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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 19  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 236-247

Everyday Forest Rights: Claiming Territories and Pastoral Livelihoods in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, India

1 Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin, USA; and Département d'anthropologie de l'Université Laval, Québec City, Canada
2 Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK

Correspondence Address:
Pierre-Alexandre Paquet
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin, USA; and Département d'anthropologie de l'Université Laval, Québec City

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Source of Support: The research on which this paper is based was approved by the institutional ethics review boards of both authors. Prior informed consent was obtained from participants prior to recording interviews. The primary data is stored safely by the authors., Conflict of Interest: The authors have no other financial or non-financial conflict of interests to disclose.

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_123

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Date of Submission07-Jul-2020
Date of Acceptance28-Jul-2021
Date of Web Publication13-Oct-2021


This article explores the multiple processes of maintaining access and asserting user rights to forest space among the Van Gujjar pastoralists in North India. In particular, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA) has created an opportunity for forest dwellers across India to seek legal means to forest rights. Conducting ethnographic fieldwork, organising workshops on forest rights, and mapping traditional territories among the Van Gujjars, we observed that complex cultural performances are necessary for the Van Gujjars to claim access to forest areas and resources—legal or otherwise. These performances include, but are not limited to, litigation, supporting emergent leaders, and caring for cattle and kin under constant threats of evictions. Drawing on recent scholarship on the everyday formation of territorial governments, we examine how communities maintain, contest, or reinvent cultural practices and governance in the context of their struggles for access inscribed as forest rights. In contrasting cases among two groups of Van Gujjars seeking rights to forest spaces in the two neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, we shed light on the repercussions that formally or informally engaging the FRA can have for communities of forest dwellers. Based on ethnographic research completed between 2012 and 2019, we find that 1) the Van Gujjar territorial governments carrying on these claims are more diverse than the law recognises, and that 2) not all communities see it worthy to organise a territorial government claiming formal rights under the FRA. Fundamentally, we discern that more immediate threats to Van Gujjar livelihoods result in a greater shift in their cultural practices towards organising a territorial government seeking forest rights through the FRA.

Keywords: Governance, citizenship, forest rights, land rights, pastoralism, Van Gujjars, FRA

How to cite this article:
Paquet PA, Kuroyedov E. Everyday Forest Rights: Claiming Territories and Pastoral Livelihoods in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, India. Conservat Soc 2021;19:236-47

How to cite this URL:
Paquet PA, Kuroyedov E. Everyday Forest Rights: Claiming Territories and Pastoral Livelihoods in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 May 25];19:236-47. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2021/19/4/236/330244

   Introduction: Forests of Power Top

As a territorial, political, and epistemological category, forests are instrumental in the deployment of technologies of state-making, boundary-making, and the construction of indigenous (tribal) subjectivities in India (Sivaramakrishnan 1999: 273). Whereas forests encompass 21.54% of the total landmass of India, a disproportionate 67.99% of them fall within the boundaries of reserved and protected forests i.e., “state forests” under the 1927 Forest Act (Forest Survey of India 2017: 25). This means that control over forests is concentrated in the hands of state departments and agencies whose priorities are often at loggerheads with millions of forest dwellers who have inhabited these lands for generations. An enduring colonial legacy (Tucker 1982; Sivaramakrishnan 1999), state forest management continues to alienate traditional forest dwellers, despite programs and objectives for diversification in post-independent India. However, processes of state formation rarely unfolded as planned in the “political forests” of Asia, and local and regional politics regularly transfigured state forest policies in important ways (Vandergeest and Peluso 2006: 33). In what follows, we attend to these scalar politics that have reshaped forest territories, communities and subjectivities.

Although it is true that many areas deemed “state forests” have been demarcated during British tenure, new categories of enclosures such as tiger reserves and their buffer zones were created after 1947. Underpinning these enclosures is the idea that centralised management and the exclusion of customary forest users is necessary to achieve positive conservation outcomes (following concepts of “encroachment” in the conservation laws of the 1980s) (Brockington 2002: 411; Kumar and Kerr 2012: 755). Clearly, forest enclosures continued to interfere with the recognition of the legal rights, and therefore the attainment of full citizen status, for millions of forest dwellers in India.1

Although it is not our goal to judge whether state or community institutions are better equipped to achieve conservation goals (Ostrom 1990; Hardin 1968), we observe that, in the Indian context, centralised forest governance is associated with overharvesting, biodiversity loss, and ineffective artificial monocrop plantations, especially after Indian Independence (Haeuber 1993: 72; Gadgil and Guha 1993: 35). Nevertheless, for the last several decades, state forest management has been both harshly critiqued, and has adapted in response to its critics in India. Today, all regimes of forest tenure found on the subcontinent are the product of a unique blend of support and opposition to the green ambitions of the Indian state. Attempts were also made to render forestry “social” and “participatory”. Unfortunately, these experiments have not materialised into much needed investments in capacity-building and benefit-sharing initiatives for the communities (Vijge and Gupta 2013; Phelps, Webb and Agrawal 2010). In some instances, decentralisation even further entrenched state priorities, bureaucratic logics, and top-down mechanisms in village politics (Sekhar 2000: 123). Moreover, state programs for the protection of biodiversity and compensatory afforestation (which run in parallel with ongoing extractive activities) have produced a complex and unpredictable governance with which citizens claiming forest rights need to contend. Of even greater concerns are recent initiatives promoting the “greening” of India, which signal new rounds of accumulation by privatisation, land grabs, and dispossession (Saxena 2019; Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012: 237).

