Who cares for van Gujjars?

By Radhakrishna Rao, INFA

The violent protest by the Gujjar community in Rajasthan and adjoining states seeking Scheduled Tribes status has once again focussed attention on the sectarian and communal divide that our politicians cutting across the party lines and ideological barriers have been fostering with a view to create "caste vote banks". In fact, with the agitation by socially and politically influential Gujjars hogging the limelight, neither the ruling elite nor the media has spared a thought for the fate for hapless, socially deprived and economically marginalized Van Gujjar community inhabiting the rapidly degrading forest stretches in the Himalayan foothills.

Support TwoCircles

The forest dwelling, peace loving Van Gujjar community whose members are believed to be converts to Islam from many of the Rajput clans of north-west India, are politically powerless and socially disadvantaged, no one seems to care for them. In fact, in recent years, with the forest authorities in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand putting hurdles in their migratory routes, the life for the community has become miserable and difficult. In fact, they are being coerced by the forest bureaucracy to evict their forest homes and move to the resettlement colonies .But for Van Gujjars life outside the forest could be a difficult preposition since they know only forest based animal husbandry with hardy, mountain buffaloes remaining the bedrock of their socio-economic life.

In view of their backwardness and unique lifestyle, for many years Van Gujjars have been seeking ST status for themselves. In fact, way back in 1994, the Uttar Pradesh Government had recommended conferring ST status on the community. Long before this, Avadesh Kaushal, Chairperson of the Dehra Dun-based voluntary organization Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), which runs a series of welfare schemes for the benefit of the community, had made a forceful plea to include Van Gujjars under the ST category.

However, the power that-be was not just interested in the community that hardly exercises its franchise. The argument of Kaushal was that Van Gujjars living in Uttarnachal and Uttar Pradesh should be given the ST status since the community has been accorded such status in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Himachal Pradesh. "This community possess all the essential attributes of the STs like primitive traits, distinct cultural identity, geographical isolation, social backwardness and nomadic lifestyle", observes Kaushal.

Kaushal also laments the fact that because of their residence in the depths of the forests and their migratory lifestyle, the community has been deprived of the benefits of the Government sponsored welfare schemes and developmental programmes. He is of the view that the community would be able to move with the time if the ST status is accorded to them immediately. Kaushal has also expressed his concern over the move of the Uttaranchal Government to evict this forest dwelling, vegetarian community and settle them in rehabilitation colonies with a view to put an end to their migratory lifestyle. But Van Gujjars are clear in their perception a settled mode of life in permanent colonies would mean a certain cultural death of the community.

Indeed, the uncertainty facing the nomadic pastoral Van Gujjars, is a veritable microcosm of the problems haunting the indigenous forest dwelling communities spread across the country. The Rajaji National Park (RNP), covering an area of 825 sq km across Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand is one of the most important winter homes of the Van Gujjar tribe who consider the forest eco system to be their veritable lifeline.

In summers, they move to the upper reaches of the Himalayas along with their herds of mountain buffaloes in search of fresh fodder. As the winter sets in, the community moves back to the forest stretches of RNP along with heir livestock herds. This well-planned and finely tuned transhumance not only helps to regenerate vegetation but also goes to provide nutritionally fortified grass in the upper Himalayan stretches.

On an average, a Van Gujjar family owns upto 25 heads of buffaloes which the family's pride and treated with utmost care and affection. By all means buffaloes constitute the very bedrock of the livelihood of the community. Essentially, Van Gujjars practice a forest-based form of animal husbandry and produce good quality of milk and dairy products without any pesticide residues. As such the milk produced by the community fetches a good price in the urban centres of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.

The Van Gujjar settlements in RNP are distinguished by the buffalo herds roaming freely with a complete indifference to the world around. The most conspicuous feature of the social life of Van Gujjars is the intense, emotional attachment they have to the buffalo herds. Interestingly, the children suckle milk straight from the udders of the animals. As it is, the community plays a very crucial role in supplying milk and dairy products to travellers and pilgrims in the upper Himalayan reaches during the lean summer months.

One significant feature of the animal husbandry perfected by the community is the sustainable use of forest resources to meet the fodder needs the animals, thus leaving the agricultural land free for producing food crops. Moreover, this also provides their milk with a special flavour and enhanced quality.

In Kaushal's view, the largely illiterate nomadic Van Gujjars have managed to retain a high genetic quality of their buffaloes without inbreeding. Kaushal points out that their method of feeding the buffaloes mainly on green fodder with a minimum amount of concentrate feed, can be great value to the development of animal husbandry in India. In recent years, Van Gujjars have been under intense pressure from RNP authorities to move out of their forest dwellings. For long, the RNP authorities have been blaming the buffalo herds of the community for the damages sustained by the park eco system.

However, Van Gujjars have refuted this allegation. In fact, a study of the Van Gujjar settlements in the park area carried out in the second half of the 1990s by a team of students from London's Wye College has shown that lopping vegetation to obtain fodder for the animals is highly scientific and totally sustainable. In the same vein, Swedish social anthropologist Pernelle Gooch, who was instrumental in persuading Avadesh Kaushal to fight for the cause of Van Gujjar says, "In winter the Van Gujjars feed their buffaloes with the leaves lopped from a certain species of trees. As they use the same tree year after year, it is of vital interest for them that the forest is regenerated".

The total dependence of the community on forests and buffaloes for their survival is reflected in the statement of Dil Mohammed, a Van Gujjar chieftain, "neither we nor our buffalos are equipped to survive outside the forest environment".

Sociologists working with the community point out that any change or experiment with a new profession, demands a complete change in lifestyle. Sain Bibi, a young Van Gujjar woman, laments the fact that they are poor because their livelihood is based on animals and these can easily die, compared to ordinary farmers who still have their land if their crops fail.

[this article was first published in Kashmir Times, Jammu]