J&K forest Minister Choudhary Lal Singh finds himself in trouble with the state police looking into a complaint that he had threatened a deputation of Gujjar farmers in Jammu by reminding them of the 1947 massacre of Muslims in the region.
The signatories to the complaint include both Hindu and Muslim farmers, police said, identifying some of them as Rachpal Sharma, Nizam Malik and Yusuf Ali. “However, as none of them has mentioned their address, we are looking for them as well to record their statements,” a senior police officer said.
With the Opposition and separatists seeking his resignation, Lal Singh denied making the threat and said he would quit if the complainants repeated the charge in front of him.
According to the minister, what he was actually referring to was the temperature in Jammu city. “They (the Gujjar delegation) had come seeking my intervention to get their truck-loads of wood released from forest officials. While refusing to oblige them, what I said was that the temperature in Jammu that day was 47 degrees C due to reckless felling of green trees, and that this would not be tolerated anymore,” he told The Indian Express.
In their complaint, the farmers said they had gone to Singh’s residence in Jammu on May 18 in connection with an issue pertaining to their orchard land.
Without listening to them, the farmers say, the minister started using abusive language, asking whether “we have forgotten the 1947 massacre of Muslims in the region”.
Seeking registration of an FIR against Singh, the complaint says, “The behaviour of the minister towards us was uncalled for and the remarks made by him are derogatory and have hurt the sentiments of the community. We see a sinister design to vitiate communal brotherhood and tranquillity.”
A large number of Muslims were killed during riots in Jammu region following Partition.
BJP president Sat Sharma, an MLA from Jammu West, said vested interests were trying to rake up a controversy against Singh, “who has been making all out efforts to save forests in the state”. “I have talked to him and he denied making any such remarks,” Sharma said.
Measuring his words carefully, alliance partner PDP’s chief spokesman Mehboob Beig said, “We don’t know whether Singh has said it or not. He may have said it but now he is publicly saying he has not said it.”
Commenting that it had become “fashionable” to condemn people, Beig added, “I think time has come that we need to be positive… What if Singh has not said this? We have developed a kind of negative mindset. Why is it that it is always peaceful from November to March and suddenly issues crop up when economic activity starts and the tourists start to come to Kashmir.”
“At the same time,” the PDP leader added, “I think he (Lal Singh) should be more responsible.”
Seeking the minister’s resignation, senior National Conference leaders issued a statement denouncing “the highly provocative, abusive, derogatory and venomous language to threaten Gujjars”. “If he doesn’t resign, the Chief Minister (Mehbooba Mufti) must sack him, as the irresponsible behaviour of the minister has the potential to vitiate the peaceful atmosphere and threaten harmony in Jammu,” the statement said.
Separatist leaders in Srinagar said the “sinister” designs of the Hindutva forces have been exposed.
“This outburst of the communal minister is the perfect reflection of the mindset of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar,” said Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani. “Any untoward incident with any Jammu Muslim will invite a storm in the entire state that will wash away people like Lal Singh.”
Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief Syeda Aasiya Andrabi said Muslims of Jammu should not feel intimidated. “This is not 1947 but 2016,” she said. “Kashmiri Muslims are with you and together we will fail every evil design of these forces.”
A three-time MLA and two-time MP of the Congress, Lal Singh had joined the BJP before the 2014 Assembly elections. In the Lok Sabha elections that year, when still with the Congress, he had equated the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi with a dog. Last year, he had got into a controversy for abusing National Conference leaders for submitting a Bill seeking to revoke the beef ban.
As per Lal Singh’s defence, he had stopped officials from issuing ‘Naksha (map) 25’, which allowed farmers to transport trees fallen on their land, as this was being misused by smugglers. In the absence of Naksha25, a farmer can fell tree grown on his land for personal use, but cannot carry it somewhere else for sale.
“Two-three days before May 18, some Gujjar farmers visited me seeking a direction to the divisional forest officer, Jammu, to release 44 truck-loads of logs, which they said were from trees fallen on their own land. After seeking an assurance from them that they would not carry any more felling, I told the DFO to release trucks subject to his satisfaction,” Singh said.
“On May 18, I came to Jammu from Srinagar. At the airport, the hostess announced that temperature in Jammu was 47 degrees C. As the deputation visited me again, I told them the temperature in Jammu was 47 due to the reckless felling of trees.”
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