Gujjars and Bakerwals bear the brunt of BJP’s “land jihad” bogey in Jammu and Kashmir

A local resident points to chopped apple trees at Kanidajan in Central Kashmir's Budgam district. Civil society activists said that government officials destroyed around ten thousand apple and walnut trees in a demolition drive in November. Umer Asif
30 December, 2020

On 10 August 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party held a celebratory function in Jammu division to mark the abrogation of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. The function—which was organised amid an unprecedented security lockdown and a communications blackout across the former state—was largely about optics. A group of people from two Muslim Adivasi communities in the region—Gujjars and Bakerwals—were presented before the media. The community members parroted praises for the Narendra Modi government’s unilateral move, describing it as a harbinger of freedom. This endorsed the BJP’s narrative that the existence of Article 370 had denied the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities their rights, and that its abrogation would empower them. Yet, almost 16 months after central laws were extended to Jammu and Kashmir, its Adivasi communities are yet to get the benefits of two key central acts—The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called Forest Rights Act, and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act. 

Gujjars and Bakerwals are among the largest Scheduled Tribe communities in the former state. Socially and economically marginalised, they are pastoralist and nomadic communities. Historically, both these communities have been the victims of religious polarisation and regional politics. They are seen as Muslims in the Hindu-majority Jammu division, and are ethnically marginalised in Kashmir. On the one hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been trying to woo the community to make inroads into the union territory. On the other hand, the BJP has further victimised the community using terms such as “land jihad” to describe their dwellings. The term “land jihad” is a reference to a right-wing narrative that Muslims have been encroaching on government land in the Hindu-majority regions of the former state to try and change its demography. According to the land jihad narrative, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti—former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir—helped Muslims encroach state land in and around the Hindu-majority areas to change the demographic profile of the region.

The Gujjar and Bakerwal communities have traditionally lived on forest land. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 recognises the rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers to forest land. It defines forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes as “the members or community of the Scheduled Tribes who primarily reside in and who depend on the forests or forest lands for bona fide livelihood needs,” and includes Scheduled Tribe pastoralist communities. It further defines other forest dwellers as “any member or community who has for at least three generations prior to the 13 December, 2005 primarily resided in and who depend on the forest or forests land for bona fide livelihood needs.”

Before the enactment of the FRA, forest dwellers were considered to be illegal encroachers on forest land. The FRA corrected this historical injustice and gave forest dwellers legal rights to the land they had been residing on for generations. The act provides that no member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers “shall be evicted or removed from the forest land” under their occupation without a recognition of their rights. It also entitles them to due compensation in case of displacement.

However, social activists in Jammu and Kashmir told me that in November 2020, local officials conducted demolition drives and issued show cause notices for eviction to forest-dwelling Gujjar and Bakerwal communities. On 23 November, I spoke to Raja Muzaffar Bhat, the chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Right-To-Information Movement, a civil-society organisation. He said that the forest department had been taking steps to evict people living in the vicinity of forests in several villages, such as Nagbal Yusmarg, Darwan, Kanidajan, Jabad Branwar, Raiyar and Arizal in Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

Mohammad Arif Gorse, a resident of Lidroo village in Anantnag, told me that local officials accompanied by police stormed through his village on 9 November. He recounted that he watched his home getting demolished. “They said, ‘You have illegally occupied government land,’” Gorse told me. “But our family has been living here for the past over 100 years. Unlike our ancestors, we don’t live like nomads.” He continued, “It’s snowing here and our family now has only a small portion of roof left for the shelter. The officials have removed the fence that we had set up to protect us and our livestock from leopards, bears and others wild animals.” According to Gorse, the team of officials demolished six houses that were made up of wood, stone and mud, and damaged 30 others.

Bhat described the government’s move to evict forest dwellers from their ancestral land as an open violation of FRA, 2006. “The law gives legal protection to forest dwellers like Gujjars, Bakerwals, Chopans and even Kashmiris or Dogras living in the forest area for over 75 years,” he said. “Under FRA, people living near forests have some rights on the forest land provided they don’t make its commercial use. The government must instead focus on deforestation and the loot of forest wealth.” Bhat added that “over ten thousand walnut and apple trees were axed” in a recent demolition drive against traditional forest dwellers in the Budgam district. “The government hasn’t compensated the affected people,” he said.

