A Tribe Without Home In The Country Without A Post Office

Nomadic Pastoralism, located somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of settled and non-settled agriculture and livestock rearing, is a way of life for many peoples around the world. Despite the present challenges we are nowhere the end of pastoralism because even though the number of pastoral communities appear to be shrinking, the resurgence of nomadic pastoralism is inevitable owing to the geo-spatial differences in resource distribution on Earth which necessitates a diversification in modes of resource use. The Bakarwal tribe is a Muslim nomadic pastoral tribe in Jammu and Kashmir also found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is one such tribe which is facing numerous challenges which are posing a threat not only to their livelihood but also puts into question their existence. Following is an interview conducted on a pleasant evening as part of my study on the tribe exploring the lives of Bakarwals, a tribe which came into the limelight after the Kathua rape case.

The sun was shining bright, almost blinding my eyes when I looked up at the hilltop where we were headed, the hilltop which only seemed to increase in distance the more we walked. Nargis took the last sip of water from the bottle. Her sister and two other young girls kept our spirit high by telling us how the deep blue tent appeared bigger now. It was an enormous meadow with a gentle slope. The sky-punching mountains on the other side of it looked enormous and once again I was left wondering how microscopic our existence was against those breath-taking mountains. After walking for half an hour, Jaffar bhaiya sat down. This was our third break in the past one and a half hours. The slope was not very steep but all the walking had us all panting. I wished I had gone for running more often. We sat down facing the snow-capped Pir Panjal Range when he pointed out, “You see those mountains? That’s where the Mughal road is, many Bakarwals take that path to go further up in the upper ranges. Heavy militancy there. We never cross those.”

(Aap vo pahaad dekh rahi hain? Waha se jata hai Mughal road jaha se kafi log Kashmir ki taraf nikalte hain. Udhar militancy bohat zyada hai. Humari family ye pahad kabhi cross nahi karti. )

“Why?”, I asked.

“Long story. We must walk or it will get dark on our way back. I suppose Nargis told you about the spirits and wild animals.”

(Lambi kahani hai. Abhi chalein aap, nahi to aate waqt andhera ho jayega aur Nargis ne aapko jungali bhooton ke baarein mein to bataya hi hoga.)

I picked up my bag and the empty bottle of water, contemplating the relevance of myths in the contemporary times, my eyes searching for the blue tent which kept disappearing every now and then. To my relief, it looked much bigger now. On reaching the hilltop, everything looked smaller. It was difficult to tell if the white lines far away were roads or river-streams.

Pointing to what appeared to be a forest and some bread-sized rooftops, Fuko bhaiya asked,“ Do you see that village?” (Dekhiye, vo gaon dikh raha hai aapko?)

“Yes”, I replied not knowing what he was trying to show me.

“A cloud burst here some time back, not one person survived. The weather can be very unpredictable here. You can be basking in the sun and in a minute, it can start drizzling like cats and dogs.” (Kuch waqt pehle yaha baadl phata tha aur ek bhi insan zinda nahi bacha. Yaha aisa hi hai. Mausam ka kuch keh nahi sakte. Ek minute dhoop aur agle minute mein tez bearish.)

I looked up at the overcast sky and asked more about the incident. Immediately below us were some horses and sheep drinking water. We waited for the women with them to come up to the top of the hill where lush green grass awaited the animals. By the time, the women came up we took a look around. It was spectacular, deodar trees gave the mountains a deep green appearance, the ones still further away looked black as if nothing grew on them and white on top because of the snow. I could tell they were very far from their blurry appearance. The seven of us went in different directions.

A dense dove-white cloud was over my head and just as I browsed the sky in search of more clouds, Basheer lala said, “It is going to rain tonight.” When I turned my head, I saw a tall man with dusky complexion walk towards me in white salwar kameez, a black jacket and a white turban tied to his head with a smile brandishing his long red beard. I smiled back looking into his glossy eyes. He looked old but I could not tell his years. He came and sat right next to me. Two women with horses and sheep walked up the slope from my right. The horses knew where to browse for grass.

“What has happened to his leg?” I asked pointing towards the white horse who walked with a limp.

A piece of wood was tied to his left hind leg for support.

“He fell of a steep slope in Wadwan last year. Most of the wounds have healed but this leg has gone bad. Anyway, how are you doing? What brings you to a poor man’s world?” he spoke with a deep voice and a wrinkly smile.”

(Ye Wadwan mein ek pahaadi se gir gaya tha. Zyadatar ghav bhar gaye par ye taang kharab ho gayi iski. Khair aap apna bataiye ki aap kaisi hain aur hum bakerwalon mein kaha aa gayi aap?)

