'They are custodians of the jungle': anger as Kashmiri nomads' homes destroyed

Azhar Qadri in Kashmir and Hannah Ellis-Petersen
·5-min read

The winter snow falls heavily on the mountainside hamlet of Mamal Wuder in south Kashmir, but inside Naseema Akhtar’s mud hut the air is soft and warm, steam rising from the pink salt tea that she shuffles about preparing.

Akhtar, 35, is a gujjar, one of a nomadic tribe of herders who traditionally spend summer in mountainous forests across the Kashmir valley in India and migrate to either the plains of Jammu or the foothill villages of Kashmir during winter.

Some of the community have settled, but for many their nomadic ways have remained unchanged for generations. However, in recent weeks dozens of the gujjars’ forest homes have been demolished as part of a government-led campaign. Families like Akhtar’s have been forced from lands they have occupied for generations.

The tribe, who have remained insulated from Kashmir’s political troubles and militant insurgency for decades, have been shaken to their core.

Akhtar’s troubles began with a notice from the region’s wildlife protection department. “It has been found that you have unauthorisedly occupied government land,” the notice read. It demanded she leave the small mud hut.

Gujjars in other settlements have not always been given prior warning. They say they have returned to find their forest huts demolished by bulldozers.

“My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather all lived here,” said Shabir Swathi, Akhtar’s husband. “When I was a child, my great-grandmother would narrate stories of 1947 [during the first of several wars between India and Pakistan over the region] when warplanes flew over this jungle. I don’t know what we will do if we are thrown out.”

Qasim Doi, Swathi’s neighbour and a father of five, also received an eviction notice. The forest land not only serves as his home but also his livelihood, and his flock of sheep graze nearby. “Where will we go?,” Doi asked in despair. “We are jungle people and we have no life without the jungle.”

Kashmir, the Himalayan region troubled by decades of conflict, is home to more than a million gujjars, according to an official census conducted nearly a decade ago. The demolition drive has been seen by many in Kashmir as the latest assault on the freedoms of those living in the state, which has faced a militaristic crackdown since the Indian government removed its special autonomous status and took direct control in August 2019.

The impact on the gujjars has been most visible in Lidroo, a village on the edge of the forest in Pahalgam, in southern Kashmir. Nearly a dozen gujjar huts have been demolished in recent weeks.

Framed by pine trees heavy with fresh snow, Abdul Aziz Khatana, 38, stood among the wreckage of his mud and wood hut that has served as his family’s summer home for at least seven generations. It was demolished while he was out at the market buying rice. He returned to find his 13-year-old daughter, Iqra Jan, traumatised.

Khatana and his family have continued the tribe’s nomadic traditions, and spend six months of the year in Lidroo, where their six cows and two horses can graze in the forests, before they move to their insulated winter home when the cold sets in. He had no documentation for their rights to the land but believes it stretched back to his great-great-great-grandfather.

Khatana said: “Till now I had no idea that I needed papers for this land. I now feel there is no existence for us.”

Fareed Ahmad, whose hut was demolished the same day, said he tried to plead with the demolition team but was threatened with arrest. “We can do nothing,” he said.

Ahmad lamented how the gujjar way of life was slipping away. “In our family we talk every evening about what to do now. We think about it, what we would do if we are evicted. We do not even have money to buy land.”

The demolitions have stoked a growing political backlash against the Hindu rightwing government in Delhi, which recently brought in laws that it is feared will threaten Kashmir’s Muslim-majority demography, and its ethnic and cultural identity.

“I want to tell those who run the government here that you don’t tamper with the gujjar nomad community, it will have serious repercussions,” Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Kashmir who was recently released from a year-long detention, told reporters as she toured Lidroo. “They are custodians of the jungles, their forefathers have lived here for centuries.”

Mushtaq Simnani, a government official and head of the Pahalgam Development Authority, denied demolishing residences or leaving anyone homeless and said the situation was being exploited for “politics”. He said any action was simply part of an anti-encroachment drive to protect the forests.

“No one was living there, neither in winter nor in summer nor in any other season,” said Simnani. “We have not displaced anyone. There were four families living in the wildlife area but we did not touch them. We only dismantled the empty structures.”

Zahid Chaudhry, a gujjar activist, said the demolitions were ongoing and more notices had been sent to the gujjar community living in other districts. “There are some families living under open sky for the last six months,” he said. “It is totally shocking for us. There is no justification for demolishing the hutments. We live in pastures during summers and then we move to plains during winter. We are nomads, not land grabbers.”