Unnao and Kathua: Lessons for the correction of historical injustice?

Viren Lobo

In the face of the furore on the recent rape cases in Unnao and Kathua, the Prime Minister was forced to intervene to assure the country that law would indeed take its own course. There is still a long road for this. The wide gulf between the theory and practise of the role of man in protecting the honour and dignity of women, bring home the fact that patriarchy once a ‘tool’ to ‘protect women’ is now being used for just the opposite: preventing the cowardly from being brought to book for their dastardly acts. Man who once prided himself on his wisdom and strength is now gone into hiding to protect himself from the wrath of the women of this country.

The police chargesheet on the Kathua incident concludes that the alleged rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakharwal girl was committed to evict the Bakharwal, a nomadic Muslim group. The charge sheet talks of this in the context of protests taking place in Jammu; the protesters have among other things demanded a rollback of a purported decision by the state government on Gujjar-Bakharwal rights to forest land, alleging a conspiracy to change the demography of Jammu.

The two pastoral communities together comprising 11% of J&K’s population are the single largest Muslim group and were together designated a Scheduled Tribe in 1991. The Gujjars are in the dairy business, and settled in several parts of Jammu through to the Chenab Valley. The nomadic sheep and goat-herding Bakharwal migrate with their flock to Kashmir and Ladakh in the summer and to Jammu in the winter, camping at forest sites they have used for centuries.

Recent eviction drives have left both communities fearful that the PDP-BJP government is planning to take away these traditional rights. The forest portfolio is with the BJP’s Choudhary Lal Singh who has promised to retrieve hundreds of kanals of “encroached” forest land and impose a blanket ban on cultivation inside forests. In response, Bakharwal and Gujjar leaders have demanded that the central Forest Rights Act, 2006, be extended to J&K as well. The ST and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act provides for ownership and access rights to forest dwellers by giving them a right to live in the forests and carry out their traditional occupations for livelihood, access to collect, use and dispose of Minor Forest Produce, conservation and management of forest resources, and the right of access to biodiversity and community rights.

The recently proposed Ordinance to allow the Bakharwals and Gujjars grazing rights in Jammu and Kashmir under Forest Rights Act bill scheduled to be tabled in the ongoing Assembly session of J&K could not be done twice due to opposition from BJP citing special status of the State even while demanding abrogation of Article 370.

The preamble of the Forest Rights Act talks of the correction of historical injustice. It also recognises the right of women to property (a right taken from them with the development of patriarchy). The note of the Sub Group on Gender of CFR-LA (CFR-LA is a group created by a cross section of civil society representatives across the country to share, disseminate and consolidate learnings related to Community Forest Rights) highlighted the violence done to women (physical or mental) whenever they try to assert their rights, this violence is not just on women but even on men who stand up for such rights. This understanding stands corroborated both in Unnao and in Kathua. While endorsing this note, the author highlighted that it is only assertion of the gender perspective to historical injustice that can bring out the true essence of the forest rights act. The gender perspective in its essence denies the role of women as property and their resultant commodification and instead asserts access and use rights as its essence. Reproduction (used here in the wider sense related to overall well being and health of the forest and eco-systems) and not merely production for profit (and its resultant degradation of the natural resources and quality of life) is at its essence.

This essence is not only completely absent in the recent draft Forest Policy document 2018, it is being systematically denied and undermined. A licence is being given in the name of PPP, and enhancement of production to chain once free adivasis with the chain of their own act (Forest Rights Act 2006) in the name of participation. An entire Mission is to be put in place to ensure this as also the money collected in the name of Compensating forest loss. A repeat of the whole saga of transformation of matriarchy into patriarchy, with the difference that now the final nails are being put on the coffin.

As pointed out by the author in his endorsement of the gender perspective on FRA, it is for both men and women to understand that the time for surrender of women to the man in the name of protecting her dignity and honour is now over. Technological developments have obliterated most of the historical necessity for the division of labour. Equality is now being demanded not just as a right but as being essential for progress itself.

[The author is an ecologist, and he heads the Institute of Ecology and Livelihood Action. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of www.headlineseveryday.com.]