The heroic role of women in the Van-Gujjar struggle

July 6, 2011

by Sushovan Dhar

The nomadic Van gujjar tribes and the forest village communities known as Tongiya cultivators are in a struggle for their traditional rights in Uttarakhand & UP. The Van Gujjars are found in the Shivalik hills area of North India. The Van Gujjars follow Islam, have their own clans, are a pastoral semi-nomadic community, practising transhumance. In the winter season, the Van Gujjars migrate with their herds to the Shiwalik foothills, and in summer, they migrate to pastures high up in the mountains. The Van Gujjars have had conflicts with the forest authorities, who prohibited human and livestock populations inside the reserved park, and blamed the Van Gujjar community for poaching and timber smuggling. After the creation of the Rajaji National Park, the Van Gujjars in were asked to shift to a resettlement colony at Pathari near Hardwar. In 1992, when the Van Gujjars returned to the foothills, the RNP authorities tried to block them from the park area. The community fought back and finally the forest authorities had to relent. The Vangujjars being Muslim by faith are specifically targeted and harrassesed by the BJP ruled Uttarakhand government. There was an eviction notice from Rajaji National Park without a proper rehabilitation package. The Van-gujjars challenged it in Nainital High Court in 2005. The High Court passed a judgment in 2007 February that the Vangujjar issue should be settled according to the provisions of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, *2006*, before which no eviction can take place. It is perhaps the first judgment by any court in the country, directing the state govt. to settle the rights inside any national park according to FRA 2006. Earlier, a delegation of 20 community leaders belonging to nomad tribe Vangujjar and Taungiya forest villages had a talk on January 11, 2011 on the implementation on FRA in Uttrakhand with Vidhan Sabha speaker Sh Harbans Kapoor. The delegation listed out the problems in implementation of the Act in Uttarakhand on the basis of Saxena committee report on Joint review of FRA.

Noorjamal, a van-gujjar from Rajaji National Park, an important leader of National Forum of Forest People and Forest Worker (NFFPFW) was detained in Biharigarh Police Station, Saharanpur, UP on 28th June 2011 on false charges filled by Forest dept. In protest against his illegal arrest and detention, thousands of dalits and Vangujjars belonging to the UP and Uttarakhand forest areas gheroad the police station and took over the police station for whole day on 29th June 2011. The presence of women was notable in the militant mobilisation. The police was on defensive and surrendered in front of women who locked the police personnel inside their rooms and did not allow them to work for whole of the day. It was due to the strong women leadership of tongia villages and Vangujjars that Noorjamal was released with honor and unconditionally in the afternoon. The false charges framed on two other leaders Jahoor Hasan and Irshad Ahmed were also withdrawn by the UP Police. The DSP apologized for these false charges. Noorjamal was taken out of police station with triumph. The women challenged both the UP and Uttarakhand police and forest officials that they will not tolerate any more injustice and any official who denies their forest rights will be punished. The protest in the police station sent shock waves among the police and the forest officials in the entire region that is just 30 km from Dehradun. After a victorious release people gheroad the Mohand forest range that filed false charges on these innocent Vangujjar, but after seeing people coming, the forest officials fled from the range premises. The entire forest range was also taken over by the people and they have announced that now forest belongs to them and not to corrupt Forest Department This is indeed a great victory of the people’s movement and women leadership.

Indeed, women have a very strong role in the Van-gujjar and forest communities. It is primarily the women only who are more close to nature and they are the primary producers and protectors of the forest. In the forest areas, it is women only who spend 90% of time in forest in collection of Non Timber Forest Produce(NTFP), fuel wood, grazing and tending animals. It is for the first time that Forest Rights Act 2006 has recognized women role in forest after independence and granted equal ownership rights of women in the community and the individual forest rights. It is the struggle ahead that will enforce the law on the ground.