The Bakkarwal of Jammu and Kashmir; de facto to de jure rights.

By Anita Sharma//

(Editor’s note: this is an abridged version of Anita Sharma’s full research titled ” The Bakkarwal of Jammu and Kashmir: negotiating the commons which can be downloaded here ).

In this article, I will attempt to understand the commons as a process of claims-making (and unmaking) in the context of the pastoral nomadic Gujjar and Bakkarwal of Kashmir. The dramatic changes that took place in Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019 were pushed through with the sine qua non that they will ensure the progress and development of the minorities; thus far marginalized groups such as women, dalits, tribals and nomads, will stand to gain significantly from the shift. However, the de-operationalization of Article 370, which removed the separate constitution of the erstwhile state and merged it fully with India as a so-called union territory on August 5, has left most people, including the tribal communities in Jammu and Kashmir, bewildered.

Gujjar and Bakkarwal

The Gujjar and their sub-group, the Bakkarwal, both semi-nomadic and nomadic pastoral tribes, claim historical invisibility and disadvantage when it comes to being counted as state citizens. The communities themselves claim to constitute about 20% of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, whereas the 2011 Census pegs their numbers at 11.5%. As the apparatus of the state functions through stationary outposts such as the hamlet, cluster, village and town, census officials do not trek up to mountain pastures and other commons to count the Bakkarwal, who migrate as entire families to high mountain pastures above the tree-line every summer. Additionally, the census in Jammu and Kashmir is invariably conducted in the summer months, when most of the nomads are in the highlands and thus are not counted. Ironically, this is irrespective of the fact that the government runs ‘mobile schools’ that, at least on paper, operate in these pastures throughout the summer with a travelling teacher issued with a school tent and other minimum paraphernalia.

Photo Credit: The WSJ

The Gujjar and Bakkarwal of Jammu and Kashmir only started to receive the benefits of reservation in the early 1990s. The government of India extended job and educational reservation to the Gujjar and Bakkarwal in 1991, since when a trickle of the educated from the community have elbowed their way into government jobs and state politics.

Some people in Jammu and Kashmir are of the opinion that it is the Gujjar, Bakkarwal and other tribals who stand to gain most significantly by the shift in the region’s status. However, the intangible benefits that revolve around power, politics and identity will be contingent upon the level of maturity of governance and politics in this new union territory and its evolution in the near future.

Apart from about 47,000 Gaddis in Doda District, who are all Hindus, all the tribals in Jammu and Kashmir are Muslims. The Bakkarwal herd goats and sheep, while the Gujjar raise cows and buffaloes and are spread across almost every district in Jammu and Kashmir, with a sizeable presence in Rajouri and Poonch Districts, and large numbers in parts of Reasi and Doda Districts and some parts of the Kashmir Valley.

The thirty-odd years of strife and turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir have pushed many nomads to settle down. Many found themselves caught between the excesses of the military on the one hand and the brutality of the separatists on the other. Yet, a large number continue to remain nomadic. They continue to practice nomadic pastoralism because, given their low educational qualifications and absence of landed property, they accrue the highest economic and social returns only in their current way of life. Sedentarization also implies a certain estrangement from their wider clan members, a move towards assimilation to majority populations and a dilution of their sense of self and identity. While this gives rise to novel relations and new formations, hyphenated identities and even a certain sense of continuity, it must nevertheless be acknowledged that most of those who sedentarize do not do so entirely willingly, also feeling alienated from the majority populations in both Jammu and Kashmir.  

The Bakkarwal are seen as ‘brutish, dirty and dim-witted’ by the majority in the Valley, and the term ‘Gujjar’ is a loaded and frequently used swear word. Additionally, most Gujjar and Bakkarwal are seen as being against the ideology of azadi or freedom from India, which has further alienated them from the separatist Kashmiris in the Valley. On the other hand, in the last few years, they have increasingly been othered as Muslims by the Hindu Dogris of Jammu, with whom they earlier shared a warmer relationship. The Kathua rape case is symptomatic of the deteriorating relationship with the Hindus in the Jammu region.[2] The Gujjar and Bakkarwal have thus had little option but to sit on the fence and remain voiceless spectators of the changing events in Jammu and Kashmir. 

The cyber commons and social media that have been so adroitly accessed and managed by the Kashmiri population in the Valley remain out of reach to the Gujjar and Bakkarwal owing to a tacit gagging order. They are told that if they make a wrong move they will face the same fate as was meted out to the Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s. In the years and decades when the Gujjar and Bakkarwal were tormented and tortured in the strife in Kashmir, their issues were seldom mentioned by the local or national media.

Newspapers, radio and television, labelled as the ‘old’ media, has long been known to ‘privilege powerful and institutionalized actors, exclude smaller institutions and civil society and essentially circumvent public debate’, while the internet has become a ‘new’ significant medium. For the Gujjar and Bakkarwal, however, self-censorship was the outcome, as in these contexts the cyber commons too are intertwined in historically specific cultural and political formulations. Indeed, on further exploration, Gerhards and Schäfer (2010) reveal that in fact ‘search engines might actually silence societal debate by giving more space to established actors and institutions, to experts and to expert evaluations and views, thereby replicating pre-existing power structures online.

