The Bakarwal (also Bakkarwal, Bakharwal, Bakrawala, and Bakerwal) community was listed as Scheduled Tribes along with Gujjars in Jammu and Kashmir in 1991. The term 'Bakarwal' is an occupational one derived from the Gojri word, bakara, meaning goat or sheep, and wal means "one who takes care of." So essentially, "Bakarwal '' implies "high-altitude goatherd/shepherd."
Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes are nomadic tribes that Constitute the third largest community in the Union territory. They spread broadly, starting from Pir Panjal Range to Hindukush to Ladakh, located in the Himalayan mountains of South Asia. Primarily found in the entire Kashmir region between India and Pakistan and in the Nuristan Province of northeast Afghanistan. As goatherders and shepherds at large, they seasonally migrate from one place to another with their herds.
As sheep and goat rearing, the Bakarwals alternate the seasons between high and low altitudes in the hills of the Himalayas. They stretch from the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Nuristan to the hills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Hence, they are mainly found in the Nuristan Province of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. The Bakarwals mostly follow a migration route through the foothills of the Himalayas, as they can be found on the Upper Himalayan Range down into the Lower Himalayan Range.
Pertinent to mention that in J&K, there are 12 Schedule Tribes. The 2011 Census reveals that the entire Schedule Tribe Population of the Union Territory is 14,93,299. Among 12 Schedule Tribes, Gujjar is the most populous tribe having a population of 980654. Bakerwal is the third largest tribe having a population of 113198. The living standards of tribal people, especially during migration routes, are critical. They struggle to maintain their traditional lifestyle in the face of changing forest landscapes and weather conditions. Further, They have poor food, shelter, healthcare, education, and security standards. Mobile schools and dispensers are mostly in pathetic condition. In addition, lockdown and post 370 abrogation restrictions disrupted the seasonal livestock and made migration challenges. As a result, the life of Bakarwals and Gujjars is undoubtedly changing.
These thousand-year-old tribes are being forced upon nonetheless. They often get caught between communities that either hates them for their religion or resent them for their lack of participation. As a result, nomads of Jammu and Kashmir survive grave dangers imminent upon them. Despite the 2006 Forest Right Act that protects these nomads and is against forced displacements. Thousands of Gujjar and Bakarwal families now face an existential crisis because of the lack of action from the government.
It caused a cascading effect on the traditional businesses and lives of the nomadic communities. During the summer months, no matter how severe weather conditions prevail, tribals live in the roughly made wood, stone, and mud huts commonly called koothas' and survive. Official data reveals that 500,000 among 15 Lakh Gujjar and Bakarwal in Jammu and Kashmir were nomads who rear sheep, buffalo, goats, cows, and horses for survival. Ensuing man-wildlife conflict often leads to bloody fights, mainly to protect human life and cattle.
"People try to paint a rosy picture of our life, but ours is, in fact, a saga of endurance and miseries," says Liaqat Khan, a shepherd from the Bakarwal tribe. At around 55km (34.17 miles) from Srinagar - the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir - they camp in Dardwodur forests.
Nazira, 30, is a skinny mother cradling her newborn here. Her tribe arrived three days ago and camped in the alpine heights. "It's time for us to start winter migration," Nazira says as she sticks her head out from her makeshift tent. For years, the Bakarwal tribe has been shuttling between Jammu and Kashmir. They spend six months in Kashmir during the summers, arriving in the valley in April. Then, by October, they return to the plains of Jammu for the winters. In the winters, the tribe heads to the warmer plains of Jammu for six months. Today, the tribe fears for the endurance of its traditional lifestyle due to increased wild animal attacks on their cattle - their primary source of income. As a result, the sale of their livestock has also dwindled.
"Earlier, a day of hard work would fetch a good amount of money for a sheep or a goat but not anymore," says Mohammed Zubair, a disabled nomad, 50, camped on the outskirts of Srinagar.
"We belong to nowhere," says Zulfi, a young Bakarwal girl in Kashmir. "This is just our summer home." Tribe members say they have no permanent home. Instead, they rear cattle and live on forest lands.
In recent years, the tribe has struggled to maintain its livelihood. The community also works with increased instances of inclement weather. "It's tough to travel to the high-altitude pastures of the Himalayas," says Liaqat Khan, a shepherd. For example, in June, unseasonal snowfall and severe cold weather conditions in Chenab valley of Jammu and Kashmir left hundreds of tribal families stuck on roadsides with little food or fodder. Another primary concern for the tribe is their access to forest lands. Last year, Authorities served hundreds of families from the community eviction notices for "illegally" occupying forests where they have lived for decades. They also demolished several houses - the community lives in temporary tents and mud huts in these areas. A few months later, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said authorities would work to safeguard the rights of tribal communities in the region and provide them with rights certificates.
Access to forest lands is a significant concern for the tribe. However, the harsh realities of their existence are pushing the tribe's younger generation to focus on getting a good education and living an easier life. The administration has also set up community schools to educate children of such tribes in forest areas.
"We aren't giving up on anything," says Zulfi. "Although we are uncertain about our lives, we firmly hold on to our traditions, no matter what."
Many in the tribe are determined to keep their traditions alive. Despite various pressures on the community and hardships they face in most plights, many say they are bound to stick to their traditional lifestyle. Nothing uproots them or lessens their love for their community and native place. Yet, they are the actual residents of Jammu and Kashmir facing the extreme atrocities of life.
This essay aims to create awareness among people and uplift these tribes. They are a significant part of Jammu and Kashmir. However, they are humans, too, and deserve every right to have the basic amenities for a good standard of living. In conclusion, unfortunate plights are being forced upon these nomadic tribes. They need to be protected to lead peaceful lives. The government needs to take action before we lose them.
All images by Abid Bhat.
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