JAMMU: Post Kathua, these nomadic people are struggling to protect their daughters, as well as their rights over open pastures.
Bashir Hussain worries constantly for his five-year-old daughter Najma, ever since the horrific gang-rape and murder in Kathua. “What will I do if something happens to her? What happened to the eight-year-old Bakerwal girl could happen only because we have no rights over forests and pastures in this state. People can drive us away anytime,” Hussain says, watching over Najma as she plays in the pastures of Yousmarg. Also called the meadow of Jesus, it’s home to the nomads every summer.
Hussain’s family is among the hundreds of Bakerwal-Gujjar families who have recently completed their annual summer migration from Jammu to various high-altitude areas of Kashmir. They are the third largest ethnic group in Kashmir but the Kathua incident is symptomatic of the alienation they have faced over the last couple of decades. Followers of Sufi Islam, they’re ostracised in Hindu-dominated Jammu and looked down upon in Muslim-dominated Kashmir. Their nomadic way of life is under threat too, as access to open pastures shrinks every passing year.
Much of the land is occupied by defence forces, the rest is under the forest department that, they say, doesn’t allow nomads right of way or right of grazing. This directly impacts their livelihood, as most of them earn a living by selling milk and wool.
Ghulam Ahmed Angar, who lives in the Bakerwal-dominated Nagbal village located on the way to Yousmarg, says: “Our pastures have been fenced off with barbed wire. Our animals are killed by forest department people so we don’t take them to graze. They are converting pastures into nurseries.”
Bakerwal-Gujjars are pastoralists who rear horses, sheep, goats and buffaloes, and have been given Scheduled Tribe status since 1991. Over the years, some of them settled down in villages and towns around forest areas but about half of the 20 lakh Bakerwals are still nomadic.
Mohd Sadiq Bajran, a Bakerwal leader from Ganderbal, maps out a traditional 450km-long route — from Kalakote in Jammu to Meena Marg in Drass via Zojila Pass — that can no longer be used by the nomads, either because of heavy traffic in certain parts, restrictions by forest department, or opposition by local residents.
Gujjar leader and former National Conference forest minister Miyan Altaf says more areas have been cordoned off in Jammu province. “Many nomads used to go to Patnitop but they were evicted. If most states in India have implemented the Forest Rights Act of 2006, why not Jammu & Kashmir? Landless forest people will benefit immensely from it. Ironically, this was a PDP demand when I was forest minister and had drafted a forest policy giving pastoralists grazing rights in 2012-13,” he says. Altaf is from Ganderbal, a district that receives large numbers of nomads annually.
Post Kathua, youth leaders from the community are demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act. A private member’s Bill was moved by PDP’s Qamar Ali Choudhary but was opposed by the BJP, which said the central Act cannot be implemented in the state because of its special status under Article 370. “Those opposing this Act are land-grabbers.
They have a vested interest in disallowing access to forest dwellers,” says Choudhary. Former forest minister and BJP MLA Lal Singh, who had opposed the implementation of the Act citing Article 370, has been forced to resign after rallying in support of the accused in the Kathua rape case. His successor, Rajiv Jasrotia, told TOI: “I’ll have to check the ground situation on their access to pastures. We haven’t taken any decision on the Forest Rights Act.”
Tushar Dash, forest rights expert, says the law is implemented in all states barring a few in the northeast. “Why not J&K? In fact, it’s crucial for the state as it is home to a large nomadic population and the Act has a special provision for pastoral communities.”
But for now, there is no respite for Bashir Hussain and his community as they struggle to protect both their way of life, and their girls.
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