IN HIS lifetime, 55-year-old Mian Nizam Din estimates, he has walked thousands of kilometres. This year, his three-year-old grand-daughter is doing the walk, covering a distance of nearly 300 km, up from Batti Bargarh village in Udhampur district to Warwan in Kishtwar, largely on foot. “She will do it like we do,” grins Nizam Din. “If we sleep on the rocks or on the ground, she will do so too… This is the life of a khanabadosh (nomad).”
With the state’s attention trained on the durbar move, a Rs 40-crore exercise that sees the administration shuttle between Jammu and Srinagar as per the season, Bakarwals like Nizam Din began their own journey in Jammu and Kashmir, similarly decided by the weather. As part of a practice that started centuries ago, and that could trace its geography to as far as Georgia, from where the ancestors of Bakarwals are believed to have migrated, around four lakh of them packed their meagre belongings, to move to the hills for the summer.
Only, this year, the movement of the Bakarwals too drew some attention. On April 20, alleged cow vigilantes attacked a Bakarwal family, migrating from Reasi to Kishtwar with their cows, leaving five injured, including an eight-year-old. While registering an FIR over the attack, police also filed a Prevention of Cruelty to Animals case against the Bakarwals.
‘Cow vigilantism’ had come to a tribe whose lives are almost indistinguishable from their livestock.
Together with the Gujjars, J&K’s other nomadic tribe, the Bakarwals make up the third largest population block in the state after the residents of Jammu and Kashmir regions speaking Dogri and Kashmiri respectively. They also inhabit an oasis largely untouched by the animosity of the two regions — until, they fear, now.
It’s 2 am on a Thursday, and Khalid Hussain, 27, of Batti Barigarh is loading the family’s rations, utensils, clothes and blankets onto the backs of over two dozen ponies. Tying the mouths of the bags, adjusting them on the patient ponies, Hussain works with practised ease. Outside, his cousin Qudesh, 32, is bringing the family’s sheep and goats out of their enclosures.
They work in the light of torches, like the dozen other Bakarwal families of the village. In the darkness of the forest around them, their kuchcha houses flicker like stars. Outside, the animals stir in the moonlight.
Hussain talks about the time a leopard killed his younger brother Muneer, in the forest of Dooru in 2015. The forest will fall on the way as the families make their way to their summer destination — Jabbal Nullah in Kishtwar, which is more than 7,000 ft above sea level.
Within two hours, 30 of the 50 Bakarwals in the village are off, along with 600 sheep and goats (which are marked with a blotch of colour for identification), and the ponies. Hussain, his mother Bibi, his uncle Nizam Din and his wife Razia, and some other relatives are part of the party. The youngest is Nizam Din’s granddaughter Ishat.
The 20 left behind include Hussain’s grandfather Haji Hussain, 90, the young children and those who are in school, with their mothers. They will start migrating towards the end of May, once the others have dropped anchor in the hills. The cows and buffaloes owned by the Bakarwals, reared by them for milk, are also left behind. Each family has two-three cow or buffaloes.
Hussain says they will take the heavier animals later as it is difficult to travel with so much livestock along with a large group of people. There is also greater pressure on the areas for pasture along the way if all the animals move together.
As they make their way out of Batti Barigarh using torches, praying that the dense jungle on either side doesn’t hide a leopard, monkey or snake, it’s Nizam Din’s turn to tell the story of a leopard, reportedly seen moving in the area recently. The animals threaten not just the Bakarwals but also their animals. However, Nizam Din assures, leopards don’t attack people in a group.
Still, they can’t take a chance, and spotting some of his goats straying away, Nizam Din whistles, a signal that they recognise. Apart from leopards, the 55-year-old says, they have to be careful that the animals don’t eat “panchfuli (a wild plant)” as that can cause their stomachs to swell. This year, he lost four-five goats this way, he says.
By 5.15 am, as the sky shows the first signs of light, the caravan has reached the Udhampur-Dhar road, where five trucks have been waiting for them since the night before. The children have also walked the 5-km distance without a break.
Hussain’s young, able-bodied cousins, Nzakat, Waqar Ali, Rashid and Ishfaq, had hastened ahead earlier, with the ponies, to wake up the drivers.
The trucks are loaded with the household articles and the herd, and most of the group, except Khalid and his cousins and the ponies, climb atop. Around 6 am, the trucks leave for Sanasar, nearly 100 km away.
The remaining five and the ponies will walk there, over the next three days, taking no breaks except for meals, or for the animals to feed. Getting the ponies onto the same trucks as the sheep and goats could have ended up hurting the smaller creatures. And the Bakarwals can’t afford hiring any more trucks.
