The pastoralist communities across India are a vast tribe who face tremendous challenges and hardships. Their lifestyle is very tough as the members of this community keep moving from one place to another. The Bakerwals and Chopans of Jammu & Kashmir are part of this tribe but organising all these different pastoral groups under a single banner has always been a challenging task. Sahjeevan, a Gujrat based NGO and its sister concern Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) has taken up this task as a challenge. Uzma, Basharat and Tariq, the members of Chopan community from Kashmir had turned pessimistic due to official apathy of Govt towards Chopans in Kashmir. During their visit to Bhuj in Gujarat last month they realised that their community was part of a larger tribe which is scattered across not only India but across the length and breadth of globe. In India the pastoralist community is known by different names. They are generally called Maldharis in Gujarat with sub groups known as Rabaris, Ahirs, Bharwads, Jats, Miers and Samas. In Madhya Pradesh the pastoral community is called Dhangars, Gadheria and Banjaras. The Van Gujjars, Bhotia and Gaddis are the pastoral groups of Uttarakhand and Bakarwals, Chopans, Gaddi’ and Changpas are the pastoralist communities found in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Uzma , Basharat or Tariq were reluctant even to reveal to people in Kashmir that they were from Chopan tribe, but when they met other youth from 16 states from the their own communities involved in sheep, goat, cattle, camel or buffalo breeding they became optimistic and felt very much encouraged. This author had been accompanying them to Gujarat in the national level conclave of Pastoralist youth that was held on 19th and 20th January this year in Bhuj Kutch Gujarat.
Conclave at Bhuj
When Ramesh Bhatti, a senior functionary and board member of Sahjeevan, requested me to accompany a youth group from Kashmiri Chopan community to attend a national conclave of pastoralists in Bhuj Kutch between Jan 19 to 21st, I was a bit confused for a few days. The organisers of the event wanted the presence of both young men and women to participate in the conclave but the problem with Kashmiri Chopans (hepherd community) is that their majority of their women are illiterate and would not travel all the way from Kashmir to Kutch even with their husbands, brothers or parents. I motivated a young couple, although semi-literate but due to some medical emergency that also could not materialise. When I contacted Basharat, a young social activist known to me who belongs to the Chopan community, he offered to get his younger sister to the meeting. When I came to know his sister was a fresh graduate this was big news for me. Usually the girls from Chopan community hardly go to college. Finally Basharat Chopan, his sister Uzma came with me to Bhuj city in Kutch Gujarat on January 18th. A group of four people were also invited to the same event who assisted me to prepare the Kashmiri vegetarian dishes during the food festival which was part of this 5 days cultural event.
Basharat belongs to Chopan community from Watrihail Budgam and has done Post Graduation in Rural Development. His sister Uzma completed her graduation only last year. Another chopan activist Tariq Ahmad Chopan who is undergoing a PhD programme in History from Kashmir University with special thrust on Chopans also decided to come at the eleventh hour. The decision to take these young Chopans to Bhuj, Kutch in Gujarat was a great idea and I am grateful to the Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) and Sahjeevan for holding an event for the young pastoralists who have the potential to lead their communities in future.
Uzma felt overwhelmed
Uzma, who had hardly moved out of Kashmir, was overwhelmed to see how the pastoral communities had been organised in different states. When she met women from Rabari, Ahir, Gavli, Lambadni and other pastoralist groups living in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telegnaga it boosted her morale to work for the community. In-fact the women from these communities were not educated and Uzma being an educated young lady from Chopan community can do a lot of work for her tribe in future. Uzma along with her brother Basharat and PhD scholar Tariq even assisted our volunteers who had set up a Kashmiri veg food stall. The Chopan group got so much love and respect from the organisers, namely Centre for Pastoralism, Living and Learning Design Centre -LLDC, Shrujan Trust, Living Lightly and Sahjeevan, during the two days conclave. In fact Uzma was asked to formally welcome Mr Parshottam Rupala, the Union Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying, who was chief guest during the conclave and this was a great honour for the Kashmiri Chopan community.
Issues discussed during Conclave
During the two days conclave lots of issues faced by Pastoralist communities were discussed and brainstormed by their younger generation. The main issues raised by young pastoralists was Govt’s failure to give the grazing rights to pastoralists across all the states. The participants from J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Telangana and other states said that Forest Department officials were disrespecting the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Many wanted better health facilities for their animals and mobile veterinary clinics. Some groups discussed livelihood and processing of milk, milk products and wool. Pastoral culture, ethics, traditions and its erosion was also discussed in detail. Some pastoral groups from Maharashtra and MP raised issues of dacoits looting their livestock at gunpoint and wanted better security from the government. The Union Minister listened to these grievances and assured the group members that he would try to address them. In fact a follow-up meeting was held in New Delhi on Jan 28th wherein many organisations including CFP and Sahjeevan participated.
In addition to the youth conclave of pastoralist communities there was a beautiful exhibition held between 19-23rd January 2023. The LLDC Museum hosted the ‘Living Lightly- Journeys with Pastoralists’ exhibition and event. The exhibition holds space for conversations amongst pastoral communities across geographies, conversations between pastoralists and citizens at large, and engaged dialogues about pastoralism in India. The multimedia exhibition was accompanied by film screenings, pastoral food festival, pastoral crafts, workshops and immersive experiences. Sushma Ayengar who heads the Living Lightly organisation has been holding these exhibitions for last many years.
Pastoral Youth Federation
A 32 member National Pastoralist Youth Federation was set up during the conclave and both Uzma and Basharat have been included as the members of this national level group. After the conclave Sahjeevan and Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) has been holding follow-up meetings with these youth through virtual mode and in March the group members are again meeting in New Delhi to strengthen this national level Pastoralist Youth Federation. Until the group gets properly organised Sahjeevan and CFP will handhold it and build their capacities. It is for the first time that such a group has been formed who can lead their tribe in the years to come. The pastoralist communities are being increasingly threatened with mass displacement due to industrialisation and urbanisation. As big industries and factories are set up through acquisition of huge lands, this is affecting the livelihood of these communities.
Pastoralism, as an institution, appears to be fighting a decisive battle as it is facing multiple challenges across India. The only way to make them fight this battle is to educate them about their rights guaranteed under various legislations, especially the Forest Rights Act. In addition to it mobile schools need to be set up for this community in inaccessible areas especially when these people migrate from their villages to feed their animals. Sahjeevan and Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) are playing a great role to handhold pastoral communities across India. In fact they are playing a great role in mapping the Pastoralism in India. Setting up a national level federation of pastoral youth is a great idea to uplift and empower this disadvantaged community.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and a Srinagar based writer and activist
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.