As threats of eviction loom large, forest dwellers mobilise, engage, and bargain with state workers and plead their case in the courts to protect their way of life. For marginalised groups like the Van Gujjars, who are semi-nomadic Muslim pastoralists in a landscape dominated by (sedentary) agrarian Hindu politics, engaging legal processes through official channels can be perilous. Among the hidden costs of formally claiming a stake in state forests are crises of leadership, endless delays in the recognition of rights, the postponement of the delivery of inclusive provisions of the FRA, and the added burden of performing an emotional and cultural attachment to traditional forest livelihoods fitting the expectations of the FRA. Our analysis of the Van Gujjars' differential responses to the increased insecurity of their tenure, and the demand of the bureaucracy to comply with both modern and traditional rituals, underlines the depth of these changes.

Paying close attention to the cultural practices through which user rights are enacted by the forest-dwelling Van Gujjars and their leaders, this paper explores some of the political aspects inherent to the construction of community claims over areas of greenery that have been managed as state lands for many decades. In focusing on everyday cultural practices, we bring a new perspective on the exercise of territorial sovereignty in the Indian forests, one that is historically deep and contextually rich. Far from simply being victims of colonial-era state forest laws, the Van Gujjars have maintained access to forest resources for generations.2 This article investigates some serious implications the categories of “state forests” and “forest rights” have for two groups of Van Gujjar pastoralists living in the northwestern states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. More precisely, we turn our ethnographic and analytical attention to the emergence of new kinds of community leaders, mobilisation for recognition of forest rights under the FRA, and new cultural norms linked to the affirmation of a “territorial government”. Looming threats of eviction by the Forest Department (FD), alongside a rising generation of politically mobilised youngsters, and conditions of feasibility in making territorial claims, explain the variance between our two cases.

Over the years, we witnessed failed efforts to gain recognition of user rights via the FRA by Van Gujjar communities we worked and lived with. The two next sections introduce our fieldwork as well as the notion of forest rights from a formal perspective—the FRA. The following sections then review the literature on territorial governance and cultural practices, particularly in relation to the context of indigenous communities. Next, we position Van Gujjar history, context, and the conditions of emergence of centralising leaders who seek to instil a new sense of responsibility for their territory and community. Our analysis shows that in the Gohri Range (within the Rajaji National Park), more direct engagement with FRA legislation and territorial governance is promoted, whereas in the Shivaliks (reserved forests), Van Gujjars are less mobilised around the issue of claiming formal land rights, although increased threats to tenure security and contacts with civil society activists are resulting in pondering with notions of indigenous territories. In conclusion, we argue that, while the everyday governance of access and rights to forest space is fluid and context-specific, the larger the threat of eviction for a Van Gujjar community, the greater the involvement with processes and actors of the FRA, and the faster their adaptation of a new form of leadership and territorial government.

   Methodology Top

The data presented in this article is based on 20 months of ethnographic research conducted between 2012 and 2019. Data was collected by semi-structured, open-ended, and key-informant interviews, participant observation and engaged approaches in anthropology (Hale 2006; Kirsch 2010) such as attending, organising, and hosting meetings and workshops, and participating in demonstrations calling for implementation of the FRA. While independent in our research, we engaged with numerous actors across the tapestry of activism and non-governmental organising in North India including: the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Vikalp, the Delhi Solidarity Group, and the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK). In addition, we interviewed FD employees in lower and higher authority positions at different range, division, and park offices, sat with them for tea and lunch, and bumped into them repeatedly in the forests.

This ethnography was then supplemented by literature reviews and analysis of archival records including the epistolary exchanges of nineteenth-century colonial administrators, family records preciously kept in tin boxes in the forests, and 140 years of official forest management plans. While we initially conducted 78 qualitative interviews with Van Gujjars from various areas of the Uttar Pradesh Shivaliks and the Uttarakhand Rajaji National Park and resettlement colonies, we also continued to monitor Van Gujjar forest rights claims over the past seven years.

   Forest Rights in India Top

In 2006, the FRA was promulgated in an effort to repair the historical injustices perpetrated against millions of Scheduled Tribe status holders and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) whose rights were not recognised under previous Indian legislation (MoTA 2006). During the first decade of the Act, hopes were high that the situation of traditional forest dwellers could be swiftly regularised through the redistribution of land titles (Kumar and Kerr 2012). In some areas where land and user rights were effectively devolved, the FRA has operated as a powerful tool of tenure transition and governance reform. However, the Act is not respected in many regions and states of the Indian Union to this day (Fanari 2019; Reddy et al. 2011; Sarker 2011).

The FRA primarily recognises two types of land rights: Individual Forest Rights (IFRs) and Community Forest Rights (CFRs). While IFRs cannot extend over more than four hectares of land, the size of CFRs has no such limit. Thus, CFRs form a crucial component for the livelihoods of shifting agriculturalists, pastoralists, and others who use land extensively, including Van Gujjar pastoralists. However, the recognition of CFRs has been marred with irregularities: except for official “tribal status” holders, CFRs have rarely been granted (Mohanty 2015: 82).

Although academics and practitioners are disappointed by the shortfall of the implementation of CFRs (Sahu, Dash and Dubey 2017; Satpathy 2017; Kumar, Singh and Kerr 2015), until now their analytical writings have not taken the cultural politics of community life seriously into account. For example, the fact that Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) continue to defend their access to the resources through various strategies, some of which fall outside the law, complicates the notion that claiming CFRs under the Act is the only recourse they have, as activists frequently told us. While the practices of informal access in India are established by those such as Robbins et al. 2009, Axelby 2007, Dutta 2018, Saberwal 1999, as well as others, this line of enquiry is rarely adopted with regards to the FRA in particular. We follow it to better understand how pastoralists contend with the FRA, and analyse the everyday actualisation of preferences for livelihood practices that the Van Gujjars feel entitled to continue to perform as forest denizens (Edelman 2005: 340; Scott 1976: 17).

