Kashmir’s indigenous people fear India land grab

 

December 18, 2020

 

10,000 apple trees belonging to forest dwellers destroyed in Budgam, Pulwama


Tensions have soared between Kashmir residents and New Delhi after the region lost its special status last year. (AFP)

 

By Sanjay Kumar | Arab News

 

NEW DELHI – Communities in Kashmir fear being evicted from their ancestral land following the uprooting of more than 10,000 trees by the Indian government.

Media reports and locals said at least 10,000 apple trees belonging to forest dwellers had been destroyed in Budgam and Pulwama districts since late November, affecting the lives of more than 3,000 families.

Authorities said the move was to evict illegal occupants of forest areas, but local communities argued it was an attempt to remove indigenous inhabitants from the land.

Tensions have soared between Kashmir residents and New Delhi after the region lost its special status last year and the introduction of new domicile laws that allowed outsiders from other parts of India to live in the country’s only Muslim-majority region, where land rights used to be reserved for Kashmiris.

“I have been living in this land for more than three generations,” Shakeel Ahmad Hajam, from Sheikhor village in Pulwama district, told Arab News on Friday. “The authorities last month cut all the apple trees and other plantations which we have been growing for generations. After the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status last year, the government now wants to remove us from our own land. After removing the special status, the government is now after our land. I fear that the government wants to settle non-Kashmiris on our land.”

Nazir Ahmad Danda, the head of Mujapathar village in Budgam district, was also worried about what would happen to people like him who had been living in the forest area for generations. He is from the Gujjar nomadic community, which spends six months with their herds in the region’s hilly areas and the rest of the year at their homes in the forest.

“For us, it’s an existential crisis,” he said. “These trees that the forest officials have destroyed were part of our existence. We, nomadic people, depend on the yield to sustain ourselves in this harsh place where you cannot grow anything.”

The 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) gives forest dwellers the right to live on the land, manage it, utilize minor forest produce and use the forest for grazing.

Kashmir-based forest rights activist Dr. Shaikh Rasool saw the Indian government’s attempt to evict local communities as a move to facilitate corporate interests.

“That whole exercise is meant to clear the land for corporate houses who can use these lands for industrial activities,” Rasool told Arab News. “By destroying the habitats of the forest dwellers, the present regime is trying to help the corporates and is suppressing and muzzling the voice of the poor.”

He said it was already suspected that, when the region’s autonomy was scrapped, the government may be clearing the way for corporate and business interests in Kashmir as there was previously no door open to sensitive forest zones.

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