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After elections, Gujjars-Bakarwals fear bulldozers will return

For decades, Chopan has lived and then worked on these lands that his father also toiled upon. “We have not stolen these lands overnight,” he said. “There is a large apple orchard there, about 250 trees that are three decades old.”

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On 19 November, Mohammad Chopan received a show-cause notice from the Divisional Forest Officer accusing him of “illegal possession” of about six kanals of land, in the Zilsidara Jabbad village in the Chadoora area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, of the Pir Panjal forest. 

He is unable to read the notice, written in the English language. The notice states that “it is clear that you are in unauthorised occupation of about 6 kanals of Forest Land in violation of Provisions of Indian Forest Act of 1927 Section 79-A”.

Even as the notice gave Chopan ten days to respond as to why the government should not evict him, he said that members of the Forest Department, turned into a corporation after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy on 5 August 2019, had come to serve the notice. “They told me to remove the fencing immediately,” he said. “They told me to chop down the trees some days later and to completely move out of the land after that.”

All these years, Chopan had given up hopes of ever seeing better amenities provided in his area but he never thought that one day the government’s apathy would turn hostile. “Why did they not stop us from cultivating these lands in the last fifty years?” he said. “My father came here, to this land. I have spent my entire life here; my own children born here.”

For decades, Chopan has lived and then worked on these lands that his father also toiled upon. “We have not stolen these lands overnight,” said an angry Chopan, a father to two sons, who also depend on the lands for their livelihood. “There is a large apple orchard there, about 250 trees that are three decades old.”

The issue of forest dwellers has taken a prominent place in the post abrogation politics of J-K, coinciding with the fears arising out of the Government of India allowing residence and ownership of properties to non-natives as well as making the process of acquiring land by the government forces easier. The Forest Rights Act has been a long pending demand of tribal activists, which now having been extended to J-K, remains to be implemented.

Chopan said that dozens of others in his village had also received a similar show-cause notice by the forest authorities. Like him, he said, these families have also lived on, and cultivated, these lands for generations and were granted, by earlier dispensations, the rights to these lands but the J-K administration is unrelenting. On 4 December, members of the forest department allegedly chopped down several apple trees in Budgam’s Kani Dajan area after serving similar notices.

Selective application of law

Raja Muzaffar, an information rights advocate and environmental activist, said that these lands were granted to peasants and pastoralists across J-K after the 1940s, under the “Grow More Food” policy, to ensure food security in the region. “However, this doesn’t apply to lands taken over by locals in recent years,” said Muzaffar, who has been actively working to create awareness on the laws among Kashmir’s forest-dwelling communities.

With the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy and its own laws, the Government of India had also extended, along with 113 other central laws, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 — better known as simply the FRA. The FRA secures not only the rights of the tribals but also other communities living in the forests and grants them the usage of forest lands and forest produce, except for timber. Under the law, evictions of these communities would be illegal.

If, and when, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is implemented, said Muzaffar, the administration can’t send notices to these forest dwellers. “They [Government of India] have extended the law to [J-K]; they are not implementing this law here, and they intend to evict everyone. Then who will they implement this law for [after forest dwellers are evicted]?”

Besides replacing the relevant erstwhile state laws — Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act, Jammu and Kashmir Forest (Conservation) Act, Jammu and Kashmir Forest (Sale of Timber) Act — with the Indian Forest Act of 1927, New Delhi has simultaneously extended to J-K, among 113 central laws, the Limitation Act of 1963 and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980.

Days after demolitions of temporary hutments of the Gujjar community in south Kashmir on 16 November led to outrage in Kashmir, the J-K administration claimed that it will complete the survey of claimants and preparation of the record of forest rights by 31 January 2021; setting the deadline for its approval by 1 March, next year. But many fear the damage that could be done in the meanwhile.

Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, a Gujjar activist, said for more than ten years that the law existed in India, it was not applied to J-K; and when it was extended, it remains to be implemented. The only explanation, he said, behind the delay in the implementation of the FRA was the intention to further disempower the tribal Gujjar-Bakarwal and other forest dwellers. “They [the government] intend to take away as much land from the people,” he said, “as possible before the implementation of the [FRA].”

