The Situated 'Forest' State and the Alienation of Van Gujjars: Locating forms of accumulation through dispossession in forests of Uttarakhand

The Van Gujjars are a nomadic pastoral community who practice seasonal migration and rotational grazing between the forests of Terai Bhabhar and Siwalik regions in winter and alpine meadows (bugyals) in the upper reaches of the Western Himalayas in the summer. However, the inception of fortress conservation models and forest restoration policies have severely inhibited the ability of these pastoralists to reside, graze and migrate within these forests. The post-colonial state has designed myriad schemes to resettle these pastoralists, without necessarily addressing their volition to accept these ambivalent strategies of sedentarization on their lives and livelihoods. Nonetheless, legal instruments and court orders are routinely used by the Forest department to dispossess these pastoralists in the guise of forest conservation and wildlife protection. This article seeks to identify the numerous strategies adopted by the situated forest state to legitimise dispossession of Van Gujjars, either directly through routine eviction and threats of displacement or indirectly by providing handouts in the form of compensation and rehabilitation packages. The author argues that an analysis of the political economy of forest conservation and restoration becomes key to understand how pastoral lives and livelihoods are negotiating this onslaught of accumulation within forests that rests on displacing and settling them. Although the Forest Rights Act, 2006, engenders a form of agency amongst some Van Gujjars to assert and resist these strategies, the author argues that the politics embedded within its implementation allows the situated forest state to engender ‘proletarianized’ rationalities towards resettlement and land tenure amongst the Van Gujjars.


“Janglaat humein kanooni kaagaz dikha ke dhamkate hai ki hamara kabja is jangal mei avaid hai, jo unpad Gujjar sirf jangal ko apna ghar maanta hai, usse haq ki ladai mein kanoon nahi, bas latt hi sahara insaaf pane ki.”

(The Forest department has often used legal documents to show that our encroachment within these forests are illegal, but for an uneducated gujjar who considers the forest his home, for claiming his rights the law doesn’t help, but his stick can definitely be just)

Roshan Deen, 57

This testimony of Roshan Deen highlighted a trait of the situated forest state[1] – where law and justice seemed at conflicting ends while determining issues of encroachment on forest land. It was a tense morning in November 2017 at Kunao Chaur, Gohri range, Pauri Garhwal district within Rajaji National Park. A hamlet of 80 odd families of Van Gujjars residing within this chaur, which was initially allotted to them under the Bhasin Yojana (1979) prior to the notification of the National Park,[2] were sent eviction notices of encroachment within the National Park a week ago by the Forest Department. Although these discretionary acts of the department relied upon a Nainital High Court order applicable for Corbett National Park,[3] such papers citing some forms of sanction were regularly relied upon to harass Van Gujjars residing across Uttarakhand due to their lack of legal awareness. Contrary to the department’s claim, the families residing in Kunao Chaur were among those left out of the resettlement processes undertaken in Gaindikhata and Pathri, the designated colonies for rehabilitating the Van Gujjars subsequent to the notification of the Protected Areas.


Nonetheless, the department had tactfully relied upon the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WLPA) and Uttaranchal Forest Act, 2001 (UFA), to remove encroachment without granting reasonable notice and swiftly engaging in destruction of their deras (housing units). The families were not given any reasonable opportunity to be heard, and the destruction was in abeyance of Section 4(5) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA).[4] In response to this brazen exercise of structural violence by the state, several residents, especially youth and women, resisted the onslaught by putting their bodies on the line and took up sticks to defend their homes. Some of them faced criminal charges for the same.[5] Although this moment became crucial for several Van Gujjars to organize and assert their claims to customary grazing and residence within forests under FRA, some families in the anxiety of the imminent dispossession and continuing harassment packed their belongings and relocated with their families and livestock to unclaimed barren lands on the banks of Ganges and its tributaries.


