With no access to the forest resources, grazing lands shrinking and villages growing, the nomadic herders of Gujjars and Bakerwal communities in Jammu and Kashmir find themselves locked in conflict with local residents.
The recent victim is an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl in Rasana village—about five km from Jammu -Pathankot highway in Hiranagar tehsil of Kathua district. Her battered body was found eight days after she went missing on January 17. The body had several bones broken, face bruised and human bites all over it. She was grazing horses when last spotted. The girl was allegedly sexually assaulted and brutally murdered to “intimidate” the community and discourage them from coming to the area every winter.
Both the ethnic groups account for over 10 per cent of the total population of the state. Even though a microscopic minority belonging to the twin tribes have settled in different areas over the years, majority of them continue with their traditional lifestyle. They seasonally migrate between the plains and high-altitude Himalayas.
But the horror of the mourning family didn’t end there. After going through the official procedures to register evidence of the gruesome crime, the family couldn’t even bury her body in the area. The local residents of nearby Kootah village, where the community members had bought a piece of land for graveyard, didn’t let the mourners bury her. Eventually, they had to walk about seven to eight km to bury the eight-year-old in another village, Kannah—where some Bakerwal families had their own community graveyard.
After the issue rocked Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, the state government suspended the SHO of the area in a huff. Subsequently, the police arrested a boy from Rasana village, claiming that he was a juvenile. A special investigation team was constituted, and the probe was transferred to the Crime Branch which is currently handling the case. The family of the murdered girl, which lives in a two-room structure on a clear patch of forest land, contests the police claims and has demanded a judicial probe. The women who gave final ritual bath to eight-year-old testified that she was sexually assaulted, according to them.
The crime is suspected to be part of a bigger conspiracy. In this case, rape has been used as a weapon to scare away nomadic families, asserts Talib Hussain, 27, who is leading the “Justice for Aasifa” movement. “The members of the majority community don’t want them to camp in the area as nomads happen to be Muslims and economically vulnerable.” Agitated over “shoddy” police investigation, he alleges com¬munal bias against the twin tribes in local administration, police and the local residents of majority commu¬nity. Certain BJP leaders including some legislators and Hindutva activ¬ists have been influencing the police investigation, he believes.
The Hiranagar police, according to Talib, didn’t take the case seriously since the beginning. “The girl went missing on January 10. But the police refused to file an FIR in the first place and instead asked the family to come back after two days, ignoring the Supreme Court’s direction—which says an FIR should be filed forthwith in missing person’s cases. Next day, the family again approached police and the FIR was registered. But an SPO-rank police official was designated as the investigating officer,” he says.
“The family has not received a copy of the medical report and the FIR till now. So we don’t know in which direction the police investigation is going. Instead of looking out for the missing girl, police kept harassing the family members before her body was recovered,” he alleges, adding, “even though the police claim to have arrested a 15-year-old boy, we feel police is shielding the main ac-cused persons. The circumstantial evidence show that the girl was held captive in a cattleshed for eight days, repeatedly raped before she was brutally murdered. Three of her ribs were broken, a hip bone fractured and then there were bite marks all over her body. She had injury marks on face, suggesting that an attempt was made to disfigure her face with a rock. She had been given electric shocks and injected sedatives.”
“Can a 15-year-old boy do all this on his own? No. The cattle shed be¬longs to one Sanji Sharma and the arrested person, claimed to be a juvenile, is his nephew. Why are the police not arresting the cattleshed owner,” he asks. “On January 21, we were carrying out a peaceful rally against the gruesome incident when the police launched a crackdown on us. In the presence of the deputy commissioner and the SSP Kathua we were thrashed by the police, leaving many demonstrators injured and some of us—including me—were arrested,” he adds. Certain BJP leaders influenced the police to “take care of the accused boy’s age” and have giv¬en a communal colour to the case, he says. “We have demanded a judicial investigation, but the government in¬stead has handed the case over to the Crime Branch. Adil Raja, additional superintendent of police, Samba was doing the investigation and we were cooperating. The sudden transfer of case to the Crime Branch raises grave doubts. This is being done to shield the accused and political activists who tried to influence the investigation,” he says.
“Union Minister of State Jitendra Singh, who represents the constituency in Lok Sabha, Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh and Forest Minister Lal Singh, who belong to Kathua, are maintaining criminal silence over the issue,” he laments.
