On 12 May 2008, Jahoor Hussain, 40,was riding his bicycle on his usual morning round to sell milk when he was caught by some forest officials, taken to the local range forest office, and beaten till he fell unconscious. It was only after a police complaint was filed regarding this incident that he was freed. But not before he had coughed up Rs.500 as ‘fine’. Needless to add, no receipt for the said amount was issued.

Gulam Rasool, 38, a close neighbour of Jahoor’s, has been issued death threats by forest officials if he failed to leave the area soon.

Jahoor’s and Gulam’s are among an estimated 1,300 families of Ban Gujjar tribals who are being pressured by the Uttarakhand Forest Department to leave the Rajaji National Park, where they have been living since generations, without any compensation or relocation benefit.

Jahoor Hussain, who was beaten up on May 12. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.

In Jahoor’s family, only his father and his eldest brother have been given relocation land, while Jahoor and three more of his brothers, all married and with children, have been left out. Says Jahoor, “When in April my father and brother went to take possession of their land, forest officials drove them off saying that they will not be given any unless the rest of us move to the relocation site at Pathri too. But how can we move without land and other relocation facilities? Even my father and brother have come back to the park. Now, the Forest Department is issuing us notices and threats again. What will we do?”

The same month of the incident, the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti, the organisation of the Gujjars protesting their forced ouster, filed a case in the Nainital bench of the state High Court against the range forest officer.

The Ban Gujjars

The Ban Gujjars are traditionally a forest dwelling tribe of buffalo herders living in various parts of the Himalayas. Their main source of income is the sale of milk and milk products like ghee and khowa. During the summers they migrate to the upper alpine regions of the Himalayas in search of fodder for their buffaloes who belong to the ancient ‘Neeliravi’ breed, and during the winter they descend into the Shiwalik foothills. This migration pattern is highly ecosensitive.

The Gujjars do not live in villages, but in small patrilineal household groups comprising several nuclear families. The dwellings of one household, collectively called ‘dera’, typically has a population of anything between 25 and 50, including adults and children, depending upon the number of families in one household. Deras are usually located at one or two kilometres distance from each other in the forests, though the Gujjars have strong communication links and a strong sense of community.

The Gujjars are a relatively prosperous people, and most families own motor cycles and mobile phones, though in all other matters their lifestyles continue to be simple and close to nature.

History of relocation

The Rajaji National Park, located very close to Dehradun city, came into existence in 1983, and it was decided to relocate the Ban Gujjars living inside the park, their land and grazing rights being derecognised. Before this, Gujjar families were issued grazing permits on the forest land.

At that time, 512 such families of Gujjars were identified, and in 1987, some families moved on to land provided to them at a relocation site in Pathri, located in the Haridwar forest division.

Meanwhile, protest was rising against the official definition of a Gujjar family. The original definition was based on the permit system, and each permit holder’s family, which in fact included two, sometimes even three generations of married couples with children, had been granted 2 acres of land by the government as compensation. In 1994, the government accepted the new definition of a family as a unit consisting of an adult married couple or a widow or widower, with children. It was decided to give 2 acres of land to each family.

In 1998, the survey of Gujjar families living in the park under the new definition of family was completed and 1390 families were identified for relocation. In 2001, a total of 1,043 hectares of land was allotted for relocation purposes, 243 ha at Pathri and 700 ha at Gaindikhatta, a nearby location. Another 80 ha of land, 55 at Gaindikhatta and 25 at Pathri, was added in 2006.

Till June 2008, 1,213 families have been relocated, according to park director G S Pande, while another 177 families remain to be relocated.

Missing families

In 2005, Pande had issued an eviction order against all Gujjar families who refused to move -- those who have not been relocated and also those who have been standing with them in solidarity. The families were intercepted on their way back from the upper reaches of the Himalayas and asked to leave the park immediately.

Mohammad Quasim of Cheelewali range (Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand) in his 'dera' with his grandchildren. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.

In response, 500 families of Gujjars living in the eight forest ranges which comprise the national park, whose names had not been included in the original relocation list of 1998, approached Nainital High Court with a petition to have their names included in the relocation list, and the right to settle permanently in the park. After the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) was passed, local NGOs intervened, demanding that the claims of the Gujjars be considered under the new act.

In June 2007, the court ordered that the left out families be included in the list and, in the first judgement of its type in the country, allowed the petitioners to seek relief under the FRA.

Park director Pande, however, declined to take action on the court order on the technical ground that FRA was not in force. But on 4 January 2008, the FRA came into force. The Gujjars, organised under the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti, approached court for permission to file a second petition, and the said petition was submitted to court on January 27. On June 13, in response to the petition, the High Court issued a contempt of court notice against Pande for failing to take action on the earlier judgment.