Such instances of coerced relocation were also seen in Chillawali range and threats of eviction have been common in Ramgarh range, Asarori range, Kotdwar range, Shyampur range and Shivpuri range—all areas within or adjoining the Rajaji National Park in the last decade. In fact, in Ramnagar, some Van Gujjars also approached the Supreme Court to issue a stay on these arbitrary evictions without recognising and settling the rights of the Van Gujjars.[6] These incidents highlight the imminent tropes of the state to sedentarize these nomadic pastoralists and reorient their relations to land as 'property'. Such tropes are not momentary instances of dislocation faced by forest dwellers or divestment of their livelihood patterns from traditional means of production and use practices. They emerge part of a continuous pattern of dispossession embodied within the structural violence of the state exhibited through legal or extra-legal means for bringing land to the realm of market whilst imposing un-freedoms and economic impositions on the populations by reorienting their traditional work practices and lifestyles (Anderson 1996). The modes and instrumentalities utilised by the state—either through the forest department, market-based actors or dominant caste groups—seek to fulfil this endeavour of enclosure of commons by initiating discursive practices for disciplining the Van Gujjars and pushing them towards aspiring resettlement as “civilized” citizens.


This piece seeks to argue that the various modes adopted by the state to facilitate dispossession of the Van Gujjars, either through evictions, threats of displacement or handouts like compensation and rehabilitation packages, is embedded deeply within the political economy of conservation. This article extrapolates some of the apparatuses and techniques of the situated forest state to displace and relocate Van Gujjars from their traditional grazing commons, an act which would allow the former to engender newer forms of capital accumulation to fulfil its developmentalist paradigm. The author would also highlight despite these processes of accumulation, the recent articulations of the FRA should be seen as a moment that may embody some agency for the Van Gujjars to negotiate their stake as citizens within the larger developmentalist state.

Locating Primitive Accumulation within the forest commons of Uttarakhand


Since the inception of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the bureaucracy started exercising discretion by adopting western models of forestry and land-use, one such being the demarcation of wasteland to classify any such land previously used but was abandoned for further use (De Hoope and Arora 2017). This strategy was imbibed by the British by classifying commons which were used for traditional occupations like shifting cultivation and pastoral activities as 'Wasteland' to make them culturable and productive. The role of the legal category of ‘‘wasteland’’ was to suture the relations between individual property and a normative diagram of governance based on material progress, embedded as a hidden supplement to the categories of ‘‘value’’ and ‘‘improvement’’ rooted in Lockean paradigm.[7]


The post-colonial state sought to perpetuate its ownership over forests in its quest to monetise and use raw-materials by acquiring common lands for afforestation, thus restricting access and control for locals residing around such areas (Arnold and Guha 1995). Brara (1992) contends that the inadequacies in the land settlement processes have led to wrongful classification of pastures as unoccupied lands, owing to lack of legal knowledge amidst users regarding their customary rights to graze, thereby shifting the onus to prove ownership against the state when they would seek access to the resources. The state relies upon the principle of 'eminent domain' by using additional civilizational markers such as rural development, literacy, empowerment, biodiversity conservation, wildlife protection and the latest being carbon sequestration, to tighten their hold over forest lands (Kumar and Kerr 2012). The aspirational developmental state, through its bureaucracies and the gaze of modernism, considers the subaltern as passive subjects in this endeavour rather than addressing them as active citizens. This is due to their absence in participation on civilizational terms set towards governing them (Scott 1989).


In this context, the presence of the 'jangli' gujjars (borrowing from Pacquet 2018) in the landscape is seen as unproductive in how the forestry policies are being pursued by the development-oriented state. Their transhumant ways are considered as not productive utilization of land, it is also their migration that inhibits any form of settlement making it difficult for the state to make them legible. Furthermore, their pastoral activities have no productive impact on revenue for the state as they utilize commons within the forest without any liability to pay taxes for their livelihood and occupancy within forests (Scott 1996). This civilizational bias against the 'jangli' Gujjar pastoralists is rooted within how the neoliberal state seeks to ensure its lands are seen as productive vestiges of capital accumulation and its subjects as either proletarianized workers[8] participating in production enterprise or informal alienated labour engaging in wage-based subsistence.


Marx (1867: 507) defined the notion of primitive accumulation to explain how the separation of non- capitalist classes from their lands and productive assets enable such resources and the labour of the dispossessed to become available for deployment in capitalist production. The expropriated land becomes concentrated amongst actual or potential capitalist producers who willingly lease it out to capitalist tenants while at the same time the dispossessed groups are forced to take up wage employment within such a capitalist mode of production. Thus, primitive accumulation entails a double transformation where land becomes a productive part of capital as well as alienates the people associated with that land. This happens through curtailing ownership, access and use of commons, while converting them as labour dependent on that land for wages. Jahnavi (2021) argues that the historical trajectory of accumulation in post-colonial India has accentuated the interest to acquire land for the ‘public purpose’ which highlights the State's developmental aims unfolding amidst competing interests.


