Adivasis and the Indian State: Facing govt apathy and discrimination, Kashmir's Gujjar Bakarwal tribe struggles to preserve nomadic way of life
Facing discrimination and government apathy, several Gujjar and Bakarwal tribals in Jammu and Kashmir have sacrificed their tradition of a ‘moving life’ for a relatively peaceful and sedentary lifestyle
The Gujjar and Bakarwal tribe constitute a group of nomads, semi‐nomads, pastoralists, and agro‐pastoralists who traverse through the state of Jammu and Kashmir
Facing discrimination and government apathy, several members of the tribe have sacrificed their tradition of a ‘moving life’ for a relatively peaceful and sedentary lifestyle
The tribals have been fighting hard to prove that reservation is their legitimate right and not a privilege extended by the state.
Although Gujjars and Bakarwals play a pivotal role in Amarnath Yatra, there is no recognition of their role
Editor's Note: In this eighteen-part series, we will attempt to address the tropes associated with the communities in question from an Adivasi perspective while also exploring the contemporary relationship of Adivasi citizens with the Indian government. This is part three of the series on Adivasi communities in peninsular India.
The word 'Kashmir’ brings to memory a plethora of painful stories and vivid imageries of violence. Kashmir also reminds one of the Valley's beauty and splendour, which makes it a ‘firdaus (heaven)’ on earth. A story is dignified when the audience listens to it with attention and care. In Kashmir, however, there are some stories which have never been allowed the dignity of being heard. The story of the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir is among them.
It is believed that Gujjars migrated to Jammu and Kashmir in different waves from the 6th Century onwards. After many years, Kashmir witnessed the rise of Sufism and Islam. Consequently, the Gujjars and Bakarwals were greatly influenced by the message of the Sufis and converted to Islam. The tribe constitutes a group of nomads, semi‐nomads, pastoralists, and agro‐pastoralists. Those who practise transhumance traverse a huge swathe of land in the state, ranging from the plains of the Jammu region to the lush green meadows of the Valley and the treacherous, barren mountains of Zanskar. They move with their cattle and livestock, along the beautiful rivers meandering through lush green meadows and lofty mountains. While most people wake up to blaring horns, screaming and screeching of the city life; their day begins with their sheeps bleating around, harmoniously in sync with the musical flow of rivers.
However, this apparently romantic journey has a darker side to it as well.
Rafaqat Hussain Pajjwala started his weary journey from Kathua (Jammu) in the beginning of May and reached Suru Valley after a couple of months. He traveled more than a thousand kilometres only to find out that he won’t be allowed to stay anywhere near the Zanskar region. He somehow managed to stay in the uninhabitable Shangshi Nala and would be back to an equally unwelcoming and hostile Kathua once the winter arrives.
Rafaqat says that he pays ‘thaika’ — an amount paid for temporary stay and grazing— of more than a lakh in Kathua and Samba.
“Not all people in Kathua are unsympathetic yet there are some whose hatred for us is blatant,” says Rafaqat referring to the Kathua rape case, terming it a politically motivated attempt to instill fear in the minds of the tribals in order to effectuate a demographic change in the region.
From Kathua to Suru, there isn’t a place— for Rafaqat— which he can describe as his home.
Rafaqat recounts the newer phenomenon of some gaurakshaks attacking tribals, with great pain. In the recent past, there have been a number of cases where cow vigilante groups attacked the migrating tribals in different parts of the state.
Moreover, the state is actively involved in evicting Gujjars and Bakarwals through anti-encroachment drives. Most recently, 250 Gujjar families were forcefully evicted to establish an All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Vijaypur.
Majid Hussain (name changed), a block development officer in Srinagar, contends that it is very common in the state that funds meant for tribal sub-plans get lapsed every year. Social marginalisation and stigma combined with such a level of state apathy result in complete alienation of the tribals.
Moreover, the state-sponsored practice of charging money from the nomads for ghas-charai (grazing), etc, adds to their woes. Majid adds that the process of ‘registering’ the names of the nomads, during their migration, along with the number of cattle and livestock started during the times of the Maharaja. However, this process is increasingly alienating them from the land and resources that always belonged to them.