At the same time, it is also obvious that the social fabric of communities is transformed at the intersection of contested land claim processes (Erazo 2013; Bose, Arts and van Dijk 2012). Considering the rich tradition of research and nuanced literature that exists with regards to the politics of state-ruled, joint-forest management programs in India (Saxena 1997; Lele 2000; Sundar 2000; Nayak and Berkes 2008; Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013), this latter blind spot in relation to the FRA is particularly striking. The constitution of traditional lands and community management institutions demands extraordinary efforts from community actors who adopt new cultural practices which align with those that are constitutive of the modern state, such as mapping (Chapin 2005), litigation (Niezen 2010), and even the reinvention of leadership roles and concepts of territory (Erazo 2013).

“Revisiting” his frequently cited book on tradition, Terence Ranger insists on one point in particular: beyond the realisation that all traditions had to be crafted at one point, historians, sociologists and anthropologists must consider “the process and agency by which such invention is accomplished” (1993: 63). For Van Gujjars, the invention of community governance is inextricably linked to their land struggles and their interactions with the opponents and sympathisers of their claims for continued access to forest spaces. It is noteworthy to mention that the authors of The Invention of Tradition had intentionally left out of their analysis the politics of claiming customary rights, or even the strategic framing of user rights as age-old “customs” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983: 2). What they termed, “the balance of forces in the constant struggle of village against lords or against other villages”, they felt was beyond the scope of their book (Ibid.: 2). Also, the magnitude and type of political and cultural changes that the FRA has brought to the Van Gujjars, and the claiming process that this law has set in motion, differ vastly from the deliberate, extravagant imposition of a new symbolic order binding Queen Victoria to all her Indian subjects, that Bernard Cohn has studied as yet another invented tradition (1983: 165). We could even argue that the failed FRA claims at the heart of our analysis of cultural change have failed precisely because they lack routinisation, formalisation and ritualisation—the core dynamics of strong and binding traditions created in modern times. This is why fine-grained studies problematising political and cultural changes in relation to land rights claims under the FRA are important.

   Territorial Governments and Everyday Cultural Practices: Theoretical Underpinnings Top

Drawing on scholarship that considers territorial sovereignty in the light of everyday cultural practices (Nadasdy 2017: 80; Erazo 2013: 3; Joseph and Nugent 1994: 18), we argue that the choice of communities to enter forest rights claim processes under the FRA is contingent on a knowledge of past evictions, perceptions of tenure security, and day-to-day encounters between community leaders, civil society actors, and state workers. Alone, a sudden change of legislation like the coming into force of the FRA could neither give communities full sovereignty, nor erase the memory of their illicit dealings with state workers at the stroke of a pen (Shutzer 2013; Robbins et al. 2009; Fanari 2019). Therefore, we draw on the work of anthropologists and historians who have studied the links between cultural praxis and everyday forms of power (Nadasdy 2017; Erazo 2013; Joseph and Nugent 1994) to explore the multi-scalar strategies through which claims over the forest territory are actualised and stakes are made by indigenous communities in modern state regimes.

We are not arguing that the everyday praxis of forest rights, including the maintenance of more fleeting access privileges, equates to legal rights2. Rather, we consider the making of indigenous territories less as the product of a revolutionary law that “repairs the historical injustices” committed against forest dwellers (MoTA 2006), and instead more of a multi-stranded, plurality of cultural processes embedded in protracted, localised struggles for forest rights (Shutzer 2013; Prabhu 2010). Although the FRA has failed to deliver IFRs or CFRs in our case studies thus far, the Act has afforded new avenues for political mobilisation, promoted different kinds of leaders with new cultural understandings, and transformed everyday lives.

The necessity of altered forms of indigenous state formation and governance in the face of new political environments is an established field in multiple countries (Nadasdy 2017; Mathews 2011; Larson 2008; Joseph and Nugent 1994). Paul Nadasdy explains how in order to avail themselves of powers afforded by new land claim agreements, indigenous communities in the Yukon have had, and continue to alter their ways of life and express their needs through explicitly Euro-Canadian governmental terms (2017: 6). While land claim agreements created a context for legal justice, Nadasdy explains the complex change in cultural practices that are necessary to participate in these settler colonial state politics (2017). Others like Joseph and Nugent have similarly argued that distinct national cultures and state formation can only be understood in relational terms. State formation is above all a cultural process with consequences in the material world, and thus: “a study of popular culture can only be conducted alongside or in concert with a study of dominant culture and an examination of power itself, and particularly those organizations of power that provide the context for 'everyday struggle'” (1994: 18–19).

Following their lead, Juliet Erazo argues that once indigenous territory is delineated in Ecuador, outsiders expect the governance of that indigenous community to behave in a very particular way (2013). She also observes how the social relations between community members and their leaders are transformed. In India, the FRA also alters and re-contextualises cultural dynamics and the interactions between forest dwellers, state, and non-state actors. As noted by exceptional scholarship on that question, processes of land titling produces new expectations, obligations, and subjectivities within indigenous territories (Bose, Arts and van Dijk 2012).

