Quleen Kaur Bijral Bijral
Columnist, The Logical Indian
Who are the Fourth World? They are the original inhabitants of a country, but despite this historic reality, these aboriginals are forced to live like refugees in their own territories. They have little or no political say, financial security and social equality in the mainstream. Ignored. Excluded. Discriminated. And silenced. Grim irony indeed.
To apprehend this gross reality, to arrest the discrimination, and to recover the true story of the aboriginals, the article will in three parts cover the indigenous tribes of Jammu and Kashmir – Gujjars and Bakerwals. The target will be to: firstly trace the origin of this ethnic community; secondly, recognize the discrimination faced by them over the years to the contemporary era: thirdly highlight the steps taken to better the subjugated lives of these communities.
This is just not a reality of Gujjars in J&K but a reality of all tribes in India and abroad. Aboriginals be it the native Americans in the USA or the Gujjars in India have been misrepresented, relegated, and stricken off the map of the country, as if they do not exist at all. The attempt of the article will be to hear the ground reality, and take steps toward highlighting who are the Fourth World indeed with respect to Gujjars and Bakerwals of J&K.
In doing so the Part-I of the article includes a threadbare interview of S.M. Chowdhary, who is Central Govt.’s Standing Counsel and a Senior advocate in J&K High Court. He has actively championed for the rights of Gujjars and Bakerwals. He is also a member of Gujjar Desh Charitable Trust, and chairperson Gujjars Advisory Board. In this capacity, he submits significant plans/proposals to alleviate the downtrodden situation of these tribes in J&K. In this interview, we have tried to find out who Gujjars are, what problems they face, how to help them, and what has been done till date for these indigenous communities.
There have been so many speculations and conjectures to origin of Gujjars and Bakerwals? Can you tell us from which region Gujjars and Bakerwals originally belong to? What is your verdict?
Yes, there has always been a difference of opinion. If we look at the history book, Gujjars came from Gujarat where they were called known as Pratiharas. While, some historians say that Gujjars have come from Georgia. From Georgia, they settled in Afghanistan. After that, they started migrating to un-partitioned India and settled in Gujarat. At that time Gujrat was known as Sorashtra meaning 100 principalities. Gujjars were, once, rulers of Sorashtra.
The Indian historians attest that Gujjars are the aboriginals of India and according to renowned historian K.M. Munshi, the tribes have been the builders of J&K.
What is the difference between Gujjars and Bakerwals? Are they separate ethnic communities like one community with different nomenclature and livelihoods?
Gujjars and Bakerwals are not different communities, but one community. Gujjars rear cattle and Bakerwals rear goat, sheep, and horses. It is an occupation based categorization.
What are their religious affiliations?
When they migrated from Gujarat, to Rajasthan, and then to Delhi, they were Hindus, but when they settled in J&K, they were influenced by Sufism and converted. As Sufism did not discriminate between religions and was not rigid, hence they accepted it. Moreover, they were given food, lands etc. hence Gujjars were inclined to adopt the new religion. Nevertheless, today Gujjars follow some aspects of Hindu culture and some of the Islam capturing a multicultural essence. As Gujjars are nomads, the places they migrate to, they gladly adopt the local cultures which undoubtedly shows their religious tolerance and acceptance of diversity.
They hence know so many languages like Hindi, Gujri, Kashmiri, Paahari, Dogri, Kargili, ladakhi and so on.
Can you highlight the contemporary plight of these tribes especially in regard to the threat of militancy?
The land and pastures where Gujjars and Bakerwals would graze their cattle is now occupied by security forces, and the militants. Their traditional routes have been closed. Now they have to travel to Srinagar by Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, and they migrate along with their entire family, cattle, and paraphernalia. When they used to travel through woods, they would get fodder for their cattle, but now as they are forced to travel through highways., their livelihood and life has been severely effected.
Gujjars living in the vicinity of the Borders, have to run, but cannot protect their cattle from the bomb blast and attacks. Everything is destroyed, yes.
What can be done to alleviate their situation?
Need is to provide them with buses, so they can carry their family, cattle and etc to their respective places. The government can take fares, and we are not asking for a free service. But an action needs to be taken. Then security, we need govt action on this part.
