facing serious criticism over the alleged eviction of Gujjars and Bakerwals from the Jammu woods, senior BJP leader and Forest Minister Bali Bhagat Friday asserted that the J&K's land mafia is hell-bent to scuttle the government's anti-land encroachment drive and has now taken refuge under Hurriyat Conference cover.
The Forest Minister also said those leveling allegations against him that he was evicting Muslims in Jammu region should "come up with cases and evidences to prove their claims."
In an exclusive chat with Greater Kashmir, Bhagat said they have only started the demarcation process of encroached forest land across the State. "Where is the question of eviction, when demarcation process is yet to complete. We have identified 13000 hectares of forest land in J&K that has been encroached over the past many decades. There is big land mafia behind encroachment of forest land," Bhagat said.
He said land mafia is trying its level best to stop the government's plan for retrieving the forest land from the illegal grabbers. "Over the past 60 years, no government has taken steps to retrieve the prized forest land. Now if this government has decided to take an initiative, fingers are being unnecessarily raised against us," the minister said. "We have launched a drive against encroachers not any religion. If a Hindu is an encroacher he will face the axe. Similarly, if the land is encroached by a Muslim, Christian, or a Buddhist, we will take action."
He said unfortunate part is that the land mafia has now started taking Hurriyat's support to build pressure on the government to stop the drive. "We are not going to stop the drive at any cost," Bhagat said.
Interestingly, JKLF Chief Muhammad Yasin Malik is going for a protest-sit in and token hunger strike against the alleged eviction of Muslims in J&K on Saturday.
On the allegations that the drive involves eviction of Muslims—Gujjars and Bakerwals from the forests of Jammu region – Bhagat said those leveling allegations should come up with solid evidence to prove their claims. "I reiterate there is no eviction process yet as demarcation is still on," he said.
Pertinently, the Forest Minister evoked strong criticism for allegedly evicting the Muslims in Jammu's forest in the wake of anti-forest land encroachment drive launched by him. In fact, Bhagat's party colleague and Minister for Transport Abdul Gani Kohli had also reacted to the alleged eviction stating that Gujjars and Bakerwals have four-decade old Kothas (kaccha houses) in Jammu region and their harassment is a great concern. Kohli had also asserted that the Forest minister was doing it on his own as neither BJP nor Chief Minister will support harassment of any community or tribe.
The Forest Minister, however, said that the former Chief Ministers were also involved in forest land encroachment. "We are going to crack whip on the deep-rooted nexus of land mafia in J&K," he said. Bhagat also said that eviction of encroachers will be followed by proper procedures like issuing notices etc.