Print edition : July 02, 2004

A summer storm inflicts on the impoverished Gujjar community of shepherds a heavy loss of livestock.

Text and photographs: PRAVEEN SWAMI recently in the Pir Panjal

"IT wants blood," muttered Mohammad Hussain Gujjar, pushing his reluctant herd across the violent stream of water gushing from the Zaz Nar glacier, "this damned river always wants blood." A few hundred feet downstream lay the battered remains of a sheep, evidence that the Zaz Nar had claimed its toll only a short while earlier.

A herd of sheep and goats prepares to cross the Zaz Nar, at its origin from a glacier.-

On April 29, the worst storm in living memory battered the Pir Panjal range, dumping upwards of seven feet of snow in under a day. Gujjar herdsmen, who take their herds across the mountains from the plains of Jammu into Kashmir each summer, were caught unprepared. Upwards of 10,000 head of livestock are believed to have perished in the storm, perhaps a tenth of the strength of the herds that were then perched on the mountains. With their attention focussed on the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, neither the State government nor the media paid much attention to the disastrous impact of the storm on the impoverished community. If it had not been for the large presence of the Indian Army personnel on the mountains, as part of a new community liaison and security initiative, the hundreds of people trapped in the blizzards would have met the same fate as their sheep.

A soldier checks a Gujjar family's identification.-

For hundreds of years, Gujjar herdsmen have driven their sheep, goats, buffaloes and horses up from Rajouri and Poonch across the Pir Panjal, stopping on the high mountain pastures in early spring before moving on to grazing grounds across the Kashmir Valley. Perhaps the busiest route heads from Thanamandi and Surankote to Chandi Marh, through the forest of Poshana and then over the gentle, 3,182-metre Pir Panjal pass into the Kashmir Valley. Footpaths carved from rock and giant arched culverts still bear evidence that parts of this route were used by the Mughal armies across the Pir Panjal. Yet what is now known as the Mughal Road was in use well before the Empire's forces first pushed across it. It was - and is - a people's road, used by the Gujjars and itinerant mystics; small-time merchants and traders carrying silk, saffron and wood from the south Kashmir town of Shopian to markets in Punjab.

Buffaloes graze near a lake in the Hirpora forests.-

When the weather warmed up in mid-April, the first Gujjar herds headed across the mountains. "The poorest moved first," recalls Faqr Din, "people like us. Others, whose children go to school or whose sons have government jobs, were waiting for the vacations. Others wanted to vote. We hoped to get to the pastures early so our animals could get the best grass in the first flush of spring." Without warning, the weather closed. Over a hundred families were trapped in the middle of the day-long trek between the Pir Panjal pass and the nearest town, Hirpora. Some decided to drive through the snow in the hope of reaching lower ground; others left their animals in the open, huddling in the stone dhokes built as summer shelters for Gujjar families. Either way, the herds were cut down. Army records show that 17 families that live in one cluster of dhokes in the Dubjan area, for example, lost 136 sheep, 113 goats, 53 buffaloes and cows, and 20 horses - a fifth of their herd, and a cash loss of well over Rs.1,250,000.

A view of the military camp at the Sokh Serai near the Pir Panjal pass.-

The State government did little by way of help. Emergency rations sent up to Hirpora never made their way into the mountains; they ended up in local shops instead. No one even thought to ship up fodder, desperately needed by the starving animals. "Our only help was the Army unit at Dubjan," recalls Abdul Gani, "which gave us rations, blankets and fuel." Soldiers also pitched in with medical supplies, treating dozens of cases of frostbite and pneumonia, along with a minor epidemic of conjunctivitis, which broke out among families huddled together with their animals in the crowded dhokes. "My children," recalls Mohammad Akbar, the sarpanch of Dubjan, "were out on horseback when the storm came. The animal slipped on a precipice and both of them were badly hurt. An Army medical attendant stitched their injuries and kept them inside the camp until they could be evacuated." Today, seven-year-old Mohammad Tariq and his five-year-old brother Mohammad Shamim are recovering at home.

Crossing a log-bridge over the Rambiara river, near the Sokh Serai.-

Not everyone was so lucky. Abdul Husain walked out into the cold, hoping to coral his sheep back to the Dubjan dhoke. His body was found days later. His wife, Bijan, and four children, are yet to receive any form of government assistance. Had he died in a bomb blast or gunfire, Husain would have received cash compensation and his wife or children a guaranteed government job. Across the Pir Panjal, herdsmen have received promises that they will be compensated for their losses in the storm. No auditors, however, have so far arrived to verify claims, and there has been no word whether the State government will accept Army-issued certificates of animal losses. Most of the families trapped in the storm have now moved off the Pir Panjal, travelling on to their final summer pastures. No one knows how the cash-strapped government will meet compensation claims - and how those who deserve compensation will be traced.

Gujjar children at play on the Dubjan meadow.-

For the Gujjar community, the storm losses could not have come at a worse time. Improved education and new opportunities have brought gains to some within the community, and many Gujjars have now found jobs not just in Jammu and Kashmir but also in Mumbai and West Asia. For most within the community, however, changing times have meant little but hardship. Pressure on land in Kashmir has increased and disputes over pasture with local residents have sharpened. Some have turned to purchasing land in the plains of Jammu and northern Punjab, but there too economic competition and communal chauvinism often make existence precarious. Then, although Gujjars have considerable animal wealth, there is no organised marketing system for market their milk products or animal hides. Only the relatively poor within the community now continue to make the summer crossing across the Pir Panjal. "When I was a child," says Mohammad Husain, "there would be twice as many people on the mountains as you see now."

