If you have been following news around the Kathua rape and murder case, you may have heard the word "Bakkarwal" come up. Or maybe you haven’t. In the mainstream news, the little girl who was raped and murdered was "Muslim", the perpetrators "Hindu".
Bakkarwals (literally ‘goat people’) are nomadic pastoralists from Jammu and Kashmir. They move to the plains of Jammu in winter, and the high mountains of Kashmir in the summer, making way not just for their flocks of sheep and goat, but also for the entire trekking industry in the state.
Despite the divisions around communal lines now, the community has shared a warmer relationship with the Jammu Hindus in the past, though this been deteriorating.
In a piece arguing for the rights of the Bakkarwals, sociologist Anita Sharma has written, “for both the Kashmiri Muslim and the Jammu Hindus, the Bakkarwals are perceived as outsiders".
"As nomadic people, they also suffered acutely because of the militancy in the Valley. Many Bakkarwals, however, continued their migration up and down the mountains in-spite of the daunting odds posed by militancy, by adopting various diversifying strategies such as leaving their children behind with settled friends and relatives, as some young boys were kidnapped by militants," writes Sharma.
"But incidents such as the Kathua rape have left them stunned. The Bakkarwals are not used to being in the news. Their way is to evade and move on. But how to negotiate this present time without entering the quagmire of the ‘civilised settled’?” Sharma asks.
The Bakkarwals patterns of mobility have suffered since the beginning of the Kashmir dispute. Their traditional summer pastures in Gilgit and Baltistan became largely inaccessible after 1947.
The community is also susceptible to extreme weather events, with little or no communication means available to them while in the mountains.
The Bakkarwal women are out as much as the men — herding, milking, fetching fodder, fuel and water, etc. Sociologist Aparna Rao talking about her field research experience in Autonomy: Life Cycle, Gender and Status Among Himalayan Pastoralists writes, “the idea of a woman walking around on her own during the day was thus by no means an innovation.”
According to the 2011 census, Gujjars and Bakkarwals are the third largest ethnic group after Kashmiris and Dogras, making up 11.9% of the state’s population. Despite that there is scant acknowledgment of their rights, with successive governments failing to recognise their Forest Rights or rehabilitation needs.
Sadly it has taken this tragedy for the community to get some air time on our news channels. The girl’s family has left Kathua for their journey to the Pir Panjals for the summer. They have given away most of her belongings and left the rest in a trunk in Kathua.
— All photos by Anita Sharma