Image: Free Press Kashmir
The nomadic tribes of Gujjar and Bakerwal in Jammu and Kashmir have been dragged into the line of fire by the Union Territory (UT) administration as their unoccupied shelters were demolished in Pahalgam under the guise of clearing illegal encroachments. Both communities combined form 11.9% of the UT’s population and are spread over largely on Srinagar, Anantnag, Kulgam, Baramulla, Pulwama, Ganderbal, Shopian, Bandipora, especially on the higher reaches in the Kashmir valley
Quite a few videos have surfaced of demolition drives being carried out by the forest department in Pahalgam, a well known hill station in J&K. India Today reported that the government maintains that this is part of a drive to retrieve forestlands, which have been encroached upon.
As per Gujjar activists, the shelters or dogas as they are called, were unoccupied by the tribal communities as they had migrated to Jammu for the winter. They live in these shelters during summers to return to their pastures. Scroll reported that Gujjar activists say these makeshift huts had existed for decades and were never touched before by the authorities.
This demolition drive comes in the aftermath of the J&K high Court declaring the Roshni Act or the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, as unconstitutional. Through the Roshni Act, the state government had granted ownership rights to occupants of a state owned land for a fee. The proceeds were to be used for funding power projects in the erstwhile state. The High Court in its judgment directed all state land under unauthorized occupation to be retrieved.
In what appears to be an outcome to the court’s judgment, the J&K government issued a statement on November 7 that a team consisting of personnel from the Pahalgam Development Authority, the Wildlife, Revenue and Forest Department, the municipal committee and the police had “launched an anti-encroachment drive at Mamal Pahalgam and retrieved illegally encroached 110 kanals [5.6 hectares] of Forest Land,” reported Scroll. The statement further said that such drives would continue until all state/forest land is retrieved.
The videos surfacing on social media have evoked a lot of criticism and anguish amongst people. The President of Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference J&K, Zahid Parwaz Choudhary posted the tweet:
I am unable to get understand why Forest Department has started to demolish the Kothas in Pasrures.
Neither we have occupied these lands nor we lives there permanently we lives there mere for 6 months during sumer but why this being done
the video is from Pehalgam @manojsinha_ pic.twitter.com/tmtqI19ZOb
— Zahid Parwaz Choudhary (@ZahidParwaz) November 13, 2020
Peoples Democratic party chief and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti visited Pahalgam and interacted with the nomadic communities, “Since our domicile law was scrapped, the government is bringing people from across the country but people from here (J&K) are being uprooted”. She accused the Narendra Modi government of handing over the land to its capitalist friends and stated that “24,000 Kanals of land have been already transferred to the industries, the administration must come clear as to who is being granted the land”.
She further said that these were peaceful communities and the government was pushing them to the wall.
District Commissioner, Anantnag, K K Sidha told Free Press Kashmir, “It is not demolition of Gujjar Kothas but actually anti-encroachment drives. Till now we have retrieved 700 kannals of land that was encroached and we are submitting a report to the high court also.”
Talib Hussain, chairman of the All Tribal Coordination Committee, said demolishing a home or a seasonal hutment of a tribal inside the forest violates two laws — The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Act, 2006) and The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, reported The Print.
In a statement issued to Kashmir News Service, CPI (ML) stated, “It is ironic that these nomads, who have been protecting forests for centuries, are being evicted illegally. If somebody, irrespective of his religion and political affiliation, was a land grabber, action should be taken against him, but instead poor nomads are being evicted from their dhoks (temporary shelters).”
With the Roshni Act being deemed unconstitutional, and the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 is the law that protects the tribal communities in J&K. Under Dogra rule (1846-1947), the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribal community were given access to forests with proper registration, and families were allotted patches of land. However, the administration is clearly acting in violation of the Forest Rights Act; following in the footsteps of the forest department in other states with sizable tribal populations. Despite having filed claims, in many cases, tribal communities across the country have faced harassment, demolition, obstruction of livelihood and the high-handedness of the forest department in several instances in Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar pradesh since the breakout of the COVID pandemic in March this year.
Notably in August this year, the Tribune had reported that as Assembly election could be announced in the UT after the process of de-limitation, there was movement in the party to empower the two communities and bring in the political mainstream by reserving seats in the assembly for the tribes. “There is political reservation of seats for STs in legislatures in other parts of the country. In the interest of equity, the polity must be on the square with Gujjar-Bakarwal tribes in Jammu and Kashmir,” Surendra Nagar, the lone Gujjar MP in Rajya Sabha told The Tribune.