Javaid Rahi: ‘With J&K state land shrinking, nomads have nowhere to go’

Javaid Rahi talks to National Herald about growing intolerance towards nomadic Gujjars and Bakarwals, who face social exclusion in Kashmir and now economic exclusion in Jammu

Sajad Rafeeq/ Barcroft Images/ Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Sajad Rafeeq/ Barcroft Images/ Barcroft Media via Getty Images
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Akshay Azad

The gruesome gangrape and murder of 8-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir has brought the spotlight on deepening existential crisis of twin nomadic tribes in the state which form the third largest ethnic group, Gujjars and Bakarwals. The barbaric crime incident soon snowballed into a major controversy in the aftermath of alleged directives of the state government to police and civil administration not to carry out anti-encroachment drives against tribal population without prior approval of the Tribal Affairs Department and nor harass them when they transport cattle.

At a time when nomadic Gujjars and Bakarwals are being viewed as a threat to the demography of the region, Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation has suggested a dialogue between the community members and civil society representatives in Jammu. General secretary of the organisation, Javaid Rahi in an interview to Akshay Azad expressed anguish over growing intolerance towards tribal communities—which faces social exclusion in Kashmir Valley as well. He feels that the growing popular perception that Gujjar-Bakerwal Community is encroaching state land is obnoxious and misplaced. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What are the major challenges being faced by nomadic communities in the state?

Bakarwals and Gujjars constitute about 11.5% (15 lakh) of J&K’s total population, according to 2011 census. The majority of total population of the two communities live a fully nomadic life and remain the most vulnerable. These pastoralists migrate to Jammu plains during winter and stay there from October to April along with their livestock, which is their only source of livelihood. So their major challenge remains land and resources for their livestock. Earlier, the grasslands were common property of the villages but in the last few years, whenever the government required land for any development project, it invariably acquires state land—which has traditionally been used as pastures by the community—or grazing land. For instance, at least 253 nomadic families of tribal communities have been asked to evict large tracts of land in Vijaypur for the establishment of proposed All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The growing border conflict has again affected the nomadic communities. Along the Indo-Pakistan border in the state, whenever Army or BSF requires land, the state land is handed over to them. The Central University of Jammu besides government schools, hospitals, and various other government offices all of them have been established on the state land.

All the rivers and floodplains in most parts of the Jammu province have been encroached upon, whereas the jungles have been enclosed by barbed wire by the state’s forest department. Ultimately, the lands which were the pastures for nomads have shrunk considerably. Even during migration through roads, they face a lot of problems as vehicular traffic has grown manifold over the past two decades. We have also been witnesses to mushrooming growth of villages and towns.

According to state’s Land to the Tillers Act, land was given to farmers and in recent cases, land occupied by people across the state were regularised time and again but there was no opposition. But the lands on which nomads have been grazing their cattle for centuries, were never regularised in their name.

Against the backdrop of this crisis, the nomads are being called ‘land-encroachers’ but the reality is their gradual and systemic marginalisation—both social and economic. Their fundamental rights have been curbed.

Nomads literally have nowhere to go.

Javaid Rahi: “Nomads are actual residents of J&K. They are not a threat to the demography, they are part of the demography of the state. How can you deny them basic rights?”

How do you view the socio-economic status of nomadic tribes in other parts of the country? Are they also encountering similar problems?

The nomadic tribes in J&K have been demanding extension of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act also known as Forest Rights Act, 2006 to the state so that they too can enjoy rights on forest land as are available to the people belonging to ST communities across the country. Similarly, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 that promises to prevent atrocities against the members of SCs and STs, to provide for Special Courts for the trial of such offenses and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offenses, has not been implemented in the state. While Article 330 and 332 of the Indian constitution provides reservation of seats for STs in the Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assemblies, these provisions have not been extended to J&K because of its special constitutional status.

The J&K Forest Rights Act is not enough. We have been demanding the extension of Forest Rights Act of Union government to J&K. If the state government properly implements the Forest Rights Act, most of the problems of nomads will get redressed.

Under Central Forest Rights Act, the forest villages were converted into revenue villages across the country, but in J&K forest villages have not even been identified.

What was the controversial meeting of Tribal Ministry all about? Ít’s purported minutes have triggered a lot of resentment in Jammu.

