Eroding Identities of Kashmir’s Bakarwal

By: Mohd. Tufail
Bakarwal, one of the largest nomadic Muslim tribes of India inhabits the militancy ridden vales of beautiful Kashmir and traces their ancestry to Georgia and other Central Asian Countries. The tribe in the last few decades is rapidly losing its identity and is struggling for survival in the midst of the crisis that has shrouded the Valley since the early 1990s.
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With an economy based on nomadic livestock rearing, the Bakarwal for several decades now, are suffering conflict induced displacement in Kashmir, risking their societal sustainability. Unfortunately, no survey, government or otherwise, has assessed the scale of displacement although reports suggest that unrest in this region has displaced one million people over the last three decades which includes the Bakarwal, Kashmiri Pandits and others as well.

The complexities of the Kashmir conflict bears inter and intra-state ramifications. The Bakarwal use a seasonal route to oscillate between winter and summer pastures that cross through the passes on Pir Panjal and Greater Himalayan ranges. Perpetual war like situation across borders has led to the fragmentation of their traditional routes – south of the Samba sector in Jammu to Gurez sector of Kashmir Valley in the north. Almost all the routes are now restricted with militancy affecting the entire region. Along the entire 400 km of the line of control, all summer and winter pastures of the Bakarwal are closed.  Also the violent separatist movement that initially started in some parts of Kashmir valley later spread to the whole State further severing the nomadic routes of the Bakarwal community.

A cursory field survey conducted in the region during the course of my study pointed towards a sizeable displacement of the Bakarwal with virtually seventy per cent of the tribe having left the practice of transhumance. The shift towards the sedentary settlement adds to the predicament of the conflict torn tribe forcing them into a lifestyle that is opposed to their traditional occupation. This has a serious economic and cultural impact on the tribe. With insufficient pastures available to them in the village commons some have begun to engage in agricultural activities, while others are attempting to work in the apple orchards of the non tribal Kashmiri population or as labourers in the Valley. The tribe, in attempting to acquire new skills is looking for a place in mainstream society, but is increasingly finding itself marginalised and is slipping lower down in socio-economic status – becoming further entrenched in low skilled jobs. A large numbers of displaced Bakarwal are living in various camps on the outskirts of Srinagar and other parts of the Valley, in slum like conditions. Such long-term displacements are causing irreparable changes in the socio-cultural pattern of the tribe leading to disintegration of families and community structures – a well recognised and documented phenomenon among nomadic communities throughout the world.

From customs to clothing the community has moved a long way from its easily identifiable characteristics. Male clothing usually included a knee length salwar kameez and a turban. Today more than half the tribe has given up wearing the trademark turban according to the field survey. Also, despite the Bakarwal community belonging to the Sunni sect, where long beards are mandatory, security concerns labelling them as terrorists have forced most of them to go clean shaven. The provision of government funded mobile schools (it moves with the tribe during its seasonal movement) is available to them only on paper. Most of the tribes’ children thus have no access to education as the teachers are killed and schools disbanded by the militants. With little education, even lesser skill development, no alternative occupational avenues, widespread poverty and increasing health risks the economy and sustainability of the tribe is under threat.

A fit case for lost cultures, the Bakarwal community urgently needs proactive policies reframed keeping in view their grievances and aspirations. The socio-political situation in Kashmir continues to be volatile and will perhaps remain so in the near future. The Bakarwal may well become our past before we articulate a need to protect their cultural identity. Well planned, in-situ as well as ex-situ interventions is thus imperative to address the suffering of these uprooted people.

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