Another demolition drive was conducted in the Mamal village of the Pahalgam area in Anantnag on 7 November. “The road that connects Mamal village and the place where the tribal families reside have alpine trees on both sides besides over a dozen commercial huts and hotels,” Shabbir Swathi, a resident of Mamal, said. “The authorities didn’t touch those concrete structures. They only targeted our dwellings and left two homes completely damaged. Our people have been living here since times immemorial. We have been paying electricity bills and have all the documents including ration cards, Aadhaar cards and voter ID cards.” Swathi added that during the drive, the officials also “damaged our fences, vegetables farms and walnut trees.”

Swathi said that the department of wildlife protection had served notices to residents in the area on 23 October. “The notices asked for evicting the illegally occupied land within five days from the date of their issuance.” According to Swathi, a similar drive was conducted in the Aru area near Pahalgam as well. 

The show cause notices and steps toward evicting the forest-dwelling communities came in the wake of directions of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in two separate public-interest litigations. The first was filed in 2017 by Devinder Kaur Madaan, the chairperson of Save Animals Value Environment, or SAVE, a Jammu-based non-profit. Madaan told me that her petition had sought legal action against milk dairies that house cattle in congested spaces beyond the allowed limits. The petition also asked for land for a gau-shala, or cow shelter, where stray bovines could be looked after. Referring to the Jammu Municipal Corporation, Madan said, “The corporation had submitted that it can’t shut down illegal dairies as it didn’t have enough land for setting up a cattle pond,”—an enclosure for cattle—“to accommodate all the cattle. The corporation had only two cattle ponds, one in the old city and another in Gandhi Nagar. The cattle pond in the old city is spread over half a kanal”—a kanal is about an eighth of an acre—“and can’t cater to the needs of Jammu city, that has 75 municipal wards and 200–300 dairies, which don’t fulfil all legal specifications.” 

She continued, “The court had asked the district administration to provide land to the corporation for a gau-shala. Subsequently, about 100 kanal was allotted near Jagti,”—which is located about 20 kilometres away from Jammu city. “However, the forest department and the local people would keep hampering the construction work time and again. So, we told the court that vast tracts of the forest land had been encroached across Jammu and Kashmir. The department never bothered to vacate those encroachments. It was not allowing work on the first ever gau-shala in the entire union territory.” Madan said that subsequently, the court “asked the forest department to furnish all the details regarding encroachment of forest land across Jammu and Kashmir.” She added, “the department was also asked to provide details of the total number of encroachments which had been evicted.”

In September 2020, the court directed the government to constitute a committee with a time-bound mandate of receiving and deciding all complaints of encroachments of forest land. As per the court directions, the Jammu and Kashmir government formed the Committee on Forest Encroachments. Subsequently, the committee published the lists of encroachers in 32 forest divisions on its website. “The forest department has told the court that over 63,000 individuals are illegally occupying more than 15,000 hectares of forest land in Jammu and Kashmir,” Madaan said.

The second PIL pertains to what is popularly known as the Roshni land scam. In 2001, the then Farooq Abdullah government had passed the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, commonly known as Roshni act, which proposed to transfer ownership of state land to its occupants for a fee determined by the government. Its objective was to generate resources to finance power projects for electricity.

In 2014, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had pointed out irregularities in the Roshni scheme. Against the target of Rs 25,448 crores, the scheme had generated just Rs 76 crores between 2007 and 2013, the report divulged. The act was repealed by the then Governor Satyapal Malik in June 2018. The high court judgement on Roshni act has come in response to a PIL filed by SK Bhalla, a Jammu based anti-corruption activist and a retired professor. The petition noted that the senior government functionaries had usurped government land.

In addition to Bhalla’s petition, a civil miscellaneous petition was also filed in Roshni case in 2014 by advocate Ankur Sharma, seeking a CBI probe. Following the CAG revelations, Sharma had demanded that the law be declared unconstitutional and land transferred under the scheme be retrieved. On 9 October 2020, the court directed that the “details of State land which was in illegal and unauthorized occupation” be compiled and posted on an official website, “with full identity of encroachers.”  On 24 November, following court’s directions, the offices of divisional commissioners in both Jammu and Kashmir also uploaded the lists of people who have illegally occupied state land.

