Uttarakhand: Van Gujjars injured, property destroyed in clash with forest officials

The forest officials even arrested more than 10 members of the nomadic tribe, who have been granted a stay on eviction from Rajaji National Park by the Supreme Court

Mustafa ChopraImage Courtesy:downtoearth.org.in

Two members of the Van Gujjar community, a nomadic tribe of Uttarakhand, were injured in a violent clash with forest officials. This incident took place in Asharodi Forest Range in Rajaji National Park where currently 8 Van Gujjar families reside. The police have also allegedly arrested Mustafa Chopra, his wife and 10 women and children from the spot.

Forest officials came to the Dera or shelter of Mustafa Chopra and started questioning why the shelter was built. Van Gujjars reside in temporary settlements known as Dera. Dera is their home which is a small wooden structure with a roof that serves as a shelter for them.

In a video shot by one of the members, the police can be seen disregarding Chopra whereby he is saying that the Supreme Court has allowed them to stay in the forest. The police are also seen repeatedly asking the person to stop shooting the video. The police are seen asking Chopra why the shelter has been built without permission to which Chopra replies saying they have the right to live here and they have been living in the forest for ages. In the video, the forest officials can be seen dismantling the shelter and also assaulting some members of the community when they tried to stop them.

The two victims were rushed to Coronation Hospital for treatment and Chopra was taken to the Clement Town police station to register a complaint. However, he said that their complaint was not registered and they were asked to put the application in the drop box and when they asked for receipt, they were denied the same.

Chopra has had several clashes with forest officials over the last two decades whenever he has tried to assert the rights of Van Gujjars in the forest who have been following this nomadic way of life since before India’s independence. They say their rights found place in the Forest Rights Act 2006 and before this legislation, there was no mention or recognition of the rights of nomadic tribes towards the forest.

The Van Gujjars have had conflicts with the forest authorities, who prohibited human and livestock populations inside the reserved park, and blamed the Van Gujjar community for poaching and timber smuggling. When they received an eviction notice from Rajaji National park, they challenged the same and the Nainital High Court, in 2007, passed a stay order on their eviction and directed that the issue be settled as per the Forest Rights Act.

The Uttarakhand High Court in August 2018 had directed that the Van Gujjars be shifted from forest areas in order to protect wildlife. The Supreme Court, however, stayed this order in September 2018.

Who are Van Gujjars?

The Van Gujjars are a transhumance tribe of pastoralists belonging to the Himalayas. Their livelihood and subsistence depend primarily on their cattle. During summer they walk upto and beyond 12,500 ft in the mountains and trek down at the onset of winter.

Each member of the tribe treks to the mountains during summer, and makes the same journey down before the snowfalls. As the winter approaches, Van Gujjars abandon these little Deras and make their way to the lower plains. Before they embark on this journey, the Van Gujjars ensure that every Dera has its roof taken off. This is done to prevent Dera from any damage caused during the heavy snowfall.

AIUFWP Press Release

The All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP)  is the first national union of adivasi & dalit communities representing the traditional workforce in India. In its press release, Roma Malik, the General Secretary of AIUWFP has condemned such blatant violation of forest rights of the Van Gujjar community and has demanded that strict action be taken in the matter and an independent inquiry be done. The Press Release highlights how the community has been exploited at the hands of forest officials over the years despite of the Forest Rights Act providing that unless the claims filed by the forest dwellers, like the Van gujjars, have been finally decided, they cannot be evicted from these forests where their claim lies. The state further condemns that while the country is under certain lockdown measures and is struggling with an epidemic, the forest officials are still harassing forest dwellers like Van Gujjars.

The entire Press Release may be read here.


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