India’s “first line of defence” along the border in Jammu and Kashmir, the nomadic Gujjar community is feeling under attack. But not from a foreign enemy.

The proposed All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Vijaypur threatens to evict 204 families of Gujjar Basti there. For one family in particular, it has brought back horrors of another forced eviction last year.

Sixty-year-old Reham Ali’s son, Mohammad Yaqub, was killed on February 22, 2016. That day police had arrived in a Gujjar settlement in Sarore, not far from Vijaypur, to arrest a man wanted for crimes in Himachal Pradesh. The residents alleged the police manhandled them, including women and children, when the accused was not found at home.

When the villagers protested the police’s highhandedness, “suddenly a large mob of Hindus emerged and set kulas [mud and wood houses] on fire”, said Teg Ali, a resident of Sarore. “We started defending ourselves by throwing stones at them, but not the police.”

Reham Ali and his son had rushed to Sarore when they heard about the confrontation. Teg Ali, a cousin of Reham’s, said shortly after the houses were set on fire, bulldozers of the Jammu Development Authority also arrived and pulled down the concrete structures.

The villagers tried to resist but the police fired on them, killing 25-year-old Yaqub. Later, Teg Ali said, “the police threw out our belongings, whatever was not already damaged by the mob. The SHO told us to leave this land.”

That wasn’t all. The residents alleged the police detained the Gujjars but let the Hindu mob go. “I didn’t even know my son was shot, I was in the lock-up,” said Reham. In the Bari Brahmana police station, too, Reham said, the Gujjars were beaten.

The Station House Officer, Bharat Sharma, was shifted out soon after. Naeem Akhtar, now a minister, had called for a judicial enquiry into the incident. The state was under Governor’s Rule at that time.

A year later, however, Reham is unaware of any inquiry but he knows that Sharma was awarded the Police Medal for Meritorious Services last August. “No one has done justice for the murder of my son,” Reham said. “There has been no trial for my son’s murder. The SHO was given a medal for the murder of a Gujjar.”

Reham said Mehbooba Mufti, now chief minister, had promised the Gujjars security when she visited his family to offer her condolences. “She told us the government would build kulas for us and that no one will bother us anymore,” Reham said. “But we are again being evicted.”

Reham Ali shows a picture of his murdered son, Mohammad Yaqub. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

Ballot and bulldozer

Residents of Vijaypur say the threat of eviction has been looming over them since 2014. A little over a month before Narendra Modi’s Lalkar rally in Jammu in December 2013 – his first in the state after being made the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate – local BJP leader Chander Prakash Ganga gathered people from across Vijaypur for a meeting and reportedly told them: “I will run a bulldozer through the Gujjar settlements once you make us [the BJP] successful.” There were about a dozen Gujjars present in the gathering.

At the rally, though, Modi tried to woo the Gujjars, a significant vote bank in the state. “Today I specially want to think of my Gurjar friends,” Modi declared, calling them “my own people”. “Shouldn’t all you Gurjar families get benefits as tribals?” Modi asked. “Should you get your rights or not?”

As per Census 2011, the state’s Gujjar population were around 9.8 lakh while the Bakarwals, a related community, numbered 1.1 lakh. Both are almost entirely Muslim. A study of the 2011 Census data by the Centre for Policy Studies shows that the population of Gujjars and Bakarwals had grown by about 33% over the previous decade, much higher than the state’s average growth of 23.6%.

About a year after Modi’s address, when the state went to Assembly polls, Ganga won, and, the Gujjars alleged, promptly made good on his threat. “His supporters came to our settlement and hurled stones at us,” said a resident of Gujjar Basti, asking not to be identified.

Rising intolerance

Since then, the Gujjars, who form the majority of the Muslim population in Jammu region’s Hindu dominated belt, have increasingly come under attack.

In May 2016, the forest minister Choudhary Lal Singh of the BJP allegedly went to the extent of threatening the Gujjars with a repeat of the 1947 massacre of Muslims; he told a visiting Gujjar delegation if they had “forgotten 1947”.

Muslims were the majority in Jammu province before 1947. A massacre in August that year led to an estimated two lakh Muslims being killed or escaping to Pakistan. Activists in Jammu pointed out that the resultant demographic change became more pronounced with the influx of Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Pandits from the Valley in the 1990s.

In April this year, a Bakerwal family was attacked by a mob near Reasi town when a shopkeeper they owed money to accused them of smuggling bovines for slaughter.

In August, 70-year-old Lal Hussain was attacked on his way to a bank. Hussain was reportedly walking behind a person with a cow and he suspects the mob mistook him for the animal’s owner. Pictures of the attack show Hussain with bloodied head and legs.

The Gujjars and Bakerwals now fear even moving with their animals. “Sometimes we cannot even take an injured cow or a sick calf to the [veterinary] hospital because we fear we will be attacked on the way,” said Mohammad Sharif.

On the other hand, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh regularly holds armed marches through different towns, including Muslim majority ones. Gujjars and other Muslims in Jammu region often speak of “firqa parasti”, or communalism. The feeling is that the Muslims can now be targeted without fear of consequences. “Earlier if something happened, the government would immediately try to control the situation,” said Zabeer Ahmad, a Gujjar social activist. “Today no one tries to do anything.”

Not surprisingly, a sense of alienation is creeping among the Gujjars.