Additionally, there is a need to perceive how the subjective intentionality that has been identified as foundational of a public sphere is enfeebled in an atmosphere of fear, signalling the boundaries of the cyber public sphere. Whether Jammu and Kashmir’s dissolution as a state of the Indian union and its reconfiguration as a union territory will increase the precarity the Gujjar and Bakkarwal currently face remains to be seen.

The landmark agrarian reforms in Jammu and Kashmir, starting from the 1950s and continued later in the 1970s, known as the state’s Land to the Tillers Act, indeed changed the lives of landless agricultural labourers in Kashmir, and few Kashmiri farmers are now landless. Kaw writes, ‘The land reforms registered a landmark in Kashmir history. The hitherto feudal order was eliminated in all its forms and manifestations. Land was transferred to the actual tillers along with a host of rights and titles of a permanent nature. The rights so conferred restored confidence and promoted love for the land among the peasantry’ . The lands on which nomads have been grazing their cattle were never regularized in their name, and they continue to access state land for their needs.

In 2018 the State Administrative Council (SAC) repealed the Jammu and Kashmir State Lands Act 2001, popularly known as the Roshni Act. This was a setback to the Gujjar and Bakkarwal, as the Act had vested the ownership of land in its occupants. The scrapping of the Act has triggered anxiety among the Gujjar and Bakarwal, the state’s largest landless community. The Roshni Act offered them the hope of owning the lands they had lived on and used as pasture for generations.

However, not many members of these poor communities could pay for the land or had the political influence and muscle to speed up the allocation process. Most were not even aware of the requisite procedures, and large parts of their former grazing lands have now been occupied by others. It is said that a big chunk of grazing land was handed out to offices, NGOs, universities and other institutions.

The Gujjar and Bakkarwal have been pushing for implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act 2006 in the state. Although the bill was tabled in 2018 under the government of Mehbooba Mufti (PDP) and the BJP, the law was not passed. That is, it was not extended to Jammu and Kashmir, as Article 370 specifies that central laws first have to be ratified by the state assembly.

Now the silver lining in this dark picture is that the removal of the state’s constitution paves the way for the FRA to be implemented in what is now a union territory. The Act was a measure to safeguard the particularly marginalized class of forest-dwellers, tribals and nomads and to address their predicament relating to access to the environmental commons with their right to life and livelihood.

The urgency for the law to be passed in Jammu and Kashmir was reinforced by the rape and brutal murder of Asifa, a Bakkarwal girl, as the Hindu Dogra men involved in the crime were believed to have been trying to expel the Bakkarwal from the forest area where they lived every winter. This was an area to which they had not only customary claims but also individual property in the village, as well as de facto rights to the village and the forest commons.

Following this incident, a suspicion was created to the effect that a certain demographic change was being manoeuvred by the PDP government through the expansion and sedentarization of the Muslim Bakkarwal into the forest areas of the Jammu region, a view that is at variance with the fairly harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Muslim groups in the region for decades.

The Gujjar and Bakkarwal now have to contend with the fact that they will also be competing with tribals from all across India for jobs from the reservation quota, while earlier they only had to compete with tribals from within the state. Far more daunting to them, however, is the fear that their migratory routes and pastures might be usurped by competing private interests that might inundate the Valley, now that access to citizens from across India is no longer barred.

There is ample evidence in the literature to show that when development beckons it is first and foremost land from the commons that is parcelled out for the creation of new infrastructure. This has already been in evidence in Jammu and Kashmir, where the Gujjar and Bakkarwal are being uprooted and sometimes violently evicted to pave the way for the new institutions that are emerging in the region. Around 1,200 kanal[4] of grazing land has been given to Jammu University by Mendhar administrative district. In the Rajouri region, around 800 kanal of land has been put aside for Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University.

The youth leaders among the Gujjar and Bakkarwal want to map and secure their migratory corridors along with the summer and winter pastures and to claim land in forest villages through the Act. They have already made a list of over a dozen of the most important migratory routes in the region, from the Pir Panjals to the Himalayas. However, these have bottlenecks and stretches which have now become roads and settlements where the nomads compete for space and passage with vehicular traffic and harassment from the traffic police. Every year there are incidents where scores of the Bakkarwal’s goats and sheep are killed by speeding trucks. They feel that making claims through the FRA would ensure both greater rights of passage through forests, roads, bridges and even the dreaded Jawahar tunnel, and the hope of compensation in the event of such accidents.

All things considered, the larger point here is that a qualitative shift seems to be taking place where the survival of the nomadic Gujjar and Bakkarwal is increasingly contingent on turning their so far de facto rights into de jure rights. Does this imply that de jure claims in fragmented spaces will make rigid what has up to now been a much more pliable and organic process?


(Note:- The article was first published by the Researchgate here . The academic references and some of the paragraphs with lengthy academic discussion were removed to keep this version concise and clear to a non-academic reader).

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.