In Pics: Bakarwals of J&K Struggle to Keep Tradition Alive

Bakarwals and Gujjars are the third largest ethnic group after Kashmiris and Dogras inhabiting Jammu & Kashmir. According to the 2011 census, the Gujjars and Bakkarwals constitute 11.9 percent of the state’s population — 1.5 million out of 12.5 million.

Traditionally nomadic communities, with their names indicating the livestock they reared (Gujjars reared cattle, Bakarwals reared sheep and goats — “Gau” means cow, and “Bakara” is goat”), the communities have adopted somewhat different paths.

Mohammad Iqbal Bejran, a 51-year-old nomad from Rajouri, says enclosures have come up making the mobility of nomads and their herds difficult.

Mohammad Iqbal Bejran, a 51-year-old nomad from Rajouri has been migrating to highland pastures in Himalayas with the family’s flocks of sheep and goats since he was a child.

Bejran says that Bakarwals used to go wherever they wanted in the forests, but now many enclosures have come up which makes the movements of nomads and their herds difficult in forests.

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The Bakarwals of Jammu & Kashmir are predominantly Muslims and their way of life, language and customs are strikingly different as compared to their counterparts settled mostly in the plains of the state. Most of the one million Gujjars live in mountainous areas where they now depend heavily upon livestock rearing and small-scale agriculture.

On the other hand, the Bakarwals remain nomadic, and traditionally migrate to alpine pastures with their flocks of livestock for the summers.

But even for the Bakarwals, this is changing, as a significant percentage have settled in the plains owing to the increasing hardships the migration entails.

This flock of sheep and goats and their herders have reached near the Yousmarg meadow in Kashmir 15 days after they began their journey from Rajouri.

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As education has become important, this has also led to changes, since the practice of migration is the biggest impediment for those who want to ensure formal education for their children.

Women reach a camping site well before the men to set up the tents and prepare food.

According to a study, majority of the [tribal] population – the Gujjars and Bakarwals – in Jammu & Kashmir is illiterate. As per the data, 15 districts of the mountainous state which have a substantial Bakarwal population, have literacy rates less than the average literacy of 50.6 percent among the indigenous population (referred to as ‘tribals’ in government terminology).

The study further stated that the dropout rate of tribals is increases as the education level rises, from lower-primary to elementary level (29.8 percent to 62.7 percent.)

A nomad woman looking around before entering into her small tent-house near the Doodganga stream at Yousmarg.

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In recent years, many pastures have remained out of bounds for nomads because of armed conflict in Kashmir. They have no access to north-west highlands of Kashmir like Gurez and Kargil.

Kids help their mothers carrying the fire-wood from the surroundings at a camping site.

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Some nomadic families found alternative pastures in the upper reaches of Dachigam, the habitat of the Hangul (or Kashmiri stag) which is Jammu and Kashmir’s state animal and the flagship species of the region’s wildlife.

This has put them in direct confrontation with the wildlife department who accuse them of causing damage to the habitat of the Hangul.

Shehnaz Begam prepares Roti (bread) for her husband who will join her after a long trek in forests while taking the flock of his sheep and goats to the camping site.
This nomad girl said that she and her fellow nomad girls and women mostly listen to Gojri songs and Hindi film songs.

The radio is the only for entertainment for the women during the day – if it catches the signal. None of the seven women at this camping site had a mobile phone with them.

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The division of labour — women taking care of all household chores and men taking care of the animals and security — is very strict.

Muneeza studies in 2nd standard at Jikdiyal Gati Primary School in Rajouri. But for the rest of the summer as she roves in highland Himalayan pastures along with her parents, she would be out of school.

Many nomad families said that mobile schools, arranged by the Jammu & Kashmir government for nomads, are not functioning. Even if they exist at one or two places where more than 40 nomad families camp together, the teachers don’t report to work and infrastructure such as blackboards and chalk are not available.

Muneeza, a class 2 student at a primary school in Rajouri, will spend her summer out of school with her parents roving in the Himalayan pastures.
Mehnaz Kousar studies in 5th standard at a school in Rajouri. But she will be out of school for the summers as she roves with her family.
The family of Mohammad Iqbal Bijran enjoying Sabaz Chai (salt tea), now that he has reached the campsite with the animals.
A nomad leaving the campsite to a nearby small pasture where his flock of goats is grazing.
Most of the alpine pastures have been closed down by forest department of Jammu and Kashmir, making life extremely difficult for nomads.

(The story was originally published on Third Pole Net and has been republished with permission. Athar Parvaiz is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, J&K.)

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