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The way they live now

Fear, discrimination and neglect rule the lives of Gujjars and Bakarwals, a community in crisis in Jammu and Kashmir

A file photo of a tribal family. The population of Gujjars and Bakarwals is highest in the Jammu region. Photo: HT
A file photo of a tribal family. The population of Gujjars and Bakarwals is highest in the Jammu region. Photo: HT

She was a beautiful, intelligent eight-year-old girl from a Bakarwal Muslim nomadic family of Kootha village in Kathua district, near Jammu. Her mother wanted her to become a doctor. On 10 January, the little girl had gone out to graze horses in the nearby Rasana forest, a few hundred metres away from her home. She didn’t return. A week later, her body was found in the bushes in the forest. She had been starved, drugged and gang raped, even in a “Devisthan", before being killed, police investigation would reveal three months later.

The assault made headlines, triggering widespread outrage and leading to protests across states, as chilling details of the crime and the conspiracy became known once the crime branch of the Jammu and Kashmir police filed an 18-page chargesheet in the court of the chief judicial magistrate in April. According to the crime branch investigators, the rape and murder were part of a larger conspiracy planned by the accused to frighten and drive out the Bakarwal nomads.

Among the eight accused are “HC (head constable) Tilak (Raj) and SPO (special police officer) Deepak Khajuria", who were “against the settlement of Bakarwals in Rasana, Kootah and Dhamyal area" and “had already discussed this issue with Sanji Ram (caretaker of the Devisthan) to chalk out a strategy for dislodging the Bakarwals from the area," the chargesheet says. “During investigation," it adds, “it has become abundantly clear that the accused had a reason to act against the Bakarwal community and hence the conspiracy...." The investigators also allege that the main accused, Sanji Ram, “kept on motivating the members of his community in the area not to provide land for grazing or any other kind of assistance".

Bakarwal children outside a makeshift tent. Photo: HT

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, who has knowledge of the nomadic community in the region, believes the girl’s body was used by the accused as a weapon to further their political and communal agenda. Amit Kumar, a research scholar and PhD candidate in the department of history at Delhi University, feels that in the protests following the crime, there was an attempt to downplay the victim’s identity as a Bakarwal Muslim.

Kumar, who hails from Jammu’s Kishtwar district and has covered the area for magazines, speaks of a growing rift between the Bakarwals and upper-caste Hindus of Jammu over control of land and forest resources. In April 2017, a Bakarwal family was attacked by a mob while herding cows and horses at a checkpoint outside Reasi town, and, in August, an elderly Gujjar man was beaten up and his possessions stolen in Rajouri district of Jammu. Some Hindu groups, he says, have been claiming there is an attempt to change Jammu’s demography. “Rohingya Muslims and Gujjar Bakarwals (the Bakarwals are a subgroup of Gujjars) were being portrayed as outsiders trying to change the demography," Kumar says. “It was this intersectionality of ethnicity, class, nation, religion, gender—not just the lust of a few men—that raped and murdered the girl."

Similarly, Kumar says, a different narrative came out of Kashmir—an attempt to normalize Kashmiri-Gujjar Bakarwal relations. “Unfortunately, that is not true," he says. “Gujjar Bakarwals and ‘lower-caste’ Muslims have remained marginal forces in Kashmir politics, be it in the mainstream or among pro-azadi groups, and no sloganeering will change that."

History of neglect

The ghastly crime has also brought to the fore the marginalized state of the nomadic Gujjar Bakarwal community, which continues to be deprived of forest and lands rights, proper healthcare, education for their children, and grazing lands for their livestock. A 2004 survey by the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation (TRCF), which works with Gujjars, found that 67% of the nomadic Gujjar population in Jammu and Kashmir lives below the poverty line (Kashmir Times, 2004).

Gujjar Bakarwals comprise the third-largest community in Jammu and Kashmir, constituting about 11.9% of the population as per the 2011 census. The community believes its population percentage is higher, as the census survey in 2011 did not take into account the nomadic people who were away in the upper reaches of the state to graze their livestock, on which their livelihood depends. The population of Gujjars and Bakarwals, spread over 21 districts of the state, is highest in the Jammu region, followed by Kashmir valley.

The community’s livelihood is dependent on good grazing grounds.

Javaid Rahi, founder-secretary of the TRCF, says grazing lands have shrunk considerably over the years. “Almost all the available grazing areas for the community belong to the government,"says Rahi, adding that whenever the state government needs land for hospitals and other construction purposes, these grazing areas are allotted. “In border regions, too, when the army needs land for camps, they are given grazing land used by the nomad communities for their animals."

Owing to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in the Constitution under Article 370, Rahi says the state has not adopted the Forest Rights Act, 2006. In the absence of forest rights, he says, around 12 Scheduled Tribe communities in the state are facing hardships, including eviction by the forest department. A sizeable chunk of the community is still landless, without proper shelter, and “deserves dwelling rights on forest lands which they are using as traditional inhabitants since centuries", says Rahi.

Mukhtar Ahmed Chowdhary, secretary of the state advisory board for the development of Gujjars and Bakarwals, says that while the Central law is not applicable in Jammu and Kashmir, the state government had tabled its own state forest rights Bill in the last assembly session. It is yet to come up for discussion. “A cabinet committee has also been created for framing a state tribal policy under the chairmanship of the deputy chief minister and including other ministers," Chowdhary adds.

