Part II: Gujjar-Bakerwal community in Jammu and Kashmir face depleted livelihood, exclusion, fear of attacks amid pandemic

A Gujjjar Dhoka in the hills of Jammu and Kashmir | Picture by Shadab Farooq

The Gujjar-Bakarwal community live in the hilly areas of the Indian subcontinent, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Pakistan, and Tibet. In Jammu and Kashmir, the nomadic community remain educationally, economically, politically, and socially backwards. In the second and final part of TCN Ground Report series, we look at the impact the Covid-19 lockdown has had on the livelihood and migration plans of this nomadic community of Jammu and Kashmir. Read the first part here.

Shadab Farooq |

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JAMMU – Rafaqat Ali, a 12-year-old Gujjar boy studying in 6th standard, used to attend Government High School in Upper Thanua village in the high hills near Udhampur district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). He has been in 6th standard since 2020 when the first Covid-19 lockdown was enforced across the country and is lagging in his studies due to a lack of sufficient online education facilities. “Only my father has a smartphone in our household, but he is usually out working with the cattle. As a result, I skipped many online classes. This year, I was expected to be in class 7, but I failed to complete my online papers and homework. I am already missing a lot of lessons, and it looks like I will just be in class 6 until the coronavirus is over,” Rafaqat Ali told 

The Gujjar-Bakarwal community is one of J&K’s most backward tribes. The community remains educationally, economically, politically, and socially backwards. 

Besides education of their children, the Covid-19 lockdown has severely impacted the livelihood of the community.

Covid hit livelihood of Gujjar-Bakerwals
Jabaar Din, 50, is a resident of the same village as Rafaqat Ali but has been living in a makeshift hut in Jig village, Chenani, on the Jammu-Kashmir national highway, for the past two years. 

Din is waiting in Jig village with his horse named Sheru, for the pandemic to end so that he and his horse could return to Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, Katra, and resume their lives. “For the past two years, I have been living far away from my family. Before the onset of this virus, I used to take visitors to the shrine of Vaishno Devi on my horse and earned between Rs 1000-1500 per day. Everything was fine before the pandemic. There have been no Yatris for two years, and the shrine is closed. We are not allowed to remain there anymore. It has been two years since things have been normal,” Jabaar Din said. 

Worried about his future, Din said, “In these summer times, I used to travel in the hills with my buffaloes. All that I can see now is a dead end. I lost both of my buffaloes last year. Since there is no job in the hills now, I am unable to return home. I am just here to work and send money home when I get some regular wage work. I am trapped in the middle, unable to go home or to my usual work.”

Migration in distress
This year’s nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19 has interrupted hundreds of thousands of Bakarwals and Gujjars’ long spring migration. Almost half of them are only starting now, nearly a month late. 

In the coming month, Barkat Ali, 27, of Gundoh village, Bhalessa, will begin migrating with his flock of cattle in the high mountains of Jai village with only one companion this year because of the advisory issued by the authorities declaring that the families of the herders including the elderly, women and children should not be allowed to travel, to prevent chances of infection.

Responding to the late migration, Ali said, “We are already behind schedule in terms of migration this year, and this will have a ripple impact on our community’s lives and traditional businesses, which are closely tied to the region’s seasons, festivals, and land-use practices. Unfortunately, we will not be able to cover all of the pastures in time, which means that the animals will not be able to eat enough grass.”

Ali said that for the Gujjar-Bakerwal community, migration means moving with the whole community. “This annual trip will be impossible for me without my clan,” he said, adding, “We can’t challenge authorities and the nature of this disease. Many among our community are already late so we should keep moving even if we are moving within small groups.”

Fear of separation from family amid lockdown
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has not impacted the livelihood and migration plans of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community, it has also led to fears of separation from family. 

Seena Begum, 35, a mother of four girls and two boys, has a constant fear of not leaving her home and children alone. Seena Begum travelled from her village in Kathua to Doda to see her ailing sister on April 22, 2020, just before the first lockdown was announced. Destiny, on the other hand, had other plans for her. She had to live away from her children for the next three months as the lockdown was announced on the next day of her arrival. To survive, she had to find work as a domestic help in Doda. 

Reflecting on her ordeal Seena Begum said, “After three months without seeing my children, I returned to Kathua in a truck carrying cement material at midnight. The driver slid me under the truck’s seat when the police were doing checks along the way. I have been through a lot and I don’t want to go through it again.” 

“I am terrified of leaving my children alone, and I seldom leave the house,” she said. 

Earlier in May, Seena Begum’s entire clan started migrating in smaller groups to Sarthal, a village near Bani-Basohli. Seena Begum chose not to migrate and stayed with her children because of the trauma of separation she had gone through. 

Attacks against travelling Gujjar-Bakerwals
On May 6, two Muslim men from the Gujjar community were injured in a brutal attack by cow vigilantes in Jammu. The men were returning home with a pair of oxen they had bought to plough their fields. 

“Our community continuously moves with our livestock,” Talib Hussain, a 35-year-old Gujjar activist told, adding, “Recent incidents of vigilantism have caused fear among the community. We have to think twice before relocating anywhere. If these incidents continue our lives will be in jeopardy.”

Hussain said that people of “suspicious of Gujjar-Bakerwals and demand negative coronavirus test reports before purchasing our products.” 

“In addition to this, local shopkeepers are taking advantage of the disease by purchasing our produce (milk) at half price. As the community’s economic situation continues to worsen, we have no other option but to sell our produce at whatever prices they offer us,” Hussain said. 

The attacks have led to fears among the community and many have chosen not to migrate.

Aziz-ud-din, 60, of Billiwar, Kathua, had planned to migrate to Kashmir via the Pir Panjal but decided against it after a recent incident in Samba, Jammu on May 26, in which two Bakarwal families were beaten by a gang of roughly two dozen individuals, injuring several of them, including children and women.

“I don’t want to put my life and the lives of my family at risk,” Aziz-ud-din said when asked about the reasons for not migrating. “They are going after anyone who has livestock with them. I have already lost two buffaloes due to an unknown disease in the previous lockdown, and I wasn’t able to provide them with medical care. Now, because of these incidents against us, I am not willing to risk my family and animals. I decided not to migrate”.