It was a routine meeting chaired by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Time and again tribal population had been complaining about harassment at the hands of various agencies including forest department and other local bodies to evict them from the state land and forest land. To address such issues, the Chief Minister had issued directions for not disturbing the nomads until a concrete tribal policy comes into force. It was a major relief to the tribal population. Unfortunately, a communal colour was given to that meeting and the minutes of meeting were blown out of proportion to mislead the people.

Given the communal polarisation that has started off since the meeting, do you think a tribal policy or Forest Rights Act would now be implemented in the state?

Yes, definitely there would be opposition in the implementation of Forest Rights Act, which is a long-standing demand of the tribal population.

If there is question of dilution of Article 370, as many people in Kashmir Valley would view, the state government must amend its own Forest Rights Act and bring it at par with Central Act.

In any case, the state government must take the call. It must hold an open discussion in the legislative assembly and take the step. There are bleak possibilities that even opposition parties Congress and National Conference would oppose any such step which is aimed at welfare of the tribal population.

Javaid Rahi: “Nomads are being called ‘land-encroachers’ but the reality is their gradual and systemic marginalisation—both social and economic. Their fundamental rights have been curbed. Nomads literally have nowhere to go”

How do you see the current narrative, that nomadic communities are a threat to the demographic profile of Jammu?

These accusations and assertions are a part of larger misinformation campaign being run by certain political groups. Nomads have a total of 15 lakh population and even if their entire population is settled in three districts of Jammu region, can it effect demographic changes? But they are actual residents of the state. They are not a threat to the demography, they are part of the demography of the state. How can you deny them basic rights?

Several groups have been spreading canards against nomads, accusing them of pro-Pakistan and pro-separatism. Your take?

This is another big lie being peddled by some political players. Tell me one incident, where some Gujjar or Bakarwal has picked up a gun in last many years. There is not even a single instance. On the contrary, the information of Kargil invasion by Pakistan soldiers was provided to Indian Army by the Bakarwals. In another case, Operation Sarp Vinaash in Hill Kaka—which was second largest counter insurgency operation in the state after Kargil—became successful because of nomads. Many bore the brunt for giving information to the Army.

Among the Muslims of J&K, only the Gujjars were given armed training by the Indian Army because Army also believed the nationalistic credentials of nomads. The militants consider nomads as informers of Army and now the Hindus consider nomads as militant sympathisers. Nomads are nationalist people, who tend to their livestock and have nothing to do with the politics of Kashmir Valley.

Some vested interests want to polarise the state and make political capital.

Despite several government schemes, nomads remain one of the most backward communities in the state. How do you view their condition as far as education, healthcare and other government services are concerned?

Firstly, let’s talk about education. The literacy rate among nomads is the lowest. Government has mobile schools for them but most of them have got stationed now. The mobile schools provide education up to fifth standard only. There is provision for one teacher for each school. But there tribal students hardly get books, mid-day meal, toilet facility or other basic things as are enjoyed by children from other communities.

The government has also set up 21 hostels for the students of the twin-communities across the state. The total capacity of these hostels is 2,225 students and tell me where the remaining students will go? These communities have 7 lakh women population according to 2011 Census. As many as one lakh girls are school students but the capacity of six girls’ hostels is only 600.

Second issue is the health facilities for nomads. The dhoks (pastures in the high mountains that are also summer abodes of nomads) remain unconnected from road-network. When there are no roads, they can’t even dream of enjoying healthcare and other basic facilities and amenities.

While resentment is brewing against the twin nomadic communities in Jammu, do they face social exclusion in Valley as well?

Due to religious sentiment, the Kashmiris are supporting the tribal population of Jammu, seeking justice for the little girl. But like Dalits in Hindus, Gujjars and Bakerwals are treated as Dalits by Kashmiris. The communities members are disdained and ridiculed for this simplistic lifestyle. They are considered as dim-witted. Ties of family and food between Kashmiri Muslims and tribal communities hardly exist.

Why did most of the tribal organisations chose to maintain a cautious silence over the issue of rape and murder of little girl in Kathua?

The response of Jammu towards the rape and murder of that girl has been negative since beginning. The locals didn’t allow even the family members to bury the body of girl in Rasana. But tribal organisations have been pursuing the matter since then.

Now several narratives have been created by media that has created confusion even among the tribal population. We have requested for a dialogue between the civil society groups and the nomadic communities so that the misunderstanding and mistrust could be dispelled. We are yet to receive a response.

Akshay Azad is a Jammu-based journalist and media fellow with National Foundation for India

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