Selectively targeting us, says Gujjar residents
Chapran (Bandipora): Scores of villagers in this uphill village of Bandipora district came out in protest on Wednesday against alleged arson by Forest officials during an anti-encroachment drive in the area.
Villagers said officials resorted to arson by torching several Kothas instead of demolishing them. Officials have denied the allegations despite videos on social media apparently supporting the allegations.
Women and men assembled at Chapran village on Wednesday and strongly protested the government action and demanding that Governor should launch an inquiry.
“We are not against the eviction of illegal encroachment but the way forest officials along with district administration and police resorted to arson, not even giving some space for evicting the valuables from our humble houses, is saddening and unacceptable, ” Mohamad Zafraan, a villager said.
The Kothas (modest huts) gutted in the incident belonged to Gujjar community, who said they were being used as summer houses for decades.
“These houses have existed from over 50 years, these act as our summer houses and are also used to store wood and keep cattle,” another villager, Mohamad Israel said.
“The administration was taking advantage of our weakness and considering us third-class citizens without any right for even a basic living. Arson is not the way civilized and people in power resort to against a weaker section of society.”
The villagers alleged that Forest officials were selectively targeting them with an iron fist approach while as bigwigs “who have constructed hotels on the illegally occupied forest land” were treated with kindness.
The Gujjar community in the area wasn’t provided a road despite appeals to government, while as a hotelier was provided road through forest land, they alleged.
“In Athwatoo village, a hotelier who has occupied forest land is given courtesy that even a road is constructed for him through a forest land, while over forty households from our community haven’t even been provided with a road or another basic facility,” Zafraan said.
On Monday forest protection officials, along with officials from district administration and police, launched an eviction drive in which, according to Divisional Forest Officer, “57 Kanals of illegally occupied forest land was evacuated from under 14 settlers by demolishing six to seven temporary, tin sheds”.
Denying allegations of the arson, the officer said they only burned the fencing, and demolished other structures.
Terming the officials statement a lie, the villagers belonging to Gujjar community said that huts were “burned down by officials of Forest department with the help of police and other officials”.
They also presented video evidence to support their allegations.
The villagers demanded compensation for the victims of arson and intervention from the Governor of the state.
“We condemn the government action in strongest of the terms and demand compensation for the victims. We also demand Governor to intervene in the matter personally,” Gulaab Jan, an elderly woman said.