The right to eminent domain when exercised by the post-colonial state is seen by those impacted as an expression of the absolute power of the state over all land in its territory (Ramanathan 2013). The principle found its legitimacy in the state trying to seize lands designated as private property for the public purpose of redistribution. As well as a tool of reform for those communities who never possessed land ownership due to lack of social capital and cultural reasons. However, the development discourse in neoliberal India inverts the logic of public purpose to facilitate distribution of resources owned either by an individual or in commons to the needs of global and national capital. It does so by allowing implementing changes in land use for quicker accumulation and higher surplus, that will raise its GDP.


The state exercises its capacity to delineate forests and commons as a site for reproduction of capital using the ‘principle of eminent domain’ which makes it a trustee in context of the land it acquires for public purpose. The state interprets such a purpose conveniently either by converting the said land into reserve forests within the exclusive authority of the forest department or makes it available for private players by enabling a framework for grant of environmental, forests and wildlife clearances. This is done at the cost of alienating the forest dwellers from their identity and putting them at high risk for dispossession and displacement by categorizing them as ‘encroachers’ within this landscape. For instance, the expansion of the Delhi-Dehradun highway for enabling greater tourism and trade potential for the state, comes at the cost of diverting forests and endangering livelihood concerns for Van Gujjars. [9] Their customary forest compartments are being seized without addressing concerns of free prior informed consent and procedures for forest clearances. Through several forms of enclosure on commons that violently abrogate existing relations with land and negating use values associated with it; the roots of all these processes engender means to generate additional capital from the surplus value associated with alienation of land, thereby also simultaneously producing the cultural genesis of commodity fetishism (Kumar 2016).  Thus, it is imperative to move beyond primitive accumulation to understand how politics of dispossession varies from time and space, wherein rather than being a necessary cost of development, it exists as a social relation to coercive redistribution to be organized within historically specific regimes. In neoliberal India, these regimes of dispossession (Levein 2015) have operated to facilitate commodification of land itself rather than engage in production of commodities, thereby making the results of the dispossession less developmental and more oppressive. Legal frameworks of forestry in India have failed to associate the social relations with land in context of belongingness, entitlement and identity and divorced from the economic understanding of property (Saxena 2020).


Sanyal (2007) argues that historical conditions under which primitive accumulation is occurring in post-colonial states like India displays vast differences from the tools of political management that were available under European capitalism as theorized by Marx. The accumulation of capital in India largely destroys the pre-capitalist economy associated with the land and instead facilitates in creation of a huge sector of informal production and services, that rather than being the vestige of pre-capital but is in fact the new outside of capital, thereby redundant for the growth of the capitalist economy who survives on subsistence. In the context of land, the Indian state accrues taxes to enable social expenditures to support their livelihood, direct transfer of compensation through money or commodities, inclusion in schemes for poverty alleviation, easy loans to set up petty businesses and self-employment, etc.


Furthermore, the historical and contemporary accumulation processes associated with land in India continues to remain a tussle between several classes, castes, tribes and communities within and amongst each other; with the state and with capital itself. It is often seen that individuals or groups negotiate their struggles towards equitable terms and conditions of land use, as well as resist unfair practices of eviction and coercive land grabs, through mobilisations and protests. The act of active resistance in Gohri range and subsequently in Shyampur range by some Van Gujjars though became a moment to collectivise in the form of a Sanghatan and continually assert for rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, not all members of the community whilst facing similar situations have found fair footing to articulate their concerns.


It is pertinent to note then, such instances of structural violence embedded within these displacement drives practised by the state forestry regime should be seen from negating use value of forest dwellers to cultivate a continual commodification of land through its thirst for accumulation from these sites. This particularly became visible when the forest department, through tactics of threats, coercion and violence sought eviction of the Van Gujjars, previously residing in Chillawali, Ramgarh or Sonanadi ranges, between 2012 and 2019. The families are forced to transition from pre-capitalist mode of production to a realm ‘outside of capital’, whose ability for pastoral work and nurturing livestock has diminished and are now forced to sell their labour in informal markets of daily wage. These families continually keep shifting their deras to areas adjoining river banks or between forests based on the availability of water and grass for their remaining livestock, low propensity for conflict with locals and options to work in orchards or construction spaces for daily wage. Despite majority of them belonging to the 1610 families who were left out of the resettlement processes in the past, their inability to articulate claims of rehabilitation makes their predicament as shifting directly from vestiges of pre-capital to one wherein their precarious lives are seen as surplus populations. Thus, the phenomena of capitalist accumulation, Marx (1867: 444) argues allows the constant reproduction of redundant population of workforce greater than what the average needs of valorised capital provide for, who form the reserve army of labour within capitalist mode of production.  The subsequent genesis of these additional workers from these persisting accumulating processes also benefits the capitalist system to regulate the demand for labour through active competition and keep wages under a check (Sweezy 2018).


