Journey of Kashmir’s nomads coming to end?

By Binoo Joshi,IANS,

Jammu : From time immemorial the Gujjar tribe has travelled hundreds of kilometres in summer to the upper regions of the Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir with its livestock. But 20 years of militancy, government restrictions and loss of lives seem to be bringing the journey of these nomads to an end.

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Gujjars and Bakerwals (sheep herders) form about 20 percent of the 11 million population of the state.

A new survey revealed that Gujjars who lead a lonely and tough life in the high altitude Himalayan meadows and the Pir Panjal mountains are gradually settling down in the plains.

The Gujjars are known to take their sheep high in the mountains. It may take them as many as 60 days to reach those meadows. During summer, they move from one meadow to another. Along with their herd, they move up to the upper reaches in the Himalayan pastures as climatic condition suits them and their sheep and cattle.

They are mostly concentrated in Rajouri-Poonch, Jammu, Kangan, Kupwara and Baramullah districts.

The startling change in the historic tradition of Gujjars has been attributed by the study to “heavy loss of precious lives, properties, lack of basic education, health and communication facilities and restriction on their movement to upper reaches.”

The survey has been conducted by the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, a national organisation working on the status of Gujjars in India.

Quoting the survey, Javaid Rahi, national secretary of the foundation, said: “More than 37 percent Gujjars who are migratory by tradition have relinquished their nomadic lifestyle during the last 20 years of turmoil in the state.”

Rahi voiced the apprehension that “tribal migration will become a thing of the past in the next few decades.”

The survey revealed that in the absence of “disaster management police for tribals,” the community suffers a heavy loss of lives and livestock due to landslides, forest fire, snow and hailstorm and man-animal conflict every year. Owing to these natural calamities the percentage of migratory nomadic groups of Gujjars is fast going down.

But the survey also hinted at the presence of militants in the upper reaches as one of the reasons for the tribe avoiding travel. Several Gujjars have been killed by militants.

The militants are also said to demand food from the nomads, who live in ‘dhoks’ or summer huts, and attempt to outrage the modesty of young Gujjar women.

Another reason is the restrictions imposed by the security agencies and militants on tribal migration in border and strategic areas, the survey said.

The closure of forests in Jammu and Kashmir since 1996 has led thousands of Gujjars to relinquish the nomadic lifestyle and turn into migratory labourers, the survey added.

The survey suggested that the government should formulate a plan to protect their nomadic identity by providing them education, health and communication facilities during their migration to upper reaches.

The survey further suggested that the government should on a priority basis formulate a disaster management policy for tribal and nomadic communities.