By the time this group reaches Sanasar, the advance party has to figure out the logistics of their first halt. That includes figuring out suitable grazing areas for their cattle on the hill slopes around Sanasar. Once they have done that, they put down their belongings and the youngsters head out to collect firewood to cook meals.
This Friday evening though, there are unexpected showers. The elders make canopies out of large polythene sheets and the Bakarwals huddle under them with their belongings. At night, the women and children sleep under this shade, while the men keep guard against wild animals and thieves, battling the mercury that has dropped to 13 degrees Celsius. Nizam Din says there are foxes, bears and leopards around. Last year, a number of his sheep had been carried away by them.
After a couple of days, most of the Bakarwals proceed to Jabbal Nullah from here, but Nazakat, Waqar Ali, Rashid and Ishfaq return to Batti Barigarh. Nazakat is a teacher at a government-run mobile school for children of the Bakarwals there, Waqar is to re-appear in a paper of his BSc first year course in which he failed last year, while Rashid and Ishfaq are in Class 12 in a school in Udhampur. The four will migrate for the summer towards the end of May, with the rest of the party at Batti Barigarh.
From Sanasar, Hussain, Nizam Din and the others will walk through the forests to Ramban; load their cattle onto trucks again for Verinag, nearly 60 km away, across the Jawahar tunnel; and then cover the rest of the distance to Jabbal Nullah on foot.
By the time they reach, it will be nearly 40 days since they left Batti Barigarh.
One of the charges against the Bakarwals who were attacked at Reasi was that they had failed to produce “the district magistrate’s permission, required for transporting the animals”.
The Bakarwals say it is only over the past two-three years that they have been hiring vehicles, and not out of choice. The road between Ramban and Banihal, for example, is virtually one-lane, and letting animals move on foot can lead to traffic blockades, says Hussain. Since this is the only road link to the Valley, the authorities won’t allow it.
Besides, with the Forest Department fencing off many areas to protect cutting of trees, several places where the Bakarwals used to halt are now off-bounds, forcing them to cover the distance as quickly as possible. The road-widening work on between Jammu and Srinagar and landslides have further reduced the space available to walk along the road. “We can’t even stand along with our cattle at places,” says Hussain.
The Deputy Commissioner, Rajouri, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, says there is no formal government order requiring the Gujjars and Bakarwals to take permission to transport their cattle even on vehicles. However, those targeting the nomadic tribes fall back on general orders banning transportation of bovines from one district to another in the state without permission.
Nizam Din says they can barely afford the trucks. “It costs us Rs 15,000-20,000 per truck, each side. The truck operators have formed unions and, in the absence of any fixed rates, charge exorbitantly.”
There are 11 main routes that the Bakarwals and Gujjars take to highland pastures and back through the Jammu region, and these are identified by the Forest Department. The routes have been fixed for centuries. If someone violates them, clashes can result, often taking a bloody turn, says Deputy Commissioner Choudhary. In the highland pastures, however, there are no boundaries.
The Bakarwals talk of guards at forest checkposts extorting “rasoom (money)” in the name of damage caused to forests by their cattle. This ranges from Rs 200-500 per post, they claim.
It was while they were at one such forest checkpost, showing their papers, when the Reasi Bakarwals were beaten up.
The Batti Barigarh village where Hussain and family live for the winter has 200 families, most of them Hindus. The Bakarwals are Muslims, but that has rarely been a issue between the two communities.
The village has other concerns. Rameshwar Nath, 81, a retired Animal Husbandry Department employee, says, “The village has power supply but does not get tap water. The pipes were laid at Batti at a cost of Rs 6-7 crore six years ago. Even a 10,000-litre overhead storage tank was built, but the pipes continue to remain dry.”
While the village has a primary school and a high school, Nazakat, who studied up to Class 12, is the only staff at the primary school, for its 15 students. Now permanently stationed at Batti, the school began as a ‘mobile school’ for Bakarwal children. These one-teacher mobile schools are meant to take classes near hamlets of Gujjars and Bakarwals, and move along with the migrating tribes. However, officials admit that many over the years have become stationary.
Saddam Hussain complains that the mobile schools are anyway only up to Class 5, leaving students in higher classes with few options.
The Director Education, Jammu, puts the number of such mobile schools across the Jammu division at 217, with 8,587 students.
The government also provides for the care of the migrating Bakarwal livestock. Animal and Sheep Husbandry Departments set up camps along the routes to ensure vaccination and treatment, Director, Animal Husbandry Department, Dr S K Abrol says.