It is imperative to view the perennial state project of settling pastoralists by these iterative patterns of enclosures from Marx’s remarks on the processes of primitive accumulation not merely engendering a culture of commodity fetishism amongst those proletarianised but also facilitating the creation of a reserve army of labour as a necessary corollary for propagating the capitalist mode of production. However, the engendering of this additional labour force may find itself embedded in the proletarianization of these pastoralists to agriculturalists, as evident albeit in a fractured sense in the resettlement colonies of Pathri and Gaindikhata, Haridwar district. Yet, certain instances of dispossession of Van Gujjars have pushed some of them ‘outside of capital’ (Sanyal, 2007), without any offer for settlement, displacing them continually from time to time and forcing them to adopt precarious work practices for subsistence wage.


Legitimacy of Fortress Conservation through logics of Accumulation


In the context of Rajaji National Park, the capture of traditional grazing lands of the Van Gujjars utilizing the narrative of ‘reforestation’ coupled with wildlife protection allows the forest department to contest the former’s claim for tenure over these lands. Gooch (2009) recognised this contestation of forest as a space for commercial forestry, revenue producing land or wilderness for conservation has been a recurring struggle for the Van Gujjars from threats of dislocation since the past three decades. Through laws and policies implemented with sanction and legitimacy, the state facilitates such forms of extracting value from said lands, by creating new markets for ecosystem services or exclusive wildlife zones, which inherently commodify and reorient land use within forests to suit the national as well as global political economy of sustainable development. Such contestation on land use allows the state forestry regime to look at the grazing activities of Van Gujjars as facilitating degradation of the ecosystem and having a grave impact on wildlife populations, despite no concrete evidence to link the same.


Shahabuddin (2010) highlights that the frameworks of fortress conservation and production forestry have legitimized expert scientific knowledge which encourage the state’s agenda for creating inviolate spaces of wilderness in the guise of conservation and justify eviction of forest dwellers. Such experts reaffirm policies discouraging “coexistence” with wildlife conservation goals and promote preventative spatial separation as being a more cost-effective, humane and practical solution to the problem (Karanth and Madhusudhan 2002). In the agenda to salvage the ‘environment’, conservation topologies were mapped and protected areas demarcated without taking into consideration that 69% of the areas declared as wildlife sanctuaries were inhabited by local communities (Rajan et al. 2000). In this context, since the declaration of Rajaji National Park as a Protected Area, by promoting the need to preserve the interest of keystone species like tigers and leopards, the forest department is keen to include the existing buffer zones amidst which the Van Gujjars reside into the core zones while constantly mooting resettlement or threatening eviction. However, most of these conservation strategies adopted by the state have not explored the ecological potential of pastoralist communities like Van Gujjars such as regeneration of grasslands, preventing forest fires, maintenance of water sources, removal of invasive species such as lantana and co-existence with wildlife, to facilitate in sustainable use of commons.


The creation of National Parks and Tiger Reserves too must be seen in the political economy of forest governance in India that is keen to tap into the resources within the forests by quantifying land, flora and fauna either through afforestation policies or for enabling wildlife tourism in the region. Fairhead (2012) has identified ‘green grabbing’ as a phenomenon wherein commons or community owned land is constantly being seized at the cost of making forestry a productive exercise. Such modes of acquisition not only alienate forest dwellers from utilizing land but also criminalizes them for exercising subsistence rights within the forests. The emphasis towards pursuing compensatory afforestation projects across common lands (CFRLA 2019) highlights a pursuit to divest forest dwellers from their legitimate forest rights. 