Our analysis in particular builds on Erazo's concept of indigenous “territorial governments” (2013). A territorial government is defined as an indigenous rights organisation working to inculcate certain type of behaviours into its membership (Erazo 2013: 9, 12). In her monograph on how the indigenous territory of Rukullakta, Ecuador is governed, Erazo explains that, while indigenous leaders strive to construct citizens who take action towards territory in ways that are expected by outside authorities (2013: 12), the territorial citizens of Rukullakta remain active in their territorial aspirations in a plurality of ways. Given the well-established relationship between pastoralists and territory (in the North Indian context, the territory of the “forest” or “jungle” (Gooch 1998), and the importance of place for indigenous communities (Erazo 2013: 15; Basso 1996), we find these kinds of dynamics at play in the two areas that we have selected as contrasted cases examined below (see [Figure 1]). We borrow the definition of “territorial government” from Erazo to describe the political organising around forest rights among our two case study communities.
Figure 1: Map of the Shivalik Ranges in Uttar Pradesh and the Rajaji National Park and the Gohri Range in Uttarakhand, India © Pierre-Alexandre Paquet

Click here to view

Territorial governments vary in India, but forest-dwelling communities governing their territory through a functional, deliberative, democratic body might be an exception in the country because, historically, their forest management prerogatives have been taken away from them, and their endogenous regulatory institutions disrupted in a more or less remote past. Moreover, a long history of coerced collaboration with workers from the FD under the threat of arbitrary arrests, unjust fines, and violent punishment is an integral part of their subaltern citizen consciousness (Pandey 2006). Managing exceptions to the rules intended to control them, or asking for protection and patronage from the officials, are distinct features of forest and pastoral politics in India. Historically, these strategies have been more efficient than seeking legislative and regulatory changes (Saberwal 1999).

Meant to protect a list of rights that is supposed to be universally valid for all forest dwellers in India, the FRA created an environment in which the formation of a new type of governing institution has become necessary to bargain with officials and to gain and manage land rights. Empowerment (as through the FRA) is never merely a matter of handing power over, rather it often requires the recipients to alter their communities, and to set up various kinds of democratic committees and participatory initiatives, as a prerequisite to exercise that power (Nadasdy 2017: 6). For forest users and dwellers, benefiting from the FRA entails the expenditure of formidable energies and substantial changes to the way politics and everyday forest rights are conducted. As described by Shutzer (2013: 9), the theoretical assumption of the FRA is that indigenous community-based institutions improve the natural resource pool in India through the granting of property rights. The paradox, however, is that these ideal models of community institutions in the forest are not rooted in any historical context, and are deemed necessary before they even exist. Individual and collective land rights devolved through the FRA call for the reorganisation of practices and relations within and between forest dwellers, the state, and society. Therefore, the following sections explore the conditions of emergence of these new institutions, which we term “territorial governments” (and relatedly territorial governance), among the Van Gujjars, as they surface in the midst of complex politics of land claiming and titling under the FRA.

   The Van Gujjar Pastoralists Top

According to colonial archives, Van Gujjars migrated to the Shivalik hills of Saharanpur District, Uttar Pradesh, in the second half of the nineteenth century because of forest enclosures in colonial Punjab and demographic growth (Paquet 2018; Dangwal 2009). From there, they fanned eastward across a hilly landscape broken everywhere by steep ravines and seasonal torrents that extended from Uttar Pradesh to present-day Uttarakhand and comprised most of the Rajaji National Park's area. Shortly after the Van Gujjars began to winter in the Shivaliks—in the mid- or late-nineteenth century—a settlement officer was appointed by the British government of the United Provinces to demarcate the remaining forests with the most promising crop of timber in the area. The foreign rulers believed that nomadic pastoralists lacked the concept of property; thus, they never officially recognised the access rights they had earlier negotiated with local rulers or the leaders of village clusters. Instead, the British treated the nomads' rights to move across the landscape not only as relics of the past, but also simple privileges that could be revoked at any moment. However, until nomads matured into exemplary Crown subjects (an implicit settled peasantry), forest officials were encouraged to exert compassion, self-restraint, and paternal goodwill (Revenue (Forests) Department File 125, 1884). At this juncture, a whole new understanding of forest rights and mutual obligations between pastoralists and state workers had to be recreated.

Another relevant feature of local history and political ecology is that, throughout the twentieth century, the Shivaliks remained an important site of scientific observation, one that played a pivotal role in the construction of a body of theoretical statements about land degradation collectively known as the desiccationist discourse (Saberwal 1998: 323). Evoking the main tenets of desiccation theory, state scientists surmised that cattle grazing was responsible for the forest degradation and should be banned (Fratkin 1997: 240). Regional conferences on pastoralism in the early 1960s followed the same pattern and identified nomadism (and Van Gujjar pastoralism in particular) as a problem that was to be eradicated through “rehabilitation” in state-built colonies (Paquet 2018: 372). In recent decades, the rise of environmentalism as a new area of concern, by and large piloted by postcolonial elites, translated into even more stringent forest enclosures and exclusion of traditional forest dwellers, including pastoralists like Van Gujjars, who were framed as “encroachers” on lands under the state FD jurisdiction.

In the 1980s, the creation of inviolate nature reserves, such as the Rajaji National Park, led to mass evictions of Van Gujjars in Uttar Pradesh (present-day Uttarakhand) (Gooch 2009). At the time, Uttar Pradesh did not consider the land uses and lifestyles of these forest dwellers legitimate and planned for the relocation of 512 families in a resettlement colony in 1987 (Mishra, Badola and Bhardwaj 2007: 1342). A further 878 families later gained compensation in the form of agricultural land in a different colony in 1998 after much pleading and advocating. Families vied for small parcels of resettlement land—we saw evidence of forgery and illegal trade of otherwise “free” land recorded in personal archives—but once a parcel was obtained, relocation would be delayed for decades and, in many cases, generations. Even today, those who relocated continue to depend on their access to the forests nearby which is obtained informally, for example, through lavish gifts of ghee (ghee=clarified butter) to the forest guards on the occasion of their sons' and daughters' marriage, and obsequious behaviour on a day-to-day basis. Lastly, it was later recognised that as many as 1,610 families might have been left out of compensation schemes entirely, with no offer of compensation in sight (Rasaily 2012: 67).

