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Sometime in the summer of 2008, Shabir Swathi returned to Mamal village to find smouldering rubble. This was the second time in a decade that his house, shaded by the pine trees of the Pahalgam forests, had been demolished by the Forest Department.
In the intervening years, Swathi and others from the pastoral Gujjar and Bakarwal communities could do little but watch Pahalgam, a name that translates as the ‘village of shepherds,’ transform into a tourist paradise. The Pahalgam of Swathi’s childhood was a vintage postcard in his memory: modest and quaint guest houses far apart in the vast meadows brimming with wild flowers; wooden bridges perched over the Lidder river. Now grazing land was hotel property. The river still cut through the meadows, but government-owned parks and gardens sat on its banks, behind fences.
Three generations of Swathi’s family lived in Mamal in the summers,  so that their livestock could be close to the alpine meadows. The hut they built—from wood, mud and dried grass—is called a kotha. Most Gujjar kothas, in forests across Kashmir, were built decades ago, from the wood of deodar trees said to last a hundred years. 
After this demolition, an iron spade, a pan and a chillum were all that survived of the house. Swathi’s family appealed to the district authorities for compensation. They got ₹20,000: just enough to buy corrugated tin sheets. With stones and wood foraged from the forest, Swathi rebuilt his home in the cover of darkness. Later, with much reluctance, he added concrete to the structure.
“Now, we don’t leave the house unattended,” Swathi told me. “It’s never unlocked.”
he pastoralist tribal communities of Jammu and Kashmir live in precarity. For a long time, they have survived beyond the pale of law and property rights.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, local and colonial regimes in the subcontinent began modernising land title documentation––but not in this region. Under the reign of the Dogra kings who owned nearly all of the region’s land and imposed a crippling taxation system on the largely peasant population, title documentation remained woefully inadequate.
Independent India was supposed to be better, but made little difference to the Gujjars and Bakarwals. Their land rights remained partial, stuck in a limbo between a record-keeping revenue department that had no jurisdiction over forest land and a forest department that didn’t document land ownership. Quasi-official orders and the indifference of successive governments meant that they were perpetually designated tenants, as opposed to owners.
Because of this, pastoral communities have always remained vulnerable to eviction. This is how Pahalgam’s tourist industry was built: with authorities quietly displacing the Gujjars from the meadows, with meagre to no compensation, to allow hotels to come up.
In 2006, the government of India passed the Forest Rights Act (FRA), an unusually progressive law to formalise the title rights of forest-dependent communities. But successive J&K state governments stayed aloof, withholding the central law’s application in the region.  Then, in 2019, New Delhi abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and downgraded it to two centrally governed union territories. Many supporters of the Union government claimed this would benefit long-marginalised communities, since the FRA would, at last, be extended here.
But, and there is always a but in J&K, that has proved a false dawn. On the ground, the process for verifying title claims is a mess. The regional government, run by the centrally-appointed Lieutenant Governor, has even launched an ongoing eviction drive against tribal people, deeming them encroachers.
“Now, we don’t leave the house unattended. It’s never unlocked.”
Nearly half of J&K’s territory is forest land  —actual, as well as clearings that continue to be called ‘forest’ on paper. Apart from being home to valuable biodiversity, these forests are the source of basics like food, firewood and medicinal ingredients. Now, they are a lure to future investment, linked to the Narendra Modi government’s grand plans for the industrialisation of Kashmir.
In October 2020, the Union government notified a fresh set of land laws, which included a process for non-natives to purchase land in the region.  In a region where resources are scarce and demographic integrity holds the key for a much hoped-for plebiscite in the future, many see this as the Union usurping forests; and the usurpation as part of the larger plan of a settler-colonial state.
ven though there is no authentic record of their first migration to Kashmir, the Gujjars and Bakarwals reached the J&K region to escape famine, drought and persecution in their original land. Some claim they have been here since the twelfth century; others, that they came no later than the sixteenth century. Histories of western India expand the timeline, offering a basis to argue that Himalayan Gujjars migrated from the original groupings in Rajasthan in the fifth or sixth century.