In response to the growing Hindutva assertiveness, the separatist Hurriyat Conference has been calling shutdowns in the Chenab Valley. “Its an assertion of identities,” said a Muslim student at the Jammu University who asked not to be identified. “Their aggressive assertion will naturally evoke a sense of Muslim identity in the community and connect it with the Valley, emotionally and politically.”

The Hurriyat has seemingly stepped in the void left by the mainstream parties. “The PDP has shut all doors for grievances for Muslims of Jammu, particularly the Gujjars,” said a senior government official in Jammu, referring to the People’s Democratic Party, which is ruling the state in alliance with the BJP.

To support this claim, the Muslims of Jammu region point to an incident from 2013. That year in Kishtwar, which has about 20% more Muslims than Hindus, a communal riot left three people dead. Several business establishments, mostly of Hindus, were also burned down. The resultant polarisation in the district saw the BJP’s Sunil Sharma make his debut in the Assembly in 2014. The Indian Express reported that Sharma was named in an FIR for being part of a group that had allegedly killed two persons from the “other community” during a communal clash in Kishtwar in 2008. Sharma is today a junior minister in the PDP-BJP government.

The year 2008, in fact, is when polarisation in Jammu region first became explicit. As an agitation raged against the transfer of forest land to the board that manages the Amarnath shrine in South Kashmir, Muslims of Jammu found themselves unwitting victims of the opposite demands of “Muslim Kashmir”, with which they share their faith, and “Hindu Jammu”, where they belong.

In Jammu region, as Hidutva groups launched a campaign of violence, local new channels inflamed the passions. Most infamously, they aired a statement by then BJP state chief Ashok Khajuria threatening Muslims to “vacate your houses…or else the people of Jammu are ready to throw you out”. Khajuria is now a member of the Legislative Council, the upper chamber of the Assembly.

“The Muslims of Jammu are today at a crucial juncture of history,” Zafar Choudhary wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly in August 2008. Analysing the BJP’s attempt to contain the fallout from Khajuria’s threat, he argued:

“The Geelanis have regrets that the Jammu Muslim is not a part of the Kashmir movement as much as the Kashmiri Muslim is. The Khajurias have a grouse that their Muslim neighbours are not as much Indians as they are. This is exactly where their fault lies. Both have a poor idea of the sentiments of Jammu Muslims.”

As for the choice of Vijaypur for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the official in Jammu said the area was one of the largest Gujjar settlements across Jammu, Kathua and Samba districts “which could have offered resistance” to Hindutva forces. “Now the government machinery is being used to get them evicted,” he said. “If they succeed here, there are thousands of smaller settlements in these districts which can be easily removed by communal forces.”

A member of the State Advisory Board for Gujjars and Bakerwals, wishing anonymity, said the level of polarisation in Jammu has not seen since 1947. “And it all began when Mufti Sahab [former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of the PDP] joined hands with the divisive elements [BJP],” he said. “The polarisation has increased since Mehbooba Mufti came to power. Today administrations are being cleansed and all BJP workers are being placed there.”

Shah Mohammad Choudhary accuses the 'Kashmir-based political leadership' of exploiting the Gujjars. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

Abandoned by all

For Reham and other people in Vijaypur, the Gujjar community has always been “misguided” by the many leaders who have “imposed themselves” upon them. “Our biggest weakness is that we don’t have anyone to guide us,” said Reham. “We are illiterate people who live in the fields and forests. We don’t know anything more than that. The police is the authority here. We did not know that we could even complain about Yaqub’s killing.”

Ironically, Yaqub was a member of the local BJP. In fact, many Gujjars had joined the BJP after the party came to power, hoping its membership cards would save them from attacks. “We had cordial relations with everyone but today the people have become aggressive towards us,” Reham complained. “The Gujjars have no value under the BJP government.”

The Gujjars, however, still remember Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first prime minister after Partition and later chief minister, and his wife whom they call Madar-e-Meherban, or Kind Mother.

“They were the only ones who worked for us,” said Lal Hussain, one of three people in Gujjar Basti to have completed high school. “Farooq Abdullah did not give us anything but he did not take anything either. Omar [Abdullah, former chief minister] has no relations with us at all. There is no sympathy anywhere. The [opposition] National Conference is as guilty as the current government for our situation. If they had sympathy for us they would not have abandoned us.”

Another villager in Vijaypur said the Congress too, after wooing the Gujjars in the last decade, had abandoned them. “We are not a majority in this area, so why would they risk their vote bank for a mere 700 votes from this settlement?” he asked. “When it is time to harass us, even they watch silently.”

Senior advocate Shah Mohammad Choudhary accused the “Kashmir-based political leadership” for exploiting the Gujjars. “Kashmiri ministers have always kept us as vote bank,” he said, claiming that nothing significant had been done for Gujjars since Sheikh Abdullah’s time. “The central government sends crores of rupees for uplifting Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but that money is plundered by Kashmiri politicians. If we get the money provided by the Centre [through local administrations], we would not be dependent on Kashmiri politicians or bureaucrats.”

The growing resentment among the Gujjars, meanwhile, is worrying security officials in the region. “Militancy in Jammu region did not survive because it did not get the people’s support,” said a police officer in Jammu. “That might change if the Muslims are under attack constantly.”