Speaking on the issue of the families left out of the relocation list, Noor Alam, a community leader and office bearer (Pradhan) of the ban Gujar Kalyan Samiti, says, “Not only is the list 10 years old and hence leaves out new families, but names of families in existence at the time of the survey have also been left out.” He counts out the names of at least 10 original permit holders, who are still alive and whose names figured on the first list of 512 families who have been left out of the new list.

Jahoor says, “I was married in 1997, and in 1998 when the survey was being carried out I already had a child. But my name was left out because I could not pay the forest officials a bribe.” Other members of the community also allege corruption in the making of the list.

Community members estimate that in addition to the 500 families who have applied for inclusion in the relocation list, there are some 700-800 more families whose names do not figure on the list.

Pande, however, is somewhat casual on the issue of the names left out. “If we start listening to these pleas, we will never get the relocation done. The number of families will keep increasing. And anyway, the lists are bogus.”

Advocate Shrikant Verma, who heads the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti and is also representing it in its legal struggles, strongly contends this. “This is a serious allegation,” says he, “How can the list be called bogus when we have submitted ration cards and voter identity cards with every name in our court petition? The High Court itself has ordered the names to be included on the list, but Mr Pande refuses to comply.”

Pressed on this point, Pande concedes that there are families in the park whose names do not figure in the list, and admits that neither he nor the Uttarakhand government has any plans regarding these families. He, however, refuses to answer the question as to why the families were being ousted without relocation, and denied knowledge of incidents of violence. “I am visiting the park regularly, and urging the families to relocate,” he says, but has nothing to say about how the families can be expected to leave without relocation facilities.

Living under constant harassment

Meanwhile, the Ban Gujjar families within the park are facing constant harassment. The situation is especially bad in the Kansroo, Gori and the east and west Dhaulkhand ranges where most of the population has left for relocation camps, leaving a small number of families isolated and vulnerable to violence.

Describing the type of harassment being faced by the Gujjars, Verma says, “Gujjars are routinely brought to the forest check points and told to leave. If they refuse, bribes are extracted from them and false cases of timber theft and poaching are slapped against them. Every check post has a collection of items like ivory, horns, skins and so on, and the Gujjars are shown these items and threatened that if they do not leave, they will be charged with possessing these items.”

Community elders at the Gaindikhatta relocation colony. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.

Cases of violence against women have also happened in these ranges, reveals Verma. In some cases girls and women have been forcibly kidnapped and kept hostages by forest officials. Last year, a court case was registered against a range forest officer after he hit a girl on the head with a rifle butt. The girl had put up a stiff resistance to the official’s attempt to kidnap her. Three years ago, an old man named Gami was beaten up very badly and fined a whopping Rs.50,000 after he resisted attempts to kidnap a woman from his household.

In the Cheelewali and Ramgadh ranges, however, very few families have left for the relocation camps. Says Abdul Kasim of Cheelewali range, “My name is on the list and I have even been allotted land. But one of my sons has been left out. Also, we have decided that no one in the range will leave till everyone has received relocation facilities.”

Cases of violence and coercion have, predictably, been fewer in these two ranges, though residents say that forest officials visit the area intermittently and try to create rifts in the community. “Forest officials approach families individually, and try to tempt them by offering to allot them better plots if they consent to leave,” says Noor Alam, “Or they issue threats of violence. It is only because we are united here that they have not succeeded in their designs.”

The Ranipur, Motichur and Cheela ranges have been vacated almost completely.

Problems with FRA

Noor Alam, the Gujjars’ pradhan of the Cheelewali range, says that while the community is aware of the self-determination rights granted to forest dwelling communities under FRA, it is not able to claim the same because the rights have to be claimed through the gram sabha. Since the Gujjars live in family groups, they do not have any recognised gram sabhas of their own community. Their claims are linked with settled villages of other communities in the park.

“We do not want to be made to leave the park,” says he, “We have visited the relocation sites and the situation is bad there. We want the government to recognise to the Gujjar community living in one range as a gram sabha so that we can pass our own resolution and reject the relocation drive.”

Mohammad Musa, pradhan of the Ramgarh range, agrees. “There are some 1,000 Gujjar votes in the Cheelewali range and around 800 votes in the Ramgarh range. According to the government, a village with 500 votes can have its own gram sabha. So why can’t we be recognised as a gram sabha?”

Even in their relocation sites the Gujjars have not received status as independent villages with gram sabhas. They are still linked with the gram sabhas of the old Pathri and Gaindikhatta villages, despite the fact that the two relocated colonies have 2,000 and 3,500 voters respectively.