An arduous three-mile trek over an unpaved mountainous track leads to Shareef-Ud-Din Bajad’s mud and wood hut. Dressed in a “pheran” – a traditional woollen cloak worn by Kashmiris for warmth – Bajad stood in front of his house staring at the apple tree stumps left behind by the authorities last week.
With tears in his eyes, the 70-year-old resident of Kanidajan village in district Budgam said 50 trees in his orchard had been felled by the authorities.
“They [authorities] have strangled us by taking our livelihood and are now asking us to leave homes as well. Where shall we go?” Bajad said, his hand shaking in the freezing cold winter weather.
The trees had borne a harvest of juicy apples this year, bringing in a modest income for Bajad’s family.According to villagers and activists, more than 10,000 apple trees were cut down by local authorities in this mountainous village mainly populated by Gujjar Muslims – a nomadic cattle-herding community which over the years gradually settled on the slopes of the picturesque Himalayan mountains.
“I locked up my home and fled from here,” Bajad, a father of five daughters and three sons, said of the day when his trees were cut down. He now fears his home may also be demolished.
Changed land and domicile laws
Nomadic groups such as Gujjars and Bakarwals had their houses and orchards targeted as part of the wide-range “eviction and anti-encroachment drive” across the disputed region of Kashmir, the Indian-administered side of which was stripped of its special status last August.
Since then, the local administration, now directly under New Delhi, has changed land and domicile laws in an effort that critics say is aimed at bringing about demographic change in India’s only Muslim-majority region.
Among the huts razed to the ground is that belonging to Abdul Aziz Khatana, a 32-year-old father of three children who lives at the edge of the village in southern Kashmir.