JAMMU : The sole Muslim face of BJP in the cabinet and Jammu and Kashmir’s transport minister, Abdul Gani Kohli, was snubbed Wednesday by his party colleague and forest minister, Bali Bhagat, for speaking out against the eviction drive launched by the state government in Jammu.

A war of words has broken out in the BJP camp over the issue with Bhagat asking Kohli to 'keep mum'. "He should remain silent on the issue. He doesn’t know how to react over such issues. Kohli is my party colleague but he lacks discipline. No one can stop us from freeing encroachment," Bhagat said.

After meeting a number of delegations of residents from the affected areas, Kohli had raised questions over the entire exercise, saying that he was concerned about the state of people who have been living there for decades.

"I have raised the issue with the party high command and I am sure they will address it dispassionately," he said.

The areas, predominantly populated by Muslims, were notified by the Jammu and Kashmir government in April, which ordered setting up of an inter-departmental committee to wrest back forest land presently under 'occupation' there.

Thousands of people, mostly Muslims belonging to Gujjar and Bakerwal communities of the region, who have been living on the land for decades, are suddenly facing the threat of eviction by the government's order.

It has also sparked anguish among the Muslims of Jammu who have threatened to launch an agitation if the state government doesn't revoke its order.

Jammu Muslim Traders Federation President, Abdul Majeed, said the government officials are doing surveys in the area and there is growing concern among the people.

"If the government wants to clear encroachments from forest land, let them do it. But why are we getting selectively targeted? Let the government remove encroachments from Gandhi Nagar colony too, which is also built on forest land," he said.

Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, the largest civil society group in Kashmir Valley, also expressed concern over the situation in Jammu. In a statement, the group said the eviction of Muslims from forest land is part of the "same sinister design" of communal forces within the government, "Otherwise, it is a known fact that the tribal Muslims have been permitted to settle in these areas since 1931 by the then Maharaja," the group's Chairman, Hameedah Nayeem said in the statement.

She said the upscale colonies of Jammu including Gandhi Nagar and Trikuta Nagar belonging to the same category of land have been kept out of the eviction drive. "This shows that the communal forces are hell bent on repeating 1947 when, under a deliberate communal plan, Muslims were wiped out of Jammu district through a genocidal operation,” she said.

The forest minister, however, said the drive against encroachment of forest land in the state will continue.

"I am not targeting Muslims, but if any Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Dogra or Rajput has encroached the forest land too, he will also be driven away,” he said.