A forgotten past of massacre
The most unfortunate event, according to Majid, for the tribals was the “forgotten massacre of Jammu Muslims in the wake of Partition in 1947”. Extremist Hindus and Sikhs along with some RSS karyakartas actively supported Dogra ruler Hari Singh in the massacre of over two lakh Muslims. He says that most of the murdered Muslims were Gujjars and Bakarwals.
Consequently, he adds, “A large number of tribals migrated to Pakistan and those who couldn’t afford it retreated to the hills. Those who are left behind are seen with suspicion by both Kashmiris and Dogras. We are accepted nowhere.”
There are a number of tribals who are fighting the battle to be accepted into the larger society. It is this battle for which they are leaving their tradition and culture, and willing to risk even losing their tribal identity.
Haji Mehboob, a nonagenarian, started his journey from Kalakot (in Rajouri district) and reached his dhok (pasture) in the scenic Doodhpathri after traveling by foot for a couple of months. One fine day, in the evening, while the tourists were enjoying the picturesque landscape of Doodhpathri in the safety of a well-developed tourist place; only a few metres away in the hills, Mehboob’s son Mohd Sadiq — aged 60 — fought off a wild bear along with his pet Bakarwali dogs, and protected his cattle and family. He was not so lucky the last time he encountered a bear, almost a year ago, at the same place. The bear attacked him and left him severely wounded along with an amputated earlobe.
Sadiq says that he is ready to battle all the vicissitudes of life if he is allowed to continue his life as a nomad. However, he says, “There is so much intrusion of the government and some insensitive people into our sacred lands."
“Our cattle eat plastic leftovers by the tourists and get sick,” he adds.
The agony and torment of the nomadic life have not broken Sadiq’s spirit as he still holds dear his way of life. Muneer Ahmed Poswal, on the contrary, has left the practice of transhumance.
“It is good that we have left our pastures because our children can pursue education now. Who would leave these beautiful meadows otherwise?” he observes stoically.
It is worth mentioning here that 400 mobile schools were established in 1975 for Gujjar and Bakarwal children, on the recommendation of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Out of those 400, only a few are presently ‘functional’. It is because of the utter negligence of the successive governments and consequent failure of the concept of a mobile school that one finds people like Muneer opting out of their revered tradition of seasonal migration.
Like Muneer, there are many tribals who have left the traditional way of life in pursuit of a better life. The centuries-old tradition of transhumance is on the wane. The traditional routes of migration like Nanasar, Gora Batta, etc, get damaged every year due to inclement weather conditions. On the other hand, the construction of Mughal road and other such ‘developmental projects’ have seriously hampered the pattern of bi-annual migration of the tribals. In the absence of any safe passage provided by the government, they prefer to use these newly constructed roads on their migration route. Consequently, every year, there are scores of incidents where speeding vehicles crush hundreds of sheep and goat.
Last year, on 19 October, a speedy truck crushed to death a nomad boy Rehmatullah along with his goats, when he was on his way back home, on the Batote-Kishtwar road.
Moreover, they suffer a huge loss of cattle and livestock due to harsh weather conditions like landslides and extreme cold, etc.
After repeated demands by the community, they are now provided with mobile animal dispensaries and some health facilities on their migration routes. However, there are many other concerns which are still unaddressed. The concept of land ownership and documentation of land records is unknown to many of the tribals.
Mohammad Moosa Khaari gazes at a starry night in Meena Marg and says, "These hills and meadows, streams and rivers and everything else belong to Allah. We also belong to Allah. Our forefathers never claimed any part of land or water as their own property."
Khaari, however, has paid more than Rs 20 lakhs to the locals in the last few years for a temporary stay in summers.
“These people claim that this land is their property. How can these hills and meadows be someone’s personal property? They belong to us all,” he says.
Although a number of tribals have now sacrificed their tradition of a ‘moving life’ for a relatively peaceful and sedentary lifestyle, there are still many like Moosa who don’t even consider the idea of owning land. It is in this context that the Forest Rights Act becomes significantly important.
While the tribals and other forest-dwelling communities in the rest of the country are fighting hard to get the Forest Rights Act effectively implemented, the Gujjar Bakerwal community doesn’t even find a mention in these struggles.
