“Usey apney haath aur paun mein pata nahin tha, ki mera daayan haath kaun sa hai aur baayan haath kaun sa hai. Kabhi usney yeh nahin samjha ki Hindu kya hota hai aur Musalmaan kya hota hai (She couldn’t tell her arms from her legs, couldn’t tell which hand was right and which left. She never thought who was a Hindu, who a Muslim).”
The words of a distraught father on his daughter’s brutal gang rape and murder, as told to The Indian Express, sums up the disturbing angle behind one of the most gruesome crimes the nation has seen in recent times. The Bakarwal community, to which the eight-year-old belonged, is a Muslim pastoral tribe situated in Jammu and Kashmir, and along with the other tribal Muslim Gujjar group called Banihara form the third largest community in the state. While the Baniharas deal in dairy farming, the Bakarwal herd sheep and goats. A nomadic tribe, the Bakarwals are often recognised by the hundreds of kilometers long journey they take with their cattle every summer to Kashmir and Ladakh and back to Jammu in the winters. While the incident and what followed, has revealed much about the communal divide that exists in the valley, it is interesting to reflect upon the religious identity of the Bakarwals, wherein we find an interesting blend of Hindu-Muslim theological systems.
Bakarwal Gujjars and a Hindu-Muslim identity
The Bakarwals are known to be part of the larger ethnic group known as Gujjars who dominate large parts of Northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Interestingly, the Gujjars in different parts of the subcontinent variously follow Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. In Jammu and Kashmir, the group practices Islam, but was listed as a Scheduled Tribe in 1991. However, despite professing the Islamic faith, anthropological study of the community shows that they have retained large parts of the Hindu belief system followed by Gujjars across the country.
The Gujjars of Jammu and Kashmir, essentially the Baniharas and the Bakarwals, are a migratory group. It is difficult to ascertain the precise date of their migration, but a plausible theory is that they moved to the hilly terrain from the plains of Punjab in response to insufficient grazing facilities, increasing population and religious persecution. Another theory also states that the Gujjars moved to Jammu and Kashmir from Rajputana and Kathiawar owing to a serious famine that broke out in the region.
Having broken away from the Gujjar population in the plains, however, they retained intrinsic cultural ties with them nonetheless. “They have a common history, culture, ethnic affinities beliefs and languages with the Hindu, Sikhs and Muslim Gujjars of the Indian plains,” writes Professor K. Warikoo in his work, “Tribal Gujjars of Jammu and Kashmir.” It is interesting to note that the Muslim Gujjars of J&K continue to follow the Gotra system with names of Gotras being the same as that among the Hindus. They believe that their ancestors were Hindus and hence they share the same blood and history with their Hindu counterparts.
Warikoo goes on to explain in his work that “religion has had little impact on the Gujjar brotherhood and affinity. The women folk of Jammu and Kashmir Gujjars still perform traditional practices in their homes and also celebrate Baisakhi, Lori and Goverdhan festivals.” It is noteworthy that the popular Hindu mythological figures like Lord Krishna, Rama and Sita are also as much a part of the religious identity of the Bakarwal Gujjars.
But keeping alive a Hindu belief system in their identity has not prohibited the group from following Islam as well. They swear allegiance to the local Pir, or a Sufi spiritual guide of the respective area in which they move about. They also aspire to visit sites of religiosity associated with Sufi Pirs like Hazrat-e-Naga-Baji Saheb, Khanyar in Srinagar and Nariyan in Rajouri.
Bakarwal Gujjars and a history of alienation
The fluidity in Bakarwal religion, however, has often resulted in an alienation of the community, particularly when their tribal identity has come in conflict with their religious identity. Troubled by the tussle between the two, the Bakarwal Gujjars have often complained of being under-represented in government services, educational institutions, and also the census. Since 1975 a number of welfare schemes came into existence for them. A major breakthrough for the Gujjars came on April 19, 1991 when after years of protest, they were listed in the Scheduled Tribes, thereby making available to them the rights conferred upon other tribes of India.
But the welfare schemes for the Gujjars were never fully implemented and they continued to face discrimination, particularly from the urban Kashmiri population. In recent years, the community has been facing the wrath of Hindutva forces, especially the cow-protecting groups who target their mode of living that is dependent on cattle.
The gangrape incident follows the ongoing tussle between the community members and the BJP-PDP government’s land eviction drives in the region. In the recent past, BJP’s Chaudhury Lal Singh has promised the retrieval of hundreds of forest lands, a move that the Bakarwals believe would take away their traditional rights on the forests. Reportedly, since the Bakarwal Gujjars are Muslims, the BJP is feeding into communal fears by propagating the idea among the Hindu population of the state that the former is skewing up the area’s demography and that they are the ones responsible for the encroachment of large sections of forest areas there.
The Bakarwal Gujjars, on the other hand, continue to fight against such allegations, emphasising upon the patriotism they have exercised since the country’s independence. It is noteworthy that these are the same people who stood staunchly loyal to Maharaja Hari Singh during the Pakistani aggression of 1947. Yet again, when India fought Pakistan in 1965, the Bakarwal Gujjars were the ones to have extended a helping hand to the Indian army, restoring the territorial integrity of the country.
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