The old man patiently listened to me while I explained the purpose of my visit. Meanwhile, the two ladies and my other companions also joined us and sat down without participating in the conversation. We talked a little more about the chilly weather, the landscape, different elements of the ecosystem, the deodar trees which looked like bristles of a brush on the serrated mountains that loomed in a distance. After our small chit-chat I asked him what his thoughts were on the deteriorating condition of his community.

“What is left of our profession now, madam?” he said pressing his hands to his cheeks.

(Ab bacha hi kya hai humare peshe ka?)

He continued, “We don’t know where we belong or what belongs to us. There was a time when we roamed freely. When my grandfather was alive, time used to fly by. The profession was blossoming and there was absolute joy. The only challenges were the ones that nature posed on us like heavy rains or landslides. Now times are much different. Everything is enclosed. We walk for miles for hours. Our animals starve without grass but we do not find a place to sit, to camp and wherever we do those forest range officers do not let us. There was this one time when we had settled down for an hour and were only starting to eat when this forest guard came to us and forced us to leave the place. He did not even let us eat the food. That is authority. They treat us as if we are inferior to them as do the settled people. They question us who we are to camp in “their” forests and pastures. What can we say? We have no answer. When our men and maal-maveshi[1] die crossing rivers in the mountains or due to snowstorms and we ask for compensation, they either do not believe us or give us very little money. Once four of my sheep died in an accident and I got 110 rupees as compensation. There is no value of human life let sheep alone. Nobody cares if we perish today or tomorrow. The government only needs us to vote for them. And now this new compulsion of Aaadhar card to buy ration from ration shops has also added to our difficulties. How will we get Aadhar without an address? Nothing changes other than faces of legal perpetrators of violence. We are concerned with our livelihood and even that is in danger now. We receive nothing in return for our patriotism, only enclosed forests, enclosed pasturelands and slap on the face every time we demand something. Worst quality medicine, it at all and untrained doctors. Likewise, the education of our children suffers. Very small number of mobile teachers in proportion to the population.”

(Allah jaane humara kya hai, kiske hum hain! Ek waqt tha humare baap-daadaon ka jab khule ghumte the, tab time kat jata tha, pesha accha chalta tha. Kudrati dikkatein to tbhi bhi thi par ab ke jaise nahi tha. Ab sab jungalat band kar diye hain. Hum ghanton chalet hain lekin kahi baithne ki jagah nahi milti. Jungle mein afsar baithne nahi dete kahi, Ek baar hume baithe aadha ghanta bhi nahi hua tha, khana paka kha rahe the vo bhi khatam nahi karne diya. Bole oye Bakerwal yaha kya kar raha hai, chal nikal yaha se. Sab aisa sulook karte hain jaise hum neeche ho unse chahe forest guard ho ya aur log. Bolte hain humare hain ye junglat tum kaun hote ho. Ab hum kya kahein, kuch nahi keh sakte. Koi jawab hai ni nahi humare paas. Jab humare log nikalte hain pahadion mein se, paani mein se to marte bhi hain, maal-maveshi bhi girte hain, marte hain phir muavza lene jao to kehte hain jhooth bol raha hai. Maanenge bhi to muavze ke naam par Mazak karte hain. Ek baar mujhe meri chaar behd ke 110 rupaye muavze ke taur par mile. Insan ki jaan ki balue nahi hai to janvar to door ki baat hai. Kisi ko koi farq nahi padta hum aaj marein ya kal. Sarkar ko vote dene ke liye chahiye bas aur ab ye naya drama shuru kar diya hai aadhar card ka. Ration wala ration nahi deta ki aadhar nahi hai. Jab ghar hi nahi hai to kaha se aadha card laayenge hum, aap hi bataiye. Kuch nahi badalta, bas chehre badalte hain. Hume apne peshe se matlab hai aur ab to vo bhi naam ka hi reh gaya hai bas. Humare jaise deshbhakt milenge nahi aapko lekin hume kya milta hai badle mein? Bandh jungalat aur dhakke khate raho zindagi bhar. Inko kya padi hai. Wahi bekar davaiyan, na humare bacche padh sakte, na likh sakte. Dactor jo hain pehli baat to vo kahi dikhte nahi aur nah mobile teacher, aur milte bhi hain to unka fayda nahi hota.)

This is with every government, be it BJP, PDP, NC or Congress. When Sheikh Abdullah Saheb was in power, he thought about us and also did Indira Gandhi but after them nothing much has been done for us. We face danger of heavy rains and wild animals alike. They (militants) asked us to join them saying they will open our jungles which would immensely benefit our profession but we did not join them. We can do anything but can never deceive our country but I ask again, what do we get in return other than enclosed forests and pasturelands?”

