For Bashir Ahmad, 65, life took a turn for the worse since his one-storey house was demolished by the Jammu Development Authority on January 11 in Paloura Roop Nagar, Jammu city. Ahmad, now living with his children in a tarpaulin tent, says the government is not letting them close to their broken houses. “During the demolition, the bulldozers damaged the water pipes. Now we spend most of our time fetching drinking water. Our livestock is thirsty, and this troubles us a lot,” he says.
Saif Ali, 80, owned two residential houses in Roop Nagar before the demolition drive brought them down. “I was born and brought up here.” Even his grandfather Roshan Din lived at Roop Nagar. “But all of sudden we have become strangers in our own land. My houses were demolished without seeing my papers,” says Ali, now homeless, hopeless, and living under the open sky for the past four months. The Gujjars living in Roop Nagar came to be known as Dodi Gujjars, as they dealt with dairy for their livelihood. Their herd mainly constitutes local buffaloes, but Ahmad says many of his animals have died. “Our cowsheds were razed to the ground and some of the livestock died on being exposed to the intense cold. At present, water is our major issue,” he adds.
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This was not the first drive against Gujjar tribals in Jammu and Kashmir, whom the government accuses of ‘encroaching’ on state land. Many Gujjar and political leaders see the drive as part of a pattern to evict tribals from areas they have lived in for hundreds of years. In November 2020, the Pahalgam Development Authority launched a demolition drive in several areas, razing kaccha houses of Gujjars. The government called the nomads ‘unauthorised occupants’. Later in January 2021, the administration demolished Gujjar houses in Jammu’s Bathindi and Sunjwan areas.
Such drives are being carried out in spite of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act–extended to J&K after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Despite having a brute majority in the J&K Assembly, the regional parties National Conference and the PDP failed to extend the law in J&K as the BJP would oppose it. While the law gives traditional forest dwellers their right to access, manage and govern forest lands and its resources within village boundaries, Gujjar leaders say they have not been provided such benefits under the law.
For advocate M. Zulkernian Choudhary, the Roop Nagar demolition where the Gujjars resided, showed that less influential people can be driven out of their land any time. Zulkernian, along with others, formed a joint action committee comprising Gujjars of Roop Nagar and activists from different communities to stop further demolition.
The joint action committee erected a tent and started the protest under the Tricolour, and leaders including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and Education Minister Harsh Dev Singh visited the site. However, J&K Rashtriya Bajrang Dal president Rakesh Bajrangi classified the agitation as a “Shaheen Bagh type of struggle”. In an agreement on February 2, IkkJutt Jammu, a right-wing organisation, also said they will not allow any Shaheen Bagh in the state.
Jammu city frequently witnesses protests over the issue of alleged ‘land jihad’. One of the propagators of the land jihad theory is advocate Ankur Sharma, also the founder of IkkJutt Jammu. On Sunday, May 1, IkkJutt Jammu under Sharma held a protest under Maharaja Hari Singh statue on Tawi bridge against, what he called, “flourishing Jihadist infrastructure, preachers indoctrinating and radicalising individuals in religious institutions, unabated demographic assault, and land jihad,” in the state. Addressing his supporters, Sharma said former J&K CMs and “other structures of power, especially the revenue department” were and are instrumental in changing the demography of Hindu majority Jammu. With each passing day, his voice gets shriller as he instructs bulldozers to raze properties in Bhatindi, Sidhara, Rangoora, Tawi river bed, and Raika forests, where the land has been in the possession of Gujjars for decades. While Sharma accuses Kashmiri chief ministers of “the changing demography of Jammu”, Gujjar leaders say these chief ministers regularised all illegal colonies, except Gujjar Muslim colonies in Jammu.
Zulkernian says the issue is not of land jihad or Hindus versus Muslims, but between the tribal community with no power and influence and the administration that prostrates before the powerful and the influential. The government does not go after the influential, but the tribals because it feels the latter can be crushed, he observes. Unfazed by the comparison to Shaheen Bagh, the Gujjars continue with the protest. The joint action committee has given even representation to the Chief Secretary, seeking his intervention. The title of the representation reads: “On behalf of affected Gujjar families of Paloura Roop Nagar, Jammu, whose houses were illegally and forcibly demolished by the JDA on 11.01.2022 and whose land is being forcibly taken away.” In their letter to the Chief Secretary, the Gujjar say the remaining 26 kannals of the land in their possession till 1947, should not be touched.
The Roop Nagar demolition is growing into a major issue in Jammu as political leaders have termed the JDA action as communal. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was quick to condemn the act. “The J&K admin’s selective demolition of houses and rendering tribals homeless is yet another method to vent their hatred by targeting minorities. Seemingly these communal policy decisions are sanctioned at the top. People need to stand up against such atrocities,” she tweeted on January 12, when local media showed wailing Gujjar women pleading before bulldozers.
Advocate Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad, one of the leaders helming the agitation against the demolition, says, “The families have possession of the land prior to 1947. In 1981, they wrote to the financial commissioner revenue for correction in the revenue records. The inquiry declares the possession of the land with the families prior to 1947.” The advocate says the whole JDA case is based on a judgment of the high court division bench passed on December 16, 2021, which says area residents will not receive benefit under the Roshni scheme and should seek remedy somewhere else. But in this judgement, he says, the court did not instruct the demolition of their houses. “Soon after the judgement, the word was spread that tribals were encroaching JDA land, though they have been residing here much before the JDA was established,” he says.
“Why we are saying it is selective targeting to demolish Muslim tribal houses? In the Bhawani Nagar area, there are 538 structures on state land. The Court issued notice to the JDA. The JDA in response to the notice wrote to the high court that since these people have lived at Bhawani Nagar for a long time, it will not demolish their houses, and in fact regularise the area. For argument’s sake, if Roop Nagar was a case of encroachment, then so is Bhawani Nagar. Then why a different approach to the same problem?” wonders Advocate Ahmad.
Former Minister and Gujjar leader Chaudhary Zulfikar Ali says the time has come for the government to adopt a uniform view about the cases of alleged encroachments by tribals. He says the tribal Gujjars, who have lived in Jammu for thousands of years and are loyal citizens of the country, should not be treated as encroachers. “They are nomads, but you cannot demolish their houses because they belong to a particular community and regularise another set of houses that belong to other sects. We live in a thriving secular democracy. Let the rule of law be similar to all,” he says.
While Gujjar leaders are asking the government to reverse the bulldozer policy against the community, leaders like Ankur Sharma in Jammu are asking for more. Peoples Democratic Party leader Naeem Akhtar says “these demolitions and cries of land jihad,” are the manifestation of the dark designs of the current dispensation. “Whether it is demolition of the only Muslim majority state or Muslim houses, the agenda is the same. They take pride in regularisation of unauthorised colonies as a state policy but only pick out the ones belonging to members of one community.”
Akhtar adds that everything else as well is too one-sided, from dharam sansads to the execution of their pronouncements. “They have left little to the imagination. Every day a new front is opened and BJP’s writ established while the law gets beaten. What else it would lead to is just too scary,” he adds.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Selective Demolition")
Naseer Ganai in Srinagar