The government in Indian held Jammu and Kashmir recently issued a notice to 108-year-old Zooni Begum to vacate her home, calling her family “unauthorized occupants of the forest land.”
She is the oldest person in her village of Zilsidora, Jabbad, hidden in the vast jungle of central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
Once the bumpy road ends, visitors must trek by foot another four kilometers to the village. Tall pine trees and snowy mounts dot the landscape. Amid the harsh climate, Zooni Begum’s deep wrinkles fold with worry.
Dressed in a traditional pheran cloak and a green woolen scarf, on her head and shoulders, she is restless and anxious. Zooni says her age alone is proof that they hold rights to this land — and belong here. Thousands of forest dwellers in Kashmir face eviction. Zooni Begam is 108 years old. She has lived her whole life in Zilsidara, a village inside a forest in the Pir Panjal,
“Where will we go at this age, after living here for 150 years?” Zooni said. “My father was more than 100. I remember the names of my great-grandfathers, too, who lived here.”
More than a month ago, 110 households in Zilsidora received similar written notices. The notices ordered them to leave the land, where they raise cattle and grow crops like apples, potatoes and walnuts to sell.
Zooni says she was born in the village and got married here. Her son and daughter, five grandsons, and daughter-in-law also live here. Residents say authorities have told them to chop down trees and clear the area for a government takeover. How could they strike down trees they’ve planted over the years, and “groomed like our children?” Zooni asked.
Most of the villagers like Zooni are illiterate and possess no legal documents of their land. They maintain, however, that the government provided them the land under a “Grow More Food Program” scheme to help tribal people and forest dwellers make a living through cultivation and cattle-rearing.
The Indian government has intensified its eviction drive over recent months in forest areas across Jammu and Kashmir. The move comes a year after the government abrogated Article 370 of the constitution, removing Kashmir’s special autonomous state status. With state laws repealed, officials have imposed these new measures.
Many Kashmiris fear that such initiatives are designed to bring demographic change in the Muslim-majority region.‘We would prefer death’: Kashmiri Muslim nomads fear eviction. A year after Kashmir was stripped of its limited autonomy, Muslim Bakarwal and Gujjars face eviction from their forest.
The government claims that more than 63,000 people are illegally occupying 15,000 hectares of forest land in Kashmir. Earlier this year, the government demolished more than a dozen huts of a tribal community as part of the eviction program. Also in the Budgam area, locals in Kanidajan village reported the government chopping 10,000 apple trees in an attempt to remove residents.
After the abrogation, the Indian government technically now rules Kashmir directly under its laws. Officials say they’re setting up committees to implement the Forest Rights Act of 2006 by next March in Kashmir. The act applies to all parts of India and protects forest-dwellers. Villagers are questioning the eviction drive’s timing before the forest laws go into effect.
“If all the laws have been extended to Jammu and Kashmir, why is this particular law being ignored?” a 25-year-old college student in Zilsidora village said. “It is simple: The government wants to throw us out of our homes.”
The government aims to evict villagers, said the student, who asked not to be named for his safety, then apply the forest law, but “for whom would the law be implemented then?”
Locals in Zilsidora anticipate heavy snowfall next month, when Kashmir’s forbidding winter peaks. Breathing in the cold air, the centenarian Zooni says she doesn’t want to die with the burden of knowing her children could become homeless.