The Forest Right Act of 2006 does not apply to Jammu and Kashmir, making nomadic communities in the state vulnerable to alienation, eviction and violence.
“We have lived here for 500 years. Our home was razed to the ground by the government in 2017. We rear cattle for a living, the government has also taken away our grazing land. Where will we go now?”, asks Satar Khan, a resident of Sidhra, Jammu and Kashmir.
The demolition drive also rendered 54 other families in Sidhra homeless. All the families belong to the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, who mostly live in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Tribes, of which Gujjars and Bakarwals constitute a sizeable population, make up almost 12 percent of the population of the state. Although conventionally nomadic and forest dwelling communities, over the years they have had to take to other forms of settlement and livelihood because of restricted access to forest and grazing land.
The last census described Gujjars and Bakarwals as marginalised communities deserving special attention from the Centre, urging activists to demand Primitive Tribal Group status for them. A spate of incidents involving forced evictions and violence also confirmed the mainstream social and political attitude towards the communities.
In January 2018, this hateful attitude manifested in its worst form, in the gang rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, to teach her community a ‘lesson’. The rape was not an isolated incident of sexual violence but an assertion of power and identity over a marginalised community. It was a crime perpetrated to label the community as outsiders and encroachers, and what makes it worse is that when extremist group Hindu Ekta Manch rallied in support of the perpetrators, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including the district president of Kathua, joined the rally in support. This is the kind of hostility and insecurity that the community lives with.
Both Gujjar and Bakarwal communities are categorised as Scheduled Tribes but not all benefits extend to them as many laws do not apply to Jammu and Kashmir, owing to its special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. In the context of their land rights and rights of residence, the main legal roadblock is that the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) does not apply to the state. The FRA gives communities who traditionally live and depend on the forest right to land within the forest as well as rights over forest resources like water and minor forest produce. Moreover, it makes provisions for the availability of crucial facilities like education and healthcare within the forest area.
In the absence of FRA, communities like the Gujjars and Bakarwals have no legal respite. In February 2018, then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti passed an order banning the eviction of nomadic communities under the pretext of anti-encroachment drives without approval from the Tribal Affairs Department. Mufti said that no evictions could take place till the state passed a Tribal Policy. But the state government was dissolved in June 2018, leading to an impasse.
“Why did the government give us electricity and water here when they were going to evict us?” asks Manzoor Ahmad, pointing to uprooted government infrastructure that serve as signs that the community was not living on the land as encroachers.
Jammu and Kashmir got a dedicated Department of Tribal Affairs in 2016 but the state did not see any breakthrough in forest rights. The Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act of 1987 is the only governing forest law in the state and it entrusts the Forest Department with the protection of forests, giving no rights or concessions to forest-dwelling communities. Many activists argue for the extension of the landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006 Act to Jammu and Kashmir, while others advocate for a new state-specific forest law that will give primacy to the particularities of the state. The former would require the Assembly to pass the law and the latter would require the Department of Tribal Affairs to draft a policy; with the current political situation, neither is imminent.
The BJP, which was in power through its coalition with the People’s Democratic Party until four months ago, is opposed to the extension of FRA in Jammu and Kashmir. Forest rights was a bone of contention within the ruling coalition and Lal Singh, the BJP minister in-charge of forests, argued that the state’s forests are safe only because of the special status. Interestingly, the party invokes the state’s special status under Article 370 to keep FRA out, whereas they want to overturn this very special status in the larger picture.
Meanwhile, the 55 families in Sidhra and many others in other parts of Jammu live a life of uncertainty. The lack of a law does not mean that the state can use force and destroy settlements without any warning or a comprehensive rehabilitation plans.
“We appeal to the government to not harass us, and to help us rebuild our homes and lives on the land we were living on.” says Qadeer Khan, hoping that his children live in a secure environment and receive an education.
Video by Community Correspondent Rabiya Shafiq
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team