Rameshwar Nath says the Bakarwals started settling down in Batti Barigarh after 1975, when then chief minister, Sheikh Abdullah, gave the nomads rights to stay in the forests and also to use certain forest produce. Later, the Bakarwals started buying land next to the forest areas. “They are like our brothers now,” Nath says.
In fact, for the 90-odd days that the Bakarwals will be away in the higher lands, their Hindu neighbours will take care of their houses. Says Nazakat, “Wo samney Rajputon ke ghar hein, jatey samay unko bol dengey ki dhayan rakhein (See those Rajput homes. When we leave, we will tell them to keep an eye on our homes).”
Made of bricks with tin sheets for roof, the Bakarwal homes, like those around them, have direct-to-home TV connection, refrigerators and coolers. Nazakat says they will also give some of their “costly items” to neighbours for safe-keeping.
During their days away, in the hills, the Bakarwals live without any of these amenities, including power. Nizam Din insists they don’t miss it. “Wahan par hum aur humare yeh bherh-bakarian ek dusrey ke saharey time pass kartey hein (It’s only us and our livestock there).”
Hussain, however, admits there is a change. “Many of the youths get Hindi movies and songs uploaded on their phones. They charge their phones using solar batteries,” he says, fiddling with his touch phone.
There are other changes. Together, the Gujjars and Bakarwals number roughly 20 lakh, or 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe population of the state. Of them, only four lakh (three lakh of them Bakarwals) now continue the practice of migration twice a year, while the others have settled across the Jammu region. This process was hastened by the government permitting them to stay in the forest areas, as well as the desire of families to give their children education and a chance at government jobs.
In 1991, the Centre declared the Gujjars and Bakarwals STs, granting them 10 per cent reservation in jobs and promotions in the state government, and 7 per cent in Central government departments. At present, two ministers in the PDP-BJP government are Gujjars. Around a hundred Gujjars and Bakarwals are believed to be in the Kashmir Administrative Service while another 250 are in the Kashmir Police Service. However, most of these posts are held by Gujjars.
Of Hussain’s cousins, Waqar wants to join the Army, while Ishfaq wants to go to college after finishing high school.
Apart from the desire for education and jobs, many of the Bakarwals also settled down in Jammu region following the onset of militancy in 1989. Militants considered them pro-India for their role in the 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. One of them, Moulvi Ghulam Din, was awarded Ashok Chakra for ensuring that villagers didn’t support Pakistani guerrillas in the Sawjian sector during the 1965 war.
Following the 1971 war, a nomad woman, Mali Bi, was awarded for her tip-offs on Pakistani guerrillas in the Poonch area.
Beginning 1989, the militants didn’t view this favourably.
An influential Bakarwal of Udhampur, Chowdhary Anwar Phambra, points out that the other side too saw them with suspicion. “The militant infiltration routes to the Valley passed through areas inhabited by the Bakarwals. They would demand food, water and shelter from the Bakarwals. When the security forces came to know, they would round up the Bakarwals.”
Later, says Chowdhary Iqbal Phambra, the president of the Charwaha (shepherds’) Union, “The first major surrender of nearly 450 Kashmiri militants before then Union minister Rajesh Pilot in Kupwara district, in 1993-94, was organised by a Bakerwal.”
In 1999, it were the Bakarwals again who tipped off the Army about Pakistani infiltration, before the Kargil War.
The attack at Reasi comes in the midst of fresh fears. Recently, the Forest Department decided that a matto would carry photographs of the person to whom it was issued, and that only those in whose names allotment of a forest area had been made would get those permits. This was done in the name of checking smuggling of bovines to the Valley, which is banned and which is under fresh scrutiny in the PDP-BJP government.
Nizam Din says many a nomad family has this time left for highland pastures without a matto, including him and his two brothers, as the department didn’t issue them one citing the rule, leaving them vulnerable to attacks such as at Reasi.
Iqbal Phambra says they have approached Forest Minister Chowdhary Lal Singh, “but there has been no response”.
The Gujjars and Bakarwals are caught in the middle of the Jammu-Kashmir divide, says Javed Rahi, head of the NGO Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation that has been working with the two tribes. “In Kashmir, they are taken as pro-India, and in Jammu, because they are Muslims, they are seen as pro-separatists.”
The irony, Hussain laughs, is that they continue to migrate only for their livestock. “There is almost no grass available in the plains of Jammu during the summer, and in winter, it gets buried under snow in the hills.”
Nizam Din admits they often wonder how long they can go on. “But what else will we do? We know nothing else.”
This article first appeared in The Indian Express with the title ‘The Walk’