`I will burn myself to death`: Kashmir’s nomads evicted from homes amid anti-Muslim crackdown
Activists believe evictions are happening so the Indian government can sell resource-rich territory to the private sector
NEW DELHI—All that remains of Shareef-Ud-Din Bajad’s apple orchard are the snapped branches, buried deep in the winter snow.
In mid-November, officials from the local forest department in Kashmir had surrounded the mountain-top mud-hut house in the village of Kanidajan where Mr Bajad, 70, had lived for his entire life.
“The officials threatened me and my famil
y with jail if I didn’t leave my house,” said Mr Bajad, who lived there with his wife and six children.
“They told me I had encroached upon forest land.”
Mr Bajad and his family are Gujjars, a nomadic tribe whose members have herded their livestock between Kashmir’s mountainous forests and its lowland plains for generations.
However, the survival of Kashmir’s 1.4 million tribal people, who constitute 12 per cent of the region’s total population, is in jeopardy.
Since early November, dozens of tribal people have been forced to leave their homes in an Indian government-led eviction campaign, after a court in the Hindu-majority secular nation ruled 64,000, mostly Muslim tribal people had been living in Jammu and Kashmir’s forests illegally.
The family was forced to immediately leave their home despite below-freezing temperatures.
When Mr Bajad’s son returned to their property two days later he found the authorities had chopped down around 10,000 apple trees, the main source of income for Mr Bajad’s family and those in his village.
“They want to make sure that our livelihood is destroyed. Otherwise, instead of axing the trees they could have fenced it and taken it to their possession. But the Narendra Modi government wants to teach us a lesson,” Mr Bajad said.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has implemented a succession of anti-Muslim policies since prime minister Narendra Modi, was re-elected with a landslide victory in 2019.
In August 2019, the BJP removed Jammu and Kashmir`s autonomous status, bringing India`s only Muslim-majority state under direct rule from New Delhi.
Activists say the evictions are the latest attempt by the BJP to erode civil liberties and curtail the income of its largely Muslim residents.
After Jammu and Kashmir was brought under central rule, tribal people such as the Gujjar should have been afforded protection under India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The ongoing evictions in Jammu and Kashmir are, therefore, “totally illegal” according to Prashant Bhushan, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court of India.
“Under the FRA there has to be the determination of their [tribal] rights first and the local rural authorities have to be included,” said Mr Bhushan.
Activists believe the evictions are happening so the Indian government can sell resource-rich territory to the private sector after a law forbidding the sale of land to non-Kashmiris was scrapped in October.
The evicted people will see no financial windfall and say they have been offered no compensation for the property taken or the loss of income.
With many of Kashmir’s lawyers and civil-society activists languishing in jails without charge, no legal challenge has been launched against the evictions.
When approached by The Telegraph, a BJP party figure said it had not intentionally destroyed homes or seized land from Kashmiri tribal people.
“Our aim is to retrieve the forest land which has been occupied illegally,” said Sarita Chauhan, the commissioner secretary in the Jammu and Kashmir Government.
She said: “There is no direction to evict the tribal community. There might have been a mistake by the officials on the ground and some tribal people might have got affected.”
However, for Mr Bajad, the reality seems very different. “If the government doesn’t come to our rescue, I will burn myself to death,” he said.
Photo: A Gujjar girl looks out from her temporary shelter on the outskirts of Jammu, in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Source: Channi Anand/AP.