By Aijaz Hussain
Srinagar: Along a bustling road set amid a series of new McMansions in Kashmir’s main city, a half-dozen extended families are camped in an open field in shelters of burlap and plastic. To an outsider, they look like refugees.
But they’re not.
They are nomads whose families have travelled for centuries between summer pastures in the Himalayas and winter grazing grounds in the lowland plains, herding their goats, sheep and horses.
The Muslim Bakarwal, who usually stop only briefly in Srinagar, have settled in for a few extra days this year for a community marriage. This group, of about 50 people, is travelling without their livestock, which others had already taken to the high pastures.
“It’s a life of hardship,” said a 40-year-old man named Gami as he lit a cooking fire for the camp’s wedding feast. “The skies above are hostile to us and so is the earth below. War, weather and wolf: All are hostile to us,” said Gami, who uses only one name.
South of Srinagar, in another Bakarwal camp, Nasreen Bano was caring for her baby, born last week during a forest stopover. Two days later, she began the trek to join her husband, who was already in the highlands.
“This is how it goes,” Bano said. “We keep moving, from one place to the other.”
But life for the Bakarwal is changing. Cities are closing in on their grazing lands and traditional paths. Some of the 200,000 or so Bakarwal have begun building permanent homes, sometimes sparking hostility with people living in those areas, many of them Hindu.
That hostility turned to horror with the January gang-rape and killing of an 8-year-old Bakarwal girl, making the nomads wonder what sort of place they have in today’s India.
“It’s not the same for us anymore. Not only have our lives been made difficult because we’ve been restricted from moving freely, but now we’re also under physical attack,” said one Bakarwal, Mohammed Aslam, cutting mutton for the feast.
Like many of India’s religious minorities, particularly its Muslims, the Bakarwals have felt increasingly isolated as attacks by Hindu extremist groups have risen after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was swept into power in India in 2014. The religious divide widened even further in Jammu-Kashmir state when the BJP formed a coalition government with a regional party. The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan but divided between them.
For the Bakarwal and other Muslim nomads, the trouble has often been about land.
Much of that trouble has occurred around Jammu, the majority-Hindu city where the Bakarwals have their winter pastures. Hindu nationalists accuse the nomads of encroaching on their land when they build permanent homes, and say nomad leaders want to make the region majority-Muslim.
Residents and forest officials have begun fencing in areas that have long been open, stopping the Bakarwal from reaching their traditional routes, pastures and water supplies. The tensions have led to scuffles, harassment of nomadic girls and, allegedly, the burning of nomad huts by Hindu men. In 2016, a young man was killed in a police shooting when Gujjars, another nomadic Muslim community, resisted police orders to leave their settlements near Jammu.
In January, the 8-year-old Bakarwal girl was grazing her family’s ponies near the town of Kathua, a couple of hours from Jammu, when she was kidnapped. Her raped and mutilated body was found in the woods a week later. Eight people, including four police officials, have been arrested in the crime and destruction of evidence.
A police probe revealed the attack had been planned for over a month as a way to terrify the Bakarwal into leaving the area. Then, thousands of members of a radical Hindu group with links to the ruling party marched to demand the release of the men accused in the attack, which happened inside a private Hindu temple. Hundreds of Hindu lawyers also protested that the men were innocent.
“We keep on telling ourselves that this too will pass. And yes, it will,” said Mohammed Latief, a young man who often works as a community cook. “But the prime concern is that our lives are fast changing. We’re losing our Bakarwal culture to the modern world.”
Javaid Rahi, who runs the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, a non-profit group that studies the state’s tribal people, agrees. He says many Bakarwal have left herding to become semiskilled labourers or beggars.
“This community is under immense pressure. They’re being accused of forest encroachment. Their passages are being restricted and are subjected to communal attacks,” Rahi said. “I’m afraid they’ll soon be forced to abandon their core occupation of seasonal migration. In a decade or so, it’ll be a history of past.”