Since decades the family of Farzoola Mohammad (50) had been camping at village Kullian in RS Pura sector during rainy season. The family would rent a small tract of land and stay there for at least two-three months. But this year the landlord returned the advance amount to Farzoola, refusing to rent out his land without citing any reasons.
Farzool’s predicament is shared by several other nomads across Hindu-majority areas in Jammu region. Something has suddenly changed for the nomadic Gujjar and Bakerwal communities after the sensational rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakerwal child came to light in Kathua in January 2018. Amid calls of economic boycott of pastoral nomadic communities, several tribal families have reportedly started migrating to other states.
The call followed the charge-sheet filed by the Crime Branch, claiming that the girl was brutally murdered to instil fear among the nomadic communities and dislodge them from the village where they had been camping every summer
Earlier this year, Ankur Sharma, lawyer of accused in the gang rape and murder case, had given a call for social and economic boycott of Gujjar and Bakerwals in Jammu. The call followed the charge-sheet filed by the Crime Branch, claiming that the girl was brutally murdered to instill fear among the nomadic communities and dislodge them from the village where they had been camping every summer.
Said Omparkash Khajuria (45), a human rights activist, “Majority of local residents have stopped renting out land to the Muslim nomads in several areas. The controversial minutes of a meeting held by tribal ministry earlier this year have made local settlers wary of nomads who traditionally camp on their lands.”
Claiming that his neighbours and relatives, who earlier used to rent out their land to the nomads have now stopped the age-old practice, Khajuria explained: “In the areas along the International Border with the Pakistan, the settlers mostly don’t have ownership rights over their land that is state land. The propaganda that nomads now can’t be forcibly evicted from the state land has discouraged farmers from renting out their land to the nomadic families.”
He added that “There is a popular perception among local settlers that Kashmir centric and Muslim dominated state government would invariably side with the Muslim nomads in the event of any conflict”.
Secretary of Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, Dr. Javed Rahi said that the former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had instructed the Deputy Commissioners as well as police officers not to disturb the nomads settled on the government land. “A wrong impression has been created among local residents across Jammu province that nomads are land-encroachers. That once they would settle on their private land, it would become impossible to get them evicted,” Rahi stated.
Makhan Din (73) recalled his childhood, when his family would undertake seasonal migration from Bhaderwah in mountainous Doda district to the plains of RS Pura in Jammu. “There were very few houses in the villages in RS Pura in early 70’s. Most of the land was uncultivable in RS Pura, Bishnah and adjoining areas. There was no paucity of grazing land for the livestock. In the absence of chemical fertilizers, crop production was quite low, and the local residents were dependent on nomads for manure,” Din recalled.
The white bearded septuagenarian added, “During those days, local farmers would provide us shelter besides wood and fodder merely in exchange of dung for growing food crops on their farms.”
“Now the chemical fertilisers have replaced manure and increased crop production. Tractors have made ploughing easy and converted vast tracts of uncultivable area into cultivable land. Even the state land and grazing pastures have been converted into agricultural fields,” Din stated, adding that, “now local residents don’t need our help anymore.”
Din is now settled on five kanal plot in village Mesian in Miran Sahib tehsil of Jammu district. But the number of nomads like Din, who own some land, is quite miniscule whereas majority of pastoral nomads remain landless.
Another Gujjar stationed at village Chadwal in Kathua district, Gulam Mohammad, said: “Earlier there were very few roads in the villages and hardly any motorcars. Either camels or horse carts are used to transport goods. So the local residents were heavily dependent on us. But with the advent of modes of modern transportation, things have changed.”
Assistant Professor in Department of Social Work, Central University of Jammu Iqbal Bhat corroborated his views, stressing that the capitalistic development model, driven by technology and market has adversely impacted the relationship between nomads and settlers. “The symbiotic relationship has shifted to a money-oriented relationship,” Bhat, who has been studying Modernity and Nomadism: Bakerwal in context, observed.
Amid growing acrimony that followed communalisation of rape and murder case coupled with other factors, Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation claimed that several nomadic families have started migrating to other states such as Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
“The Banhara (who lives in forests) Gujjars of Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Kishtwar and Udhampur districts are migrating to other states permanently, for the last few years, as they are facing an extreme shortage of fodder, space for their animals besides security and other reasons,” Rahi said.
“In absence of forest rights in J&K, closures on government lands, insurgency, Pakistan firing on borders, low rates of milk products and because of growing communal tensions, the nomad Gujjars are leaving our state gradually,” he added. “Once they leave this place, there will be no question of their return lawfully, in view of the special status of the state.”
The writer is a Jammu based journalist and media fellow with National Foundation for India