A struggle for survival

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Gujjars with their herd of sheep near Sopore in the Kashmir Valley. - V.V. KRISHNAN

Gujjars with their herd of sheep near Sopore in the Kashmir Valley. - V.V. KRISHNAN

The Scheduled Tribes continue to be politically and economically weak, mainly owing to the apathy of the State government.

ON the afternoon of December 1, a group of tribal people belonging to the Gujjar community from the Pahalgam Assembly segment of southern Kashmir waited for long at the civil secretariat in Srinagar for an appointment with the Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Even though they belonged to Mufti's constituency, security personnel denied them permission to meet him on the grounds that their names did not figure in the appointments calendar.

The Chief Minister had promised the tribal people, during his last visit to the constituency, that he would consider releasing a grant of Rs.21 lakhs sanctioned by the previous government. This had prompted them to travel the distance of over 300 kilometres to the State capital. The amount was due to them since 1997 when they had run special emergency supplies on ponies in difficult weather conditions to rescue Amarnath Yatra pilgrims after landslides caused the death of 51 pilgrims. Endless deputations to the district administration for the release of the grant had failed. But their hopes soared when the new Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from their constituency became the Chief Minister.

The incident is symbolic of the travails of the tribal communities of Jammu and Kashmir, which are battling at various forums to get their voice heard on the State's complex political, social and economic scenes. Tribal people form over 11 per cent of the State's population as per Census 2001; this is more than the national average of 8.08 per cent.

Tribal struggle in Jammu and Kashmir is a recent phenomenon when compared with that in other States. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's tribal policy enjoined that tribal rights on land and forests should be respected, that the people should develop along the lines of their own genius, that a team of their own people should be built up to do the work of administration, that tribal areas should not be overadministered or overwhelmed with a multiplicity of schemes, and that results should not be judged by statistics or the amount of money spent but by the quality of human character evolved. The State today is far away from meeting these benchmarks.

Jammu and Kashmir has 12 Scheduled Tribes - Balti; Beda; Bot and Boto; Brokpa, Drokpa, Dard and Shin; Changpa; Garra; Mon; Purigpa; Gujjar; Bakerwal; Gaddi; and Sippi - spread over three regions, that is, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh .

Some of the tribes - like Gujjars and Bakerwals (all of them are Muslims) - received tribal status during the tenure of the Chandra Shekhar government in 1991. Many analysts had then described the constitutional recognition as a big step that would alter the political dynamics of the State.

It was thought that the decision would pave the way for the provision of political reservation for S.Ts in the State Constitution. Scheduled Castes enjoy seat reservation in the Legislative Assembly as per Article 47 of the State Constitution enacted in 1957, but S.Ts have been denied this privilege by the political elite. Fault lines have started appearing within parties on this issue. For instance, in the last Assembly session when Javed Rana, a tribal National Conference MLA, raised the issue of political reservation for the tribal people, he was immediately silenced by the top leadership of his party. The situation is no different in other parties.

While the political elite reluctantly granted reservation for tribal people in the panchayats as per their proportion in the State population, it has refused to extend them the same facility in the Assembly. The leader of the Gujjar United Front, Shah Mohammad, says: "It is a tactical move by the political and economic elites, which has a vested interest in keeping the tribal people subjugated as they have done for centuries. By denying us reservation in the top echelons of power, they clearly want the status quo to be maintained."

As per the Indian Constitution, tribal people are entitled for reservation as per their proportion in the total population of a State. If this provision is applied in Jammu and Kashmir, a minimum of 11 Assembly segments will have to be reserved for S.Ts in the 87-member Assembly.

Although the tribal people in Jammu and Kashmir have several similarities with tribal people in the rest of the country, they do have their distinctions. A vast chunk of them are nomadic. For instance, Gujjars and Bakerwals are nomadic and are scattered all over the State. The Gaddi community (all Hindus) and the Sippi community (found in Kupwara) are also nomadic in nature.

