Presented at History Panchayat organised by CERT on 8/05/2018 at New Delh

Ishtiaq Ahmed Shauq, Research Fellow, JNU


There are different accounts about the origin of Gujjars. They are believed to be “the partial descendants ofIndo-Scythians, Georgians, and Khazars of the Caspian Sea,… who took part in the Scythian invasions of South Asia.” Some other accounts describe them as“Turko-Iranian tribes that merged with local Indo-Aryan groups, mainly settling in the Gujarat, Punjab and Kashmir regions.”They first appeared in the northern India during the invasion of Hunas (Hepthalites) in the 5th century. The earliest account of a Gujjar Kingdom is of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty, established at Nandipur (Nandol) in the 7th century.

The Gujjars are currently spread across many nations and continents, with their diaspora scattered from London to Germany to Canada and many other major cities of the world. Their population is majorly concentrated in India, Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan.

This article will discuss the Gujjars of Jammu and Kashmir state; their socio-political and economic profile, the questions of identity, recognition and redistribution; the spectre of development and the assault of the right-wing forces, and the corresponding displacement of the tribals from their pastures, their meadows and their homeland.

The Gujjar and Bakerwal community of Jammu and Kashmir is a  socially oppressed, economically marginalised and politically under-represented tribal group. They are nomads, semi‐nomads, pastoralists and agro‐pastoralists . The Bakerwals are a distinct group of nomads within Gujjars who are mostly goatherds (They rear Bakri-yan [goats] and hence the name Baker-wal) and shepherds. The Gujjar Bakerwal community constitute 88% of the tribal population of the state which, according to 2011 census data, equals 10 lakh. But, the tribal activists project a figure which is much higher than what is represented through the data. The reason is that they practise transhumance; they remain in the plains of Jammu during winter and migrate to the pastures and meadows of the valley during summer season. A significant portion of their life is spent in traveling as they move on foot, without any recourse to the gizmos and gadgets of modernity. So, while the census data officials are taking surveys of people, Gujjars are crossing alleys and traversing difficult Himalayan terrain along with their cattle, sheeps and goats. The government has never ever recognised the difficulties of this kind of migration, the needs of the tribals and hence we don’t see any measures by the state to protect them and their livestock during harsh climatic conditions and other difficulties encountered in this journey towards/from the pastures. The advent of developmental projects, climatic changes and the expansion of tourism has completely disrupted their pattern of migration and it is threatening their worldview and the whole configuration of how they want to live their life. The forest officials have identified some fixed routes for migration, and many nomads have alleged that guards at forest check-posts extort “rasoom (money)” in the name of damage caused to forests by their cattle. There are a number of roads, including the famous Mughal Road, which have been constructed on these routes which were being used by tribals for migration since ages. They still follow the same routes but with consequences never met before, because now they have to bear the constant blaring of horns and people jibing and sneering at them through window panes of their cars and other vehicles. We also observe many cases of vehicles crushing over scores of sheeps and cattle every year, and sometimes the accompanying nomads are also killed. This is the classic case of the occupation of the ‘tribal space’, ensuing death and destruction galore. The government has not made available any alternate routes for the tribals, nor has it extended any support in some other form. The result is that the tribals keep dying while the blood of their cattle and sheep keeps spilling on the epitome of modernity i.e. roads.

Displacement and the need for implementing FRA

Since we have now realised the connection between modernity and development, and its impact on the pattern of life and worldview of tribals, lets get to the question of displacement. There are two different processes of displacements at play: on the one hand the expansion of tourism and developmental projects is displacing them from their pastures, their migration routes and homeland. On the other, we are witnessing an extremely unfortunate and horrifying assault of right-wing Hindutva forces, which is confined to the Jammu region.

In the times of global expansion of the capital and the developmental agendas of the state, the tribal groups have become extremely vulnerable and exposed to the might of the state and various other globalising forces. The duty of the government and the society at large was to protect them from this onslaught. On the contrary, they are being displaced from the areas where they have lived for ages. It includes their dhokas (pastures), some mainland areas in Jammu plains etc. The displacement of these tribes in the name of development (as it is happening in the valley) and the majoritarian onslaught (as it is happening in the Jammu region) can be stopped by applying the laws related to tribes in India. But the constitutional safeguards provided to the various tribal groups of the country have not been extended to the tribal population of Jammu and Kashmir. The attitude of the state is very discriminatory and exclusionary towards them. The state has adopted an approach of cherry-picking central policies in the state. While a number of central laws have been duly passed through a parallel legislation, all the laws and constitutional provisions related to the tribals have not been implemented.

The brutal rape and murder of a young eight years old tribal girl reflects the core of this issue. The tribal activists working on this case have reiterated time and again that this rape and murder couldn’t have taken place if the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir. The report of the Crime Branch that investigated this murder revealed that it was planned to instil fear in the minds of the local Bakerwals so that they leave that area which is dominated by the majority Hindu community. It is important to note that this is not the first time they are facing the threat of displacement. It happened for the first time during partition, when we witnessed a sustained process of the making of a minority. The Muslims of the Jammu region were ruthlessly massacred by the Dogra regime and those who survived had to migrate to Pakistan. Consequently, Muslims became a minority, and the worst hit were the tribals of the Gujjar Bakerwal community. The current onslaught is being unleashed by constantly reminding them of the past massacres. The Forest Minister Lal Singh openly warned Gujjars to forget their demands and leave their places or remember what happened during partition and expect the same now. His remark “47 bhull gaey ho Gujjro’’ i.e. “ O’ Gujjars, Have you forgotten 1947?, and the corresponding silence of the society to such a horrifying remark speaks volumes about the position of this tribal community in the state.

