Forest officials accused of arson while removing ‘encroachment’ in Bandipora

Forest officials accused of arson while removing ‘encroachment’ in Bandipora

Video shows Gujjar kothas go up in flames

Chapran, Bandipora: Residents of an uphill Chapran village in northern Kashmir’s Bandipora district have alleged that Forest officials have resorted to arson by burning down several structures in the name of removing illegal encroachments.
While Forest officials have refuted the allegations of arson, residents said that several kothas, used by the villagers in Gujjapatti as summer houses and animal shelters, went up in flames in front of officials.
Forest officials, however, said some temporary sheds raised up illegally were demolished and a fencing was burned.
The forest protection force, district administration and police on Monday went to Gujjarpati village of Chapran and launched an ‘eviction drive’, however, it turned ugly with residents alleging the officials of torching the “houses”, “without even letting the owners evacuate their valuables”.
According to the locals, 15 to 20 “Kothas” (mud or wood houses) were burned to ashes.
“We have lived in these houses in summers for over 60 years and also kept our cattle, it’s out of nowhere and without any prior notice that the government has come and burned them down. We weren’t even warned or offered to remove our valuables from them,” a teary-eyed Gujjar youth said.
Another youth lamented as he watched his Kotha go up in flames, “We are ruined, our homes have been set on fire which have existed from over 50 years”.
Locals said there were over 80 such Kothas but that they were specifically targeted due to “vested interests” of the officials.
However, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Bandipora denied the allegations of burning down what he called temporary tin sheds.
“It was a coordinated eviction drive launched with the help of district administration, Police and Forest protection force. In the drive, despite stiff resistance from the locals we vacated 57 Kanals of land from 14 encroachments”.
The officer said that they adopted all legal forms and demolished six to seven temporary tin sheds constructed by the villagers to remain in close proximity of maize cultivation.
He said that they “only burned down the fencing” while refuting the arson despite a video on social media narrating a different story.
He said the villagers were “resistant”, and damaged six to seven vehicles and left three employees injured.
He also denied the allegation that no notices were sent prior to the action
“They were being issued notices from one to two years and even an FIR has been launched three months back but they were not taking anything seriously,” DFO Shabeer Ahmad said.
Gujjar leaders, however, have protested against the action and stated that burning down structures was not a solution.
They have also demanded an inquiry from top authorities.
“Our grazing rights are being violated. We strongly protest against the criminal Department and urge the State Govt. to intervene into it. We strongly condemn this act. The notice should have been sent to them prior to kicking them out and burning their houses. It’s the bullying of department against the poor and marginalised community which will never be tolerated at any cost,” State President J&K Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Conference, Zahid Parwaz Choudhary wrote.
“We are fighting for enactment of forest rights act in state so that discrimination like this could be barred but nobody is serious…,” he added.