The recently released Census invited a lot of criticism from the Gujjar community for the gross underestimation of its total strength by the enumerators. "A vast section of our (Gujjar) community is constantly on the move and the Census enumerators have not taken into account the total strength of our community. Secondly, the enumerators do not have any idea about the community's unique character and they have clubbed us with other communities," says Shah Mohammad.

Investigation by a board comprising Gujjars and Bakerwals, which the State government appointed, has proved their underestimation in the Census figures. For instance, according to Census figures, the total population of the tribal people in Handwara town in Kupwara district in the Kashmir Valley is 14, while the board has found that the number of tribal shop-owners alone here is 70.

Owing to their nomadic character, many tribal people do not vote as they cannot reach their polling booths in time. During his meetings with tribal leaders, former Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh had suggested nomadic tribes in India be given postal ballots as it is done in the Scandinavian countries.

The economic condition of the tribal people in the State is no better. Although their numerical strength is more than the national average, the State Cabinet has no separate Ministry to look after their affairs. Records show that welfare schemes for tribal people are poorly implemented. For instance, a special Central assistance of Rs.4,757.66 crores for the period 1997-2003 was granted to Jammu and Kashmir for a tribal sub-plan. The designated authority to allocate these funds is a government-appointed advisory body comprising Gujjars and Bakerwals. But the suggestions made by the body were accorded low priority and bureaucrats who were least aware of the ground realities had the final say.

For instance, the members of the advisory body had repeatedly asked the State government to build temporary sheds (which do not require much investment) for the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities on the higher pastures of the Pir Panjal, which would save the shepherds from precipitation and thunderstorms. The lax approach of the State government towards this was the main reason for the mammoth economic loss suffered by the communities last summer. More than 30,000 animals perished when unexpected snowfall in the last week of April lashed the higher pastures of the Pir Panjal where the communities move in the summer.

Delay in disbursing the much-needed relief (announced by the State government) in lieu of the losses suffered has caused the tribal community much hardship. Members of the community, who have descended as part of the seasonal movement to the plains in the winter, are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The matter was last discussed at a high-level meeting on June 5, 2004, official sources told Frontline.

Informed sources said that Rs.3 crores each was kept at the disposal of the Divisional Commissioners of the Jammu and Kashmir provinces for paying the relief. But the money could not be disbursed owing to delays at various levels in surveying the loss. A top official disclosed that the figures available with the Revenue Department and the Animal and Sheep Husbandry Departments did not match.

Many tribal people who descended to the lower areas of Budhal in Rajouri district describe the present time as the toughest phase in their lives. The economic self-sufficiency of the community has been lost. Chowdhary Hamid, a community member, says: "My seven cattle were lost and at present I have no source of livelihood. And this is the first time I have to depend on someone for my livelihood." Some of them have no money for medical treatment. Zakat Ali says: "I used to earn more than Rs.5,000 in summers after selling the wool of my goats and this used to be sufficient for my family's survival in winter. I lost my entire flock of 20 sheep. I need money to cure my son's stomach ailment but I have no money."

Sheep rearing, the traditional occupation of the tribal communities, is directly under attack as grazing routes known as Charagas in the upper hamlets of the Pir Panjal have become virtually barren. In the low-altitude areas of Rajouri-Poonch, inhabited by upper-caste Rajput Muslims, or even in areas across the Pir Panjal, ethnic Kashmiris have resented the presence of the tribal people near their agricultural fields. In the plains near the India-Pakistan border, the land mafia is partly instrumental in preventing the tribal people from using the land leased out to them by Auquaf (a body that monitors the land of Muslims who migrated from the State to Pakistan after 1947) every season for grazing. This year, the Auquaf body comprising elite Muslims demanded 10 times the money they charged last year. For instance, a piece of land that cost Rs.200 last year attracted a fee of Rs.2,400 this year.

This article is based on the writer's study on "Tribals of Jammu and Kashmir" under the Appan Menon award.

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