The reason is that most of the legal and constitutional provisions made available to other tribes in India have not been extended to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The now-repealed article 370 was used as an excuse by successive state governments to conceal their unwillingness to enact these legislations in the state. Although the BJP government is trying to woo the tribals by promising them political reservation, they are silent on the very important Forest Rights Act. FRA can assuage the marginalised tribals and protect them from various attacks and eviction drives. It was the unwillingness of the state and not the article 370 per se that was responsible for these legislations not getting enacted in Jammu and Kashmir.
The tribals, like everyone else in the state, are very apprehensive about the plans of the government. The tribals are not the inhabitants of a particular region of the state as they keep travelling because of their nomadic life. The move to abrogate article 370 divided their home as they live in all parts of the state — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh— in different times of the year.
Mohd Arif, a tribal research scholar in Delhi, argues that the state has a selective policy of cherry-picking central laws.
He protests, “While the Jammu and Kashmir govt. has no problem in implementing the central laws like GST, RTI etc, they refuse to budge when the issue concerns the tribals of the state. Some of the central laws are directly implemented; in other cases, a parallel legislation is passed by the state assembly.”
Neither the central Forest Rights Act nor the provision of political reservation for tribals has been extended to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequently, the Gujjar Bakerwal community is politically underrepresented and socially marginalised.
Increasing human footprint and the loss of vitality
Israel Konshi from Kangan town bemoans the loss of wild plants and other herbs and vegetables due to the increasing human footprint in the tribal areas and the hinterland. Israel rues that the "growing unfamiliarity of the young tribals with herbs and vegetables like tarobdo, chutiyaal, saoncho, etc, is painful".
He belongs to a generation which used to eat the wildly grown herbs and vegetables, and while he is proud of the past, he is concerned that “the readily available ‘outside food’ is making them weak and feeble". However, there is a large number of tribals who still rely upon traditional knowledge and are primarily dependant on the usage of medicinal herbs and vegetables naturally found in the tribal areas. Jungli ganaar (Amaranthus Viridis L), granda (Carissa Opaca Stapy Ex.Hains), simblu (Berberis Lycium Royle In Trans. Linn. Soc.), kuchh (Viburnum Grandiflorum Wall. ex DC), etc are commonly used by most of them. This huge repository of knowledge is slowly getting lost, without anyone noticing it.
Tourism in Tribal areas
There is a huge influx of local as well as foreign travelers into many of the beautiful meadows and captivating landscape inhabited by tribals. The Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir are generally considerate and respectful to outside visitors. One of the major reasons for welcoming outside visitors into their lands is the generation of economic opportunities.
Mohammad Aslam Kasana is a young man in his twenties who dropped out of school due to the testing demands of tribal life and lack of opportunities. He has learned to speak German, French, English, and Hebrew just through his interaction with the visitors. He is now a full-time guide and host to visitors in the Naranag village of Kashmir, located a few kilometres upstream the Sind river. This village is quickly emerging as an important base camp for trekking to different places in northern Kashmir. There are many important sites like Mount Harmukh (16,870 ft), Gangabal Lake, Naranag temple, Satsar, etc, which can be explored in this region.
Kasana was disheartened by the exploitation of young tribals like him by the local Kashmiris. He laments thus: “The ‘Kashmiris’ know how to use the internet and they can easily woo tourists to these places. However, they take most of the money sitting in their cozy homes, while we make all the arrangements for the tourists here in the meadows and mountains. In the end, we get only a meagre share of the total money given by tourists.”
“Although a number of tribals from the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribe play a pivotal role in the successful completion of Amarnath Yatra, there is no recognition of our role anywhere,” says Kasana.
Kasana’s story resonates the plight of thousands of youth from this tribal community. They are underpaid, exploited and subjected to abuse and oppression.
