As the recent controversial forest clearance drive fanned new tensions in the region with the likes of former chief minister making a quick jungle trip to plead the case of the tribals, the homeless gypsies fear for the next season when they will be returning to their summer pastures.
By Umer Ahmad
LADHROO, Pahalgam – 35-year-old Abdul Aziz watched in sheer disbelief as different departments recently arrived with muscle and machines to demolish his ancestral dwelling.
The administration called it an anti-encroachment drive in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam highland pastures.
In Ladhroo, Aziz said, 12 out of 15 dokas—huts—were razed to ground, without any eviction notice.
“It was constructed by my great-grandfather,” anguished Aziz talked about his demolished mud-wood hut. “I don’t understand how it suddenly became an encroachment, which was erased on a war-footing.”
Aziz is now homeless and is living in a neighbour’s hut along with his 4 children and a wife.
“Since the demolition of my hut, my children are very much scared. They keep asking me how we are going to survive this harsh winter,” the nomad said. “Becoming homeless overnight is the worst nightmare we’ve ever faced.”
Aziz ferries tourists on his horse for living, but since August 2019, he has hardly earned anything. He now relies on the forest produce like wild vegetables and on his livestock.
“Only poor people having no voice lost their huts in the recent demolition drive,” alleged Aziz.
“There’s a hotel owned by a retired government official in Ladhroo. It was not even touched.”
A Viral ‘Violation’
Recently, a video went viral on social media platforms in which officials of Forest, Wildlife, Pahalgam Development Authority and Revenue Departments can be seen demolishing Gujjar and Bakerwal huts.
Apart from drawing backlash from netizens and activists, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, visited the families, to condemn the action.
“The Gujjars have been using log and mud sheds in pasture lands since times immemorial during the grazing season. They are part of the forest and our environment,” Mehbooba said. “Sadly, a drive has been launched to demolish these structures which they use as temporary shelters during summers.”
Tribal families, she said, have been harassed, using strong arm methods where in desperation they wanted to resist their main support to their livelihood.
“Does this mean that these nomadic tribes can no longer go to pastures?” she asked. “Is that the Part 2 of this displacement scheme? Who do they intend to sell the forest land to?”
Zahid Chowdhary, a Gujjar activist, termed the recent demolition drive as unjustified and blamed the government departments for violating the Forest Rights Act 2006.
“These Kothas were old and meant for the migration purpose only,” Chowdhary told Kashmir Observer.
“The tribals move to pastoral lands during summers for grazing purposes and leave them vacant when they move to Jammu during winters as part of their ancestral practice.”
But now, he said, a false narrative is being created by the forest department that tribals are encroaching the forest land.
“We’ve been living in these forests for ages and we belong to these forests,” the tribal activist said.
“We can’t imagine living outside of them. We rear livestock here and for that, we need temporary shelter to spend the summertime. How are we going to survive next season when we return to these lands?”
Chowdhary said his tribe is planning to file FIR against all the departments involved in the recent Pahalgam demolition drive.
“Without serving any legal eviction notice, demolition of Kothas is totally condemnable and illegal,” he said.
“This government is targeting only poor people.”
‘Not an Anti-Tribal Drive’
Mushtaq Simnani, however, said that the drive was carried to clear encroachments eating up forests.
The chief executive officer, Pahalgam Development Authority, termed the reports of rendering Gujjars and Bakarwals homeless as grossly false.
“Not a single inhabited Kotha was demolished during the recent anti-encroachment drive,” Simnani told Kashmir Observer. “We just demolished illegal vacant structures. Three families living in three separate Kothas were not even touched.”
During the recent demolition drive, he said, the government retrieved “1035 kanals of encroached land in Pahalgam”.
“Only in Aru,” the CEO said, “700 kanals of state land was retrieved from the local Kashmiri farmers only. So, this claim that the drive was against the tribals is totally false.”
However, he added, huts of tribals, now living in concrete houses, have been demolished. The action, he said, was also taken against those who’ve constructed huts within 50-60 meters of distance “just to grab more forest land”.
“We’ll continue to evict the land that had been illegally occupied, no matter what,” Simnani said.
A Growing Panic
In Haknar area of Ganderbal district, Haji Mohammad Yaqoob was lately served a legal notice by the forest officer Sindh division in which he has been told to “leave the land he had occupied” within 10 days.
The eviction notice accessed by Kashmir Observer reads: “you are being informed that you’ve illegally occupied the forest land in compartment number Sindh/36 range Sindh. Under Indian Forest act 1927, section27, 79(A) you are being informed to remove all the structures you have constructed in the forest land. In case if you have any papers for the land you should produce them in the forests office within the stipulated time period or else Forest department will take all the control of your property and legal action will be taken against you.”
Ever since this notice was served to Yaqoob, some 150 tribal families in Haknaar have grown anxiously alert.
“We’ve been living here for last 120 years and now they’re suddenly serving us these eviction notices,” Iqram Bajran, Vice President, Gujjar and Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference, Ganderbal, told Kashmir Observer.
“I don’t understand how we’ve become encroachers all of a sudden. All the tribal families are coming here seasonally merely for grazing purposes.”
Even after the implementation of Indian Forest Rights Act, he said, tribals are not being given any rights on these forests.
“Why are we being harassed like this,” Bajran, the young tribal, asked.
“It has been happening to us in Jammu and now the government has started destroying our houses in Kashmir too.”
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