Scholars contend that Gujjar and Bakarwal people are of the same ethnicity, and that the communities are differentiated by the kind of animals they rear. Gujjars tend water buffaloes in the low altitudes. Bakarwals rear goats and sheep and travel to dhoks—meadows—in the high altitudes. 
The Gojri-speaking  Gujjar and Bakarwal people form the third-largest ethnic group in J&K, after the Kashmiri speakers, mainly Muslims, and the Jammu-based Dogri speakers, largely Hindus. At least 1.5 million individuals of the Gujjar and Bakarwals’ predominantly Muslim communities comprise almost 12 percent of the total population of J&K. 
Their existence spans the geographies occupied by the major ethnicities of the region. They take their livestock to the alpine meadows of Kashmir in summer (with some Bakarwal people going as far afield as Ladakh); in the winter, many return to set up their tents in the outer Himalayan Shivalik ranges and the suburban areas of Jammu. In the Valley, Kashmiri speakers despise them for being pastoralist tribes. In Jammu, they are shunned for being Muslim.
They describe themselves as khanabadosh, nomads who carry their homes with them. The community believes their vocation is a noble one, saying that the Prophet Mohammed had once been a shepherd himself. 
Unlike academics and activists, and the communities themselves, neither dominant ethnic groups nor governments see them as guardians of the forest: quite the contrary. In recent years, several pastures traditionally used by the Gujjars and Bakarwals were closed, citing the importance of conservation. (Tribal and nomadic communities around the world have faced opposition from conservationists, who factor human coexistence out of their concerns for ecological preservation.) 
At the local level, forest department officials harbour the same misconceptions about the community as the general population. That is one of the reasons for the administration’s failure to actually implement the rights that the de-operationalising of Article 370 was supposed to make available to Kashmiris at last.
he extensions of the FRA and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act were supposed to grant the tribal communities of J&K a path to full property rights, community empowerment and a life of dignity.
Under the FRA, “pattas or leases or grants” can be converted to titles. The legislation vests four hectares, or 79 kanals, of forest land. It also provides for hyperlocal decision-making: claims to land must be processed by a Forest Rights Committee (FRC) that is elected by a majority of village residents.
But this is how it worked in Gagal village in North Kashmir.
On 7 January 2021, most residents of Gagal were confined to their homes by heavy snowfall. Still, a closed door meeting of a few residents took place in a school building. The group had met to elect members to the 15-member FRC.  This is ordinarily a job for the gram sabha, the assembly comprising the village’s adults. The quorum for a gram sabha meeting is half the total number of members, with at least one-third attending being women members.
In the Gagal school building, the committee’s head was chosen by a draw of lots containing the names of “two educated youths.” The lottery was won by the nephew of Gagal’s sarpanch. His rival was Farooq Ahmad Bokda, a Class 12 pass-out and member of Gagal’s Gujjar community.
Bokda told me that it didn’t take long for the locals to smell a rat. “In the meeting passed off as the gram sabha,” Bokda said, “there were just about 20-30 people present, 11 of them were from the panchayat.” The panchayat members had hijacked the process and directly nominated members to the committee instead of having them elected through the gram sabha. 
When Bokda complained about the lack of due process, he was dismissed by panchayat officials. “The panchayat secretary had”––initially—“ceded to demands to hold a gram sabha. But when the sarpanch’s nephew was chosen as chairperson, he dodged the topic,” he said. “The members chosen are unaware of FRA. We want the committee to be formed again.” 
Even as the village’s sarpanch denied allegations of nepotism, the FRC was dissolved and reconstituted. Again, it fell short of meeting the criteria for the gram sabha. But, for now at least, it has assuaged those who raised questions the first time around.
Gagal is only an example: several FRCs across J&K have allegedly been formed without holding gram sabha meetings. Under the FRA regime, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs—and its regional departments—is the nodal agency for monitoring and implementation. In J&K, however, the department has virtually no presence on the ground. Instead, implementation has been left to the Forest, Revenue, and Rural Development departments.
When I spoke to Mohammad Saleem, Director of Tribal Affairs, in March 2021, he admitted that the Tribal Affairs Department didn’t have “district officers at the ground level.” An official of the Tribal Affairs Department, requesting anonymity, confirmed that they “don’t have a single officer” in the field. “We are handicapped and have to go to the Forest Department with a begging bowl,” he said. “Training of about 66,000 officials was done through them only.” 
