Jammu, Indian administered cashmere – Last month Mohammad Ashraf received a notice from the local forestry department that he and his six older brothers are illegally living in forest areas. The notice, Ashraf said, told them they had 10 days to respond, otherwise their eviction process would begin.
The family, which belongs to the nomadic Muslim community of Bakarwal, has lived in Sitni, a small hamlet on the banks of the Tawi River on the outskirts of the southern city of Jammu, since the death of their grandfather Fakeer Mohammad, who died in early 1960.
Bakarwals – a nomadic sub-tribe that seasonally migrate from place to place on mountain meadows of the Himalayas, along with their herds of goats, sheep and horses – are part of the region’s larger tribal community. According to the 2011 census, they make up approximately 12 percent of the disputed region’s 12 million people who are claimed by both India and Pakistan.
“It was a dense jungle when my grandfather and father decided to build a one-room mud house here,” 41-year-old Ashraf told Al Jazeera. “While my father was herding goats in the mountains, my old grandfather stayed here.”
Like Ashraf’s family, the Bakarwals have sought some sort of stability in life over the years.
“When our father got old and we looked after our cattle, we also decided to have a permanent address and built a house here in this village,” said Akhtar Hussain, Ashraf’s older brother.
Over the years, the Bakarwals have started looking for some kind of stability in life [Kamran Yousuf/Al Jazeera]”The family swelled and we built three more single-story houses by 1980 and so far few family members were walking the cattle as we moved into the mountains in the summer,” said Hussain.
Even today, the livelihood of this extended family, which consists of 11 households (90 members) on land of less than one hectare, depends mainly on cattle breeding. But now only a few people go to the mountains with the herds. The community has slowly adapted to a modern lifestyle. They live in houses, their children go to school, and some elders have even looked for other ways to make a living.
“We change over time,” said Ashraf. “None of my brothers went to school, but all of our children are now in formal education.” The family lives a moderate life.
I can’t understand why the Forestry Department started demolishing the Kothas in Pasrures.
We have neither occupied these countries nor do we live there permanently. We only live there 6 months during the summer but why is this being done
The video is from Pehalgam @manojsinha_ pic.twitter.com/tmtqI19ZOb
– Zahid Parwaz Choudhary (@ZahidParwaz) November 13, 2020
Their main source of income is raising about a thousand goats, although some younger people have done other day-wage jobs in the city.
However, in the past month some members of the tribal community received notices from the authorities declaring their structures, permanent houses or mud houses, to be illegal occupation in the forest area. In some cases, the authorities even demolished some houses.
Politicians and activists in the region view these acts as part of the project by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s project to expropriate people of their land and property in order to change the demographic status of the Muslim-majority region.
Last week, two grainy videos went viral on social media of officials demolishing the thatched huts while their residents were unhappy witnesses. The videos sparked a sharp reaction from the public, who feared this was just a glimpse into the future.
The region’s former prime minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who had formed a government in alliance with the BJP, said the eviction was “part of [an] illegal trial ”that began last August with the removal of the special status of the region by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
But officials say they are obeying court orders. In July 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Supreme Court ordered the government to remove encroachments on forest areas. The regional forestry department had found in court that 64,000 people illegally occupied 17,704 hectares of forest.
However, the activists say the way the authorities selectively send eviction notices to the population of the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribal community could mean thousands of people will be left homeless.
Muslims are being targeted
“It was jungle all over the place when we lived here,” said Ashraf. “Today there are big buildings around us, but nobody asks them anything. Only we are told to leave this place. “
Ashraf and his family members feel they are being targeted for being Muslim.
Bakarwals, a poor nomadic tribe, step over mountains from the meadows of the Kashmir Valley into the hilly forests of Jammu during their six-monthly migration [File: Rifaat Fareed/Al Jazeera]“We are underprivileged, economically poor and Muslims. That’s why this happens to us, ”Ashraf said excitedly but helplessly.
A spokesman for the ruling BJP, Abhinav Sharma, denied these allegations, saying that the eviction orders would be served on orders from the court.
“The notices are sent to all attackers, regardless of their religion,” Sharma told Al Jazeera.
The timing of these eviction notices adds to the concern as they were passed barely a month after New Delhi enacted a series of new laws – and amending some – that allow Indians to buy land in the disputed region.
Prior to August 2019, the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, as India-administered Kashmir is officially called, offered protection from “demographic floods” and a certain degree of political autonomy.
“We have been living here for 70 years. Nobody ever told us that we were here illegally, ”said Fareed Ahmed, Ashraf’s brother. “Then why did the government give us electricity and other civic facilities?” he asked.
Right above woods
The traditional forest dwellers in India are protected from forced relocation under the Forest Rights Act (FRI), have grazing rights and have access to forest resources in addition to wood.
However, this law was not applicable in Indian-administered Kashmir until its semi-autonomous status was revoked last year. Fourteen months have passed since Article 370, which gave the region special status, was revoked, but the Forest Act has yet to be implemented locally.
“It is unconstitutional and illegal to remove these people,” said Mohd Zulkarnain Chowdhary, a community activist who serves as a lawyer in the Jammu City Court. “They are part of the forests and cannot be displaced. In other parts of the world the government is building colonies for the homeless and here the authorities are making people homeless by doing so, ”he told Al Jazeera.
The public pressure seems to be working. On Wednesday, the authorities in the region held a meeting under the direction of the Secretary General BVR Subrahmanyam to review the implementation of the LCI. The authorities in Kashmir announced on Thursday that they would implement the forest law to grant land rights to forest residents.
However, the eviction notices have not stopped.
“More and more people in our community are receiving eviction notices,” said Talib Hussain, a tribal rights activist.
For Ashraf and his family, this is a cruel joke with them.
“We have lived in forests for hundreds of years and are now labeled as illegal residents and invaders,” said Ashraf, breathlessly and emotionally. He hopes the authorities never come to demolish their homes or evict them.
“We will prefer death to leaving our homes,” Ashraf said.