The term ‘custodial land’, which dates back to the year 1947, is worthwhile mentioning here. I have discussed above the massacre of Muslims during partition and the ensuing mass migration. Those who migrated because of fear of communal killings by the Hindu mobs, left behind large swathes of land. This land was taken over by the government and came to be known as the ‘evacuee property’ or ‘custodian property.’ This property is now under the control of the government and the majority community. This majority considers the temporary settlements of the nomads a threat to its demography. The communal lines have been drawn to such an extent that they don’t even allow the nomads to collect fodder and leaves for their sheeps and goats. In fact, the land that is now called Custodian land belonged to their own community members who migrated to Pakistan. But they have no right over this land. The FRA which was passed in 2006, grants legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest dwelling communities. It recognises the symbiotic relationship of tribals with the forests and gives a voice to such communities in matters of forest and wildlife conservation, while also remedying the wrongs and injustices inflicted through various forest laws. The Gujjar Bakerwal community is being forced out of such areas which are termed custodial lands. The only immediate solution is to recognise the rights of such forest-dwelling communities who don’t live according to the mainstream ideas of land, ownership and property. The FRA gives them grazing rights; access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce; right to hold and live in the forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood, etc. Gujjars are vociferously demanding for the implementation of this FRA in the context of forced eviction drives, harassment, rapes and murders of the members of their community. This is why it’s important that the government implements the FRA and allows them to live a life of dignity without the constant threat, of getting killed, even lynched or displaced, looming over their heads. The rape and murder of the eight years old girl is not one single isolated incident. They are at the receiving end of a continuous process of marginalisation that is very well planned and organised. The current propaganda of the right-wing forces in Jammu region aims to delegitimise their demands for a life with dignity and stigmatise the whole community for its occupational choices and identity. The next section delves deeper into the issues and concerns of the question of identity and recognition.

Tribal identity and its public expression

The inglorious predicament of the Gujjars belonging to the state of Jammu and Kashmir is that they are living a life without dignity. They have been deliberately prevented from enjoying their fundamental right to a life with dignity. The processes of exclusion and marginalisation corners them into dark dungeons of insignificance and indignity. The tribal identity of this community has not only been marginalised but also stigmatised. The marginality of this tribal group reeks of the systemic attempts of various forces which have oppressed and silenced them all along a historical continuum. The whole Weltanschauung of the majority of Gujjars revolves around their tribal identity. This tribal identity marks them in a peculiar way and makes them quite visible and hence recognisably different. Unfortunately, the idiosyncratic visibility and their passionate clinging to the heritage that their forefathers have bequeathed to them becomes a reason for their pain and suffering. It is their adherence to the nomadic/semi-nomadic or pastoral life-style that is laughed at, and stigmatised. The only benevolent response from the government has been the granting of the ST status which has further stigmatised the group. This affirmative action policy has, no doubt, helped them to a great degree in improving their economic condition but it has had serious consequences in terms of their social status as it has created dissonance and discord between Gujjars and other communities inhabiting around. They have been continuously stigmatised for being a ‘scheduled tribe’. They have been made to feel low of themselves; who can’t do anything on their own, and that the economic benefits that they are enjoying are unfair and unjustified. The public conversation regarding affirmative action reflect an apologia on the part of the Gujjars who are put in a position of  defence and evasion by the mainstream society. This is why, in such conversations, they talk about those Gujjars who get their names in the ‘open list’—of various central and state services—thereby reifying the imposed understanding that claiming benefits out of reservation is not the right of the marginalised groups. It can only be the benevolence of the state and the society that they are helping the incapable and undeserving poor. The questions of historical injustice, recognition and redistribution rights are put aside.

Secondly, the privileged classes in the state have consciously or subconsciously assumed the smooth working of the society through a kind of a varna hierarchy wherein the Gujjars are supposed to do the works meant for the castes at the bottom of the hierarchy. It includes the construction of the very image of a Gujjar— who, as a child, cannot be anything except a vendor or a house assistant or someone grazing cattle etc. The same Gujjar child is expected to be a tiller, a labourer, a milkman, or anyone without respect and dignity, when he is young. The privileged ones use this image to in their vocabulary of jibes and abuses. If you have to abuse someone, you abuse him through this image; just call him a “Gujru’. Gujru is a distorted version of the original word Gujjar and is one of the choicest abuses that is invoked in common conversations. This condescending attitude has deprived generations of this community to meaningfully express itself. The public expression of this identity is not possible without shame and guilt. They don’t feel comfortable in speaking in their own language in public spaces. Their language, their sartorial sense and their culture is not welcomed in the public space. Besides other things, it also reeks of the colonial legacy that is left behind. Before Independence, there were certain tribes which were  termed as criminal tribes. The attitude of the state and the society at large is no different to tribes in the post-independent era as well. There is a racial logic at play in how this vocabulary of abuse not just ridicules but also dehumanises the whole lifeworld of this tribal community. The state is not far behind in further reifying and legitimising this logic. Recently, the State Board of School Education published a Text book of English for Class VIII wherein, in a chapter titled ‘Global Warming’, it was announced that the melting of glaciers is taking place because of the activities of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community. As discussed above, the forest-dwelling communities have a symbiotic relationship with the environment. The state is not just negating their role in the preservation and protection of environment and wildlife, but also erasing their distinctive image by constructing another disparaging identity stabbed with stigma and contempt.

As long as this racial logic is at play and tribals aren’t accepted for who they are, the bleakness of an empty and horrifying future is waiting to engulf them into nothingness. The guilt of being from a discarded community, the shame of expressing in one’s own— but condemned— language, the horror of the public expression of one’s vilified identity are the embodiments of the civilisational crimes of the modern society running around the small world of Gujjars.