Since India gained independence and Pakistan came into existence in 1947, the tribal communities of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have been the worst victims of border disputes and political unrest. The early 1990s added to their existential woes with a sudden surge of militancy-related violence through J&K.
While the twin pastoral communities faced constant critical evaluation, they largely showed strong impulses of patriotism. They boast of their involvement in aiding the Indian army during militancy and the Indo-Pakistani wars. Prior to the Kargil War, the Bakarwals are known to have provided the Indian Army with information about the Pakistani invaders. No wonder they were troubled and injured by the militants who demanded goats and sheep from the poor herders in Bakarwal to satisfy their hunger and horses to carry their ammunition from one hiding place to another. Many members of the community have lost their lives in crossfire and targeted killings.
There are several reasons for the nationalistic tendencies among the Gujjar-Bakarwals and why they are unaffected by the separatist agenda. Even the large-scale protests and rock-throwing incidents in 2008, 2010 and 2016 in the Kashmir Valley witnessed the least involvement of the said community. In fact, they were often targeted by stone peelers and branded as “collaborators” and traitors.
More recently, the repeal of Section 370 has received a positive response from the community as it has generated new hope for the introduction of the political reservation which has hitherto been denied to them.
The main reason for their pro-Indian sentiment is that ethno-nationalism and cultural affiliation are much stronger among the Gujjars than their religious affiliation. While religion is generally seen as a binding force for its followers, however, in the case of the Gujjar-Bakarwals, their ethnic identity comes before their religious identity. The twin communities are one of the ancient tribes in northwestern India and they gradually migrated to Jammu and Kashmir. There is no authentic record of the migration of the Gujjar-Bakarwals to Jammu and Kashmir.
The famous RP scholar Khatana in Tribal migration to the Himalayan border argued that in search of green pastures for their cattle, communities began to migrate to the hills of Kashmir in scattered groups. The Gujjars were originally Hindus but during their migration to the Himalayan frontiers they converted to Islam. The Gujjars of J&K identify more with the Hindu Gujjars of India in terms of culture and ethnicity than with the Muslims of Kashmir.
Leader Gujjar Chowdhary Aslam once said, “Our unique and secular heritage is what militants fear and it makes them hate us. The predominance of Gujjar consciousness over Muslim or Kashmiri consciousness has prevented the growth of separatist tendencies in the community.
The existence of discrimination against the Gujjar-Bakarwals has prevented their integration into Kashmiri society. The blood fusion never happened due to restrictions on inter-caste marriage between the two Muslim tribal communities and Kashmiri Muslims. Social relations and inter-group communication are also minimal between the two communities, which has led to segregation.
The Gujjar-Bakarwal community was not allowed to enjoy a respectful position from their fellow Kashmiri Muslims. In fact, the word “Gujjra” is often used as slang against members of the community. Therefore, the community feels that its interests are better protected within the constitutional framework of the Indian Union than under any idea of an independent Kashmir where, they fear, they will be reduced to second-class citizens.
The Gujjars of the Jammu division are politically more active and vibrant, a region where the slogans of “freedom” and separatism are irrelevant. Hence, politics within the Indian constitutional framework is a natural fit for the Gujjar-Bakarwals of Jammu. In Kashmir, the separatist policy has existed for a long time but the geographical location of the Gujjars in the border regions disconnects them from the separatist agenda of the Valley. Their participation in political life is limited to elections.
Historically, they have remained affiliated with the National Conference. The Miyan family of Kangan in Ganderbal district greatly influenced the political direction of the community. Their association with the National Conference has brought their murid (disciples) electors within the National Conference. Being the third largest ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir, the Gujjar-Bakarwals influence election results in nearly 26 constituencies.
In the past, despite the Hurriyat’s call for a boycott of the elections, the communities have always participated in the polls. Although being the least favoured, they are the ones who have largely helped electoral democracy to survive in Kashmir.
In the hilly and border regions, the community of Gujjar-Bakarwal mainly depends on the military for employment. The unemployment rate has increased in the border areas. The majority of young Gujjars who have studied up to 10th or 12th class join the Indian armed forces, while those who are illiterate work with the army as porters and coolies. The military has also taken some steps to integrate Gujjar-Bakerwals into the security network.
The police began recruiting young, unemployed men to serve as SPOs in their villages to establish a strong intelligence network. The military also initiated some welfare measures to eradicate the alienation that was prevalent among civilians. The largest such program is ‘Operation Sadabhavana’, an idea that grew out of ‘Wining Hearts and Mind’, a key concept in any counter-insurgency operation. The program has greatly contributed to diverting a significant percentage of the population from the prospects of joining activism. The Sadabhavana program has assisted in the renovation and reconstruction of schools in these inaccessible areas. Army schools and goodwill clubs introduced the younger generation to a new world of books and computers and thus discouraged gun culture.
The army also organized several trips to different parts of the country for these tribes. These trips were especially valuable for the tribal girls who remain confined to their homes.
The reservation policy extended to the community in 1991 also prevented the radicalization of the Gujjar-Bakarwal youth. It was the time when militancy was at its peak. The Union government conferred Scheduled Tribal status on the Gujjar-Bakarwals in 1991, which had a crucial impact on their lives. The majority of educated young people found employment in the initial phase. The reserve has proven to be very effective in motivating young Gujjars to pursue education. A good number of young people from the community have passed prestigious competitions such as the civil service, medical and engineering exams.
A few members of the community were influenced by activism in the 1990s. But the majority of the population continues to believe in mainstream politics. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a firm believer in the national loyalty of the Gujjar-Bakarwals. He would call them “the guardians of the borders”. They continue to be.
(The author is a member of the tribal community and a researcher at the University of Kashmir)