(Sabka yahi hai chahe BJP ho, PDP ho, Congress ho ya NC ho. Ek time tha Sheikh Abdullah Saheb ka jab humare liye kuch socha gaya, phir Indira Gandhi ke time par kuch hua par ab kuch nahi raha humare liye. Hume barish ka bhi khatra hai, jungle jaanvar ka bhi khatra hai, baithne ki jagah (site for camping) nahi hai kahi, kya hoga aise mein. Unhone kaha humare saath aao ye sabki ladai hai, hum sab jungalaat khol denge aur peshe ko munafa bhi hoga par hunme nahi hi tab kiya aur na ab karenge kyunki mulk ke sath gaddari hum nahi kar sakte par badle mein hume kya milta hai? Bandh jungalat aur dhakke!”)

I further asked him about the militant insurgency and the treatment of Indian Army. His reply resonated with the opinions of other people I interviewed before and after I met him. Militants often robbed their rations at gunpoint, mistreated them at times but never killed anyone. The Armed forces questioned them at gunpoint, mistreated them for having helped the militants with food but never killed anyone.

From what I understood, the Bakarwals are very peaceful people, warm and welcoming, devoted to their faith and lovers of nature for they directly depend on it. Theirs is a struggle of identity. Those who settle down have a conflicted identity. Even in places where they settle down on rent for a small span of time, the settled populations discriminate against them. One does not need to go far back in history to look for such an instance. When two leaders of the ruling party in J&K supported the accused of raping a minor belonging to the Bakarwal tribe, it not only put the state to shame but also instigated a feeling of social exclusion in the community. Social exclusion as per the French author Jordi Estivill can be understood as “an accumulation of confluent processes with successive ruptures arising from the heart of the economy, politics and society which gradually distances and places persons, groups, communities and territories in a position of inferiority in relation to centers of power, resources and prevailing value.”

The unpredictability in their livelihood conditions, impermanence in their inter-subjective life (social belonging and social relations) and a sense of ontological insecurity is a form of precarity, a concept first popularized by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. According to Flavia Cangià, an Italian anthropologist, “Life precarity . . . refers to a situation in which persons do not have stable life conditions. This is characterized as being flexibly involved in a network of social groups and (im)material, continuously moving, contingent realities. This implies a lack of life security and a feeling of permanently living in a “state of flux”—an unstable environment with no options for making plans for the future, even the very near one.”

Moreover, this precariousness can and often does force the affected populations to join precarious labor as their own means of livelihood are shrinking furthering social disintegration. Thus, precarization becomes a “quintessential incarnation” in these vulnerable nomadic populations.

“This is not only my story but of all those millions of my brothers. I do not have any years left to live. There is nothing left of this profession. From eighty years of experience in these lands, I can only tell you this much. Let’s go. It is getting dark and we do not have electricity. Have to arrange for the rain as well. Let’s get you some tea.”, he said while caressing his read beard with his hard callous fingers.

(“Ye meri akele ki baat thoda hi hai. Mera kya hai, mai to boodha ho gaya, kuch saalon mein chal basunga. Ye halat mere hazaron lakhon khanabadosh (nomads) bhaiyon ki hai. Pesha khatam ho raha hai. Kuch nahi bacha ab. Apne assi saal ke tajurbe se itna hi bata sakte hain hum aapko. Chalein andhera ho raha hai aur humare pass yahan bijli ka koi bandobast bhi nahi hai aur baarish ka bhi bandobast karna hai. Chalein aapko noon chai pilaate hain!”)

I stood up stretching and yawning, looked around at the horses the trees, the sky, the mountains. Everything looked different. The sun had set and dark-gray rain clouds had replaced the milky-white ones. I started following the others towards the tent. His voice in still buzzing in my head. The silence of the external world which was earlier peaceful had now become deafening.


The Gujjar-Bakarwals were notified as a Scheduled Tribe as per The Constitution (Scheduled tribe) Order, Second Amendment Act, 1991 of the Indian Constitution. Although the benefits of reservation are yet to trickle down to the majority of nomadic population which comprises of 80% of the total tribal population of Jammu and Kashmir, the struggles of these tribal people extend further than reservation to social equity and survival including social exclusion, communal violence, loss of pasturelands, lack of forest rights, access to education and medical facilities, employment opportunities and preservation of traditional knowledge. Article 370 allows the state of Jammu and Kashmir to have a separate constitution, owing to which Forests Rights Act, 2006 is still an unrealized dream for the tribals. The difference in local knowledge and the knowledge of the state shaping the prominent form of knowledge based on power relations is responsible for many of these problems. Until democratic solutions best fitting the interests of tribal populations and their genuine needs and aspirations are devised, violent movements like the Naxalite will keep emerging in various forms.

[1] Livestock (Goats, Sheep, Horses, Dogs)


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Shipra Bhardwaj Written by:

Shipra Bhardwaj studies in Ambedkar University, Delhi

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