Budgam, Indian-administered Kashmir – An arduous three-mile trek over an unpaved mountainous track leads to Shareef-Ud-Din Bajad’s mud and wood hut. Dressed in a “pheran” – a traditional woollen cloak worn by Kashmiris for warmth – Bajad stood in front of his house staring at the apple tree stumps left behind by the authorities last week.
With tears in his eyes, the 70-year-old resident of Kanidajan village in district Budgam said 50 trees in his orchard had been felled by the authorities.
“They [authorities] have strangled us by taking our livelihood and are now asking us to leave homes as well. Where shall we go?” Bajad said, his hand shaking in the freezing cold winter weather.
The trees had borne a harvest of juicy apples this year, bringing in a modest income for Bajad’s family.
According to villagers and activists, more than 10,000 apple trees were cut down by local authorities in this mountainous village mainly populated by Gujjar Muslims – a nomadic cattle-herding community which over the years gradually settled on the slopes of the picturesque Himalayan mountains.
“I locked up my home and fled from here,” Bajad, a father of five daughters and three sons, said of the day when his trees were cut down. He now fears his home may also be demolished.
Changed land and domicile laws
Nomadic groups such as Gujjars and Bakarwals had their houses and orchards targeted as part of the wide-range “eviction and anti-encroachment drive” across the disputed region of Kashmir, the Indian-administered side of which was stripped of its special status last August.
Since then, the local administration, now directly under New Delhi, has changed land and domicile laws in an effort that critics say is aimed at bringing about demographic change in India’s only Muslim-majority region.
They want to snatch everything from us.
Among the huts razed to the ground is that belonging to Abdul Aziz Khatana, a 32-year-old father of three children who lives at the edge of the village in southern Kashmir.
“How can they suddenly make us homeless in the middle of a harsh winter? Where will we go after living here for two centuries?” he told Al Jazeera standing in front of his demolished hut in Lidoora village about 54 km away from the main city of Badgam. “We are poor and powerless, that’s why this is being done to us.”
Forest Dwellers in Kanidajan village in Budgam district allege government destroyed their apple orchards. The villagers claim over 10000 trees were axed.
— kamran yousuf (@kamranyousuf_) December 4, 2020
The demolition drive and the eviction notices, Khatana says now puts the future of thousands of such families under a threat.
Many Gujjar families across Kashmir have received show-cause notices to “leave the unauthorised occupation of the forest land”.
“We have been living in the forests in peace with all the creatures here. We are here because our great grandfathers were born here,” Khatana said.
Bajad and Khatana are from the Gujjar community considered some of the most impoverished groups in Kashmir – home to 12 million people.
Back in Kanidajan village, tucked in a forest land surrounded with pine trees, people said their livelihood is dependent on the cultivation of apples – the core of the disputed region’s economy – and potatoes.
Manzoor Ahmad, another resident of Kanidajan, said the villagers watched in fear when the government officials came to remove the trees on December 4.
“They want to snatch everything from us,” he said while grazing his sheep.
“When they arrived they were 100 people, police and other forest officials. They threatened us that they will register police cases and jail us if we try to resist. The villagers watched in fear helplessly but could not do anything,” he said.
Ahmad fears that the government wants to settle outsiders “on our land by chopping our trees,” – a common refrain in the disputed region over which India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars. Before the abrogation of the region’s special status last year, people from mainland India were not allowed to buy land in Kashmir.
Muhammad Ahsan, a 75-year-old resident of Kanidajan, claimed 10,000 apple trees were chopped down by the government.
“The government let us use the land because ours was a downtrodden community. This has been used by generations. This is a strategy now to harass us,” Ahsan, the village head said, adding that the forest land was provided to them for cultivation by the then Kashmiri Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in 1950s under the “Grow More Food” scheme to empower forest-dwellers and tribal people.
“They are killing us by cutting down our trees. They want to threaten and suppress us to the core and force us to leave,” he said.
The Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department told the High Court last year that 64,000 people had illegally occupied 17,704 hectares (43,747 acres) of forest land, based on that, the court ordered that the land be reclaimed.
The forest department, which has been spearheading “the anti-encroachment drive”, has suspended the move following public outrage. However, it has not officially confirmed how many trees were cut down.
In Tral upper areas Forest Department has served the notices to Gujjar Bakerwals & have asked them to vacate their Houses and Lands.@AJENews @BBCUrdu @nayeema1
But we will never let it happen from last 10 years we are defending our people & will keep this mission continue pic.twitter.com/M7ZPPVGz7Q
— Zahid Parwaz Choudhary (@ZahidParwaz) December 13, 2020
Activists say eviction of Gujjars and Bakarwals is against forest rights laws in India.
The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or FRA, passed in 2006 gives forest-dwellers the right to reside on the land and to use minor forest produce and grazing areas, as well as development and rehabilitation rights, and forest management rights.
After the abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to Kashmir – all central laws were implemented in the region except the FRA.
Denying that the so-called eviction drive was “against any particular community”, Sarita Chouhan, the commissioner secretary for forests, ecology and environment, told Al Jazeera there was no government direction for eviction, and any further action has been stopped.
“We have already started the implementation of the Forests Rights Act (FRA). It’s a very long process… We have given strict direction that no action should be taken till the [status of] forest dwellers are determined.”
When asked about the destruction of thousands of apple trees in Kanidajan village, the official said that had been carried out in one sub-division.
“We have no official assessment about the number of trees that were cut because we are yet to see whether they [residents] had any rights or not. We are getting these rough estimates through the media, which says 10,000 [trees have been cut].”
Another government official, on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the “drive is not against anyone specific but against those who have illegally occupied the forest land”.
“The trees that we axed were on the forest land. These people had started making orchards on the land and planted new saplings. This is a normal drive to evict people from illegal occupation of the land but they seem to be exploiting the situation,” the official said.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an environmental activist in Kashmir, told Al Jazeera that “this is an onslaught on Muslims”, accusing the government of evicting the nomad community even before the implementation of the FRA.
“These tribes have been living in jungles for 200 years. These people are fulfilling criteria but they are not being given the right.”
“This is an onslaught on Muslims as they [authorities] want to make demographic changes. This is a gross human rights violation,” he said.
Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, an activist and the state president of the Jammu and Kashmir Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Conference, said the community is unable to understand the government’s plan for the nomads.
“I went to all places and the notice has been sent to all tribal people in Kashmir. Tribals are not land grabbers neither we made any wealth. These people are very poor. They have intensified this process now to make the people homeless,” he said.