Pastoral Communities of Kashmir

The caravan waits

Print edition : May 22, 2020

A Bakarwal family migrating to Kashmir from Jammu along with its herd near Kalakote in Rajouri district on May 4. (Above) Naksha Bibi. Photo: Ranjit Khajuria

Naksha Bibi. Photo: Pervez Mohammad

A Bakarwali dog near Margan Top, which connects the Warwan Valley with the main Kashmir Valley. Photo: Pervez Mohammad

Denied permits and transportation and facing boycott over coronavirus conspiracy theories, the pastoral Gujjar and Bakarwal communities of Jammu and Kashmir begin their annual summer migration without adequate food rations and fodder.

Naksha Bibi, an octogenarian nomadic Bakarwal matriarch, used to leave her winter home at Purmandal in Samba district of Jammu region well before the onset of summer. She would go across the Pir Panjal range of the Himalaya by the end of March, every year. After camping at Kokernag in Anantnag district in the Kashmir Valley for a couple of days, her caravan would set out on a long march towards Margan Top, the mighty mountain pass that connects Warwan Valley with the main Kashmir Valley. The caravan of her extended family, livestock and sturdy Bakarwali dogs—some dutifully leading from the front and the others trailing behind to ensure everyone was secure en route—would invariably reach their summer home at Inshan in Kishtwar district in the middle of the spring season.

But this year, Naksha Bibi’s annual summer migration is surely going to be the longest and toughest journey of her life. After an initial delay because of the lockdown, the Union Territory administration finally allowed the pastoral nomadic Muslim communities, Gujjars and Bakarwals—one of the most vulnerable and the third largest ethnic communities of Jammu and Kashmir—to migrate within Jammu region or cross over to Kashmir and Ladakh on foot in late April. However, the local authorities would not issue migration permits for many areas even until April 30.

Replying to queries regarding nomadic families stranded in Balatar panchayat, Chuni Lal Badyal, naib tehsildar of Sumb in Samba district, said: “We don’t have any orders from the office of the District Magistrate. Many nomadic families have left for dhoks [highland pastures] on their own without permission.”

The standard practice of Naksha Bibi’s family the past several years had been to send women, children and the old and infirm in trucks to Anantang along with essential household goods. The menfolk would follow them on foot herding the livestock. After waiting for official permission for the use of vehicles, Naksha Bibi finally undertook the daunting journey on April 22. “The delay was proving disastrous for our livestock. So we didn’t wait for permission to use vehicles. In view of the rise in temperature, sheep and goats have started suffering from foot-and-mouth disease. Vaccines are not available because of the lockdown,” Naksha Bibi’s grandson, Pervez Mohammad, said. He is doing his postgraduation in Urdu at the University of Jammu.

“Until last year, it was enough to get a raahdaari [permit] from the district forest authorities. But this year, we were asked to get a no objection certificate from the local police and revenue authorities apart from the district forest officer,” he told this reporter over phone from Kishanpur Manwal near the Jammu-Udhampur border on April 29. “We have reduced our reliance on ponies over the years. The ever-growing vehicular traffic has made it difficult for us to transit via the national highway and other roads on foot. Heavy urbanisation and population growth even in rural areas have led to an acute fodder shortage and hostilities. We have also lost our access to many traditional migration routes and forests.”

Despite changes in administrative laws following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August last year, the Forest Rights Act has not yet been implemented in the new Union Territory. The authorities have fenced forests, denying the pastoral communities access to them. The law promises grazing rights, access to water resources and forest produce (except timber) to traditional forest dwellers and offers them protection against forced displacements. Until August last year, forest laws of the former State provided the pastoral nomadic communities only grazing rights in certain forest areas.

Gujjars and Bakkarwals constitute 11.9 per cent of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State’s total population of 12.5 million, according to Census 2011. Over the past three decades, growing militancy, militarisation and frequent ceasefire violations along the 198-kilometre-long international border and the 730-km-long line of control have affected the simple pastoral life of these nomads. As a result, many pastures and traditional migration routes are out of bounds for them.

Their centuries-old biannual migration seems to have inspired the “Durbar Move”, the practice of shifting the Jammu and Kashmir government’s civil Secretariat and other offices to Srinagar in the summer and Jammu in the winter. The Dogra monarch, Maharaja Gulab Singh, introduced this biannual relocation of offices in 1872.

In the wake of the national lockdown implemented to break the chain of COVID-19 infection, the majority of the nomadic families have started their summer migration without adequate food rations. In the past, the Department of Animal and Sheep Husbandry had set up camps along the migration routes. This year, no such arrangements are in place, the families say.

