The Indian Express explains the events and divide leading to protests targeted at a nomadic group.
Why are lawyers’ groups protesting in Jammu?
The protests are over a number of issues that underline a communal divide in Jammu. Among these is a police chargesheet, which concludes that the alleged rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakherwal girl in a Kathua village was committed to evict the Bakherwal, a nomadic Muslim group; the alleged motive has triggered protests. The protesters have also demanded a rollback of a purported decision by the state government on Gujjar-Bakherwal rights to forest land, alleging a conspiracy to change the demography of Jammu.
What traditional rights do the Gujjar-Bakherwal have over forest lands in J&K?
The two communities, together 11% of J&K’s population, are the single largest Muslim group and were together designated a Scheduled Tribe in 1991. Both groups are pastoral. The Gujjars are in the dairy business, and settled in several parts of Jammu through to the Chenab Valley. The nomadic sheep and goat-herding Bakherwal migrate with their flock to Kashmir and Ladakh in the summer and to Jammu in the winter, camping at forest sites they have used for centuries.
What has happened now?
Recent eviction drives have left both communities fearful that the PDP-BJP government is planning to take away these traditional rights. The forest portfolio is with the BJP’s Choudhary Lal Singh who has promised to retrieve hundreds of kanals of “encroached” forest land and impose a blanket ban on cultivation inside forests. In response, Bakherwal and Gujjar leaders have demanded that the central Forest Rights Act, 2006, be extended to J&K as well. The ST and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act provides for ownership and access rights to forest dwellers by giving them a right to live in the forests and carry out their traditional occupations for livelihood, access to collect, use and dispose of Minor Forest Produce, conservation and management of forest resources, and the right of access to biodiversity and community rights.
How do the ruling parties stand?
Ironically, this is the one issue on which the BJP holds dear the primacy of Article 370. With both Gujjars and Bakherwals being Muslims, the party is feeding into fears of Jammu’s Hindu community that the two communities are changing the demography. On the other hand, the PDP views these two communities as a constituency. Tribal Affairs Minister Chaudhary Zulfikar is a Gujjar.
Earlier this year, the government decided to come out with a tribal policy. Following a meeting of the Tribal Affairs Department on February 16, chaired by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, news spread on social media that she had “taken a historic decision” and provided a “sigh of relief” to J&K’s nomadic population by directing that they should not be evicted from forest land. In Jammu there was widespread anger that encroachment of forest land by the two Muslim groups had been green-lighted. Later, an RTI activist in Jammu circulated the purported minutes of the meeting, this time with the accusatory comment that the PDP was implementing its “Kashmir-centric agenda” in Hindu-dominated Jammu.
What did the purported minutes say?
That it had been decided not to dislocate tribals until formulation of a tribal policy. In cases where their dislocation was considered necessary, according to the purported minutes, it would be carried only in prior consultation with the Tribal Affairs Department. Signed by Special Secretary (Tribal Affairs) Mohammad Sharief Choudhary, the “minutes” also recorded the CM’s instruction to all police and district authorities not to provide any police protection for eviction of tribals without approval from the department. The meeting was attended by PDP minister Zulfikar and MoS (Forests) Ajay Nanda (BJP).
What has the government said of this?
Officially, the government has been silent on the minutes. But after the controversy broke, all BJP ministers except deputy CM Nirmal Singh went to meet the CM, where Nanda gave a written submission that no such matter had come up for discussion in his presence. Later, at BJP headquarters, Nanda and Health & Medical Education Minister Bali Bhagat claimed the CM too had said no such discussion had taken place and there was no issue of her giving any such instruction to police and deputy commissioners. The ministers declared that in any case, the minutes of the meeting, in the absence of subsequent government orders, hold no legal validity. No orders have been issued.
Then why the protests even now?
In a state where both Hindus and Muslims read between the lines of any government decision seen to be facilitating one community or the other, not many were convinced by the BJP ministers’ clarification. There has been no official explanation for why the purported minutes record decisions that ministers claim were never taken.
What are Gujjars-Bakherwals saying?
That the eviction drives against them are driven by local misconceptions that they are responsible of large-scale encroachment of forest land. They say they have been on the side of Indian security forces since 1947. In Kashmir, they are perceived as helping security forces against militants. Tribal leaders have demanded a government white paper identifying those encroaching upon forest and state land and take action; they say these are influential people, both Hindu and Muslim, who connived with officials and sold such land to those who had migrated to Jammu during the militancy-hit 1990s. Rather than a tribal policy, tribal leaders have sought laws safeguarding the rights of nomads over forests.