A recent study highlighted the detrimental impacts of such afforestation strategies on the livelihood of nomadic pastoralists in the Himalayan region (Ramprasad et. al. 2020). Such plantation strategies by the forest department coupled with restrictive access to forest compartments and disruptions in migration routes also substantially reduced the availability of fodder for livestock as well as threatened their health by enabling rapid growth of invasive species. The access to pastures and grasslands though crucial for survival of the livestock of the Van Gujjars and their subsistence economy is negated since the productive value of forests are only seen as trees with high carbon potential. The presence of wild fauna like foxes, deer, peacocks, redfowls, jackals, elephants living in coexistence with the community across these grasslands are ignored as well as the value of grasslands as an ecosystem has diminished in the post liberalization phase.


The preference for heeding conservationists and deep ecologists’ perceptions of human-wildlife interactions often shifts the burden of ecosystem degradation onto the livelihood and everyday lives of forest dwelling pastoralists and attributes blame for breeding large livestock populations. For instance, several studies have cited the presence of Van Gujjars as an ecological burden to the landscape that has inhibited protection of keystone species such as tigers, elephants, leopards, and so on (Malaviya and Ramesh 2015). They perceive the presence of the livestock not merely a threat towards increasing conflicts with predators but also consider their grazing as enabling competition amongst herbivorous species These policies failed to accommodate a more participatory view of nature conservation which encourages space for people as it gives as much importance to local knowledge as to expert knowledge.


Furthermore, the allocation of revenue status for pahadi villages within the core zone of the National Park whilst pursuing eviction drives in the hamlets of Van Gujjars within the vicinity of these villages on the grounds of falling under 'forest land' indicates how land classification has continued to serve the elite. Agarwal and Sivaramakrishnan (2000) argue that the apparent duality of rule-making with respect to revenue and forest land is obscured when overarching ideals of progress, development and improvement can be co-opted into local populations to guide state intervention and resource allocation for suitable land use. On one hand, the pahadi populations become a favourable conduit to pursue tourism related livelihoods for engendering an economy around conservation and wildlife enthusiasts, whilst the Van Gujjars are seen as surplus to the landscape whose activities might be perceived as hindrance or unessential to the larger political economy of the state. The presence of the Van Gujjars and their livestock within these beautified spaces of wilderness and wildlife extravaganza may seem an eye-sore for tourists to contend with.


The politics of fortress conservation thus embeds within it a political economy of monocultures and wilderness that is in a constant bid to resettle these nomadic forest dwellers. The continuous seizure of access and occupancy of these forest lands under the pretext of safeguarding conservation and biodiversity, merely hides the role of state and market institutions that initiate the process of primitive accumulation. The forest department becomes a conduit to facilitate the development aspirations of the state for possessing inviolate forests that enable tourism or demarcate land banks for plantations or subsequent projects for forest diversion.


From Dispossession to Resettlement: Is Forest Right’s Act (FRA) too a means for proletarianization?


Harvey (2003) argues that Marx’s understanding of primitive or original accumulation is crucial to understand the violence and brutality that endures the transformation into a capitalist means of production. This occurs when masses of populations of pastoral communities are deprived of the means of production through access to pastures across forests, to a more sedentarized lifestyle and informal labour. The means deployed to accumulate their land through state institutions like the forest department—using legal tools accompanied with violence—such as brutal harassment and eviction threats. At the same time, these institutions seek to fragment the community while promulgating a proletarianization of certain elites within them with the allure of citizenship rights towards resettlement, for disciplining their resistance to such brutal forms of accumulation. Such an accumulation of land through dispossession of the pastoral community divorces them from the subsistence and labour they initially possessed with the land, forcing them to abandon their livelihood and pursue lives as agricultural labour.


The increasing sedentarization of the community by halting seasonal migration and access to forests has multiplied their interaction with caste groups and independent contractors to establish negotiations with farmers and markets for procuring their fodder and selling their milk and other produce respectively. Thus, the political economy of the state currently reflects a shift towards increasing legibility and dependency of the community on market institutions through proletarianization as well as exploitation for adopting a settled lifestyle. While on one hand we see such primitive accumulation facilitated by the state being non- market driven and equated with violence for dispossession to those members who choose to resist such an accumulation, on the other several families seem to be keen to negotiate with the capitalist processes which entail resettlement and sedentarization. While the former populations who resist and continue to reside within forests may be seen as falling outside the vestiges of 'pre-capital' (Sanyal, 1993), those who have shifted to agro-pastoral activities or entail aspirations for resettlement to gain education, healthcare facilities or government jobs fall amidst the populations who are proletarianized. As Marx argues, it is rooted in the logic of capitalism that it will continue its extractionist tendencies of accumulating capital by monopolizing its control and percolating benefits only to those disciplined by the charm of it.


