Shimla/New Delhi: The tussle between the Himachal Pradesh government and the army over the ownership of Annandale ground in Shimla escalated Sunday with Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal threatening to file a defamation suit if the army did not apologise for alleging that "gimmicks" were being played to get the ground`s possession.
At a hurriedly-convened press conference in New Delhi, Dhumal termed as "baseless" allegations that the state government wanted to grab the Annandale ground which has been in possession of the Army since World War II.
"If somebody damages the state government or me personally in the name of Army, I will not allow that," Dhumal said.
He said if an unconditional apology was not issued by the Army`s Western Command, he would file a defamation suit.
Answering queries, Dhumal said he was willing to talk to the army but only after an apology was tendered.
The 121-bigha green patch (one bigha is 0.4 hectare), just 3 km from Shimla`s Ridge, has been a flashpoint between the state and the Army as the latter does not allow the ground for civilian use.
The chief minister said the land belonged to the state government and was under unlawful occupation of the Army. He said the land was given to the Army on lease for 10 years and the term was extended. He added that the lease had not been renewed for the last 30 years.
The Congress, meanwhile, blamed the Bharatiaya Janata Party-led state government for the row and said if the Army had come with a complaint to the central government, it would have ordered inquiry.
"It is a very serious allegation. Corruption appears to be a major issue in the BJP-ruled states whether it is Himachal Pradesh or Karnataka...the (Himachal) state government should not work in league with mafia, as allegations were being made by the Army," said Congress spokesman Raashid Alvi.
Dhumal earlier refuted allegations that the state government wanted to take the possession of the ground as his son Anurag Thakur - BJP MP and a cricket administrator - wanted to build a cricket stadium there.
He said several associations had come to him with the demand that the Army should vacate the land. He said the army was only using the ground to play golf.
The Army claimed that the ground was of strategic significance for it from the national security perspective.
A hard-hitting statement from the Western Command questioned the bid to take over the land from the Army.
"The fact that Annandale ground is of strategic significance for the army from the national security perspective can never be ignored in favour of any game and gimmicks," it said.
The Army clarified that "the ground is a base for launching disaster management and relief operations".
Local residents and sports associations under the banner of Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) took out a public rally in Shimla April 7, demanding that the ground be restored to the local administration.
The Army, however, said: "The strategic significance of Annandale as a forward logistic and operational base for operations in the sector adjoining Himachal Pradesh is being overlooked in preference for a cricket stadium."
Tracing the ground`s history, it said a portion of Annandale was used by Durand Football Tournament Society instituted in 1888. This was taken over by the army during World War II to be used as a training camp.
"The land is in possession of the army ever since and is used for numerous military operational and logistic activities. In the past, the ground has been jointly used by the civil administration and the army for conducting disaster relief and management exercises," it said.
Dhumal said earlier that the ground issue was brought to the notice of the central government when the National Democratic Alliance-led government was in power.
"It was discussed with the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then defence minister George Fernandes. At that time top Army authorities were also present. It was decided to provide the army an alternate land to carry on various activities so that it could vacate the ground for sports related activities," he said.
The Army is displaying its prowess in a disaster management exercise at Annandale Monday.