Choudhary said that Gujjars across Kashmir were being sent notices but few cases were being reported since most of this population lives in the remote and upper reaches of the Valley. “Our people have been sent notices everywhere but we do not know of those yet,” he said. “It is a kind of suppression. Like Kashmiri youth are being booked under [security laws], it is part of that but we are unable to realize that yet.”

A work in progress, since long

“Wherever [there are] Gujjars and Bakarwals,” former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti asserted as she visited members of the tribal community, who were dislodged from their homes in a demolition drive in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam on 18 November, “they are being targeted.” 

Mufti was aghast with the forceful manner in which the Jammu and Kashmir administration had treated the semi-nomadic Gujjars, demolishing their residences just days before the season’s first snowfall. She demanded to know: “Who do you want to give these lands to?” 

The narrative of “encroachment” of forests, however, began after the Kashmir based People’s Democratic Party, led by the Muftis, and the Sajad Lone led People’s Conference had ceded the forest ministry to the Bharatiya Janata Party in two successive alliance governments between 2014 and 2018.

Shortly after the government was formed in 2015, the newly appointed forest minister upped the ante and carried out multiple demolitions in Muslim majority areas of Jammu. “I won’t be cowed down,” the minister Bali Bhagat had told reporters then. “The drive will be extended to the entire State.” The then BJP’s minister for transport, Abdul Gani Kohli, a Gujjar himself, was in open disagreement with the party but had little impact on the party’s agenda. 

Around the same time, the BJP’s then state Vice-President Ramesh Arora was also quoted by local media as having said that “it is a drive by the Government and not an individual minister”. Arora had also stated that a “particular community” is involved in encroaching forest lands; an “encroacher is an encroacher”.

“We are working against all odds and pressures and will continue the anti-encroachment drive and retrieve all forest land during our tenure,” the BJP’s forest minister Bali Bhagat had said in June 2015. In the years since then, the BJP’s two successive forest ministers had created more than a thousand forest closures and evicted tribals from more than a hundred thousand kanals.

The Gujjars of J-K have been at the receiving end of both Kashmiri and Dogra Hindu hegemonies – in the Jammu division, they are hounded for being Muslims; in the Kashmir Valley, they are despised for their pastoralist way of life.

Lull before the storm?

On 16 November, this year, in the Lidroo village, in the vicinity of south Kashmir’s tourist resort of Pahalgam, teams of the local authorities comprising the forest department and the tourist resort’s development authority demolished three temporary structures belonging to the tribal Gujjar community.

The issue rose to prominence and renewed the attention to the region’s beleaguered Gujjar Bakarwal tribal community, a population of fourteen lakh pushed and restricted to the margins of J-K’s mainstream—unless to be politically exploited.

Notices have been sent to dozens of Gujjars across many villages in the broader vicinity of Pahalgam. In the Mamal village, also a few kilometers from Lidroo, on the other side, officials of the forest department had begun to remove the fencing at Shabir Swathi’s house but he intervened, stating that he had submitted his documents before the forest department in response to the show-cause notice.

“They stopped after that,” said Swathi, “but [threatened] to come back with a [bulldozer].”

“The [administration] has lowered the pressure owing to the elections. They want votes from the poor people. The forest department also tells us that they have gone quiet because of elections,” said Swathi, adding that officials warned: “See what happens after the elections.”

Irshad Khatana, a Gujjar activist from Batakote in the Pahalgam area, said that the Gujjars were being “selectively targeted” to free the lands for buyers. “They are trying to remove us and make new land laws for [outsiders] to buy these lands. The traditional landholders are harassed [to force them] to leave these lands,” he said. “We have been living here from our forefathers times, we are the real dwellers of forests and we [also] protect these forests. This green gold is ours and it will remain ours.”

In the Batakote village, some kilometers from Lidroo, residents nervously wait amidst the uncertainty. “There is an environment of fear,” said Kabir Shah, a local resident. “The people who have been living in these areas for the past seventy-to-eighty years have been issued notices, to remove fences and leave [eventually]. We have children to take care of.” 

Local authorities had not followed up on the notices that were served more than a month ago and local politicians had assured nothing would happen in the meanwhile, said Shah. “But we are unsure about what happens in the future.”

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