On August 5, 2019, when the Centre bifurcated Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh into two union territories and stripped the region of its statehood, it lost numerous political rights and guarantees – but on the flip side, it came under the purview of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
The FRA is a legal instrument that allows forest dwellers to, among other rights, graze their cattle in forestland, access water resources and establish livelihoods based on forest produce. It couldn’t be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir earlier due to Articles 370 and 35A.
The FRA was the product of a protracted struggle by India’s marginal and tribal communities to reclaim their rights over the forestland on which they have been historically dependent.
The former state and now union territory is home to the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes in Doda, Rajouri, Reasi and Poonch districts of Jammu. Some 90% of the Scheduled Tribe population is Muslim.
According to Haji Kareem, a member of the Dodhi Gujjar, his family has been living in the village for four generations. However, his widowed sister Kua Bibi still lost her land to encroachers claiming it was the government’s land. He also said their sarpanch still threatens to kick his tribe out of their village, Dissa Chak, in Kathua district.
Fareed, a Gujjar from Rajpura in Jammu, said local landlords have repeatedly lodged complaints against his tribe with various courts and district magistrates. “The landlords who themselves are owners of hundreds of canals and land burn down our temporary tents to evict us from our settlements near the forest area.” Indeed, in 2008, village landlords burnt down 47 kullahs, grain silos and groceries.
Ferozdin, a Gujjar from Bhandore village in Kathua, also recalled how a piece of land he owned that had a few graves was recently taken over by Hindu villagers under orders from their sarpanch, and is now being used to park vehicles and house their cattle.
“Now the situation is such that the local encroachers even defecate there,” Ferozdin told The Wire.
Advocate Shakir Hussain has filed a writ in the Jammu & Kashmir high court for Ferozdin’s case. According to him, Ferozdin’s land has always been used as a graveyard and has also been registered as such in the revenue records. The graveyard is also under the protection of the Waqf Board, which also sanctioned poles and wires to fence the land. However, Ferozdin and others have alleged that local Hindus rake up communal issues to keep him from occupying and even protecting the land.
Kua Bibi, Haji Kareem, Fareed and Ferozdin have been shifting from one village to the next, spending three or so weeks in each. They have no legal safeguards that protect their livelihoods, are harassed by the locals, and are vulnerable to the vagaries environment. If the FRA had been implemented, their fortunes might be quite different.
Talib Hussain, an advocate and member of the Bakarwal tribe, said that the delay in implementing the FRA is yet another government ploy to frustrate the Muslim population. “Even in states like Madhya Pradesh, the implementation of FRA has only been successful in the villages where the district magistrate himself belonged to the tribal community,” he told The Wire.
According to him, after the Centre read down Article 370 in August 2019, many tribal herders, Gujjars and Bakarwals who used to pitch their tents inside nearby forests were stopped from even entering the forests as officials feared they would settle down there, and implementing the FRA will complicate efforts to evict them.
Sajjad Kargili, a social activist from Kargil, said that when Article 370 had still been in effect, the local government had assured Ladakhis that it would not pursue a programme of rapid industrialisation. However, he said, Ladakhis fear now that the fragile Himalayan region won’t be able to cope with real-estate developments the region has been opened up to now.
“In an area that is so ecologically fragile, and where the government should be drafting policies to safeguard the region against calamities, it is more occupied with just maintaining law and order and with shutting people up,” Kargili said.
He also said the government has been stalling apropos implementing the FRA thanks to demands from the corporate lobby, representing companies keen on exploiting ‘pristine’ ecological locations like Ladakh and extract resources from the region. He also believes the government will never introduce any laws disadvantageous to the country’s corporate elite, so the delay in FRA is only understandable, albeit disappointing.
Tarushi Aswani is an intern at The Wire.