India Today - - UPFRONT - By Vas­ant Saber­wal The au­thor is Di­rec­tor, Cen­tre for Pas­toral­ism

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

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