These policies stand at odds with the Van Gujjars, who have resisted conservation centered cartographic practices of fixed boundaries, that rely on geo-spatial land surveys and mapping of encroachment whilst negating traditional land use practices that facilitated seasonal access to commons (Bluwstein 2019). Thus, conservation practices accompany a logic of primitive accumulation within forests as well as violently enables cultural erasure of land use for pastoralists like Van Gujjars whose attachment to the lands is not rooted in the notion of ‘private property’. Their dwelling in the forests which is key to their identity is no longer relevant as they continue to negotiate with colonial categorizations of encroachers. The lack of recognition of forest rights thus hyphenates their existence as rights bearing citizens.


Saxena (2020) argues “the construction of an Indian right to property in land cannot remain restricted to liberal notions of individualism and security against the state” and must reflect a decolonial orientation in facilitating fairness and equality through redistributive benefits based on relationships that people construct with land. It is necessary to construe land beyond relational aspirations, commodities and ownership within the lens of private property towards a multifaceted space and relationship of social, political as well as cultural expression as well as a primary source of food and livelihood to ensure the legal fiction around land reflects the social reality of life within it (Polanyi 2001). It is also crucial that when the state acquires any land for developmental purposes, it presupposes the impact of such acquisition on the users and not merely owners of the land to facilitate rights that respect their everyday relations with the land. Thus, although the principle of eminent domain gives the state the authority to acquire land at ease and determine its “best use”, respect for social relations with land will ensure that colonial perceptions of ownership over landcan fade away and benefit even those social groups who were never considered a land owning class despite negotiated associations with it.


The Van Gujjars are aware of these myriad forms of dispossession the state seeks to engender time and again. While the displacement from traditional homesteads magnifies the physical exclusion from a geographic territory and socio-economic exclusion from a set of functioning social networks to practice sustainable pastoral livelihoods for the community, they are keen to negotiate their access utilizing the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The legislation holds potential to recognize myriad interpretations of land tenure, with explicit recognition of grazing rights of pastoralists as well as seasonal habitat rights. Although the language of the legislation was sought to recognise the historical injustice of forest dwellers, as Bose et al. (2013) argue the implementation of the FRA has fostered a governmentality of its own in engendering fixed notions of land tenure. The burden of documentary proofs for forest dwellers, bureaucratic apathy within Ministry of Tribal Affairs, conflicting court interpretations on forest rights as well as the homogenous perception of 'communities' or 'hamlets' has made the process to articulate rights extremely cumbersome as well as foster intra-community conflict amongst the Van Gujjars. It is also pertinent to highlight the inherent contradictions in the functioning of myriad civil society actors such as NGOs, activists, research networks and the larger Andolan seeking implantation of FRA on how they express or support claim making and everyday articulations of the law by Van Gujjars. For instance, the ongoing TARF case[10] before the Nainital High Court, although it brought the issue concerning the rights of Van Gujjars under FRA to the forefront, it has entrusted the responsibility to a committee to submit a report on the same, without including a representative from the community. Bhuwania’s (2016) qualification on how the emancipatory potential of a Public interest litigation (PIL) is often utilised by judges to exercise limitless procedural innovations and expansive subject matter jurisdiction is evident in how these extra-judicial committees become key decision-makers in matters of forest governance. Furthermore, the role of the petitioner as well as the Sanghatan as stakeholders, who often coordinate, engage and disengage on aspects of litigation, in how they aspire to provide rights can also be seen from the lens of proletarianization by the former and possible co-optation or resistance by the latter.


However, the forms of proletarianization amongst the Van Gujjars is especially seen amongst the social and cultural elite within the heterogeneous idea of the pastoral community. Conventional frameworks (Olstrom, 1990) rely upon construction of a community without necessarily assessing the agency displayed by these group of individuals, their myriad rationalities to collective and may have different agendas for gaining access of commons. Sharma (2017) also identified the ambivalence of environmental historians to acknowledge the casteist notions embedded in utilization of commons and decentralized institutions of governance such as Van Panchayats. Most progressive state policies and legislations to quantify governance and development act in such a hypothetico-deductive model and attach an implicit universalism to the notion of a village community. They should rather contextualize the village community it as per the space, context and existing conditions of social relations. Thus, the politics around implementation of FRA also falls within the cleavages of how the Van Gujjars assert their autonomous legitimacy for occupancy and access to forests through legitimate rights on one hand, while certain members prefer to directly negotiate with the forest department and the state in the hope for a viable resettlement package for the community.


