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Archive for August 2018

Kashmir’s nomadic Bakarwals are looking beyond their traditional wandering lives, reports Sonia Sarkar

UNEVEN GROUND: Bakarwals leave for higher altitudes with the onset of summer  

As a child Shahnawaz Chaudhary had no money to buy notebooks. He memorised lessons by writing them down on rocks with pebbles for chalk. In fact, when he got the news that he had passed his Class X examinations, he was busy grazing sheep in Mandhar of Poonch district in the Pir Panjal range, a good six-hour drive from Srinagar.

“It was the turning point of my life. I realised that even we can have a better life,” says Chaudhary, who is now editor-cum-culture officer at the government of Jammu and Kashmir’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

Chaudhary is one of those rare Bakarwals who dared to dream.

 

The term ” bakarwal” is a derivative of the word “bakri” or ” bakar” meaning goat or sheep. Bakarwals are nomadic Muslim tribes. In the summers, the Bakarwals travel from Jammu to Kashmir and sometimes all the way up to Ladakh. In October, they give a slip to the impending harsh winter and return to the plains of Jammu in search of green meadows and favourable climate for their livestock.

The eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered earlier this year, in the state’s Kathua district also belonged to this community. According to activist Talib Hussain, who belongs to the community and has been fighting for justice for the girl, Bakarwals are now looking for a life beyond shuttling between the hills and the plains. Hussain [he has since been accused of rape and arrested] says, “Living the life of nomads should not remain a compulsion for us. We should be able to look for opportunities to study and be successful professionally.”

In 1991, Bakarwals were recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the state. But, as Hussain points out, they have never enjoyed the benefits or concessions in education or jobs that ought to have come with this. But now, the young of the community are increasingly deciding to take charge of their own destiny.

Hussain has been walking barefoot for over seven months as part of his campaign for implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act in Jammu and neighbouring areas to ensure that his own community has a better life.

He says, “Since the Act is not implemented in Jammu, we have no dwelling rights on forest lands which have been our traditional habitat for generations. What’s more, we are barely left with any forest land to travel through; we are facing eviction.”

Bakarwals are often clubbed with Gujjars, another nomadic tribe. Together, the two constitute around 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, according to the 2011 census.

The Bakarwals, however, feel that this clubbing together has been detrimental to their case. Says Chaudhary, “A sizeable number of Bakarwals is still landless and without proper shelter. They have no idea of what is happening in the larger world. On the contrary, most Gujjars are studying in schools and also have a secure livelihood.”

Talib Hussain was desperate to study but had little opportunity in his home state. He fled to Delhi, worked at a property dealer’s office and joined a government school. But he had to go back, as he couldn’t sustain himself for long. Later, he got into a state-run hostel for Bakarwals and Gujjars. “But very few Bakarwal students succeed in getting into these,” he claims.

Humera Chowdhary, a 26-year-old dentist, shares her experience. She says, “As children, some of us have had to live away from our parents for the sake of getting an education. Our parents travelled for six months. I could see my parents because they survived the harsh weather conditions and the dangerous hilly terrain, but there were many who didn’t see their parents the next season as they failed to make it. Had there been functional mobile schools in every district, Bakarwal children could at least be with their parents.”

Humera and others who have had enjoyed better fortune are now thinking in terms of payback. Rafaqat Hussain Khatana is studying to be a doctor at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. He says, “I would like to run mobile clinics for Bakarwals. They sleep and eat wherever they get space, it is important to see how to make them more aware of hygiene and sanitation. Plus, providing them mobile medical facilities would improve the quality of life.”

No one wants to sacrifice one good thing for another, but sometimes to have both is difficult, if not near impossible. Chaudhary tells us he misses his old wanderer’s life. Occasionally he even takes off from work to spend some days roaming the Pir Panjal range with the people of his kafila.

He says in hushed tones, “I miss the charm of the old life.”

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