The opening verses of the Kashmiri song Harmukh Bartal, attributed to Habba Khatoon, speak about her longing for her beloved. They reveal her readiness to offer anything in return for the arrival of her beloved at the gates of Harmukh. Kasana has spent his whole life at the base of Harmukh waiting for a life with dignity and honour. He has given his everything to a world which doesn’t belong to him. What is it that the tourism industry in Jammu and Kashmir gives back to these people? Plastic? Trash? Abuse? Exploitation? Invasion of the tribal landscape? Or, something benign and beautiful?
Discrimination in Faqir Gujri
Faqir Gujri is a village in Srinagar, located just a few kilometres away from the world famous Dal Lake. It is inhabited by Gujjars and Bakarwals, comprising almost 97 percent of the total population, as per Census 2011. The residents of the village allege that the government has complete apathy for their plight. It is shocking that a village located in the immediate neighbourhood of the Srinagar city lacks even the very basic facilities like roads, proper drainage, water supply, network coverage, etc.
Mohammad Saleem (name changed), a Class 8 student in a school in Shalimar, walks more than seven kilometres every day to reach his school. He doesn’t speak fluent Kashmiri like most of the other tribals in the Valley. It is a hallmark of the hierarchical societies that the dominated populace tend to conceal its identity. The socio-political and cultural assertion of the dominant communities in Jammu and Kashmir is so powerful that most of the tribals have learnt to speak the language of the dominant.
Gujjars and Bakarwals easily switch their language of conversation to Dogri, Pahadi or Kashmiri as per the convenience of the other person. Saleem, however, refuses to speak Kashmiri, for, in his words, “I don’t like speaking in this language as it represents the people who humiliate me and my tribal identity.”
This small act of defiance speaks the tale of indignity that a tribal student like Saleem faces in his everyday life. Saleem adds, “It's very common in our school that Kashmiris would stop us from entering the classrooms. They throw caste slurs at us, call us ‘Gujur' (a term used by Kashmiris to refer to someone who is ‘uncivilised’), and push us to go back to our homes.”
In a plaintive tone, Saleem says that because of the regular scuffles between Kashmiri and Gujjars students, the teachers (most of them Kashmiris) had to intervene. They segregated the students from the two ethnic communities; three days in a week were chosen for Gujjars and three for Kashmiris. Though a lot of people have condemned incidents of discrimination in the past, including racism like apartheid in South Africa, yet the discrimination faced by people like Saleem in villages like Faqir Gujri is going unnoticed.
Faqir is a popular word among Gujjars, usually referred to a Sufi saint. The etymology of the name ‘Faqir Gujri’ seems to refer to this meaning of the word Faqir. However, the continuous neglect, discrimination, oppression, and segregation faced by the residents of this village means that the society and the state have imposed the other meaning of the word Faqir on them, which is mendicant, poor and needy.
Violence has been part of the social and caste hierarchies in Kashmir, which features tribals at the bottom. The tribals have been pushed to the margins of society. In public spaces, they are ridiculed and laughed at. These entrenched hierarchies have resulted in stigma and violence.
“The ethnic Kashmiris and other privileged groups of the society have subjected our attire, our food habits, our customs and traditions, and our language to shame and ridicule,” says Tanvir Hussain, a research scholar in Jamia Millia Islamia.
There are many tribal activists — most notably is Dr Javed Rahi, secretary of Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation — who have continuously demanded inclusion of Gojri language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Tanvir adds that the process of healing can begin if the state responds positively to such demands. The granting of the ST status to Gujjars and Bakarwals in 1991 has been the only benevolent and effective response from the state.
"Although it is true that we have seen improvement in our economic condition and the employment level has gone up post reservation, but we have to endure a vicious backlash at the social level,” he adds.
Tanvir complains that the social stigma attached to the tribal identity got exacerbated after the community got the ST status. The tribals have been fighting hard to prove that reservation is their legitimate right and not a privilege extended by the state.
There are innumerable paeans on the beauty of Kashmir. Who will write, however, elegies on the pain and grief? There are sufferings galore! The misery of many Kasanas and Sadiqs gets lost in the cacophony of the so-called larger debates on autonomy, freedom, self-determination, etc. In the times of such dreary melancholia, the tribals of Kashmir gaze at the rest of India — from deep within the abyss — and ask: if there is a firdaus on earth, where is it? Where is it? Where is it?
The author is a research scholar from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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