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.