Today, the Gohri Range remains the last Van Gujjar hamlet within the bounds of the Rajaji National Park, mainly due to the organised resistance of community members. In Gohri, there is a united sentiment to stay in the jungle, perform legal actions, and engage with outsiders to maintain access and affirm territorial rights. Through myriad cultural practices described below, the Gohri Range also tends to perform a territoriality that is more readily legible to state and society actors, which is why we contrast it to the Shivaliks, where mobilisation is less effective and sentiments towards nationally legitimated 'eco-friendly' practices are more ambivalent. From an outsider's perspective, the Shivalik community might seem slightly disunited, and less prepared to challenge the FD's control over the forest for that same reason. And yet, through their everyday occupation of the forests, the Van Gujjars in the Shivaliks too pose a tacit challenge to the state claims over the forests, although they are less prone to rally behind a single leader, litigate, or make FRA claims. Of course, this might change as rumours of tiger reserves and threats of forceful displacement become more manifest.

   Ethnography of the Gohri Range, Rajaji National Park and Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand Top


Located on the east side of the Ganga canal, opposite the town of Rishikesh, and fully within the Rajaji National Park, Gohri is the last forest range within the park still inhabited by a sizeable group of Van Gujjars. Since the FD has forcibly vacated other ranges such as Ramgarh and Chillawali in 2017, Gohri has become a strong symbol of local resistance attracting the attention of activists, NGOs, and journalists.3 The context has also afforded Mir Hamza, a young (30 year old) resident of the Gohri range to become a leading figure of the local fight for the recognition of lawful occupation under the FRA. Our focus on Gohri is motivated by Hamza's patient efforts to constitute a “territorial government”. As defined by Erazo, a territorial government is a new governance organ within the community that seeks to instil a specific sense of responsibility towards a bounded area of the forest (as well as the community living therein), and a new sense of stewardship towards landscape conservation (2013: 9). In essence, this territorialising entity is a form of community management commensurate with the objectives of state agencies and civil organisations, one that the FRA enables.

Access to the land and its resources

Negotiating access to forest lands has always been an important part of life for the Van Gujjars, but how this was accomplished, and the relationships these negotiations entailed—both within the community and between community members and the outside—have changed in recent years. During the British tenure, prominent Van Gujjars gained access to the land through gifts of milk and ghee to landowners, forest guards, and paid grazing fees. This tradition was continued after Independence to the benefit of the forest workers who expected daily gifts of milk, although officers higher in the administration deemed these arrangements illicit—even though they themselves routinely engaged in other kinds of corrupt deals and practices (Paquet 2018: 161–162). Semi-hereditary chiefs, lambardars (lambardars=headmen) served as intermediaries between the forest establishment and the pastoralists. According to the Forest Conservator Baden-Powell, the lambardars were responsible for conducting and keeping up to date the cattle census, raising taxes from their constituents, and performing a host of other judiciary services (1892). They administered justice based on customary rules—rule offenders had to atone through services or monetary payments—and in domestic matters, their decisions supported the rules of patriarchy, seniority and primogeniture. Competent lambardars commanded respect. While lambardars are typically no longer present, for their skills have lost their relevance in a changing context that now demands expertise in litigating the state at the state and federal—rather than the local and regional levels—and in obtaining the recognition of forest and citizen rights, collective memory still celebrate the old lambardars' intelligence and cunning.

After 1983, the creation of national parks increased threats of eviction, as well as interactions with social activists, NGO workers and other civil society actors who recognised in the Van Gujjars a manifestation of indigenous land struggles in India. Faced with conservationists who saw their relocation as inevitable to preserve a pristine nature, litigation became a routine method for the Van Gujjars to maintain access to forest lands or resources. However, before the FRA came into force, the courts would not venture to bestow land rights to the pastoralists and protect them from further arbitrary offensives from the forest establishment. Still, involuntary resettlement was stopped by the state court in the 1990s, and again every decade after. Court rulings changed the day-to-day interactions between the forest guards and the Van Gujjars. Most illicit exchanges of milk, ghee and butter within the Rajaji National Park was stopped, but threats of heavy fines for (often baseless) violation of conservation statutes became rife. It is also during the clashes with the FD over the proposal for the creation of the Rajaji National Park that a certain Mohammad Alam rose to become the unifying voice of the Van Gujjars threatened of eviction from their traditional grounds. Like the contemporary figures of leadership in Gohri described in the next section, Alam worked closely with NGOs on the development of a vocabulary conjugating claims that the Van Gujjars were the traditional guardians of the forests, and fully dependent on nature. It is worth mentioning that Alam was not a lambardar, and that very often the lambardars' response to any politics of confrontation against the FD remained lukewarm (Gooch 1998). Alam's untimely death in the early 2000s also proved fatal to the mobilisation of the community even as the legislation changed with the introduction of the FRA in 2006.

Politics, governance, leadership

Like Alam, the leading figure of political mobilisation in the Gohri range, Hamza does not hail from a semi-hereditary lambardari line, nor is he an elder, yet he is widely respected. Hamza's advice is regularly sought during attempts at community mobilisation for the FRA. Hamza's leadership marks a significant departure from the lambardari tradition. Sensitised to mainstream environmentalism and strong proponents of the rule of law, he and a number of his followers use social media to celebrate national holidays or share the obituaries of national celebrities regardless of party allegiance, caste, or religion. Whereas lambardars used to attend party rallies and even make donations (such as to the Indian military during the Sino-Indian war)—they seemed to perform these actions opportunistically and mainly to increase their personal reputation and legitimacy. Hamza and the members of his yuva sangathan (yuva sangathan=youth organisation) avowedly prefer to stay out of party politics. However, they collaborate with conservation and policy experts from state institutions like the Wildlife Institute of India, which recently organised nature awareness programs catering to the Van Gujjars.

