An apple tree takes a decade to mature. In Kashmir's Budgam, thousands were cut in 24 hours, as the government—in its rush to evict Muslim tribals from land they have used for generations—held back a protective forest law and ignored a Supreme Court stay.
Kanidajen, Budgam: On a cold November morning, Abdul Gani Wagay was home when he heard that men with axes had come to cut his precious apple trees, which he had grown for nearly half a century, since his father first taught him how.
Like many villagers here in this central Kashmir apple-growing area, 50 km north of capital Srinagar, Wagay tried to rush to his 0.06 acres of land, but the men from the forest department were accompanied by the police and the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force.
“That’s when I realised something was wrong,” said Wagay, 60, whose apples were the only source of income for his family of seven daughters. “I had only 50 trees in my orchards, and that was all I had.”
Working all day on 10 November, around 50 officials and workers of the Jammu and Kashmir forest department cut about 10,000 apple trees, according to Mohammed Ahsan, the village head, threatening police cases against anyone who tried to intervene. Apple tree trunks are slim and can be felled with a couple of blows from an axe.
Article 14 sought comment from Zubair Ahmad, forest conservator for central Kashmir, but he said he could not speak to the media because he was forbidden by a code of conduct in place for district elections in J&K.
More than two weeks later, the apple orchards were deserted, strewn with chopped trees. Some farmers visited and stared, disconsolate. Others have not had the courage to visit the scene of destruction.
“I would spend all my day in the orchard, but it’s been 20 days since I last visited,” said a farmer, requesting his name be withheld. “I don’t think I can (return).
The apple orchards were supposedly on forest land, allegedly encroached by the villagers, mostly Gujjars and Bakarwals, nomads recognised since 1991 as scheduled tribes and “forest dwellers”, as over a million Indians are, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
But the FRA has not been implemented in J&K because a slew of central laws did not apply to the former state, even though it should have been when article 370 of the Constitution was revoked on 5 August 2019: 155 central laws automatically became applicable to the new union territory, and the J&K government promised the FRA would as well.
In November 2019, a spokesperson of Chief Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam said: “The FRA will be in place in J&K by March 2021, after the initial survey is completed by 15 January 2021”.
As the FRA is withheld, the government is now demolishing homes and serving eviction notices to forcibly retrieve forest land from the pastoral Gujjars and Bakarwals, sheep- and cattle-herders who have farmed or used the land for generations, as Article 14 reported in November.
About 2 million, mostly Gujjars and Bakarwals—who form 12% of J&K’s population and are its third-largest community after Kashmiris and Dogras—live on land that once belonged to no one and since 1960 has been owned by the government, sparked accusations of religious bias against the tribals.
About a quarter have received eviction notices. The accusations of religious bias are especially relevant because the J&K government consistently stonewalled demands to allow the Gujjars and Bakarwals the benefits of the FRA in the years before the scrapping of article 370.
The demolitions and evictions are illegal under the FRA, and if any dwellings are indeed demolished, the law says compensation must be paid, journalist Muzamil Jaleel wrote in The Kashmir Walla, an independent website, on 18 November. That, he argued, is why the FRA is being delayed.
Different Standards For The Rest Of India
Wagay said part-time farmers like him were cultivating the land because there were few other livelihood options and if they were to be stopped, so should other forest dwellers across the country.
“If they have to do this (eviction and destruction of produce), it should be done in all of India as well,” said Wagay, as he showed me his dead trees in the middle of woodland atop a small hill. About 2 km downhill is the village of more than 50 Gujjar and Bakarwal families, living in their dokas.
On 13 February 2019, the Supreme Court had directed state governments to evict forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, whose claims over forest land were rejected under the FRA. But on 28 February 2019, the Supreme Court stayed its own order, after the order was criticised within India (here and here) and by United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.
“Indigenous peoples and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the land is theirs, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations and play an important role for conservation,” said a statement released by the UN special rapporteurs on 4 July 2019. “The basic premise of this decision, which treats tribal peoples as possibly illegal residents of the forest, is wrong ‑ indigenous peoples are the owners of their lands and forests.”
There should have been no evictions in J&K because initial FRA processes have not been completed, mainly a survey of all forest land, which the government was to complete and submit to the union ministry of tribal affairs.
“Only then will the law be executed in Jammu and Kashmir,” said right-to-information activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat, who has been visiting eviction sites. “The department is not doing any ground work and directly implementing the last line of the law, which says only those who do not fulfill the criteria (to be regarded as forest dwellers) will be evicted.”
“Throughout India in 16 states, after the survey, 90% of tribals were recognised as scheduled tribes and only 10% were held as illegally occupying the land,” said Bhat. “Even then the government did not evict them.”
“Without surveys in J&K, they are cutting trees and destroying shelters,” said Bhat. “Even if they had to retrieve the land what was the need to cut down trees?”
‘Didn’t You Ask Them How We Would Survive?’
The cutting of the apple trees has left hundreds who lived on the edge of poverty feeling bereft and stunned, such as Shareef-uddin-Bajad, 50, a daily wage worker who gets little work in the winters.
A few apple trees and potatoes provided Bajad’s family livelihood through the winters. Two weeks ago, he was away at work when the demolition squads came by and handed his children a notice that accused them of encroaching on forest land. When he returned, the trees had been chopped.
“I was numb for a moment and didn’t understand what had happened,” said Bajad. “I asked my children, ‘Didn’t you ask them how we would survive?’ In a few days winter will set in.”
Ahsan, the village headman, said the families of Kanidajen had been cultivating the land for about 150 years. Until two weeks ago, no mention was ever made of their land, which he said was allotted to them in the 1950s under the Grow More Food programme by Sheikh Abdullah, the first Prime Minister of J&K after its accession to India in 1947.
“We are the seventh generation of this community living here,” said Ahsan, who said about 70% of the village lived off horticulture. “It took us 50 years and a lot of hard work to cultivate this land, but they came and in an instant destroyed everything.”
“We do not know what will happen to us now,” said Ahsan. “If they continue to destroy our houses and trees, how will we survive? We want to live here in peace. That is our only wish.”
(Safina Nabi is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. She writes on gender, health, social justice and culture)