Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nomads in a
troubled land.

The day nomadic people are forced to stop their traditional migrations will be a very sad one indeed...

By: Salman Nizami

One man lives penniless in a field under a patchwork tent with baying dogs roaming outside. Another, wearing a coat and tie, glides past his black BMW as he welcomes guests into his plush Gupkar villa. Both are human beings belonging from a same religion, same region and same nation. Yet they have little in common, except their shared heritage and the view that the life of kashmir's wandering peoples is fading. Few of the itinerant tribesmen have settled down and prospered. For the majority, life has been pushed to the brink by poverty, ethnic tensions and conflict. "We are the last of the true Bakarwals (Gujjars), but because of the hardships we are fed up with this life," said Fareed Khan, a 50-year-old Gujjar, who has hit the road with his family and five others, heading for Pahalgham to beat the coming summer heat. Officials estimate there are about three lakh Gujjar’s among the seven lakhs Gujjar and bakerwal’s or so, with about 60 per cent of them still following the nomadic life. They are among the poorest of the battered kashmir’s poor, owning little more than a tent and a few sheep and bufallows. For more than two decades , Gujjars and bakerwal’s were Kashmir’s pre-eminent transporters and traders, serving as a mobile bridge between Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan, and china. But now Gujjars like Khan, who recently arrived on pahalgham’s outskirts after walking 100 kilometres from Uri are a largely forgotten people, neglected by government. Security forces often chase them off the land, Hospitals refuse their sick, and graveyards reject their dead. They earn money by selling milk from their animals, but many also make their children work or beg. Even if they wanted to settle down, most couldn't afford to buy or rent a house. Yet not all nomads share the same lot. Some have bought property and use it as a base to return to after several months of travel. These nomadic herders live in harmony with the environment and their huge flocks of sheep and goats on which their very existence depends. Majority of them undertake their spring and autumn migrations on foot, covering hundreds of kilometres in a matter of weeks but some, presumably better off tribes, get to ride the gaily caparisoned ponies and mules they also breed as another source of income. These nomads, anthropologists think, evolved from the ancient Turkic tribes of Central Asia and are known throughout the Himalayan, and Hindu Kush regions. Their life revolves around the well-being of their animals which they graze in the plains during the cool of winter, walking them back up into the high mountains for the summer season when weather in the plains is too hot for them to endure. Gujjar children rarely, if ever, get the chance to go to school which puts them at a great disadvantage later in life if they decide to settle permanently in one place as, being uneducated, work opportunities are limited. In days gone by, these nomadic peoples , were able to migrate between Pakistan, China, Tibet, Kashmir and New Delhi but their movements were severely restricted by conflict , international boundary regulations and also by the partition of India when Pakistan came into being .There are now far less nomadic people of this nature than there used to be, their numbers have particularly decreased over the past 60 years or so, yet, even so, they are still counted in the thousands although no one really knows exactly how many there really are. While educated people all over the world talk about saving the environment and having respect for nature, nomadic tribes have always practised such things as they are fully aware that if they misuse or exploit their natural surroundings they will suffer for it sooner or later.

Each particular tribe sticks to its own ancestral route of migration; say for example, summering in a particular valley in kashmir and wintering near a certain village in the plains of Jammu region, with specified nightly camping grounds along the very long route to and fro. Others summer in the alpine valleys of Gurez and Baramulla or in the spectacular hidden mountain valleys of remote kupwara , but all winter down in the relative warmth of the plains, beginning their migrations as soon as temperatures begin to drop and well before the advent of the first snow fall which would trap them and their livestock in the mountains for the winter. Just how many more years the nomadic way of life will be able to survive is highly questionable as the modern way of living, so very different from theirs, is managing to adversely affect nomadic movements. New roads and motorways now cut through traditional travelling routes, land on which they have always camped is not always open to them anymore and finding new camping grounds , where the huge herds of animals can graze plus have access to water is increasingly difficult and even their winter camping grounds are disappearing under construction sites. The day nomadic people are forced to stop their traditional migrations will be a very sad one indeed. People who are not used to living in one place all the time will find it extremely difficult to settle down and neither would they then be able to retain the herds on which their survival depends as they would not be able to find enough suitable land on which to graze them. For now at least, they are able to live alongside the natural world in a far more sustainable manner than you or I and could, most certainly, teach us all a thing or two.

Salman Nizami is a Free lance Journalist and has done an indepth research on kashmir conflict.