However, in both the cases, the Gujjars and Bakerwal communities are likely to bear the brunt of the government’s actions. I spoke to Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed, a Jammu-based senior advocate who represented petitioners in SAVE and Roshi land scam case. “The recent judgements have come as a blessing in disguise for the BJP, which has lost its base in Jammu region,” he said. “The party has weaponised the judgements against Muslims including Gujjars and Bakerwals to hide its failures on all fronts.”  In November, Kavinder Gupta, a senior BJP leader, the former deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir claimed that the government’s action on the Roshni scheme is a “surgical strike” against “land jihad.” Sharma claims he has coined the term land jihad. The phrase was later picked up by a section of the media. I also spoke to SK Bhalla, the first petitioner in the Roshni case. “Instead of serving public interest, the high court judgement is being used for settling political scores,” he said. “Some political leaders are giving a communal slant to the judgment.”

On 16 November, Mufti visited the homes of Adivasi families in Anantnag district and deplored the demolition drive. “The demolition of temporary structures of nomadic Kashmiri tribes comprising Gujjar and Bakerwal community is a brazen attempt to make the natives homeless in the name of so-called anti-encroachment drive in Kashmir forests,” Mufti wrote on her Facebook page. “The drive … is a sinister design and perhaps a test case for engineering demographic change in Kashmir.” In another post, Mufti continued, “This selective witch-hunt of Muslim tribes is a clear message that all draconian steps are being taken to punish tribals from one community.”

A man outside his demolished house in South Kashmir's Lidder Valley. In November, local officials conducted demolition drives and issued show cause notices for eviction to forest-dwelling Gujjar and Bakerwal communities. Muzamil Bashir

Two days later, on 18 November, the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha administration clarified that the departments of tribal affairs, forest, ecology and the environment have started work on implementing the FRA. In a press note, the administration said that BVR Subrahmanyam, the chief secretary, chaired a meeting on 18 November to review its implementation. “It became applicable to J&K only after 31st October, 2019, hence, recognising the rights of forest dwelling communities for the first time in the Union Territory,” the official press statement said.

The statement added that the government agencies will complete a survey of claimants under FRA and prepare a “record of forest rights” by 30 January 2021, and approve all eligible claims by 1 March. It further stated, “the Forest department has been asked to immediately constitute the 4-tier committees including-State Level Monitoring Committee, District Level Committee, Sub-Divisional Level Committee, and Forest Rights Committee” to implement the FRA act. The statement noted that under the act, the forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers will be provided with the rights over forest land for the purpose of habitation, livelihood and ownership, and access to collect and use minor forest produce. In December, the forest department constituted an eight-member committee of experts “to provide technical and legal support” for the implementation of the FRA in Jammu and Kashmir. When I spoke to Bhat again on 29 December, he said the demolition and eviction drives had been halted for the moment and officials had not taken any further steps to pursue the show cause notices.

Talib Hussain, a social activist from the Bakerwal community who joined the PDP in 2019, accompanied Mufti to Anantnag following the demolition drive. He pointed out that the FRA had not been implemented in Jammu and Kashmir even 14 years after it became operational in other parts of the country. “It remains to be seen where and in which form the law is implemented in Jammu and Kashmir,” he told me. “In Jammu and Kashmir assembly, there used to be seven–eight MLAs from Gujjar-Bakerwal community at any given point in time. But they never took the initiative for implementing the law to empower the nomadic pastoral community members. Since the former state of Jammu and Kashmir had its own constitution, it could have come up with an even better law than the central Forest Rights Act.”

After Mufti, a prominent National Conference leader, Mian Altaf Ahmad, also visited the affected families in Pahalgam on 19 November. I asked him why he had not implemented after he became forest minister in the Omar Abdullah government in January 2009. “It’s not a suitable time to comment on this issue,” he said. “I will speak at an appropriate time.” Welcoming the government decision to implement the FRA, he added, “I hope from now onwards the tribal families won’t be harassed by the officials.”   

Javaid Rahi, a noted tribal scholar and the general secretary of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, a non-profit based in Jammu, said that he been campaigning for the protection of tribal rights in Jammu and Kashmir for over 20 years. “The FRA will now certainly give much needed legal and constitutional safeguards to our nomads,” he said. “Hopefully, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act will also be implemented. As part of our community outreach programme, we have started making community members aware of their rights under the relevant laws that became applicable here post 5 August last year,” He added, “FRA implementation is the second biggest step towards empowerment of Gujjars and Bakerwals since they were granted Scheduled Tribe status in 1991.” Referring to the redistribution of assembly constituencies, he continued, “We are also expecting political reservation in Jammu and Kashmir assembly after the delimitation exercise is over. But it’s going to be a long battle for the tribal population to get its due as promised under the laws.”

