Demolition of dhoks creates panic, fear among Nomads

KT NEWS SERVICE. Dated: 11/18/2020 12:19:11 AM

JAMMU/SRINAGAR, Nov 17: Last week, a video shared on a social media platform by social and tribal rights activist, Zahid Choudhary, showed the temporary dhoks made of wooden logs and mud being demolished by the forest authorities, creating panic and fear among the nomadic Gujjar and Bakerwal communities.
At least 13 structures were said to be demolished as part of a drive conducted by the Pahalgam Development Authority and Forest department against alleged “encroachment”.
Officials in Anantnag said that they are retrieving the forest land and state land “which was illegally occupied by the tribal community and divulged that till now the administration has retrieved 700 Kanals of land in Pahalgam.”
A joint team of the officers of Pahalgam Development Authority, Wildlife, Forest, Revenue, Police, and Pahalgam Development Authority on November 7, launched an anti-encroachment drive at several areas of Pahalgam of Anantnag and retrieved 110 Kanals of land.
On November 8, The Pahalgam Development Authority demolished 13 more structures in various places of the tourist resort. PDA officials said the demolition drive was undertaken in accordance with orders of the High Court in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
According to KNS, Deputy commissioner Anantnag Kuldip Krishan Sidha in a press conference, clarified that no such demolition drives were conducted in Lidroo Pahalgam but added anti-encroachment drive was conducted against those persons who have illegally encroached forest, wildlife or stateland.
Encroachment Drive was livestreamed on KNS and other channels and the Photo, videography and other related documents have been submitted in the court, he said.
"The people residing in this forest land were not harassed unnecessary and it is the right of people to conserve and preserve the beautiful forest land", he added.
He requested people not to pay heed to these statements made by some people without checking facts and sought their cooperation in preserving the beautiful hill station.
While more than a dozen structures, apart from felling of young walnut trees in Mamal, local activists maintain that about 70 families have been impacted by the move. They say that the eviction is “illegal” and “unjustified” even as notices have been served to many residents living in the demolished dhoks and similar structures which are likely to face the axe, according to a local tribal rights activist, Chowdhary Irshad Khatana.
One of the notices, dated 23-10-2020, issued by a forest ranger in Urdu, a copy of which is with the Kashmir Times, states, “You are being informed in writing that you have illegally occupied forest land and did its "baadbandi". You are being asked to remove this "baadbandi" on your own immediately and not to do any cultivation on it. You are being given a seven-day time to remove "baadbandi". In case you fail to do so, the forest department has authority to take action and you will have to pay the expenses for such an action. You will be responsible for it.”
Gujjar activist and PDP leader, Talib Hussain, counters, “it is a misnomer to call it encroachment in the first place. The tribal communities are forest people and these temporary sheds have been their homes for decades. They are neither a threat to the forests or ecology because their traditional lifestyle and culture is instead in harmony with the environment and their presence ensures protection of the forests.”
While officials maintained that these structures were abandoned, Khatana said that these were temporary houses where the nomadic families live in summers and shift to Jammu in winters.
Khatana also said that yesterday when Peoples Democratic Party leader, Mehbooba Mufti visited the area and met some of the Gujjar-Bakerwal families, they alleged that they were being harassed since they received the notices.
Talib, who said, he was in the area before Mufti’s visit was told by some of the Gujjars that they were forced to sign on some documents and were also threatened by the police and forest rangers. “Some of them were so scared that they had run away to nearby Aavre area from Mamal when I went. They were even scared to talk.”
Former minister and prominent Gujjar leader Mian Altaf described “the demolition of dhoks belonging to nomadic tribes of Gujjars and Bakerwals in Pahalgam and Aru area as totally illegal and uncalled for by the forest officials. He said this action amounts to total violation of basic rights. These are temporary shelters of the nomads and they are not encroachers of forest land. They live in harmony with forests.”
Mian Altaf said that under the garb of new laws and Forest Act, the L-G’s administration is resorting to harassment of the nomads for no fault of theirs. He said that last year the L-G’s administration issued paid advertisements in the newspapers that the rights of the nomadic tribes would be fully protected but the actions of the forest officials are contrary to those assurances. He questioned where shall the nomads go in the winters when their dhoks are demolished.
A recent report by The Kashmiriyat quoted the locals as saying, “the officials along with a team of more than hundred people stormed into the village after threatening the villagers to not resist the demolition move. They threatened us that they will get us arrested if we even try to resist or speak against the measure.”