When I asked Saleem about procedural irregularities in the formation of the FRCs, he said that a circular had already been issued to Deputy Commissioners and District Panchayat Officers to “reconstitute” committees in case of irregularities. The FRA provides for a committee to be dissolved by a simple resolution of the gram sabha.  This needs to be noted on paper and sent to the panchayat secretary. But that’s not quite how it played out in Gagal. Residents had to spend a few weeks imploring the officials till a new committee with public approval was finally constituted.
Syed Firdous Ahmad, the local panchayat secretary, admitted to lapses in the conduct of the gram sabha. Still, he maintained, it was “an achievement” given the short notice. “Actually, the gram sabha schedule is to drop a letter seven days in advance in public places. Here, we did it in two days,” he said. “I called the ward members a day before and asked them to send a few people for the meeting.”
For its part, the administration seemed indifferent to these glaring procedural lapses. “The gram sabha has the powers to dissolve committees and form them afresh,” Shujaat Qureshi, District Panchayat Officer in Kupwara, told me. They weren’t concerned with the formation process. The issue at the moment, Qureshi argued, was that the claims had to be made. “Whosoever is in the committee, accepted by the gram sabha, we want the claims to come in.”
All this while existing grazing land continues to be usurped for a variety of projects. Javaid Rahi, a Gujjar academic, explained that in the late 1990s, 6000 kanals of grazing land in the Jammu Division’s Rajouri district was taken away for the creation of a university in the name of the revered Gujjar saint Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah. 
“We are handicapped and have to go to the Forest Department with a begging bowl.”
In 1969, the Jammu University was established over nearly 1000 kanals of community-owned grazing land on the banks of the Tawi River, in what was then the city’s outskirts. Over the years, the urban sprawl continued to eat into the traditional stomping grounds of livestock. In December 2020, the J&K administration identified 200 kanals of grazing land for a colony for ex-servicemen. “Even if they want to make a hospital, it is proposed on grazing land,” Rahi told me. “They never propose the use of state land. It is a kind of denial of practising centuries-old culture.” (For perspective, in 2018, the J&K government stated that it had retrieved 43,335 kanals of state land just from encroachers.)
A public university is undoubtedly a public good, but as Rahi noted, the benefits are unevenly distributed. He said that J&K’s universities, including Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah, barely have any Gujjar students or staff. The community has long been denied reservation that is proportional to its status as the region’s third largest ethnic group. “It is this larger marginalisation,” Rahi said, “that no one talks about.”
or years, only a few tribal leaders have made it to positions of power. One of them is Mian Altaf from the town of Kangan in Ganderbal district. The five-time MLA comes from a family whose members have never lost an election since 1957. Mian himself won his first election in 1987 at the age of 26. He told me his community’s grievances have been ignored by governments over the years. “Baatein suni nahi jaati thi,” he said. They just didn’t listen to what we were saying.
In 1974, then chief minister Sheikh Abdullah constituted an advisory board for the welfare of Gujjars and Bakarwals with his wife, Akbar Jehan, as vice-president. Jehan was born to a Gujjar mother and Slovak-British father. Jehan—known as Madr-e-Meherban, the ‘benevolent mother’—and the Mian family were central to the National Conference’s outreach to the Gujjar and Bakarwal population.
In those years, there were some efforts to provide crucial services to pastoralists. In the 1970s, the J&K government established a scheme to provide mobile schools for children of nomadic families; the schools, like the transhumant nomads, conducted classes in pre-decided summer and winter destinations. Hostels for tribal students were set up in towns. Scholarships for schools and colleges were meant to improve the community’s educational prospects.
These gains were undone by official apathy and a lack of direction in policy making, Rahi said. The literacy rate among the region’s tribal communities has consistently remained below India’s national average. The Bakarwal people, for example, have a literacy rate of 25.3 percent while Gujjars, whose access to education is comparatively better, are at 32 percent.  “The government’s policies were rather aimed at enforcing sedentarisation,” Rahi said. “They did nothing to protect our lifestyle.”
