Conspiracy to uproot Jammu Muslims

By Bilal Bhat

The new coalition government of BJP-PDP in Jammu & Kashmir has turned on the heat against nomadic Bakerwal and Gujjar communities by driving them out of the forests in Jammu region, a home where they have lived for more than six decades.

On 1 April this year, J&K’s General Administration Department (GAD), headed by Chief Minister Mufti Saeed, asked the authorities to reclaim the forest land in the areas of Sunjwan, Bathindi, Raika and Sidhra of Jammu through order No. 496  GAD of 2015, for the eviction of the occupants of forest land. The selective eviction of Muslims from Muslim majority areas in Jammu has raised fears among the Muslims who see the move as a conspiracy to particularly target them and change the demography of the region.

“The GAD order is the beginning of the BJP’s plan to drive out Muslims from Jammu which used to be a small city. All the new areas that have come up over the years are based on forest land. Hindu’s from outside the states are brought here under a plan to further marginalise us.  If the government wants to reclaim the forest land, let them start from areas like Roop Nagar, an illegal colony where Hindus are in a majority. Why are they only targeting us?,” said Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, Vice-President  of the J &K Gujjjar Bakarwal Students Welfare Association.

“The colonies built on forest land were ignored by the GAD’s order in order to please the BJP leaders. It is unfortunate that the BJP is training guns at the Muslims of Jammu using Mufti Saheb’s shoulders. On one hand, the government talks about integration of the two regions while they have started driving out Muslims from Jammu,” he added.

Despite possessing state subject status under Article 370 which is mandatory to attain citizenship in the state, the Muslims of Jammu have been struggling ever since 1947. The marginalised community is economically, politically and educationally deprived.  Muslims in Jammu are densely populated in three districts of Jammu, Doda (63.59 per cent); Poonch (88.87 per cent); and Rajouri (60.97 per cent). The last two lie along the Line of Control (LoC) and have suffered the brunt of three wars between India and Pakistan. Continuous ceasefire violations, army operations and militant activities have made the life of the people hell in these two districts.  

“We have been suffering since centuries, especially since the time of the Dogra rule. It continued after 1947. We used to be a majority in Jammu before Partition but the massacre of more than 5 lakh Muslims in the region at that time changed the whole demography of the region. Due to the massacre and mass exodus of Muslims from Jammu, we became a minority in our own land and suffered atrocities at the hands of those who came from outside. We are caught up between two countries and no one cares about our life, dignity and our dreams to live with peace,” said Azhar Amin from Rajoori.    

The “anti-encroachment” drive and demolition of “kothas” (mud house) in some Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu, including Kalakote, Shidhra, Bathandi started following the GAD order. Though the issue created furore in the state, Minister for Forests Bali Bhagat said in a press conference on 8 June that the drive against the “encroachers of forest land” would continue.

“Bhagat is creating communal tension in the state. Under a conspiracy, he is evacuating innocent Gujjar and Bakarwal community from their ancestral homes. The minister is implementing the RSS agenda in the state and dividing people on communal lines”, he further said, adding “This shows the political hegemony of the BJP regime which is hell-bent to destroy our history, culture and existence. The Gujjars and Bakerwals have four-decade old kothas in the forest areas of Jammu region and their harassment is a vicious plan to selectively drive us out of our homeland.”

The Government of India had already accepted the rights of the tribal communities over forests by virtue of a legislation passed in Parliament in 2006. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was passed on December 18, 2006. This law gives rights of forests to the forest-dwelling communities like Bakerwals and Gujjars to the forest land and its resources, which was earlier denied to them as a result of colonial forest laws.

Presently, 2474 forest villages and habitations exist in 12 states across India. After the enactment of the 1980 law and Forests Rights Act in 2006, a programme was launched during the 10th Plan for the integrated development of thousands of forest villages which are home to 2.25 million tribal families but this was not applied to Jammu Kashmir. A total of Rs 65.38 crore was released to 12 states for this purpose but no penny was released to Jammu Kashmir as the act was not adopted by the state.