The report also pointed out that around a hundred families of the community were sent notices to evacuate their houses in the Batote area on the Kashmir highway in August and several houses were damaged.
Khatana pointed out that some Gujjar families have also received similar notices in Ganderbal area.
Talib also spoke about recent “eviction threats” made “verbally” by the forest ranger in Sitni in Nagrota in the outskirts of Jammu city. “They were told to abandon their homes or they would be bulldozed by November 25.” He said that the Gujjars in the area were resisting the move. He also spoke about similar harassment to the nomads living in the forests of Dhamiyal, adjacent to Rassana in Kathua district, where “they are being harassed by the police and the Hindu Ekta Manch and are being asked to leave and threatened.”
Hindu Ekta Manch was formed in the winter of 2018 after the gang rape and murder of an 8-year old girl of the nomadic community, who had gone to graze horses in the Rassana area, a few hundred metres away from her home. She had been drugged and gang raped, inside the ‘devisthan’ by about 7-8 men of the majority community in Kathua who were convicted of the crime earlier this year.
The assault had made headlines, triggering widespread outrage and leading to protests across the country, as chilling details of the crime and the conspiracy became known once the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police filed its charge-sheet. The charge-sheet had also said that the rape and murder were part of a larger conspiracy planned by the accused to frighten and drive out the Bakarwal nomads.
The incident had deepened the communal divide in the state with many people even coming out in open support of the rape accused. According to Talib, one of the activists who spearheaded the cause of justice for the little girl, “the incident was a turning point creating space for the flawed narrative in Jammu region that Gujjars were destroying the forests and were the people behind encroachments.” He avers that there is an attempt to create that similar narrative in Kashmir but “here the people are seeing through the designs”.
With respect to the Pahalgam case, he accused the authorities of targeting “innocent” people while letting off the real culprits of encroachments. “In the vicinity of the structures that were demolished in Lidroo,” he says, “there were big palatial cottages built up on forest land. If this is to save forests, why were they not touched and what was the logic behind demolishing kuccha structures that pose no threat to the environment?”
Similar question is raised by Khatana, who alleged that right across the structures demolished in Mamal, “a massive resort by a leading Valley-based hotelier has not been targeted.”
The tribal activists are also aghast at the “injustice” which they say is violation of the 2006 Forest Act (FRA). “We had been demanding this for years,” says Talib, “but it automatically came into place after Article 370 was made redundant and the central laws were extended to Jammu and Kashmir.”
As per the Forest Right Act 2006, traditional forest dwellers are protected against forced displacements and have other rights as well, which include grazing rights, access to water resources, and access to forest products except for timber.
2006, Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act gives the traditional forest dwellers their rights to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources within village boundaries, which had been controlled by the forest department since colonial times. Under this law, traditional forest dwellers are protected against forced displacements. They also have grazing rights, access to water resources, and are entitled to minor forest produce except timber.
The Gujjar-Bakerwal community was given access to forests and grazing rights under the Dogra rule under the 1882 forest act. However, recent tweaking of land laws are generating fears that the nomads may lose their grazing rights to ‘development’ or ‘strategic’ priorities.
Another tribal activist, on conditions on anonymity, reminded that the state government had tabled its own state forest rights Bill in 2018 but never came up for discussion. “A cabinet committee was also created for framing a state tribal policy. In 2018, when the Jammu administration began cracking down on the nomadic community and accusing them of illegal encroachments as well as demolishing their temporary structures in the wake of Rassana incident, the then chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti had ordered that no member of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community should be dislocated. The statement was made in light of the rights of the tribal and nomadic communities.”
He lamented that this was given a different twist in Jammu region by the Hindu right-wing groups which began accusing the chief minister of “backing Muslim encroachers.” It is so easy to demonise them, he sighed, adding “as they are at the bottom of the pyramid – illiterate and marginalized”.
According to the 2011 census, the Gujjars and Bakarwals constitute 11.9% of the state’s population – 1.5 million out of 12.5 million. A 2004 survey by the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation (TRCF), which works with Gujjars, found that 67% of the nomadic Gujjar population in Jammu and Kashmir lives below the poverty line.

 

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