Sitting in the one-room mud house without electricity that serves as the office of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan in Uttarakhand, Mohammad Ameer Hamja seemed certain about what the party that rules the Centre and state aim to do. He declared in a matter-of-fact way, “The BJP government wants to erase our community.”

The Van Gujjars, a migratory pastoralist community of Muslims, have long faced marginalisation as a result of the state clashing with them about their traditional forest-based lifestyle and livelihood practices.

Hamja founded the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan in 2017 to help the community to assert its legal and political rights. But since then, the community’s marginalisation has only grown more intense as a result of the communal polarisation fomented by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

With the region voting on Friday, many community members to whom Scroll spoke said they are likely to press the button for the Indian National Congress, mainly as a tactic to try and keep out the BJP. Overall, however, the community harbours little hope from the voting. They are too small and dispersed a community to influence electoral politics in even an Assembly election, they say, let alone a national one in Uttarakhand.

‘Illegal’ in the eyes of the state

The Van Gujjars are a semi-nomadic, Muslim community with presence in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in India and in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are about 70,000 Van Gujjars across Uttarakhand, making up a tiny proportion of the about 14 lakh Muslims within the state’s total population of one crore people.

In addition, the community is spread out throughout Uttarakhand – meaning that its electoral presence in each constituency is marginal. The absence of a political voice contributes to the community’s extreme economic and social deprivation.

Hamja’s is one of 86 families that have been living in the Gohri range of the Rajaji National Park for well over 200 years. Most of the other families that lived here have been relocated by the state forest department after the National Park was established in 1983.

These 86 families live without electricity, without any rights to their land and in perpetual threat of their homes being demolished by the forest department.

The Van Gujjar community has Other Backward Class status in the state, even though they have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status for decades – as has been provided to the community in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.

Besides, Hamja claimed that they have not received the benefits to which even ordinary citizens are entitled. “We don’t get ration cards, pensions or subsidies,” he said. “We don’t have the right to vote in the local gram panchayat election.” That is because the state does not formally recognise their village.

Said Mohammad Shamshad Baniya, Secretary of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan, “In the government’s imagination, we are encroachers, not residents of the forests.”

Muslim identity

Members of the community to whom Scroll spoke expressed anxiety at the sharp rise in religious polarisation in Uttarkhand, much of it state-backed, they felt.

In December 2021, for example, at a “Dharam Sansad” or “religious parliament” organised by Hindutva outfits in Haridwar, several Hindu ascetics and BJP leaders had called for genocide of Muslims.

None of those involved in the event have faced punitive action, even though hate speech is a criminal offence.

Community members said that they have been facing economic boycotts from several Hindus in Rishikesh and Haridwar.

“Earlier, whenever we would go to the cities with our dairy products, we would get so much respect from everyone,” said Hamja. Even till a few years ago, these products were in high demand because they had the reputation of being high quality, he said.

Van Gujjars also pointed to the destruction of their mazars or shrines by the state government over the last two years. Their claims for forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act have also not been heard for well over a year now under the BJP government in Uttarakhand.

Hamja also expressed consternation at the new Uniform Civil Code that has been introduced in the state. “Our marriage customs have been totally erased,” he said. “Aren’t tribals’ personal laws protected by the Constitution? Why is our culture and heritage being threatened?”

Even as they are attacked as Muslims, their tribal identity means they get little political support from the larger Muslim community in Uttarakhand. “The mainstream Muslim community doesn’t consider our religious practices or culture legitimate," said Hamja.

According to Shamshad, “In their eyes, we are tribals and not true Muslims”. As a result, Van Gujjars do not socially mix with the larger Muslim community.

“Uttarakhand has always had two-three Muslim MLAs,” he added. “None of them have ever spoken for us.”

Leaning towards the Congress

The dominant view in the community is that while the Congress has not done much for it over the years, at least it does not discriminate against it on the basis of religion.

“The Congress came up with the resettlement policy for us, due to which a lot of us support it,” said Aftab Chauhan Van Gujjar, who heads the Pauri Garhwal district chapter of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan. “On the other hand, the BJP has carried out no resettlement and left those of us yet to be resettled in a lurch.”

The Congress candidate in the Haridwar constituency, Virender Rawat, is the son of former chief minister and former Haridwar MP Harish Rawat. His sister Anupama Rawat, who is the standing MLA from the Haridwar Rural assembly seat, enjoys popularity within the community.

“She has had some infrastructure built in our resettlement colonies in the last year,” Amanat Ali Gujjar, President of the Sanghatan, told Scroll. He lives in the Pathri Gujjar basti, about 15 kms from Haridwar, where 512 families from the Rajaji National Park have been resettled. “She is also the first MLA to raise the issue of land title for Van Gujjars in resettlement colonies in the Vidhan Sabha,” he added. Due to this, the community hopes that Virender will also look after their interests.

However, there are some BJP supporters within the community too. “Out of fear of the BJP, most Van Gujjars oppose it but some try to join it,” said Amanat Gujjar.

He explained that some members of the community associate with the BJP in order to get access to the local administration and get support from grassroots BJP leaders for grievance redressal over ground-level welfare issues. “They also see opportunity in trying to lap up to the dominant national party,” he said.

Aftab Gujjar said that the sarpanch of the nearest gram panchayat is from the BJP and has influenced some of community members to support the party.

Members of the Van Gujjar community in Kunao village, Gorhi Range, Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand. Credit: Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan

Little political hope

Community members told Scroll that no Lok Sabha candidate of any political party has ever visited them before elections to canvas for their votes or understand their grievances.

“We are too small a community to make a candidate win or lose an election,” Shamshad said.

However, workers from both parties had included the community in their campaigns. Those from the Congress had promised to implement the Forest Rights Act, protect them from harassment by state officials and ensure that they get title to land in resettlement colonies. BJP workers asked for votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had not spoken of any issues related to the community’s interests.

Even though the community was not hopeful or excited about the polls on Friday, most community members will still vote, Shamshad said. “All of us want education and the benefit of government schemes and protection from state harassment,” he explained.

Hamja said that the Sanghatan had made representations to the manifesto committees of both the Congress and the BJP but had not heard from either.

The Sanghatan had requested the creation of a policy to protect cattle herder communities and institutionally recognise their customary practices.

Hamja said that the ecological crisis in Uttarakhand could be averted if the state were to pay heed to forest communities’ expertise in environmental conservation.

“Our community does not care about government support, but we shouldn’t be deprived of respect and dignity,” he said.