Hamza is deeply convinced of the necessity of achieving rights under the FRA for multiple reasons. First and foremost, he explains, land titles are synonymous with security from harassment by the FD. Hamza comments that he undertook this fight for land rights because of his love of the jungle and his desire for his children to grow up inside it. In addition, with legal land titles, he hopes of obtaining proper services like schools and clinics for all of Gohri, given that the FRA protects the rights to education and health. These expectations are about building a favourable environment for the next generation of Gohri's inhabitants, who would prefer avoiding the trap of autonomy without resources within the forests. As perceptively pointed out by Erazo, the kind of territorial sovereignty indigenous people seek to achieve globally, by gaining land titles and negotiating with the state, is often only imaginable so long as the state fulfils its role as a welfare service provider to the population (Erazo 2013).

Communities like the Van Gujjars do not expect to live in autarky. Rather, what is crucial for them is the continuation of state interventions that they view as well-intended, well-designed, and well-administered (Sundar 2001). The struggles of tribals and OTFDs in India, far from being aimed at driving the state out of their lives, seek to achieve greater cultural and political autonomy with the explicit protection of the state, so that increased social benefits and security can also be achieved.4 According to this logic, Hamza embraces the FRA as a means to gain his community tenure security as well as access to services the state already guarantees to citizens residing outside demarcated forests. But it is understood that land access is associated with voluntary constraints added onto an already difficult way of life. These struggles brought Hamza and many other Van Gujjars in Gohri on a steep learning curve as they came to master the cultural practices of carefully filling IFR applications and documenting CFRs, as well as navigating bureaucratic paperwork and red tape. We also observe that these young adults have assumed leadership positions and functions as social organisers driving the formation of a territorial government, which as explained by Erazo (2013: 28), establishes the civil norms of engagement between “territorial subjects”—the Van Gujjar citizens, and the state—at the same time as it works to inculcate certain expectations of behaviour and patterns of governance in their communities.

As a part of this expectation of behaviour, the yuva sangathan has become a vehicle promoting colourful “tribal” activities, song contests, and the promotion of women's handicrafts. Its active membership also facilitates and encourages participation in entrepreneurial training workshops in eco-tourism, or organises birdwatching festivals that are popular in Uttarakhand. That tribal cultures will 'spontaneously' begin performing such cultural displays seems to be taken for granted by the implementation process of the FRA, signalling a gap in cultural studies about claim-making under this legislation, and its entanglement in eco-tourism, nature-awareness programs, and public performances of indigeneity.

The vandalism and destruction of over 25 Van Gujjar homes in the Gohri Range in 2017 at the hands of the FD is the main incident that prompted Hamza to file IFRs for the members of his community. While these 37 individual claims have not made it through the FRA process to date (a sub-district panel must be formed to examine them), the Gohri residents remain optimistic. More important perhaps is the fact that once the authorities realised the seriousness of the Gohri Van Gujjars' commitment to legally pursuing forest rights, a notice was issued to the FD, and according to a key informant, “they [FD] did not create any issues after that” (7 June 2019).

At the same time, Van Gujjars of Gohri are organising for legal forest rights through a territorial government that is readily legible to authorities (see [Figure 2]): in this case, land conflicts, threatened livelihoods, and a young and dynamic leadership led to cultural commensurability across the realms of “high” and “low” politics (Joseph and Nugent 1994).
Figure 2: Van Gujjar CFR awareness-raising meeting, hosted by Hamza © Elizabeth Kuroyedov

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   Ethnography of the Shivalik Reserved Forests, Uttar Pradesh Top


Unlike in other parts of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh where the creation of protected areas has led to evictions, displacements, and an overhaul of the “traditional” political structure of Van Gujjar society, the configuration of power within the Shivaliks has remained more stable since the 1980s, making the region an interesting comparison to the Gohri Range. The Shivaliks also fall outside the boundaries of the Rajaji National Park and threats of eviction and restrictions on lopping and forest use did not loom as large until maybe last year, when rumours of the inauguration of a new tiger reserve started to circulate with renewed vigour. The Shivalik Division encompasses twelve populated khols (khols=rivers and catchment areas). In about half of the khols, an elder—being either the heir to a lambardari line or at least from a prominent family—has been the centre of authority for many years. Personally acquainted with local constables, bureaucrats and politicians, soft-spoken and well-travelled, these local leaders have managed to press state officials into creating legal exceptions to provide services that the Van Gujjars might not have been able to avail themselves of otherwise given that on paper they are landless, and stateless almost by definition. These patriarchs are active members of the “political society” that Partha Chatterjee describes in his work (2004), getting things done through the creation of exceptions rather than the application of the letter of the law.

Access to the land and its resources

As mentioned above, historically, pastoralists in India have been very successful in maintaining informal access to forest resources (Saberwal 1999; Chhatre 2003). However, in the case of the Van Gujjars living in the Shivaliks, their privilege hinged almost exclusively on their extra-legal arrangements with FD workers, and it came at the expense of more direct forms of control over the forest. Rather than offering the tale of a success story, uninterrupted Van Gujjar access remains the product of a dysfunctional management system in which no one is truly in charge. Although this might change in the coming years, the Shivaliks are not at present protected by the same 'biodiversity hotspot' status that the Rajaji National Park currently enjoys. Instead, contractors auctioning and marketing various forest products, surrounding villages, and the state forest corporation all exploit the local resources for their own benefit, with little integrated planning or even room for community input. The quality of fodder, both in leaf and grass form, is quickly degrading as a result. Meanwhile, the FD employees also treat the Van Gujjars as subordinates in humiliating ways. Often, we would surprise these state workers enjoying long breaks, drinking one tea cup after the other at the expense of their involuntary hosts and commenting with undisguised disdain on their “backward” ways of life, or simply napping on a cot provided by a resigned Van Gujjar. In the end, the same system that kept forests relatively open also prevented an organised response from community members. While enjoying a certain degree of individual freedom, the Shivalik Van Gujjars also realise, and frequently described to us, that they lack coordination, are more prone to compete against one another for degrading resources, and, as they say, the janglat walle (janglat walle=forest officers) take advantage of their disunity.