In several places on their route, the twin communities have been facing boycott over coronavirus conspiracy theories. On April 17, the caravan of Haji Abdul Hamid, the 85-year-old Bakarwal herder, began its journey on foot for Marwah Dachan in Kishtwar district from Basantpur in Kathua district. Talking to the reporter over phone, Hamid said, “We are 20 households moving with 10,000 head of cattle. This time we don’t have enough stock of food rations. We also don’t have medicines for the livestock. Government veterinary doctors are nowhere in sight. The government has not shown any concern for our problems.”

The communalisation of the pandemic has created a new crisis for these communities. “The previous day, the local sarpanch and his men brutally thrashed our livestock at Saira Kardoh village in Basohli tehsil, without any provocation. They warned us against camping near their village. They blamed us for the spread of COVID. They were not willing to understand that not a single person from our community had got infected with the virus so far. I believe, they targeted us for some other reason,” Hamid lamented.

Gujjars and Bakarwals have faced allegations of “land jehad” as part of an imagined conspiracy aimed at changing the demographic profile of the Jammu region. Many right-wing leaders had called for boycotting them socially and economically following the Kathua rape and murder case. Some Bharatiya Janata Party Ministers and legislators had apparently organised a rally in support of the persons who kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in 2018. Ironically, the Indian armed forces personnel laud the Bakarwal community for informing them of Pakistan’s intrusions in 1965, 1971 and before the Kargil war.

Sharief Ahmed, Hamid’s younger brother’s son, said, “Even though the trial court has convicted the accused in the Kathua rape and murder case, the hostile attitude of many local residents has not changed.” Sharief Ahmed is pursuing his doctoral degree in economics at the University of Jammu. His MPhil thesis was on “Impact of mobile primary schools on educational outcomes of students: A case study of Bakarwal tribe in district Kathua”.

“Bakarwals are one of the most educationally and economically backward tribal communities in the country. The annual report of the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry 2018 revealed that the literacy rate of the community is slightly over 25 per cent,” he said.

On the morning of April 19, as many as 73 sheep, goats and two horses belonging to the Bakarwal families were found dead in Meer Panchari area adjoining Udhampur district. The livestock belonged to Abdul Qyoom and Gulzar Ahmed. They had broken their journey near the village on their way to Kashmir from the border area of Khor in the Akhnoor sector. Bakarwals suspect that the livestock was poisoned by some local people.

Boycott of Gujjars

Another section of the tribal community, Dodhi Gujjars, has been facing an undeclared boycott in the Jammu region. Dodhi Gujjars mostly migrate within Jammu region and are largely dependent on milk-yielding animals and practice small-scale agriculture. Jameel Choudhary, president of the Dodhi Gujjars community in Jammu, said: “At a time when we do not have enough food for ourselves, we have offered to supply milk to the quarantine centres in Jammu and Kathua free of cost. But, our offer has not evoked any response from the authorities. We want to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 despite threats to socially distance our community. People are not buying our milk produce. We are forced to dump the milk in rivers and farms. In several areas, local residents do not allow our cattle to graze on government land. Attempts are being made to harm the community financially under the garb of coronavirus threat.”

His allegations are not baseless. During the lockdown, pictures and videos emerged on social media showing members of the community being assaulted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and local residents. Citing COVID-19 threat, Gurdayal Singh Majotra, sarpanch of Gharana panchayat in Suchetgarh block near the Pakistan border, wrote a letter to the local authorities, requesting that members of the tribal communities should not be allowed to enter his panchayat. “…no entry of Gujjars/Bakarwals visiting panchayat Gharana along with their animals from village Jeoura and Kalali Tibba without the permission of the panchayat. You are also requested to kindly convey the directions to the police… if we establish a checkpoint…. The infrastructure and staff of forest and VDC (village defence committee) is available and ready for check post. Please convey your directions as early as possible,” Majorta stated in his letter dated April 8.

When contacted two days later, Majotra told this reporter, “I don’t know what’s wrong with my letter. Why is it being politicised and I’m being criticised on social media? These people come in hordes to take fodder for their livestock. They don’t maintain physical distancing. Even though I’ve withdrawn my letter I’m very much worried about the security of my panchayat.”

Incidentally, hamlets with a predominant population of the community become targets of shelling and firing from across the border during frequent ceasefire violations. In January 2018, at least 150 mud houses of Gujjars were gutted in Pakistani shelling as the area turned into a war zone. These families also lost their cattle and other livestock to mortar bombs and bullets.

