It is 1 am and 22-year-old Showkat Choudhary is staying up with books and notes strewn all over the room. Beavering away to clear the coveted civil services exam, Choudhary’s pensive eyes light up as he talks about his dream of becoming an IAS officer.
“I reached here after a hard-fought struggle. Now I want to qualify this examination,” says Choudhary, a resident of Shopian, some 52 km south of Srinagar. He belongs to the pastoral Gujjar community.
The Gujjar community practices polygamy, which often leads to disintegration of families and takes a toll on the children. Choudhary’s family offers a stark illustration of one such household.
Choudhary was barely three-years-old when his parents separated and his father married another woman, leaving Choudhary, his mother, and an elder sister aged six at the time to fend for themselves. After a year or so, he divorced his mother and she too got married to a man in their community.
Choudhary and his sister were brought up by their maternal uncles. The decision of their parents upended their lives. His sister dropped out of school when she was barely 14 and Choudhary lost his childhood between hard work and studies.
“I began working when I was 10,” says Choudhary.
Choudhary took up multiple menial jobs and worked long hours to help his maternal uncles financially, who were poor.
“I collected dried firewood from nearby jungles and sold it in the local markets. I also worked at construction sites for a few rupees,” says Choudhary.
The back-breaking toil, however, did not dissuade him from continuing the studies. After class six, he enrolled himself in a government-run Gujjr-Bakerwal hostel where he was provided free food and stay. During the winters when the hostel closed for vacations,
Choudhary would again work to pay for his tuition fee.
During years, his mind seesawed between hope and despair, but it was the hope that outlasted. Choudhary says he was fortunate to find teachers who were generous to a fault. With their guidance, he was able to complete his graduation.
“Now I want to become an IAS officer to work for the upliftment of my community,” says Choudhary, who is also the provincial vice president of Gujjar-Bakerwal Youth Conference.
Choudhary began dabbling in activism when he was in class eight. He took a lead in fighting for the hostel building that was occupied by security forces, spurring the authorities to hire a rented accommodation for the disadvantaged students. Last year, he was also selected for the coveted National Tribal Leadership Programme, an eight-day tribal leadership programme meant for the youth of the tribal communities to broaden their mindscape and inculcate leadership qualities in them.
Although Choudhari’s dogged determination and luck enabled him graduate on time, there are many other children who are left to fend for themselves after their fathers marry two or more women. For example, father of Shahid (name changed), a resident of Sangawari, a somnolent village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, married two women. Shahid, who was born out of the first marriage, left his studies in class seven and began working as a labourer to make ends meet. Barely four years later, he was married, stymieing the prospectus of his progress in life further.
“In large families with limited or almost no economic resources, children have to work to share the responsibility of their families,” says a family member, who declined to be quoted by his name in this article.
Choudhary Danish Ahmad Tedwa, a Gujjar social activist working for the community, says that polygamy is prevalent among the community and it has a baneful effect on the children as poor parents could hardly afford the education of their children.
“And it spurs their children to work at a very young age,” said Tedwa.
A 2015 study conducted by Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation (TRCF) revealed that the practice of polygamy is still prevalent among the nomadic Gujjar community and 62 per cent men in the community have two or more wives.
“Sixty-two per cent of nomads favour two or more wives while 18 per cent favour having three to six or more wives,” revealed the study.
According to the study, around 89 per cent of the community members marry their children when they are between 14-18 years of age.
Speaking to this reporter, Dr Javaid Rahi, the founding member of TRCF, says that for the tribal community more wives meant more resources to run the daily affairs. He says that it was one of the key causes of child labour. However, both Rahi and Tedwa said that the trend was on the decline. Rahi adds that broken families also push children into child labour.
Ten-year-old Mudasir, another tribal child, who lives with his grandfather in Doodmarg area of Tral, stopped attending school for a year after his father divorced his mother and married another woman.
“I also got my daughter married and then I had to take custody of the child,” says Bashir Ahmad.
Ahmad said that the marital dispute between his parents wasted a year of their child.
“During that year, he did some menial work,” adds Ahmad.
Although Ahmad re-enrolled him in a local school, his career will always be under the cloud of uncertainty.
(Gulzar Bhat is journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir. This article has been supported by Work: No Child's Business.)