Gujjar leaders have been demanding this law to be adopted in the state for many years but to no avail. They accuse various successive regimes of sham politics in the region despite promising them to settle the decades-long pending dispute.

Origin of Gujjar communities in J&K: Bakerwals and Gujjars constitute 20 percent of the total population of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and a sizeable chunk among them are landless and deserve dwelling rights on forest land which they have been using as traditional inhabitants for centuries. There have been various opinions by historians about the origin of the Gujjars of J&K. According to recent archaeological, linguistic and geographical evidences, the Bakerwal and Gujjar communities of Kashmir migrated from a territory between Black Sea and Caspian Sea. These studies show them to be descendants of Gurjis and it is believed that originally residing in Gujarat, part of the tribe migrated toward J&K after the outbreak of serious famines in Gujarat and Rajasthan in 1899 and 1930s.

Deeper conspiracy: On 29 June, 2002, the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal (all-India leaders’ committee) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in a meeting held at Kurukshetra passed a resolution demanding that the region of Jammu be made a separate state, and Ladakh turned into a Union territory. The demand endorsed campaigns calling for such restructuring by the Jammu & Kashmir National Democratic Front (JKNDF), a local organisation led by the RSS state head Indresh Kumar and former Bharatiya Janata Party state president Tilak Raj Gupta. Buddhist chauvinist organisations, notably the Ladakh Buddhist Organisation, have joined the JKNDF campaign for the separation of the two regions from Kashmir.

The RSS resolution was preceded by a resolution of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal (central advisory committee) at Haridwar on 23 June, 2002 which said “five Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu should be made a separate state, a Union territory be carved out of areas northeast of the Jhelum river in Kashmir valley for settling Hindus there and Ladakh be given the status of a Union territory.”

Clearly, the Hindu Right’s demand for a separate Jammu is premised on the fact that the province as a whole has a Hindu majority. The proposition becomes even clearer when one looks at the specific instances of nasty plans to dislocate Muslims in the region and create regional disparity among the Muslim inhabitants of Rajouri and Poonch districts.

The GoI last year referred the issue of the permanent resident status for West Pakistan refuges in J&K to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs which recommended that West Pakistani Refugees should be given permanent resident certificates (PRCs) and voting rights in the JK state elections.

At the time of Partition, over 7,000 Hindu families had crossed over to the Indian side of the LoC and the International Border from the Pakistan-Administratered Jammu & Kashmir and West Pakistan. Then, during the Indo-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971, about 10,000 more Hindu families were dislocated from 47 villages of Chhamb area. The Centre had requested the state government to consider issuing PRCs for them. Though, the PDP government openly denied any such move, fearing violent protests in the Valley and Muslim-dominant parts of Jammu as J&K Muslims largely see this as a move to abolish Article 370, a ploy for changing of demography of the state. Gujjar activist and community leaders have been claiming that the new government is working quietly to issue PRCs to West Pakistan refugees.   

“The Congress government was also doing the same. Now during the PDP-BJP government, the difference is that it is happening at a faster pace and in a systematic manner. There’s no one to monitor what they are doing. They have saffronised the administration in order to do this work without any hindrance,” said Tarif Suhail, a young activist from Jammu.  

“The state government is ordering transfers of Muslim bureaucrats and other government officials in the state along “communal lines”. The transfers are taking place from the secretariat to district and tehsil levels. This is being done to facilitate the issuance of the permanent resident certificates to the non-state residents in Jammu,” he further said.

A local activist wishing anonymity accused the state government of saffronising the educational system. “Due to economic constraints, backwardness and government’s apathy, the schools here are run by the Indian army. The educational system is totally run according to their syllabus. Now since the BJP is in power, the process has been accelerated. We are compelled to study here and we have no other option due to lack of private schools in the area,” he said. The locals in the area accuse the BJP government of segregation politics to cause divisions between the three brotherly Muslims communities in the area, viz., Paharis, Bakerwals and Gujjars, who have been living together for decades in peace and harmony.