THE SORRY FATE OF NOMAD TRIBES
The rape and murder of an eight-yearold girl has put the spotlight on a group of people most of us know little about—the Indian pastoralist. Much of the recent conversation is rightly focused on the brutality of the act and the need for justice. Reports speak of the violence as an attempt to intimidate. And to the extent that this little girl’s family of Bakarwals started on its summer migration a month early, that objective appears to have been met.
The truth is that pastoralists in India— estimated to be 34 million—have always been an easy target. Across the country, migratory pastoralists have spoken of growing insecurity, and at multiple levels. Over the past two decades buffalo herding Gujjars have been gradually evicted from the Rajaji National Park. Gaddi shepherds in Himachal speak of encounters with armed thieves who make off with 20-30 animals shoved into the back of a truck. Similar accounts have emerged from Rajasthani Raikas, while migrating through Madhya Pradesh. In Kutch, mangrove forests grazed by camels are being destroyed by corporate houses.
Every pastoralist you speak to talks of the growing difficulties of finding adequate grazing—there are simply too many claimants for too few resources, and migratory pastoralists are often the first to be denied. Over the past century-and-a-half, these communities have had to contend with a hostile forest department, convinced that marauding herds will decimate forests. Further, broadly-held cultural norms see ‘mobility’ as an earlier, less civilised life form, that must give way to settled agriculture. So, there is the continual stereotyping—thieves, dirty, simple-minded, irrational. These then are occupational hazards for all pastoralists, irrespective of faith, sect, or geography. Throwing communal bigotry and politics into this mix makes for a deeply worrying situation.
Pastoralist vulnerability derives in large part from the fact that they spend so much of their lives as outsiders, separated from their communities and almost entirely dependent on the goodwill of the communities they encounter while on migration. But only by embarking on long-distance migrations can they maintain large herds, and take advantage of seasonal and geographic variability in available forage.
Many pastoralists have proven to be resilient and learnt the art of accommodation, negotiating complex relationships to obtain the forage they need. Over the years, they have built relations with the communities they pass through and individuals will return again and again to the same farmers’ fields. They have used political contacts to hold the Forest Department at bay. Formerly paid by communities to bed their cattle on their fields for their manure, herders now pay communities for the right to graze village forests. They have done what it takes to meet their resource needs, despite the odds stacked against them.
But violence and bigotry may be the last straw. What do the Bakarwals do this winter? Do they dare return to Jammu? And if not, what possible alternatives do they have? The family of the murdered child has undoubtedly grazed their animals in the same Jammu forests for decades. There is no other land they can go to, and the winter snows will force them from the high meadows.
A younger generation of herders is increasingly of the view that there are simply too many challenges to their way of life. And many will move on with other alternatives they can tap into—the second son turning to agriculture, becoming a truck driver, looking for work in urban India, even as a part of the family stays on in herding. A community settles, one family at a time, but what does a whole community do in the face of overt hostility? Who does it turn to? And how do we as a nation act now to protect this group of citizens, which has bred India’s remarkable animal diversity, been integral to our meat, wool, leather and dairy industries, and today finds itself more vulnerable than ever before?
What do the Bakarwals do this winter? Do they dare return to Jammu? There is no other land they can go to. Winter will force them from the high meadows