‘They are the custodians of the forest’: Kashmiri gypsy houses angry over destruction | Kashmir

T.It snows in winter on the hillside of Mammal Wooder in south Kashmir, but the air inside Naseema Akhtar’s mud hut is soft and warm, rising from the pink salt tea that she changes in preparation.

Akhtar Gujjar, 35, is a nomadic tribe of herds who traditionally spend the summer in the mountain forests across the Kashmir Valley in India and migrate to the plains of Jammu or the villages of Daman in the winter. ۔

Some of the society is inhabited, but for many, their nomadic practices persist from generation to generation. However, in recent weeks, dozens of Gujjar forest houses have been demolished under a government-led campaign. Families like Akhtar have been forced out of their lands for generations.

The tribe, shaken by decades of political turmoil in Kashmir and militant insurgency, has been shaken to its core.

Naseema Akhtar received a letter stating that she had occupied government land without permission.
Naseema Akhtar received a letter stating that she had occupied government land without permission. Photographer: Azhar Qadri

Akhtar’s worries began with a notice from the region’s wildlife protection department. The notice reads, “It is learned that you have unofficially occupied government land.” He demanded that he leave the small mud hut.

In other settlements, passers-by are not always given early warning. They say they have returned to find their forest huts destroyed by bulldozers.

Akhtar’s husband Shabbir Swathi said, “My father, my grandfather, my grandfather all lived here.” When I was a kid, my grandparents used to tell 1947 stories [during the first of several wars between India and Pakistan over the region] When warplanes flew over the forest. I don’t know what we would do if we were kicked out.

Qazi Doi, a neighbor of Swati and a five-year-old father, also received a notice of eviction. The forest land provides not only his home but also his livelihood, and a herd of sheep and goats grazes near it. “Where are we going?” Doi asked in frustration. “We are the people of the forest and we have no life without the forest.”

Qasim Doi, a resident of Mammal Wooder, South Kashmir, who received a notice of eviction.
Qasim Doi, a resident of Mammal Wooder, South Kashmir, who received a notice of eviction. Photographer: Azhar Qadri

The Himalayan region, home to decades of conflict, is home to a million Gujaratis, according to an official census a decade ago. The demolition campaign has been seen by many in Kashmir as the latest attack on the freedom of the people living in the state, which the Indian government ended its special autonomy status and took direct control of in August 2019. Encountered down.

Gujjar has been most affected in the forested village of Ludro in Pahalgam, south Kashmir. About a dozen Gujjar huts have been demolished in recent weeks.

Filled with pine trees at the age of 38, Abdul Aziz Khatana stands between the mud and the rubble of a wooden hut that has served as his family’s summer home for at least seven generations. It was demolished while they were going to the market to buy rice. He returned to his 13-year-old daughter Iqra Jan in shock.

Abdul Aziz stands with the rubble of his forest hut in Khatana Ludro.
Abdul Aziz stands with the rubble of his forest hut in Khatana Ludro. Photographer: Azhar Qadri

Khatana and her family have continued the tribe’s nomadic traditions, and spend six months of the year in Ludro, where their six cows and two horses can graze in the woods before the winter. Move home in my warm winter. There are no documents for his rights to the land, but he believes it has been passed down to his great-grandfather.

“Until now, I had no idea I needed the paperwork for this land. Now I don’t think we exist,” Khattana said.

Farid Ahmed, whose hut was demolished the same day, said he tried to plead with the demolition team but was threatened with arrest. “There is nothing we can do,” he said.

Ahmed lamented how Gujar was living. “Every evening in our family we talk about what to do next. We think about it, what we would do if we were evicted. We don’t even have the money to buy land.

Abdul Aziz Khatana and her children at their winter home.
Abdul Aziz Khatana and his children at their winter home. Photographer: Azhar Qadri

The demolitions have stalled the growing political backlash against the Hindu right-wing government in Delhi, which has recently enacted a law that is feared to threaten Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population and its ethnic and cultural identity. Will pose

“I want to tell those who run the government here that if you do not tamper with the Gujar Khana community, it will face serious corruption,” said Mehbooba Mufti, who was recently released from one-year detention. She told reporters when she visited Ledro. “They are the custodians of the forests. Their ancestors have lived here for centuries.”

Mushtaq Samnani, a government official and head of the Pahalgam Development Authority, has denied demolishing homes or displacing anyone, saying the situation is being exploited for “politics”. “Any action to protect forests is part of the anti-encroachment campaign,” he said.

“No one lived here, neither in winter, nor in summer, nor in any other season,” said Semnani. We did not evict anyone. There were four families living in the wildlife area but we did not touch them. We just removed the empty structure.

Gujjar activist Zahid Chaudhry said that demolition is going on and more notices have been sent to the Gujjar community living in other districts. “Some families have been living in the open for the last six months,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. There is no justification for demolishing huts. We live in pastures during the summer and then we move to the plains in the winter. We are nomads, not land grabbers.

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