India's evictions of forest dwellers fuels Kashmir fears
Ghulam Khatana's family lived half their lives in a simple log hut in Kashmir's forests, until around 200 men brandishing guns and iron rods chased them out of their home and into the blistering cold.
Thousands of apple trees in small forest villages have been chopped down and wooden homes knocked down by police, forest guards and other officials.
"They just ended our traditional way of life. I feel as if I was buried alive," said 30-year-old Khatana in Kashmir's famed Pahalgam tourist region. "It (the forest) protects us from disease and sustains us. But they have thrown us out."
The eight people in his old home, like their neighbours in the Lidroo village region, rear livestock in summer before bunkering down in their huts in winter. All of them, including 90-year-old grandmother Janat Begam, were forced to take refuge in cramped homes with other relatives.
The real Kashmir
Poets call it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Analysts consider it to be one of the most dangerous areas in the world. But what is Kashmir in reality? By Onkar Singh Janoti
Multicultural: Kashmir is well-known for its cultural and linguistic diversity. The Kashmir Valley has a Muslim majority. Hindus are predominant in Jammu while Ladakh is primarily Buddhist. But interminable violence has damaged the very fabric of society
Saffron: Kashmir is also famous for its saffron. India is the third largest exporter of saffron following Iran and Spain
'Switzerland of the East': Kashmir boasts some of the world's most beautiful flowering meadows and snow-capped peaks. Many people call it "The Switzerland of the East". On average, Jammu and Kashmir have welcomed over 1 million tourists in recent years
Under a blanket of snow: Kashmir wears pure white in winter. Many areas are perfect for winter sports but lack infrastructure. Islamist violence remains the biggest challenge
Rivers: the Himalayan part of Kashmir is the source of fresh water for more than 20 rivers, among which the Indus, Neelum and Ravi are the biggest. All these rivers flow from India into Pakistan
Wood: Kashmir is also famous for its wood, the Kashmir willow. Experts believe that it is the best wood for making a cricket bat. Kashmiri wood is also used for building boats
Sufism: Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, reached Kashmir in the 16th century. The Sufi tradition is associated with religious harmony. Many of the saints held dear by Kashmiris were Sufi monks. Sufi singers such as Abida Parveen are popular to this day
Kashmir on the silver screen: Kashmir used to be the most popular location of the Indian film industry during the 1980s. It was a golden era for Kashmir. However, the valley has witnessed violence on an almost daily basis ever since. These days, only one or two films are shot on location in Kashmir every year
Fighting in the clouds: the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on 1948 and experts see little hope of a solution in the foreseeable future. Both countries spend lots of resources on their half of the divided territory, with their respective armies squared off on what some view as the highest battlefield in the world, the Siachen glacier (5,753m)
More than 100 million people live in forests across India and are subject to laws meant to protect their right of residency if they have occupied their land for three generations. But last November, authorities began sending out eviction notices after claiming that more than 60,000 people were illegally living in or cultivating land in Kashmir's forests.
Control of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming the territory in full – a dispute that has sparked deadly confrontations between the nuclear-armed rivals. New Delhi has half a million troops stationed in Kashmir as it fights a decades-long insurgency in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to tighten India's grip on Kashmir and in 2019 scrapped laws guaranteeing its people limited autonomy. The move was accompanied by the mass arrest of political leaders and dissidents, as well as a months-long phone and Internet blackout.
It also paved the way for Indians outside Kashmir to buy land there for the first time, and made the territory subject to national laws that determine who has the right to live or tend land in its forests.
Officials in Kashmir told journalists thousands of acres of forest lands have been added to registers to coax outside businesses to set up local operations.
"The evictions and alienating these people from the forests amounts to direct dispossession," local activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat told journalists.
Others accuse Modi's Hindu-nationalist government of wanting to dilute the local population in India's only Muslim-majority territory.
Former Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who was detained for more than a year after the 2019 crackdown, accused New Delhi of trying to change the region's demographics through "settler colonial" land laws.
"Burn you alive"
New Delhi has not commented on the tree felling and demolition of the huts, and calls to government spokespeople have gone unanswered. But a senior forest official, who asked to remain anonymous, told journalists there was "a lot of pressure from higher authorities to be unsparing" on land matters.
Other authorities said forest guards, who are tasked with guarding the woodlands against clearcutting and timber smuggling, were being trained in how to abide by the national laws meant to protect communities under their jurisdiction. Activists say this occurred only after an outcry over the evictions.
The evictions heightened tensions in a region already bristling with anger at Indian rule.
In remote Kanidajan in central Kashmir, 45-year-old Biya Bano said forest guards warned her husband and eight children that they would "burn you alive" inside their log home if they did not immediately vacate it. Officials had trekked up Kanidajan's hills to hack down 11,000 fruit trees cultivated by dozens of poor families.
Abdul Ghani, who lives on the edge of the Kanidajan forest, said his orchard of 300 apple trees was chopped down without warning.
"They came on the sly, otherwise we would have laid down our lives but not let them destroy the trees," the 70-year-old told journalists. "We've been here even before India's independence [in 1947]," added Ghani's son Shakeel Ahmed. "There's no other resource here." (AFP)