The promise of a Sanghatan – Pastoral assertions on land or bargaining tool for better aspirations?


The Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan began as a loose knit group of youth, who sought to utilise their knowledge and opportunities to education. They became embedded voices within the community to articulate or respond to the forest department and the larger state apparatus on issues of dispossession, land tenure and rights as forest dwellers. By wrestling internal hierarchies of Lambardars and Painchis, the traditional institutions of arbiters for intra-community disputes, the Sanghatan embodies the ethic of ‘organic intellectuals’ (Gramsci 1996). They seek to direct ideas and aspirations amongst the Van Gujjars through the lens of identity and belongingness as forest dwelling pastoralists by fostering progressive knowledge production amongst them by cultivating articulations of land tenure, breed and pasture management, literacy and conservation of forests. Such forms of participation and negotiation with the state agencies and civil society actors through an organic group within the community now places them as a stakeholder to articulate their everyday concerns within the larger political economy of the state. These actions of the Sanghatan may be seen as a form of translating some of the ‘jangli’ subjectivities of the Van Gujjars (Pacquet 2018) into notions of legal subjectivity on land, challenging embedded values of ownership and commodification as desired by the state and promulgating pluralistic meanings for access and use of forests by nomadic pastoralists.


The Sanghatan though stands ambivalent on how far can laws and policies foster proletarianization whilst bargaining with the state: imbibe a fetishism towards land as a commodity, a trend evident at the resettlement colonies but not so apparent amongst the Van Gujjars who assert or negotiate their lives within forests till date. Ghulam Nabi Kasana, residing near Mohand range mentions an interesting anecdote on intersubjective relations with forest lands and their presence therein. He chides “Janglaat sochte hai ki woh jangal ka maalik hai, lekin humara soch hai ki jangal ka asli malik to janwar hai aur hum Gujjar uske kirayedaar hone ke naate uski dekhbaal karte hai.” Several Gujjars who still practice transhumance, engage in pastoral livelihoods and reside amidst forests reflect this belongingness to land with respect to usufruct rights and without an explicit claim to ownership. Furthermore, Meer Hamja, the founder of the Sanghatan exclaims “the Gujjar’s wealth and prosperity is economically embedded with his or her association with pastoral work and the health of their buffaloes”. Thus, if the buffalo is seen as a form of capital, he believes that all customary practises which recognised pluralistic land use patterns based on their livestock capacity can be translated as rights. The FRA can then be seen as a tool beyond engendering notions of individual ownership. However, he admits the existing implementation of the act across India fails to weave in these subjectivities of forest dwellers with respect to land and its uses and may inevitably discipline the Van Gujjars in aspiring towards fixed ownership rights. It would thus be incorrect to assume that such aspirations of nomadic pastoralists for ownership of land may not eventually be emancipatory for the Van Gujjars, who have been historically criminalised and till date faced a contestation of their citizenship. Their willingness to sedantarize or seek rights under FRA must be seen as a continuing resilience exhibited despite historically being discriminated against and pushed to experience several vulnerabilities by the state.


Nonetheless it is the failure of all state institutions such as the forest department, nodal development agencies and courts which have failed to provide a scientific and objective rationale for evicting, resettling and sedantarizing the community and relied on arbitrary colonial categorization to civilize the ‘jangli’ gujjars. Instead of assisting them in recording their indigenous pastoral knowledge, mapping and surveying their traditional migratory routes and safeguarding their breeds and identity as nomads that practice a sustainable livelihood, their situated forest state is keen to exhibit its violence by engaging the Van Gujjars through myriad disciplinary techniques and engender their proletarianization. In the context of those Van Gujjars who are articulating their forest rights, the negotiation and struggle for survival while facing the onslaught of these myriad forms of accumulation is rooted in their articulations of mundane environmentalism (Majumder, 2020) as emerging subjects of capital stuck amidst the accumulation horizon.

The author is grateful to Mohamad Meer Hamja, Dr. Chirashree Dasgupta and Dr. Pierre Alexandre Pacquet for the inputs and inspiration to write this piece.
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