Gujjar Bakarwals and ‘lower-caste’ Muslims have remained marginal forces in Kashmir politics, be it in the mainstream or among pro-’azadi’ groups, and no sloganeering will change that.- Amit Kumar

Zahoor-ud-din, an Urdu scholar and former registrar of Jammu University, a Gujjar himself, says successive state governments have shown little interest in the welfare of Gujjar Bakarwals. “This community has a contribution in the state’s economy as it supplies milk and meat products, but healthcare isn’t provided to it by the government and there are no shelters for their livestock," he says. “All their grazing lands are either occupied by the army or given away by the government for the construction of commercial structures. Where will they take their animals to graze in such a scenario?"

A research paper, Demography, Social And Cultural Characteristics Of The Gujjars And Bakarwals, A Case Study Of Jammu And Kashmir (2014), in the Journal Of Humanities And Social Science by Mohd. Tufail, postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, says the practice of transhumance in the community is the biggest impediment in ensuring formal education for their children. In October, they migrate to the upper reaches in search of grazing grounds and move down to the plains in April, when temperatures rise in Jammu. “Low population densities resulting in long distances to schools; lack of teachers willing to live in the hard conditions found in these areas, resulting in teacher shortages as well as poorly motivated teachers; lack of parental resources to pay for schooling costs such as uniform, books, stationery, etc.; migratory lifestyle and dependence on livestock economy, which compels children to spend long periods away from their residential places and thus keeps them away from school." Tufail adds that frequent seasonal migration is “one of the biggest hurdles in the education of the Gujjar Bakarwal community". The Gujjar Bakarwals have adjusted themselves to the vagaries of climate, availability of water and grazing grounds.

Virender Koundal, an assistant professor at the department of economics, University of Jammu, has studied poverty among the Gujjar Bakarwal population. His case study found a large section of the nomadic community in the state living below the poverty line. “The survey says the Gujjars of Himalayan ranges are without sufficient food, fodder for their animals and lack basic facilities like proper shelter, health, drinking water, education, etc. Moreover, most of the nomads are not aware of schemes by the state and Central governments for their upliftment and poverty eradication," Koundal writes in the abstract of his paper on poverty among the nomads, published in 2012. “These marginalized nomadic communities aren’t taken seriously by the government while making policies, as a result they don’t avail themselves of the benefits of various state schemes," Koundal says. The lack of a fixed address also creates impediments to accessing benefits.

Fear factor

Mohammad Sayid Bhat, an assistant professor at the department of education in the Central University of Kashmir, who studies tribal education in the state, says the Kathua incident will have far-reaching consequences for an already dispossessed community. “It has created fear in them and in the long run it will affect their psyche, as they will hesitate to move freely in pastures," he says.

The Gujjar Bakarwals are far, far behind in education, he adds, “because our education system has not attracted them at all." For example, he says, the children of the community “do not have the leverage of curriculum in their mother tongue granted to them by the Constitution under Article 350." Most of the teachers working in the schools where Gujjar and Bakarwal children are enrolled are not from within the community, says Bhat—this leads to an increase in dropout percentages. In Jammu and Kashmir, there are six girls’ hostels which support secondary-level education for about 600 girls of the Gujjar Bakarwal community. “But as per the latest census figures, the women population of Gujjar Bakarwals is over 7,00,000, which means that for roughly 12,000 girls (aged 7-18), the state government is providing education to only one from the community," says Rahi.

Chowdhary adds that the thrust of the state advisory board for Gujjars and Bakarwals is also on spreading education among the community as the literacy rate among it is the lowest (about 25%) among all tribes in the state. “We have 23 hostels functioning in the state, especially for education of children (both boys and girls) of the Gujjar Bakarwal community, and many girls’ hostels are also being upgraded by the state’s tribal affairs ministry," he says.

Bhat Iqbal Majeed, who teaches in the department of sociology and social work at Central University, Jammu, says the story of Gujjars and Bakarwals has remained one of marginalization, social exclusion, poverty and illiteracy. “Capitalistic growth deprived them of their traditional niche. Further, with just a few elite representations in political circles, the larger population of Gujjars and Bakarwals continued to remain in slumber and destitution," he adds. “The discrimination on the basis of identity not only manifests as marginalization at the social level but also in terms of institutional marginalization."

He says the official census data also reflects further marginalization of the nomad community on other indicators—it has the lowest literacy rate in the state. “It is surprising that the tertiary literacy rate among Bakarwals is just 1%," says Majeed. The number of people from this community who have graduated is “miserably low".

Basharat Chowdhary, a Gujjar social activist from Anantnag in southern Kashmir, who is also a member of the All Tribal Coordination Committee (ATCC), recently visited Rasana village. He says the Gujjar Bakarwals there had been living in fear long before the tragedy. “I came to know there that other communities even stopped drinking water supply in places (such as Rasana) where Gujjars and Bakarwals lived as they don’t want them there," he claims. Over the years, he says, the lack of school education has made the children of the community vulnerable to exploitation. “Had that not been the case, maybe the eight-year-old girl would have been in school like other children and not out that day to graze horses..." Chowdhary trails off.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.

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