Politics, governance, leadership

In the Shivaliks, families pledge allegiance to their kin and buffaloes before they do to any leader. Tending to the buffaloes, bribing officials, raising sons and exchanging girls (as brides) are all activities through which the Shivalik Van Gujjars reproduce their community and maintain access to the forests (see [Figure 3]). While these practices are not unique to the Shivalik Van Gujjars, the difference we observe is that these actions around cattle and kin occur alongside an apparent lack of enthusiasm for political engagement through centralised leaders, territorialising organisations, or the FRA. In the four khols, including where the authors have completed most of their field investigations, change of leadership has been frequent. In one instance, the leadership changed three times over the course of seven years. In two other cases, the most recent appointees to the leader's position were politically inexperienced, but perceived to be honest, hard-working individuals. Neither had a formal education, nor any work experience outside the community. What is truly fascinating with the Shivalik Van Gujjars is the degree of independence that each household enjoys, resulting in a fragmented customary territory chiefly used to reproduce the family unit, a territory that so far was not integrated by one potent discourse about Van Gujjar ethnicity or distinction.
Figure 3: Everyday forest rights asserted by simply being at home with one's family © Elizabeth Kuroyedov

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Even though a Dehradun NGO helped these communities fill out FRA forms in 2014–15, they now hang unaddressed in jute bags from the beams of a spacious hut belonging to one of the khol's leaders, darkened by the smoke of many fires. At the time when the claims were filled, the state was not yet ready to process them. Furthermore, the Divisional Forest Officer was adamant he would reject the claims if given a chance to review them. On its website, the NGO declared it has helped prepare more than 2,000 forms in Uttar Pradesh, one for every single adult or family living in the khols. It is worth noting that this sum largely exceeds the total number of lopping and grazing permits issued to the Van Gujjars by the FD generations ago. The approach of the NGO has its merits, since it recognises the legal existence of every adult Van Gujjar. However, if, from an outsider's point of view, the permits are a relic of the colonial-era, for the Van Gujjars, these old permits continue to be integral to their current understanding of the territory. Many Van Gujjar households still adhere to the limits and conditions set by the permit system and find it difficult to change their norms of engagement with the state and the territory under the FRA, as proposed by the NGO. In any case, the FRA creates a host of new governance dilemmas for communities such as the Van Gujjars who do not necessarily want to see another central organisation take over. As a former resident of the Shivaliks once told us, “When a leader becomes powerful, people suffer” (8 February 2014).

These statements must be understood in the local political context, where the Van Gujjars possess the right to vote in nearby panchayats (panchayats=village assemblies), although they do not live in villages. This right of suffrage, that the Van Gujjars from the Rajaji National Park never possessed, introduced party politics and patronage to jungle areas, but in the end the Shivalik Van Gujjarsa numerical minority—could never reap the direct benefits of their democratic engagement. Van Gujjar leaders who aligned their demands with those of the parties primarily contributed to feed internal divisions. Meanwhile, FRA activists persist to picture forest dwellers like the Van Gujjars as stewards of the forests, or collective managers of CFRs (RLEK 1997). Confirming this, over the years, we were repeatedly told by a number of activists that the Shivalik Van Gujjars were particularly difficult to work with because they tended to prioritise the organisation of marriages to that of land claims on paper. However, we contend that these individual choices of Shivalik Van Gujjars are not trivial in the context of the defence of traditional land uses.

For one, many Van Gujjars have little faith in the outcomes of the Act. Forest guards, rangers, and division officers have been known to violate the court orders which offer temporary protection to the Van Gujjars. Since 2006, the forest establishment has created obstacles for the Van Gujjars claiming forest rights or organising under the FRA. As relayed by one Van Gujjar in the Shivaliks:

Even the proof [of occupation] relating to the forest, even that we obtain from the FD itself. So, if we make any kind of a sangathan (sangathan=organisation) of our own, it upsets the FD. Because they feel like they have less power. That's why we have to consider what they're saying. The process of setting up [a sangathan] can only be done by the FD. If they are the ones to empty the forests, they are also the only ones who can rehabilitate us. If we form another organisation, the FD argument is that, “OK you have your organisation. Why are you coming to us?” (19 June 2019).

This presents us with a paradox of CFRs. To create a democratic body ruling over traditional territory, activists promoting the FRA—albeit with good intentions—would much prefer to meet a central authority representing the community at large. This eases the process of social mobilising for activists, and also is in fact a requirement of the FRA legislation itself—a Forest Rights Committee has to be established at the gram sabha (gram sabha=village assembly) level to process claims. A gram sabha for the Van Gujjars means all adult residents in a khol, even though local bureaucrats sometimes think Van Gujjars cannot form assemblies of their own and are subordinated to the nearest settled village. However, the Shivalik khols seem not to recognise the power of one individual, or group of individuals, over others, and remain distrustful of forming a cohesive indigenous territorial government in the face of the FD.

Everyday assertions of forest rights in the Shivaliks have remained below the level required for the reinvention of a territorial government or leadership roles. Unavoidable but sterile engagement with the local forest bureaucracy, the village panchayats, party touts, and even an ineffective NGO sector, lack the support from state agencies and have stalled more affirmative political developments. In setting their priorities, the Shivalik Van Gujjars nevertheless demonstrate that there are many acceptable situated understandings of “forest rights”—some of which do not necessitate organising through a territorial government, or pursuing IFRs or CFRs.