Several social organisations from the Chenab Valley, which comprises the three districts of Ramban, Doda and Kishtwar, have also expressed the fear that the pastoral nomads could transmit coronavirus in their areas. The organisations, which include the Thathri Development Front, the Paddar Development Forum and the Paddar Youth Forum, have urged the Divisional Commissioner of Jammu to establish checkpoints for screening of the nomadic community. In a joint statement made to the local press on April 26, they said: “The migration of nomadic population to the upper reaches of Chenab valley particularly in subdivision Paddar, Thathri and Dachhan area can wreck havoc. The administration should establish checkpoints so that no coronavirus positive case enters the virgin valley.”

Deprived of PDF benefit

The Jammu Kashmir Tribal United Forum has demanded an emergency monthly financial relief of Rs.7,000 to each nomadic household living below the poverty line (BPL). Roshan Din Choudhary, the forum chief, said: “Over five lakh nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir have been affected by the lockdown. The nomadic and BPL families have no work. They have no source of income. They have no way of arranging fodder for their livestock.”

“The government should immediately put in place a mechanism for purchasing milk from the Dodhi Gujjar community,” Choudhary suggested. “A large number of local Gujjar labourers who had gone to the neighbouring States of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi for daily wage work, are stranded either at places of their work or on their way back home. They need to be evacuated and brought back. Similarly, a huge chunk of tribal population is stranded in the upper reaches of the mountains. They are facing starvation and they are yet to get the attention of the authorities.”

Although Union Minister for Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswa declared in March that beneficiaries under the public distribution system would be allowed to lift their quota of subsidised foodgrains for six months in one go, in view of the coronavirus outbreak, tribal nomads largely remain deprived of the benefit.

An assistant director in the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department in Jammu region said: “Over half the population of nomadic tribes in Jammu and Kashmir, the majority of them Bakarwals, has been left out of the ambit of the National Food Security Act, which has a specific policy for the nomadic tribal population. The Act was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 in a haphazard manner. The scattered nomadic population couldn’t get registered. So the government must intervene to provide them ration during the lockdown.” (He did not wish his name to be shared as he was not authorised to speak to the media.)

He said there was a need to set up new screening committees comprising officials from the Revenue and Rural Development departments at the tehsil level under the supervision of his department to include the deserving nomadic families who had been left out. “The seasonal migration of nomadic tribes cuts across the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir and the States of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Therefore, inter-State and inter-district portability of their digital ration cards—just like mobile phone sim cards—should be introduced after taking into consideration their unique migration patterns.”

Mukhtar Ahmed, secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Advisory Board for development of Gujjars and Bakarwals, said: “As of now, there are no clear directions from the government regarding transportation facilities. But the administration must allow the migrating nomadic families to use vehicles as they have been facing a lot of hardship.”

Ahmed wrote to all the 10 District Magistrates of Jammu region (Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Udhampur, Kishtwar, Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, Reasi and Ramban) on April 16 requesting permission for the pastoral nomadic communities to migrate with their animals. “…it has been learnt that the officials of the Forest Department have not included pet animals like buffaloes/cows (milch animals) in the prescribed format. This has created a lot of inconvenience to the migratory population. It is, therefore, requested that necessary directions be issued from your office to the designated authority of the Forest Department for inclusion of pet animals as per the past practice after proper verification so that the issue is resolved.

“Still, we are receiving regular complaints that officials in some districts are not permitting nomadic families to migrate along with their bovine animals. They should be permitted after proper verification by panchayat representatives, and revenue and forest officials. They should not be suspected of bovine smuggling….

“A few days ago, over a dozen families were stranded near Atal Setu Bridge in Basholi, Kathua. These families had come from Punjab. Later, on my request the District Magistrate of Kathua allowed them to migrate to highland pastures in small groups on foot.”

About the availability of veterinary doctors along the migration route, Ahmed said: “The Chief Secretary had given clear instructions that all arrangements must be ensured for their smooth seasonal migration. Officials from the Department of Animal and Sheep Husbandry had also attended that meeting. But the COVID-crisis has given an escape route to many.”

On the issue of ration, he said: “The government is taking the required steps to provide free ration to nomadic families during lockdown as per the directions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But that is not going to be a long-lasting solution. The larger issue still remains unresolved like many of their other problems.”

As the government scrambled to ensure their smooth migration, Naksha Bibi and Pervez Mohammad were struggling to cope with fear, the kind nomadic families have experienced at the height of militancy. “We are quite afraid this time. We walk only 20 km in the morning hours and another 20 km in the evening. Kharpora village in Larnoo tehsil of Kokernag area, where we camp during our migration, has been declared a coronavirus red zone. So, we are moving at a very slow pace. We have to cross Margan Top before the rainy season begins.”

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