“In Rasana village, which is a small hamlet amid forest area, at least 20 nomadic families have been camping on the Evacuee Property department’s land. Since the BJP has come to power in state, the local residents of the area have allegedly ostracised these families. Either the local residents refuse to give fodder to the nomadic families for their livestock or sell it off to them at exorbitant prices. Villagers apprehend that they will occupy the land and change the demography of the area,” says Talib, adding, “Sexual harassment of no-madic women and girls has become routine. The menfolk are thrashed by members of the majority community whenever their livestock stray on to their land or drink water from the village ponds.”
“When we staged demonstration on January 21 at Chann Morian Chowk in Kathua town, the non-Muslim residents stood in solidarity. They even gave shelter to the demonstra¬tors during police action. But now the same people have denied the members of the girl’s community from taking water from government hand pumps at their localities,” he says, adding that the potable water supply to Rasana and other hamlets of Gujjars-Bakerwals has been blocked after the demonstrations.
Pertinently, Rohingya refugees in Jammu have also been the target of hate campaigns. In February last year, Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party put up billboards in Jammu city asking residents to “wake-up” and “save the history, culture, and identity of the Dogras”. The billboard directed Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees to “quit Jam¬mu”. This was followed by a threat to “identify and kill” them if the government did not deport the refu¬gees. It was issued by Rakesh Gupta, president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in a press conference. Rakesh declared that the refugees were “criminals” who would change the demography of the region. Several BJP leaders have also demanded evacuation of Rohingya refugees describing them as threat to the national security and demographic character of the Jammu region.
Talib laments the pregnant silence maintained by the civil society. According to him, a large section of local media in Jammu has chosen to look the other way. “Why has this gruesome incident not shaken their conscience,” he asks.
“Irony is that neither self-styled activists nor feminists have raised their voices against this gruesome murder. The so-called fourth pillar of democracy, media, is silent. If they can build up a campaign to seek justice for Nirbhaya in Delhi, whose case was resolved by police within 24 hours, why they can’t raise their voices against this gruesome murder? Why is #JusticeforAasifa not trending on Twitter, Facebook or other social media sites?” reads an online petition, Justice for Aasifa. “The state police have completely failed to investigate the matter and now the government has announced that Crime Branch will investigate the case. This is the third probe ordered within a week. The eight-year-old’s crime is that she belonged to a poor and downtrodden family. Is this why the social activists, government, politicians, media, and other responsible state agencies are acting as mute spectators?”
The Gujjars and Bakerwals were notified as Scheduled Tribe in the year 1991. But the fruits of reservation are enjoyed mainly by those who are already well settled and affluent. Though general literacy rate among the community members is 5 to 8 per cent but it’s pathetically low among the nomads. The state government set up single teacher mobile schools for them over four decades ago. Majority of mobile schools have now become stationary whereas others largely re¬main operational on papers only, according to researchers.
The landless nomads invariably resent “harassment” at the hands of forest officials and police. It has been a long-standing demand that the Forest Rights Act, 2006 be extended to the state so that they too can enjoy rights on forest land as are available to the people belonging to Scheduled Tribe communities across the country. “The economy of both the nomadic communities is heavily dependent on live¬stock and dairy farming. Moreover, cattle rearing is becoming increasingly difficult for them due to shrinking pastures and lack of fodder. With the gradual decline of handicraft industry in the state, they don’t get remunerative prices after selling wool of sheep and goats,” states Naseeb Choudhary, a researcher at Jammu University. While these people are always on the move and stay away from cities and towns, there are hardly any mobile ambulances or mobile doctors made available to them despite government policies.
Additionally, the nomads now find it increasingly difficult to migrate through traditional routes due to stiff opposition from local residents. Over the decades, several new villages have come up on both sides of their migration paths. On highways, they face double threat: Travelling with cattle herds poses greater risk to their lives and livestock. Second, they are increasingly being targetted by cow vigilante groups.
“The recent years have witnessed a growing number of attacks on pastoral nomads in several districts of Jammu province like Kathua, Samba, Udhampur, Jammu and Rajouri,” says Naseeb, adding, “They hardly get any compensation from the gov¬ernment if their livestock gets killed in a road accident or in a natural calamity.” “Due to their old methods of sustenance and a unique culture, customs and beliefs, these nomadic pastoralists find it impossible to assimilate into the realm of modernity,” laments Naseeb.
Given the government apathy to¬wards the challenging life struggles of these pastoral nomads, an alternative model that is both sustainable and suits to their particular needs re¬mains a far cry from reality.