A cattle market in Hirpora, where animals from the hills are sold to buyers in the Kashmir Valley.-

THE Aliabad Serai stands three hours from the Pir Panjal pass, part of the string of magnificent shelters built along the Mughal Road by Emperor Nuruddin Mohammad Jehangir between 1605 and 1627. It is possible that Jehangir would have stopped in the area had he not died at Chingus, just short of the Pir Panjal, on his last, incomplete journey to Kashmir. Now, the Serai is again serving its primary purpose: dozens of Gujjar families sheltered here during the April storm, the massive stone walls of the Serai guarding them against certain death from exposure.

A Gujjar family rebuilding its storm-damaged dhoke at Dubjan.-

dhoke

The Aliabad Serai's northern wing has all but collapsed, the stones probably looted to build dhokes nearby, and its floor is covered with several feet of dung. For all the damage, though, the building remains a majestic example of the architecture of the time. Like the Sokh Serai, which is now an Indian Army outpost a few hours' walk away, the Aliabad Serai would have most certainly been used by the retinues accompanying Mughal emperors and generals on their way to Kashmir. Nearby Hastwanj, local legend has it, was the place where Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir's cohorts of battle elephants went into the Yanga Nar river. Graffiti on the walls of its rooms records the passage of modern armies. One scrawl, on the magnificent archway that leads into the Serai, informs travellers that the Border Security Force used the building as a camp until 2002. Another message, stuck up by the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 1999, when Indian troops had been pulled out of the area during the Kargil War, claims the monument for Pakistan.

Illegally felled trees in the Hirpora forests, a protected wildlife sanctuary.-

Not much, it is clear, has changed along the Mughal Road in recent times. Prior to the outbreak of terrorism in 1988, the State government was engaged in pushing a modern road across the Pir Panjal, a development that would have halved the journey time from southern Kashmir to Rajouri and Poonch. Successive governments have since promised to resume work on the Mughal Road, but nothing has actually been done. A rusting bulldozer trapped on a stone face halfway from Hirpora to Aliabad shows just how far the Rs.1.5-billion works proceeded before the violence broke out. Several of the concrete bridges built along the road, notably across the raging Rambiara river, have been washed away since. In stark contrast, the stone culverts put up to ford mountain streams during Jehangir's time are for the most part intact. The one Serai built after Aliabad, a State government shelter on the Pir Panjal pass, has almost disappeared, its roof stolen by someone in need of tin sheets and iron girders.

A Gujjar dhoke at Dubjan.-

dhoke

Part of the problem is that the state apparatus simply cannot function at gunpoint. Work on the Mughal Road stalled after terrorists began targeting contractors for protection money, a development that also terminated work on roads from southern Kashmir into the district of Doda. Terrorist violence also scared many Gujjars off the mountains for good. Last summer, for example, four terrorists kidnapped Chiri Gujjar, the daughter of Sher Mohammad Gujjar, on the eve of her wedding in Dubjan. "They wanted the cash the bridegroom was wearing on his ceremonial garland," says Makhan Din Gujjar, "as well as a tribute of butter, goats and chicken." Chiri Gujjar was held for three days while a ransom was negotiated. This summer, the family has chosen not to come up. Efforts made to address the problem in the past generally came unstuck because of one crisis or the other. Troops were pulled off the Pir Panjal during the Kargil War, for example, or again during the 2001-2002 near-war crisis with Pakistan. Terrorists responded by burning down dhokes used by soldiers and targeting Gujjars who were believed to have helped them.

Gujjar children huddle for warmth inside the Allabad Serai.-

Unsurprisingly, almost anyone supposed to work in the hills - schoolteachers hired to work at mobile schools for the Gujjars, forest guards, veterinarians - have been reluctant to do so. The Army has moved to change things this year, with an ambitious new community liaison scheme. Gujjars leaving Rajouri and Poonch have been issued photo-identification, which entitles them to medicines, veterinary support and emergency rations when they reach what are known as Receiving Area Support Points (RASP) of the Army on the Kashmir side of the Pir Panjal. In May, the RASP at Dubjan handled over 200 Gujjar families a day, helped by veterinary staff sent up by the State government. "I haven't come up here for the last two years," says Animal Husbandry Department employee Shabbir Ahmad, "but this year, the Army's presence has made it possible for me to do my work."

Women carry water past a ruined portion of the Serai.-

With luck, the Army presence ought to also help address the rampant environmental degradation in the area. Pine trees across the Mughal Road can be seen with deliberately damaged trunks. Once the trees fall, they can be legally harvested - a simple ruse to evade legal restrictions on felling in Kashmir's forests.

A Gujjar family.-

What then of the Gujjars' future? Towering above the encampment at the Sokh Serai is the mountain of Begum Pathri, where myth has it that a Mughal commander's last letter to his beloved was carried by the winds. The Gujjars can only hope someone gets their message of woe.

A view of the Allabad Serai, on the Pir Panjal range.-

Indian soldiers on the Pir Panjal seem to have done their bit. The last encounter in the Aliabad Serai area was in April last year, when two Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists were shot dead. The RASP system also seems to have put in place the rudiments of a civil support network, which will guarantee Gujjars some basic assistance in their journey across the Pir Panjal. The Army, however, cannot solve the community's major problems. Building the road across the Pir Panjal will help lay the infrastructure for real Gujjar development, but more is needed - cooperatives which can sell milk and milk products to urban consumers in Jammu and Srinagar; quality veterinary support; a network of schools that allows children to receive an education on the move. For hundreds of years, the Gujjars have battled both the elements and history. This summer's storm, though, is just a metaphor for the larger challenge to their future.

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