The nomadic pastoralists of Jammu and Kashmir, also known as the Gujjar-Bakarwal community are a transhumance community of the Himalayas.
They undertake a biannual migration with their flock between the pastures of Kashmir and Ladakh during summers, and the plains of Jammu in winters.
Historically, they have been known for their immense knowledge of the ecosystems that they traverse.
Across their migratory routes, their daily activities benefit the environment as they: conserve local soil and water, seasonally maintain the grasslands, regulate the frequency of forest fires by limiting excessive growth, and keep invasive plant species in check by weeding them out.
Despite their symbiotic relationship with the environment, they are falsely blamed for biodiversity destruction by the government agencies, especially the Forest Department, leading to policy making that goes against the members of the community.
These policies favour sedentism, which goes against the nature of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community.
Today, the nomadic lifestyle of the community is considered backward by the state as it does not rely on private ownership of land, which is considered modern within the Indian socio-economic framework of land use.
This clash of ideologies between the nomadic community and the neo-liberal state has led to the community facing backlash in the form of sociopolitical exclusion and harassment, under the pretext of development.
This has gotten worse during the Covid-19 outbreak, as the government guidelines are not inclusive of the Gujjar-Bakarwals.
As Afreen Faridi, a PhD scholar in the department of law and governance at JNU, Delhi, writes, “Since the pandemic began, there has been an exponential increase in the number of administrative and social limits placed on the community’s mobility, so much so that the socio-economic consequences have been irreversible for many members.”
The Muslim identity of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community has lead to stereotyping, harassment and mass evictions, which have been on the rise since 2014.
As Shahid Ayoub, a PhD scholar at Kashmir University from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community who has worked on the ground, spreading awareness on Forest Acts within his community, said in an interview:
“In recent times the government has been focused on how to evict people with increased effect as polarisation throughout the country was on the rise. The brunt was faced by the muslim community in Jammu, especially the nomads that spend six months in kashmir and then they migrate to Jammu.”
The J&K forest administration has been sending eviction notices with a short response time period in the highlands of Kashmir. The local administration even tried evicting them without notices, which led to attacks on the members of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community, leaving several hurt.
There have been reports of terrorising the community as was seen during the Asifa rape case in 2019, wherein an 8-year-old girl from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community was brutally raped and murdered by politically-backed Hindu men.
There has been an increase in the cases of cow vigilantism in the Jammu region. There were reports of the nomadic community being excluded from the dairy business which caused economic distress within the community.
Faridi writes that, “Contrary to the central government’s claims of emancipating the nomadic community of J&K with the abrogation of Article 370, one has only witnessed increased marginalisation and disenfranchisement of these pastoralists.”
This can be seen with the new J&K Land Laws under which any land can be used for industrial purposes. Under the new set of laws, the government has allowed the armed forces to take over land in Kashmir after declaring it as “strategic”.
As Ayoub states, “Gujjar-Bakarwal community is the third largest ethinic group in J&K, but when it comes to political representation and social status, they are nowhere to be seen. They are equal stakeholders, but not seen as such.”
This lack of political representation has isolated the community from livelihood schemes and policies. It has prevented them from claiming insurance schemes and demanding compensations for the loss of their flocks in natural calamities.
In academic spaces, we see very few members of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community and the census shows a low literacy rate within the community. The education of children of the community has gotten worse during the pandemic.
As Faridi writes while explaining the impacts of public-private partnership models on the nomadic, pastoralist community of Kashmir, “The shift to online education has hardly considered their contexts of low digital literacy, unaffordable smart devices, and lack of internet access.” Under these circumstances, the pastoral children are being denied the right to education.
Poor access to healthcare has been another problem for the community during the lockdown. Increased dependency on digital solutions, including access to vaccination has exaggerated their marginalisation.
Without mobile internet and smartphones in the mountains, a majority of the members of the nomadic community remain invisible to the Indian vaccination programs.
As the Gujjar-Bakarwal community continues to be marginalised and alienated in the social, political and economical sense, we, as society, need to break the stereotypes against the nomadic community.
It is high time we realise that the Gujjar-Bakarwal community are the real stakeholders of the forest they inhabit, the government must take cognizance of the same by including the community in its policy making processes to ensure that their policies are fair, non-discriminatory and beneficial.