Why the 'Nationalist' Gujjar-Bakarwals of J&K Feel Betrayed by the Government
'Our youngsters cannot compete with the better educated tribal youths from other states'
The nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwal communities of Jammu and Kashmir were supposedly one of the biggest beneficiaries of the de-operationalistion of Article 370 which unilaterally removed the separate Constitution of the erstwhile state to merge it fully with India on August 5. The communities, however, are not quite rejoicing.
The twin tribes that practice transhumance are thought to constitute around 20% of the people of undivided J&K. Census 2011 pegs the number at around 10% but the community claims that most of the population being mobile couldn’t participate in the census exercise. These communities are now in a state of confusion, with mixed feelings about the government’s decision, ranging from betrayal to cautious optimism.
“Not even one person I met in Rajouri said they were happy with the decision,” says Mohammad Aarif, a PhD student from the Bakarwal community.
Aarif, 29, did his master’s from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and is now preparing for the civil services examination. He has traveled extensively across the country and is in awe of its diversity.
“The India I admire is one where different cultures, languages and religions thrive, with a sense of ‘Indianness’ binding us all together. Any attempt at assimilation could undermine the uniqueness of this great nation,” says Aarif.
“Other than that, the manner in which the step was taken leaves us feeling suspicious about the government’s intentions. In a democracy, governments listen to people, and take them into confidence before taking drastic decisions of such magnitude. They don’t gag their voices like this,” he adds.
Sadiq Chauhan, a former student leader of a Gujjar-Bakarwal forum in Jammu, takes the issue further and says that the government’s decision to detain their community leaders as though they are “separatists” has hurt their feelings.
“By arresting our leaders, along with Kashmiri mainstream leaders, they have risked antagonising all the people of the region. Hindu Dogras are pretending to be happy but privately they are also ruing the decision, which doesn’t fulfill their primary wish of separating from Kashmir. They are still under the shadow of Kashmiris,” Chauhan reasons.
Jammu-based senior journalist Zafar Choudhary who has authored The Kashmir Conflict and the Muslims of Jammu says that the tribals are set to gain the most “material benefits” from the decision. However, the “non-material benefits” revolving around the peoples’ politics and identity will depend upon how politics in the union territory shapes up in the coming days.
“So Article 370 is about the special status, that people from outside can’t come to the state, and what the people of the state are talking about is the unsettled nature of the Kashmir issue,” says Choudhary.
Barring the approximately 47,000 Gaddis in Bhadarwah of Doda district (Census 2011) all of whom are Hindus, the tribal communities of J&K are all Muslims.
Choudhary says that among all the Muslim communities of the state, Gujjars are the ones, at least since the 1960s, best reconciled with the status quo with India, and says there is no evidence that they have never questioned the state’s integration with the Union of India.
“But then, different members of the community are associated with different political parties, and how these political parties behave and operate another couple of months into the situation could affect their reaction,” he says.
Bakarwals primarily rear goats and sheep while Gujjars rear cattle. The two communities have a similar language and culture, and also intermarry. They are spread across all the districts of the state with concentrations in the Rajouri, Poonch, Reasi and Doda districts.
They are among the poorest communities in J&K, and didn’t even receive the benefits of reservation till the early 90s.
The government of India extended job and educational reservation to the tribals in 1991, when the separatist movement began gaining momentum in the Kashmir valley, in order to preclude any possibility of their joining it.
Three decades of government efforts to uplift the social-economic conditions of the people resulted in the formation of a small class of educated youth among the community, who managed to secure important positions in the administrative and security apparatus.
Despite these efforts, however, the proportion of illiterate, unemployed and landless people from the community remains far higher than the rest of the state’s communities.
Dr Mohammad Tufail writes in his research paper titled “Demography, Social and Cultural Characteristics of the Gujjars and Bakarwals: A Case Study of Jammu and Kashmir” that only 32% of Gujjars are literate, and just 23% of Bakarwals. In comparison the average literacy rate in J&K stood at 71%.