Scattered demography also didn’t work in the community’s favour—it fragmented votes and deepened the problem of political underrepresentation.
In any case, the success of tribal leaders in assembly elections has historically depended on the patronage of the big parties. All of these, from the National Conference to the People’s Democratic Party to the now-ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party, have more or less remained under the influence of the two larger ethnic groups. “Party nominations are influenced at times by caste, ethnicity, and at other times the religious identity,” Rahi explained. “The BJP will prefer a Hindu candidate, the Kashmiri leadership would prefer Kashmiris, the Congress would prefer the Pahadi-speaking.” 
Even as ministers, tribal leaders were subjected to a kind of profiling. Until Mian entered the assembly in 1995,  they were only deemed fit to lead the animal husbandry ministry. Since then, as discrimination became too overt to be swept under the carpet, tribal legislators have held portfolios like health, forest, and tribal affairs.
&K’s complicated relations with the Union have had a direct hand in sidelining the pastoral communities in regional politics. Since Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, Delhi has sought to cultivate people from tribal communities as a counterweight to Kashmiri-speaking Muslims, who remain anti-India in a larger sense.
The pastoralists’ proximity to the border meant that they entered into a symbiotic relationship with the armed forces. Their role as informers about Pakistani infiltration deepened the divide with pro-independence Kashmiri communities. In 1965, Mohammad Din Jagir, a Bakarwal man, tipped off the Indian authorities about Operation Gibraltar—a plan by Pakistan’s military to annex the Kashmir Valley. (When he’d run into them, Jagir had been tasked by the infiltrators to arrange Kashmiri clothing so they could cross over undercover.) The year after, Jagir was awarded a Padma Shri by the Union. He was gunned down by pro-independence militants in 1990.
Through the 1990s, during the peak years of militancy, Gujjars and Bakarwals were denied access to several traditional pastures.  Even now, pastures closer to the border remain entirely out of bounds or heavily restricted. Loyalties, like borders, aren’t as clear-cut as popular culture makes them out to be: some Gujjars have picked up arms alongside other Kashmiris, and have acted as guides for militants in the mountainous terrain they know so well.
Yet, for many in Kashmir, Gujjar and Bakarwal people haven’t quite shed the ‘informer’ tag. The communities have been the target of several massacres and gruesome murders conducted by militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. “Whenever a militant was killed,” a 2014 study observed, “the finger of suspicion fell on the Gujjar family living nearby.” 
For its part, in times of relative peace, New Delhi has been quick to turn a blind eye to its “first line of defence.” Modi’s government has been hardly any different. Indeed, as more families of the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities settle in Jammu and give up transhumance, right-wing insecurities about demographics have intensified. The demolition of temporary Muslim settlements has become common in Jammu. Of late, the term “land jihad” is bandied about to cast aspersions on the emergence of new colonies populated by Muslims. In J&K’s Hindu-majority districts—like Jammu, Kathua, Samba, Reasi, Udhampur—voters are often reminded that Muslims are “encircling” the Hindus, so as to skew electoral outcomes.
In January 2018, an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was abducted and held in a temple in the district of Kathua. On its premises, she was gangraped and murdered by eight Hindu men. It represented a turning point in the Bakarwal community’s relations with the Hindus of Jammu. Not only did some locals take out rallies in support of the murderers, but the victim’s family was denied burial space in Rasana village, where they live in the winters.
Several local Hindu politicians and two sitting ministers of the BJP, including forest minister Lal Singh, came out in support of the accused. Hindu groups called for a boycott of the Gujjars and Bakarwals, and some refused to buy milk from the community. (Milk supply is the primary source of income for the Dhodhi Gujjars of Jammu.) The Supreme Court, acknowledging the “fear” prevailing in Kathua, ordered the trial to be shifted to Pathankot, Punjab. Seven of the eight accused were convicted.
The police investigation confirmed the community’s contention that the child’s murder was a “plot to dislodge the Bakarwal community in Rasana.” The ‘plot’ worked. “Many have given up on migration,” according to Talib Hussain, a young Gujjar leader and member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). “They have slowly left Rasana. Others are leaving as well.”
