The J&K administration’s “anti-encroachment” drive to evict Gujjar and Bakerwal tribals from forest land has caused widespread disquiet among the communities.
Last week, the administration launched a drive to demolish homes and seasonal hutments in the upper reaches of Pahalgam in Anantnag.
Former chief minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, who visited the homeless tribal families on Monday, called it a witch-hunt against these Muslim tribes, and a part of the “process of disempowerment and displacement that started with the abrogation of J&K’s special status”.
The Anantnag district administration, however, said it is clearing illegally occupied forest land.
“There is large-scale encroachment of forest land…. There is loot of forest going on and we have decided to remove every bit of encroachment,’’ chief executive officer, Pahalgam Development Authority, Mushtaq Simnani told The Indian Express. “We will not allow the use of this land for agricultural purposes. We have retrieved 700 kanals of forest land in Aru (Pahalgam). We are moving forward despite protests. We will continue with this anti-encroachment drive in three more villages. Even if someone has one marla (of forest land), we will retrieve that.”
Simnani said the administration has clear directions from the High Court.
The drive comes at a time when Central laws that protect tribals’ right to use forest land are not being implemented on the ground: Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Act) or Forest Act; and Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Incidentally, these two laws were cited by the Centre as “benefits” of abrogation of J&K’s special status.
According to the 2011 Census, 11.9 per cent population of J&K is ST, and an overwhelming majority — more than 90 per cent — of it Muslim Gujjar and Bakerwal community. The Forest Act promulgated in 2006 protects traditional forest dwellers from forced evictions, allows them to use forest land, provides them grazing rights, right over water resources and forest products (except timber) in areas where they live inside the forests.
The SC/ST Act provides a legal shield to the tribals against any discrimination and high-handedness.
Mohammad Iqbal Phambra, chief organiser of the All India Gujjar Sabha and President of the Shepherds Union, said, “They (government) have been promising to implement Forest Rights Act and help the nomadic population from among Gujjars and Bakerwals to settle down, but on ground they are throwing us out everywhere. They are demolishing our hutments and homes. We are not asking for something new.”
When contacted, Secretary, J&K Tribal Affairs, Rehana Batul said the administration had “initiated” the implementation of the laws.
“We have to constitute committees at three levels to implement this law (Forest Act). We have initiated the matter and taken it up with the General Administrative Department,’’ she said.
Batul said the SC/ST Act is implemented by the Home Department. “I am finding out whether this Act is relevant to us,’’ she said. She also said there is no case regarding eviction of tribals from forest land with the Tribal Affairs Department.
Director, Tribal Affairs, Saleem Malik said: “We cannot implement the Forest Act till our committees are complete.” . He that the SC/ST Act is already applicable. “There is a commission at the national level which is functioning. They (tribals) have to make complaints before the national commission and they then refer it to the concerned administration for reply,’’ he said.
Politically, though, the BJP has been opposing implementation of any legal framework that provides rights to the tribal Gujjar and Bakerwal community in J&K even before the abrogation of special status of J&K. During an eviction drive against Gujjar families by the government in Jammu’s Samba district in 2016, a youngster from the Gujjar community was killed.
To pacify the angry tribal community, then CM Mehbooba Mufti had banned eviction of nomadic tribals from forest land without a go-ahead from the Tribal Affairs Department. This move had led to serious disagreements between the then coalition partners and BJP had publicly sought withdrawal of this government order.
Earlier too, when PDP legislator Qamar Hussain had moved a Bill for extending this central Act to J&K in the erstwhile Legislative Assembly, BJP had strongly opposed it. Ironically, the BJP had cited J&K’s special status then to oppose the implementation of this law in J&K.
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