The injustices meted out to some members of the Van Gujjar community of Rajaji National park Dehradun, allegedly by forest officials and police personnel, have been brought to the notice of the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST).
In a joint petition, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP), have given a detailed account of the incident whereby Van Gujjars were assaulted by forest officials and police personnel, who also destroyed their shelter without following due procedure of law.
About the incident
On June 16 and 17, 2020, some forest officials along with some police personnel came to the dera (shelter) of Van Gujjars, specifically one belonging to Noorjahan, daughter of Ghulam Mustafa aka Mustafa Chopra, (75), and started questioning why these shelters were built and started destroying them. This shelter was located at Asharodi forest in the Ramgarh range of Rajaji National Park Dehradun, about 500 meters from the Dehradun-Delhi highway.
On June 16, around 4 P.M, only about 6 forest officials came to the spot and tried to destroy the dera. On the following day, June 17 around 9:30 A.M, about 30 of them came and destroyed the shelter. They also assaulted the women.
The incident of June 16 has in fact been captured on the phone camera, in a video by one of the children of the community. In this video it can be clearly seen that it was the police officials who assaulted the family members of Mustafa while destroying their shelter.
Further, Noor Mohammad, son of Mustafa Chopra, even tried to lodge an FIR at Clement Town police station on the same day but the police refused to register the same and asked him to drop the complaint in the drop box without giving any acknowledgement of receipt. Instead, an FIR was filed against the victims of the assault; Noorjahan, Ramzan Bibi, Mustafa Chopra and other family members, which even included minor children.
While in custody, on June 18, 2020 Noorjahan, was beaten up by the police and forest department staff and assaulted and injured on sensitive parts of the body. The police, however, gave a false medical report before the Magistrate stating that they were all fit.
Violation of law
The officials came to the spot unannounced and without having given any prior notice to the settlers, in a group, thus defying even lockdown rules. As per a meeting convened by the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand certain lockdown rules have been in force since April 28, 2020 specifically, with respect to protecting Van Gujjars from Covid-19. These rules, inter alia, state that Van Gujjars should be stopped from migrating and asked forest officials to take a head count of Van Gujjars and ensure that they do not leave their shelters at any cost.
They even violated a well laid down procedure to be followed before any summary eviction of unauthorised occupants under section 61A of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 which was inserted vide Indian Forest (Uttaranchal Amendment) Act, 2001. The procedure requires serving of a notice upon occupants to show cause why they should not be evicted.
The petition states, “No such notice was given to Noorjahan or her father Mustafa Chopra and in an unauthorised manner, the forest officials came and destroyed the shelters, assaulted the women and even registered false case against them, while they are the ones who got brutally injured in the assault and had to be rushed to the hospital”.
The petition states that this incident “puts into serious question the rights, life and dignity of individuals who belong to an invisibilised nomadic tribe, Van Gujjars and spotlight the unchecked brutal conduct of the police, especially calling into question their behavior with persons in custody”.
It further states, “According to the account given by Mustafa, this is not the first time that false and frivolous cases have been lodged against him by the police as he has been fighting for his and his community’s forest rights in Rajaji National Park for over two decades now.”
The petition also highlights that the tribals have the law on their side as the Uttarakhand High Court in 2008 had issued a writ directing the state government to form Committees for redressal of grievances of Van Gujjars as per the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (known as the Forest Rights Act).
In one of the cases concerning the eviction of Van Gujjar families living in the buffer zone of Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, a letter of additional secretary to the chief conservator forest Uttarakhand stated that “Van Gujjars are traditional forest dwellers of Uttarakhand, who have been issued permission for looping/grazing from time to time by different divisional forest officers of Uttarakhand”.
Plea to NCST
The petition states that despite the law being in force for 14 years, individual as well as community claims of forest dwellers are not yet being recognized. This has given further impetus to the powerful nexus between the local mafia, police and forest department, who have for centuries exploited forest dwellers.
While urging the Commission to take note of this incident, the petition states that refusal of forest authorities to recognise the rights of Adivasis (tribals), forest dwellers and indigenous communities, in complete disregard of not just the mandate of the law but also orders of the courts of law, and constantly and repeatedly invoking of false cases against these sections of Indians is a clear display of their contempt towards these tribes.
The Van Gujjars are a vulnerable class of people sustaining themselves on simple activities such as cattle rearing and selling small scale dairy products and it is imperative that the NCST “takes cognizance of such incidents of incidents against them so their oppression at the hands of forest officials can finally come to a halt.”
The NCST was established by amending Article 338 and inserting a new Article 338A in the Constitution. Earlier, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was one institution and in 2004, they were separated in order to address the concerns of these two distinct sections of society effectively and to streamline the process to address their grievances.
The complete petition may be read here: