured, as villagers are on a protesting spree, local residents said.
"This is not a new demand at all. For the past 20 years, the people of Dollungmukh have been raising this concern with authorities at different levels. We have submitted several memoranda, but to no avail," they said.
A member of the All Kamle District Students' Union said that during Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman's recent visit to Itanagar, residents handed her a memorandum. "We are in constant touch with her office, but we have yet to receive any proper response," Bini Noga said. "During the UPA era, live drills were of low intensity on the request of the state government. But since the NDA came to power, their intensity and frequency have increased, as we have observed. They practice at night, and it is a great inconvenience to local residents."
The IAF's bombing range is a 4,150-square-kilometre plot, of which 365 squares kilometres is in Arunachal Pradesh and 3,785 square kilometres in in Assam. The range also falls in a disputed territory where the Assam-Aruanchal Pradesh border has long been contested, with the matter now sub-judice.
The air force range was initially set up in 1975 by acquiring land on a 50-year lease from the villagers, local residents said, adding that they now want the agreement annulled.
"There are a lot of dimensions to this crisis," said Koj Tacho, the circle officer of Dollungmukh. "When the range was established, the population was minimal, and most of the people lived in the foothills. The population has now increased. Even though civilians live within this range, there is negligible ground-level coordination from the IAF. Their exercises are increasing in frequency and are rampant and sudden, but there is still no interaction or intimation at the ground level. We don't know whether they inform their higher-ups. This has been a major problem."
Villagers in Dollungmukh always have fear at the back of their minds. Nearly every house in these villages has splinters embedded in their walls, and some even keep shrapnel as memorabilia. Residents said they have had to build new concrete structures such as school walls because of the way the ground vibrates after a bombing.
"It feels like an earthquake," Kahma Bini said. "First, there are the deafening sounds of the jets, then the earth shakes once the bombs are dropped. These days, they use the latest fighter jets and bombs. It is scary. Children suffer a lot, but we have no option but to live here. Long-term exposure to such an environment could spell trouble for the next generation."
IAF blames encroachments for civilian casualties
The Dollungmukh region has been witness to a long-standing conflict of interest between the air force and local residents. In 2005, the then chief minister of Arunchal Pradesh, Gegong Apang, had written to Pranab Mukherjee, who was the defence minister then, about the conflict between the civil authorities and the air force over the eviction of a school and hostel building in the area. The IAF had claimed they were within its range, but the state government had rejected the claim, pointing out that the school was established before the range was set up.
While the air force has ordered for a Court of Inquiry into the recent drills that led to injuries, it has not allayed the fears of local residents of being hit accidentally. The air force also alleges that there are a lot of encroachments in the area, claiming that they were adding to the crisis.
"So far, none of the bombs that Indian Air Force aircraft have dropped there have fallen beyond the boundary of the range," said wing commander Ratnakar Singh, the public relations officer (defence) based in Shillong, the headquarters of the IAF eastern command. "We have been practicing bombing there for 40 to 45 years, and there are no plans to shift the range. In fact, we are getting help from the government, and recently, the Assam government got some encroachments cleared in the area. The location of the range in Dollungmukh is important."
The wing commander added that the air force used latest aircraft, like the Sukhoi, at the range, and as they are all automatic, "there is no reason for incorrect shelling".
The importance of this IAF bombing range is clear from Operation Gagan Shakti 2018, the air force's largest war-preparedness exercise that it concluded recently. The operation is part of IAF's strategy to strengthen its air defence in the east and also increase its presence along the India-China border.
The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup.
Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 15:14 PM