Rahi further said that over the past three decades, the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities have  been reeling from an identity crisis due to a combination of factors including border conflict with Pakistan, militancy and urbanisation. “The creation of forest and wildlife enclosures besides land grabs has also challenged their way of life,” he said. “For development projects, government acquired state land which has traditionally been used as pastures by the community.” Rahi continued, “In Kashmir, Gujjars and Bakerwals face social exclusion due to their ethnicity. They are not even allowed to bury their dead in the local graveyards. In Jammu, they are seen as Muslims. They invariably become the victims of religious and regional polarisation in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir.”

The two Adivasi communities have also been in the eye of storm since the 2018 rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl in Kathua, a district in the Jammu division, with right-wing activists calling for their social and economic boycott. The Kathua rape case became a major flashpoint between the BJP and Peoples Democratic Party, who were ruling the erstwhile state in an alliance at that time. BJP legislators had participated in rallies in support of the rape accused. 

A Jammu-based political observer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, spelled out the political context surrounding the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities, indicating how they have become pawns in a larger political game. “The ruling BJP is using their miserable socio-economic condition for justifying the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status,” he said. “But on the ground nothing has changed for tribal people since 5 August last year. The government claims that the FRA became applicable after 31 October 2019. Then, why are eviction notices being sent to the tribal people who have been living in forest areas? And most importantly, why hasn’t the government  taken any legal action against its agencies under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for demolishing the houses of poor tribal people?”

The observer added that the demolition drives against the Adivasi population and the bogey of “land jihad” cannot be seen in isolation. Referring to the BJP, he continued, “Such narratives help the saffron party in the Hindu majority areas of Jammu and rest of the country. On the other side, the ruling party has taken some cosmetic measures to bring Gujjars and Bakerwals into the party-fold. It’s particularly relying on them to make inroads in Kashmir Valley. The BJP is also taking credit for political reservation to the tribal communities in the panchayat elections for district development committees.” In the panchayat elections, the BJP deputed its Gujjar leader and Rajya Sabha MP, Surendra Nagar to canvas for the party. During the poll campaign, Nagar demanded official language status for “Gojri,” the language spoken by the Adivasi communities, besides reservation of assembly seats for Gujjars and Bakerwals.

Since 2014, the BJP has been trying to wean Gujjar and Bakerwal communities away from the National Conference, PDP and Congress. Months before the Modi government abrogated Article 370, the Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief, Ravinder Raina, had promised the nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals residential flats in dense forests. “We will build 10,000 flats for Bakerwals and Gujjars in Kashmir in the midst of lush green forests,” Raina said. “We will build ten colonies in ten cities for the homeless and each household would have three rooms, kitchen, bathroom and other facilities. We will get a package of Rs 10,000 crore from Modi sahab … Bakerwal and Gujjar families must have a house. People have landed on moon … for how long you will continue living in tents.”

I spoke to Shahbaz Choudhary, a scholar and member of Bakerwal community, who has studied the socio-economic and political status of the two communities.“Gujjar-Bakerwal voters can influence election outcomes in 27 assembly constituencies,” he said. “In at least 16 constituencies they are the kingmakers. The tribal communities have traditionally voted for the NC. But in the past over one decade a sizeable chunk of voters has shifted towards PDP, Congress and newly founded Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party. In the recent years, we have seen a few community members, who have given up nomadic way of life, joining the BJP.”

Choudhary emphasised the need to provide basic education to the Adivasi population. “Successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir promised to upgrade mobile schools meant for the nomadic families,” he said. “But the fact is that mobile schools have largely remained unsuccessful in educating our people over the decades.” He added, “There can’t be any substitute for education when it comes to empowering people in the real sense.”

Sarita Chauhan, commissioner secretary of the forest, environment and ecology department, did not respond to my questions. Another top forest official commented on the condition of anonymity. “The show cause notices for eviction were issued following high court directions in a PIL filed by a Jammu based NGO, SAVE,” he said. However, he added, “We are making our officials aware about the Forest Rights Act, under which traditional forest dwellers can’t be evicted. The government has constituted committees. We are gearing up. Section 4 (5) of the act is very much clear we can’t touch tribal people and other traditional forest dwellers unless their claims are settled.”