Ever since India got Independence and Pakistan came into being in 1947, the tribal communities of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have been the worst victims of border conflict and political turmoil. Early 1990s added to their existential woes with a sudden spurt in militancy-related violence across J&K.
While the twin pastoral communities have faced a constant critical evaluation, they have largely shown strong hints of patriotism. They boast of their involvement in helping the Indian Army during militancy and India-Pakistan wars. Prior to the Kargil War, the Bakarwals are known to have provided the Indian Army with information about Pakistani invaders. No wonder, they were troubled and harmed by the militants who would demand goats and sheep from poor Bakarwal herders to satiate their hunger and horses to carry their ammunition from one hideout to another. Many community members have lost their lives in cross firing and targeted killings.
There are multiple reasons for the nationalist tendencies among the Gujjar-Bakarwals and why they have remained unaffected by the separatist agenda. Even large-scale protests and stone-pelting incidents during 2008, 2010, and 2016 in Kashmir Valley witnessed least participation from the said community. In fact, they were often targeted by the stone-pelters and were branded as “collaborators” and traitors.
More recently, the abrogation of Article 370 received a positive response from the community as it generated a new hope for the introduction of political reservation which was until now denied to them.
The primary reason for their pro-India sentiment is that the ethno-nationalism and cultural affiliation is much stronger among the Gujjars than their religious affiliation. While religion is generally regarded as a binding force for its followers, however in case of Gujjar-Bakarwals, their ethnic identity comes first rather than their religious identity. The twin communities are one of the ancient tribes of North-Western India and they gradually migrated to Jammu and Kashmir. There is no authentic record of the migration of Gujjar-Bakarwals to Jammu and Kashmir.
Noted scholar R P Khatana in Tribal Migration in Himalayan Frontier has argued that in search of green pastures for their cattle, the communities started migrating to Kashmir hills in scattered groups. The Gujjars were originally Hindus but during the course of their migration to the Himalayan frontiers, they converted to Islam. The Gujjars of J&K identify themselves more with the Hindu Gujjars of India in terms of culture and ethnicity than with the Kashmiri Muslims.
The Gujjar leader Chowdhary Aslam once remarked: “Our unique and secular inheritance is what the militants are afraid of and it makes them dislike 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 towards Gujjar-Bakarwals has prevented their integration with Kashmiri society. The fusion of blood never happened due to the restrictions on inter-caste marriage between the two Muslim tribal communities and Kashmiri Muslims. The social intercourse and inter-group communication is also minimal between the two communities which have led to segregation.
The Gujjar-Bakarwal community was not allowed to enjoy any respectful position by their fellow Kashmiri Muslims. In fact, the word ‘Gujjra’ is often used as a slang against the community members. Therefore, the community feels its interests are better protected within the constitutional framework of the Indian Union than within any idea of an independent Kashmir where, they apprehend, they will be reduced to second class citizens.
The Gujjars of Jammu division are politically more active and vibrant, a region where slogans of ‘freedom’ and separatism are not relevant. Therefore, the politics within the Indian constitutional framework is a natural choice for the Gujjar-Bakarwals of Jammu. In Kashmir, the separatist politics has existed for long but the geographical location of the Gujjars on border regions makes them disconnected from the separatist agenda of the Valley. Their participation in politics is confined to the elections only.
Historically, they have remained affiliated to the National Conference. The Miyan family of Kangan in Ganderbal district has significantly influenced the political orientation of the community. Their association with the National Conference brought their mureed (disciples) voters within the fold of the National Conference. Being the third largest ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir, the Gujjar-Bakarwals influence the electoral outcomes in almost 26 constituencies.
In the past, despite the Hurriyat’s call for election boycotts, the communities have always participated in the polls. Though being the least benefitted, they are the ones who have largely helped the electoral democracy to survive in Kashmir.
In the hilly and border areas, the Gujjar-Bakarwal community is mainly dependent upon the Army for employment. The rate of unemployment has gone up in the border areas. Majority of the Gujjar youth who have studied up to 10th or 12th class join Indian armed forces, while those who are illiterate work with military as porters and coolies. The Army also initiated certain measures to integrate Gujjar-Bakerwals into the security grid.
The police force began recruiting young and unemployed men to serve as SPOs in their villages in order to establish a strong intelligence network. The Army also started certain welfare measures to eradicate the alienation prevailing amongst the civilians. The biggest such programme is ‘Operation Sadabhavana’, an idea originating from ‘Wining Hearts and Mind’, a key concept of any counterinsurgency operation. The programme greatly helped in turning away a significant percentage of the population from the prospects of joining militancy. The Sadabhavana programme helped in the renovation and rebuilding of schools in these inaccessible areas. The Army Goodwill schools and clubs introduced the young generation to a new world of books and computers and thereby discouraging gun culture.
The Army also organised several trips to different parts of the country for these tribes. These trips were especially valuable for tribal girls who remain confined to their households.
The policy of reservation extended to the community in 1991 also prevented the radicalisation of Gujjar-Bakarwal youth. This was the time when militancy was at its peak. The Union government conferred the Scheduled Tribe status on Gujjar-Bakarwals in 1991 which has impacted their life in certain crucial ways. Majority of the educated youth got employment in the initial phase. The reservation proved very effective in motivating the Gujjar youth for pursuing studies. A good number of youths from the community have qualified the prestigious competitive exams like civil services, medical, and engineering exams.
A few members of the community did get swayed towards militancy in the 1990s. But the majority of the population continues to believe in mainstream politics. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a firm belief in the national loyalty of the Gujjar-Bakarwals. He would address them as “the guardians of the borders”. They continue to be so.
(The author is a member of the tribal community and a researcher at Kashmir University)