Speaking on the border situation, can you further highlight how Gujjars are affected by Militancy?
Gujjars are pro-Indians. They are loyal and call their nation their mother land. But they are scandalised by the society which believes they help the militants. Tell me, when at night militants force entrance into their homes at gun point and force them to cook for them, what can Gujjars do. The next day Army asks why Gujjars helped, how can Gujjars respond.
All they say is, “Raat ko yeh marte hian, din ko aap marte ho (at night militants attack us, and in the morning we are harassed by the army).
Let me tell you, Gujjars love their life, their lands, and love this country. They are but stuck in the crossfire of militancy and have become unwitting scapegoats and victims. During Kargil war, it was the Gujjars who informed Indian army that Pakistan has encroached; Indian army didn’t know. Indian army relies on the Gujjars as they know the routes.
Most of Gujjars & Bakerwals are not changing with the times, and do not wish to put aside their migratory existence? Is it that they see modernity as a threat, or they are not able to access it or they do not trust the government or any outsider? By modernity, I mean literacy, medical care etc.
It is a relevant question. Gujjars want modernity, but some do not. Those who do cannot but trust the government. I will tell you why. Height of discrimination. Gujjars are provided one teacher per 60 students. One teacher to teach maths, science, and every class. How can the kids learn, and compete?
Then there is another scenario – due to migration, teachers are not able to cope up with the difficult nomadic lifestyle of these tribes. Further, there are some Gujjars who do not want to change this lifestyle, but what I believe is kids should be given a choice. They should be allowed to study then follow this traditional life of nomadism. Get them admitted to modern schools, with proper hospitals etc. amnesties and facilities. Expenses be borne by the govt.
So, what should we presume, fault lies with the govt or the tribals or both.
My contention is that facilities are provided to other tribals of India, why not in J&K. Govt of India gives funds under social welfare sector to provide ambulances to carry the tribals , and other development projects, rather crores of rupees are allocated for health facilities, and for building sheds in their migratory routes. But the funds are maliciously diverted towards schemes which are not meant for their development. I have records which show how much money sent, used and misused etc. I have records which show this height of discrimination.
This discrimination not only political but also at a social level. For example in hospital wards, the Gujjars are not given wards closer to the other communities because the masses complain that they stink, and hence are bigoted against them.
How can then Gujjars trust the govt or the people?
What about the ST status? How has ST Status helped them in the long run?
In 1991 as stated in the article 342, the constitution granted ST status to these tribes w.r.t of J&K. Due to this, we have 22 judges in Judiciary today when before 1969 we had only one. We have Police SP and DSP. Avenues have opened up. So Gujjars are encouraged to send their kids to gain education and compete with the masses.
It is thanks to Indira Gandhi who was genuinely concerned about us. Societies and policies started by her. Nehru ji and Indira ji used to stay with the Gujjars to know their problem first-hand.
Nevertheless, today we are still sidelined. We come to limelight when our votes are needed, after that we are forgotten. There is still discrimination in posts, promotion, careers. Govt makes alliances with rich Gujjars, but not with poor ones. When political benefit is needed from us, we are deemed as one with them, but when they want to discriminate us they derogatively call us Gujjars.
Talking about this derogative sidelining, it is known that even during British era Gujjars were outrageously labelled as criminals. Why so?
When British would loot the locals, Gujjars would loot them. Hence criminals. You can read this in Kushwant Singh’s History of Sikhs. Gujjar tribe also fought and retaliated against British, and so they branded them criminals. Today they are deemed as Denotified Tribes.
What’s the women status in Gujjars tribes?
No preferential treatment towards boys over girls. There is no dowry, but only early marriages are norm. Especially in Bakerwals. But with time, it is also changing.
For our readers, what message would you like to give?
Know about us. This neglected lot. Know about our art, oral songs, and history. Know how tribes suffer due to the ignorance of the govt.
I also want to thank The Logical Indian for bringing such stories. No one bothers, and The Logical Indian does. It is indeed praiseworthy and very significant for our community. Thank You.
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