Van Gujjars Nomads In Sync With Nature
While driving up to Doon valley on Saharanpur-Dehradun highway, you notice several tiny camps tucked under either side of the winding and climbing road. The camps have beautiful square huts built of wood and grass. The huts are often bounded by wooden logs and thorny bushes. There are herds of buffaloes resting on dried stream beds in the centre of the camps. A few of the huts display tattered bed sheets spread on their walls crevices below the roofs. Since it is time for morning breakfast, smoke can be seen billowing out of several huts. A few men can be seen paddling up on the road. Their cycles have milk cans tagged on either side of the carriers.
Welcome to the camps of van Gujjars, a community of over 10,000 nomads who shuttle between Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Kumaon, Uttarkashi and other higher regions of Uttarakhand and foothills of Shivalik in Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh. While from April to October when the foothills swelter under the direct summer sun, they are settled in the cool climes of the high mountains, during the harsh winter, they descend to the base of the mountain range and in the two parks Rajaji National Park and Corbett National park, where they live in harmony with the wilds.
Over 1200 of such nomads were recently shifted from the two national parks to Pathri and Gaindikhata towns near Haridwar recently. But a few hundreds of them are still perched in the middle of the parks as Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a Dehradun-based NGO, obtained stay on their forcible eviction from the notified forests.
There is an interesting story behind how the Gujjars came to live in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that they originally belonged to Jammu and Kashmir. Some three hundred years ago when a princess of the royal house of Jammu married a prince of Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh, the Gujjars were sent with her so that she could have some familiar faces at her in-laws’ place. Over the years, when they realised that the green pastures shrink greatly in Himachal during winters, they started migrating to the forests of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
Though the nomadic tribe belongs to Sunni sect of Islam, it is distinct from the minority community in several respects. For one, it was strict vegetarian till some time back. “Nowadays we also cook non-vegetarian stuff at times. This is the influence of outer world,” says Kasim Khan, a Gujjar from Doiwala. However, irrespective of what Uttarakhand state government initially thought of them, when it comes to the wild animals, they claim to be protectors rather than predators. “The Gujjars do not harm the wild animals even when the latter damages their huts or hurt their calves,” claims Arvind, a RLEK worker who have worked with Gujjars for several years.
The Gujjars in fact look at the wilds as part of their family. And the animals reciprocate. So much so that an elephant herd recently moved from the national parks to Haridwar to be with the Gujjars. The forest guards had to make considerable efforts to take them back. The central government has decided to reserve for Gujjars 30 per cent posts of Corbett tiger force it proposes to raise for the park. This would definitely restore some of their dented pride.
Not only do the wild animals seek shelter in their camps during attacks by poachers but also make use of their resources to quench their thirst. When the Gujjars lop the trees in the forest to gather food for their cattle and goats, the wild animals too feed themselves in the shade. When water sources dry up in the forest, they drink from the little ponds, the Gujjars dig up for their cattle. The long co-existence has made the wilds and Gujjars so used to each other’s smell that they seldom get into a confrontation. The Gujjars walk long distances in the forests even at night. When a disturbed wild animal attacks their habitat, they scare it away by making noise or lighting fire.
Unlike the civilised populace which take lot of care in finding matches for their wards and marry them off with a lot of pomp and show, the Gujjars simply go for a swap between themselves. The families barter brides for bridegrooms and vice versa. In their colloquial language, the exchange is known as ‘Saatta’. In case, a family only has a marriageable boy and two little girls, it may commit both the girls to the brides’ brothers at a later date. In order not to disturb the wild animals, they keep off blaring songs on loudspeakers or hiring bands and simply sing Gujjari language songs among themselves during celebrations.
At the time of marriage, the bridegroom as well as the bride is given a fixed number of buffaloes for the couple’s sustenance. To meet the expenses of the marriages, all members of the Gujjar community donate milk, ghee, other milk products etc to raise money for the feast. The marriage celebrations go on for 2-3 days.
When a Gujjar boy and a girl elope to protest against the decision of their elders, the Gujjar elders (both men and women) sit in a Panchayat to resolve the case. Such gathering is called ‘Penchi’. The Penchi may punish a family for backing out from the old commitment by asking it to hand over some other girl in matrimony to the family it had committed its boy or girl in the past. The Penchi also resolves other disputes that may arise in the Gujjar community on account of cattle, huts or women. In fact, the Gujjars rarely take their dispute to the police.
The Gujjars are very penny-pinching people. They only cycle to the city and towns to either sell off their milk or buy rations and vegetables. More often than not, they are happy eating their rotis with chutney, lassi, curd or milk. When somebody falls ill, they treat him with herbs picked from the forest. Since the Gujjars live in perfect harmony with the nature and eat milk products in abundance, they have a fairly good lifespan. Kasim Khan knows of several Gujjars who have crossed a century and are going strong.
Due to their nomadic lifestyle, an overwhelming majority of Gujjars is illiterate. But now, thanks to RLEK, which runs four schools (a couple of mobile schools as well) near Gujjar camps, the children have access to education.
Since they have always survived on rearing livestock, the Gujjars are yet to learn farming or other skills which can get them employment and up their living standard. There are only 3-4 government servants among them and only a couple has four wheelers. There is no electricity and no television sets either. However, for a change, most of them flaunt mobiles.
The Gujjars are not rich and hardly stock currency. They treat goats and horses as means of raising instant cash for buying rations. “Whenever we are in need of money, we sell off a goat or a horse,” says Hussain, a milkman from a camp near Mohand village (Saharanpur district) in Uttar Pradesh.
A despairing part of the story is that while Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir have bracketed them under Scheduled Tribes and extend the due reservation to them, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments are yet to do so. The Gujjars in fact face oppression at every stage. Though they pay lopping and grazing taxes in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, yet the forest guards harass them at every step. They suspect them of being hand-in-glove with the poachers. The administration in the two states is constantly on loggerheads over who they belong to.
In April 2009, over 100 Gujjar families were stranded in the Shivalik range as authorities in Uttarakhand refused to allow them to move up to Uttarkashi saying that they were domiciles of Uttar Pradesh.
By Narendra Kaushik from Dehradun