Since the August 5 declaration, the union government’s stated plan has been to set up industries and private businesses in the new union territory, to provide jobs to unemployed youth.
Tribal scholars however doubt that given the skill-sets of the Gujjar-Bakarwal youth, they would be a good fit for the kinds of commercial-sector jobs that might arrive in the region in near future.
Advocate Shah Mohammad belonging to the community says that with the dismantling of the state and its transformation into a union territory, young job aspirants from the community will have to now compete with those from other states.
“J&K being a UT now, Scheduled Tribe candidates from other states or UTs can also apply for the limited seats in government administrative posts here. Our youngsters cannot compete with the better educated and more socially advanced tribal youths from other states,” says Mohammad.
He also dismisses talk of political reservation as mere “hogwash” pointing out that nine candidates from the communities were already elected to the last state assembly.
“Political reservation is less significant because our candidates were already securing as many seats as they would after political reservation now. The larger concern is of the dilution of reservation in jobs, due to the possibility of candidates from other states applying for jobs based in J&K,” he says.
The tribals of J&K have long been asking for the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 in the state. The removal of the state’s Constitution paves the way for its implementation in the union territory.
Forest rights legislation was enacted in the country to protect the marginalised socioeconomic classes of citizens, particularly forest dwellers, as against big commercial developers.
The law was not extended to J&K as under the special status accorded to it by Article 370, all central laws must first be ratified by the state assembly.
Although former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had issued an order banning the eviction of nomads from any place without the prior approval of the state government’s Department of Tribal Affairs, to prevent the harassment of tribals in the name of anti-encroachment drives, the BJP which was a partner in the coalition government had reportedly objected to the order.
The issue gained pertinence in the backdrop of the rape and murder of a tribal girl in Kathua last year, where the accused, who belonged to the Hindu Dogra community, were allegedly trying to evict the Bakarwals from the forested area where they were residing.
Following the incident, the impression was created that the PDP government was attempting demographic change by settling Muslim Bakarwals in the forest areas of the Jammu region, a sentiment that goes against the relatively peaceful and harmonious coexistence of Hindu Dogras and Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwals in the region for decades.
Amit Kumar, a PhD researcher in the Department of History at Delhi University, says that despite the Forest Rights Act, tribals from across the country were being thrown out of their land, and same could well happen in J&K.
“Tribal rights get trampled despite forest laws. Things look much worse now because now you have unabated big corporates coming into J&K and taking over forest resources,” says Kumar, who hails from the Kishtwar district.
Kumar further says that tribals have already paid a heavy price in the state because of the insurgency, and the counter-insurgency measures applied by the army.
“Their traditional routes of travel have been curtailed due to the presence of militants and army camps in the area. When they use highways to visit their meadows, hundreds of cattle get killed every year due to road accidents, resulting in heavy economic losses. It is a curse for them to use the highways,” he adds.
“I don’t think much will change after the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. It could be even more disadvantageous to them, as the government is looking for the corporates to come into the region. So when the corporates come, where will these people go? They will look to the forest for its resources, which could lead to these communities’ displacement,” Kumar says.
He gives the example of states like Chattisgarh, where despite the law industrialists have exploited forest land on a large scale for profit.
Anita Sharma, assistant professor of sociology at the Shiv Nadar University, says that the Forest Rights Act is designed for a stationary population and hence the large numbers of Gujjar-Bakarwal people, who move periodically with their cattle and don’t settle in any place, are unlikely to benefit from it.
Kumar believes the problem goes deeper. “Having an act is one thing, implementing and executing it is different. Take the case of Special Economic Zones, which are supposed to be set up only in semi-arid zones with less fertile land. This is not always commercially feasible, so they are being created in every type of land. There are enough examples and more where the corporates have violated the law, and governments have helped them do it,” he says.
(Cover Photo: ZAFAR DAR for The Citizen)