While the territorial citizenship inculcated by Hamza through FRA filing workshops, festivals, and social media is not present in the Shivalik Van Gujjars, as described by Chatterjee, “people are still within the reach of the state, even if their political relationship with the state does not appear to be normal” (2004: 38). Everyday state formation here occurs through interactions with state workers and village authorities, not centralising leaders and committees. However, with Uttar Pradesh considering a proposal for a tiger reserve encompassing the Shivalik Forest Division, local Van Gujjars might soon reconsider their position towards state workers, the FRA and its advocates, legal claims, and the construction of a territorial government led by different leaders and principles.

   Concluding Remarks Top

Drawing on the work of scholarship theorising everyday forms of territorial government, we find that the devolution of rights that the FRA proposes to achieve paradoxically translates into demands for new forms of community governance, leadership, and expectations of fluid relationships between community “centers” and the state. In the same vein, we observe that the formation of leadership roles among forest-dwelling communities does not need to materialise political resistance to the changes the state brings. In historicising the relation between community leaders, state workers, and other civil society actors, we aimed to show that the formation of indigenous territorial governments and subjectivities does not mark the end of a process of cultural alienation and change that had started during the colonial period, but more generally highlights a transition to new techniques of indigenous governance that is ongoing in post-independent India. While Hamza embodies a new phase in the development of a territorial government (which has known precedents), organising in defence of the FRA in a way that is expected from the Act itself, we see a much lighter manifestation of governance surrounding forest rights in the Shivaliks. We observe this difference due to the relative ease of access to forest resources, but distrust for centralising powers in the Shivalik Van Gujjars, who have not faced forced evictions due to park enclosures and battles with the state courts to file notices against the FD like in Gohri.

Recent history shows that, threatened, the Van Gujjars do not wait helplessly for the state to regularise their situation. Rather, as fully formed legal subjects and actors, they participate in complex political systems despite being historically marginalised. This is why our article follows Joseph and Nugent's (1994) concept of everyday state formation, and Erazo and Nadasdy's ideas of everyday territorial governments and governance (2013; 2017). As Joseph and Nugent (1994) articulate, there must be a great deal of “low” politics before there can be “high” politics. In paying attention to everyday “low” politics in the Gohri Range and the Shivaliks, we begin to see the emergence of contrasting patterns of state-making in practice in two different localities. There is a great deal of work to be done to further examine how the legal opportunities of the FRA encourage multidimensional forms of governance among Van Gujjars, pastoralists, and OTFDs in general, shifting the continuity of decades of seeking forest rights to practices of territorial governments.

   Acknowledgements Top

We would like to thank the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and the Faculty of Anthropology at University College London for their continued guidance; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds Québécois de Recherche en Société et Culture, and the Department of Anthropology at McGill University for their financial support; Avijit Chatterjee, Federico de Musso, Catherine Larouche, George Smith, Prateeksha Tiwari, Ivan Nagar, Garima Das, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments; the interns at the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra for their translation support; Mangal Singh, our research assistant during all these years, as well as all the Van Gujjar participants who made our work possible.

Author contribution statement

The authors confirm equal contribution to the paper including ethnographic research design, data collection and analysis, and draft manuscript preparation and revision. Both authors reviewed the results and approved the final version of the manuscript. We both feel accountable and responsible to answer questions that may arise after publication.

Declaration of competing/conflicting interests

The authors, Pierre-Alexandre Paquet and Elizabeth Kuroyedov, we certify that we have no conflict of interest and no affiliations or involvement in any organisation that has any kind of financial or non-financial interest in the subject matter discussed in this manuscript.

Financial disclosures

The authors have no other financial or non-financial conflict of interests to disclose.

Research ethics approval and data availability

The research on which this paper is based was approved by the institutional ethics review boards of both authors. Prior informed consent was obtained from participants prior to recording interviews. The primary data is stored safely by the authors.

   Notes Top

  1. Considering that the provision of justice, education, health care and other services that guarantee fairness and equality among citizens of India depends on the recognition of the legitimacy of land occupancy, it does not seem exaggerated to suggest that the property regime currently ruling over political forest territories deprives Indian citizens of their inherent rights.
  2. While the FRA can afford writ “forest rights”, we recognise that the Van Gujjars have successfully maintained access to forest space for decades prior to its passing. While beyond the space limitations of this article, Ribot and Peluso (2003) provide a detailed analysis of the multiple forms in which actors derive benefits from resources. In this paper, we distinguish between access to forests and forest rights when necessary, and while we acknowledge that, in theory, only the latter could emancipate the Van Gujjars from extortion and arbitrary treatments by the FD, in practice, the historical depth of the interactions between the nomadic pastoralists and the forest establishment around access issues inevitably alters the process of forest rights recognition.
  3. The other locus of Van Gujjar resistance to protected areas that threaten their customary access to the land and its resources in Uttarakhand is found far to the East, around the Jim Corbett National Park. Van Gujjars from that region joined our workshops on a number of occasions, but so far no academic work has been done that focuses exclusively on that community.
  4. The more insistent focus on cultural rights and autonomy under the protection of the state in this context—more insistent than the delimitation of a new jurisdiction on the ground—tactfully avoids the frontal attack that a secessionist agenda would inevitably cause to the “sovereign state”. This strategy is obviously contrived by historical representations and discourses guiding processes of recognition of “indigenous” minorities in modern pluralist/multicultural states (not just in India, in spite of India's specific treatment of adivasis) (Kingsbury 1998; Niezen 2003), see Coulthard 2014 for Canada, and Povinelli 2002 in the Australian context. At the same time, the avoidance of more radical claims reads as a sign that the state is always present in the imagination of the marginalised.

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