As of 2018, only about 4 lakh Gujjars and Bakarwals continued the practice of transhumance.  Rahi cited a study conducted by the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation in 2012 to say that 39 percent of the Gujjars surveyed had given up their migratory tradition owing to forest closures and marginalisation.  Many of these former nomads now work as guards and helpers in Kashmiri-owned fruit orchards. Others have taken up labour work.
“Even if they want to make a hospital, it is proposed on grazing land. They never propose the use of state land.”
Now, young Gujjars have thrown down the gauntlet to the old order even on the matter of the FRA. Until 2018, the community’s leadership hadn’t pressed the demand for FRA implementation. “The leadership and the parties have done nothing but marginalise the tribes further,” Rahi said. “They never studied the provisions in other states and what to do here.”
In February 2018, when Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti issued an order halting evictions until a tribal policy was put in place, she was met with resistance from her coalition partners in the BJP. (Members of the Hindu right-wing in Jammu, characteristically, called Mufti’s order yet another Islamist conspiracy to change Jammu’s demography.) A few months following this, after hectic lobbying by young Gujjars, a bill similar to the FRA was moved in the J&K assembly by Choudhary Qamar Hussain, a Gujjar legislator from the PDP. That bill was opposed by forest minister Lal Singh, from the BJP, who ironically invoked the state’s special status under Article 370.
n November 2020, the Forest Department destroyed a few huts in Pahalgam’s Lidroo village during an anti-encroachment drive. “I was part of the drive,” Shabir Swathi told me.
By this time, he had settled down and taken up a poorly paid, non-permanent job with the Forest Department. He had no inkling that the demolition drive would find its way to Mamal, about 5km from Lidroo, and that his own home would be on the verge of demolition for a third time.
Swathi pleaded with his superiors to spare the house. They agreed, but ordered the fencing to be demolished. When he began pulling down the fence with the other workers, the supervising official instructed someone to chop down a walnut tree on the land. “What do you think would have happened to me then,” he asked me.
The demolitions in Lidroo—amid the Covid-19 pandemic and despite the harsh winters setting in—created resentment in Kashmir. Unionist politicians called it a result of bureaucratic high-handedness in the absence of a popular government. Most Kashmiris simply viewed it as part of a wider campaign of native dispossession.
Around the same time, thousands of trees in orchards owned by forest dwellers in central Kashmir’s Budgam district were chopped down by forest officials. Prompted by the outrage, the administration announced the implementation of the FRA within six months. But nine months after the announcement, there seems to have been little progress.
“They just want to trouble the people more,” said Swathi, adding that the implementation of the Union law had left many Gujjars running from pillar to post to get official documents—mostly identity cards and proof of residence—in place.
“Gujjars who never visited the nearby towns are now heading for the records office in Srinagar,” said Swathi. “Officials enter our names incorrectly and now we are also unable to find our names. It’s not a matter of convenience for Gujjars, it’s more trouble.”
Years of collective disempowerment has made many Gujjar and Bakarwal people wary of seeking redressal. “Already Gujjars are seen as powerless,” said Swathi. To illustrate his point, he said: “If a Gujjar sees an official or army person in the jungle, or any well-dressed person really, he gets scared. Whatever that person may ask of a Gujjar, he will do it out of fear, thanking Allah that they are merely asking him to do something and not beating him up.”
Still, Swathi said he was encouraged by the proactiveness of young Gujjar leaders. Smartphones and social media have improved awareness and community organisation. “Today’s generation, through mobile phones, has understood the oppression we face,” he said. “Lal Singh troubled us. Look at what happened to the little girl in Kathua. Gujjars couldn’t stand up. The new generation wore handcuffs but didn’t bow. Going by that, the future will be better.”
The Gujjars, Swathi thought, had not yet realised their power as a votebank. But “Gujjars are now thinking that they must have their own political platform,” he explained. “The new generation is thinking that Gujjars, Bakarwals and Pahadis should unite.”
Swathi has re-grafted the walnut tree that was damaged during the demolition drive in November. “But I am unsure if the graft will hold,” he said. “I don’t know if the tree will rejuvenate.”
Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. He tweets @rayan_naqash.