Rajaji is a national park that encompasses the Shivaliks, near the foothills of the Himalayas. The Park was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1983, and later a tiger reserve on 15 April 2015. The area is mostly inhabited by the community of Van Gujjars, an indigenous pastoralist nomadic community originally from the Kashmiri area. According to a Times of India report, there are currently a number of 1.610 Van Gujjars families living within the Rajaji Tiger Reserve (RTR), while 1.593 families have been relocated in the last 15 years (Fanari, 2019).
The attempt to relocate the Gujjars from the forest goes back to 1975, but it became a priority in 1985, just after the announcement of the Rajaji National Park project. In all these years the community has been facing several eviction notices and harassment by the forest department, to convince them to leave their territory and give space to the national park [4, 5]. Indeed after creation of the Park, the Van Gujjars were asked to shift to a resettlement colony at Pathari near Haridwar . The forest authorities prohibit the communities to exercise their traditional pasture and grazing activity recognized under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and blame them for poaching and timber smuggling from the park.
In 2005, after years of struggle, the Van Gujjars approached the Nainital court under the banner of Van Gujjar Kalyan Samiti (BGKS), and started a legal battle. This went on for the next few years till September 2008, when the Uttarakhand High Court sent a letter of contempt to the RTR director asking to stop the illegal relocation and acknowledge the right of the community as per Forest Rights Act (FRA). This has been the first time in India that a high court explicitly expressed in favour of the Forest Rights Act within the protected areas .
However, relocation and harassment did not stop and the Van Gujjars have continuously been pressurized by the forest department to leave their territory. Many Van Gujjars have been criminalized by the authorities, as was the case of 28 June 2011, when the leader of the movement, Noorjamal, got arrested on false charges. On that occasion, thousands of Dalits and Van Gujjars protested taking over the police station for one day . The Van Gujjars are claiming their forest rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), but most of their claims have been rejected. In 2011 the Uttarakhand government gave an order to relocate a number of 228 families from the Chillawali range of Rajaji National Park . Later in 2017, the forest department gave the order to evict 200 families from the Gohri tiger core area, denying them any rehabilitation package as considered ‘encroachers’.
The Van Gujjars are struggling to get first of all their rights recognized, in order to have a proper rehabilitation package and be relocated under the rule of the law . In the last years, the Uttarakhand High Court has tried to evict the Van Gujjars overpassing the law. First, on 19 December 2016, an order declared the Van Gujjars dangerous for the wildlife and cause of forest fires, and hence needed to be evicted within one year time [high court order numb. 54 OF 2016]. Later, in August 2018 a High Court order termed as illegal the stay of the Van Gujjar in the buffer area of both Rajaji and Corbett Tiger reserve, ordering the eviction without rehabilitation. This has activated a wave of protests, and on September 24, 2018, the Supreme Court asked the government to maintain a ‘status quo’ on the matter [8, 9].
The last event of harassment against the Van Gujjars of Rajaji National park, came under the COVID19 pandemic, when on 16th and 17th June, 2020, in the Dehradun’s Asharodi forest in Ramgarh range, the armed force of the Forest Department, led by Officer Aan Singh Kandali, reached Gulam Mustafa’s inhabitation in the forest which is about 500 meters from the Dehradun-Delhi highway, and without any prior information began to destroy his camp (information shared by AIUFWP). The entire incident has been recorded by the children of the Van Gujjar family on their phones . On seeing the video being made, the Forest Department's force opposed the making of the video and said that "cases under various sections will be registered against you in order to send you and your family to jail". Mustafa informed the police they have the rights under FRA, but the police officers did not listen and started destroying their huts and along with his wife, 4 women and children got arrested. As per the news shared by the activists of the area, Mustafa was later highly beaten up by the police, and women were also beaten up . Mustafa who has been fighting for his rights under FRA has been falsely accused in the past too (AIUFWP, press release) [12,13].