PART I | Chopans: A disadvantaged community

Recently I went trekking with my friends to explore the glaciers of Doodh Ganga river. We set up our basecamp in an upland pasture inhabited by nomadic Chopans of Kashmir. Chopan is the surname of Kashmiri shepherds who are locally called Pahael (singular, Pohol). We left from Doodh Pathri around 8:45 am on June 25th 2020 and within 4 hours we were at a meadow called Corag by local shepherds. Doodhpathri is a tourist spot in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. It is 44 kilometers  from Srinagar and is located at an altitude of 2730 meters. From Doodpathri one has to trek uphill 800 to 900 meters to reach Corag with a zigzag and arduous track which takes 3 to 4 hours. Corag is located at a height of approximately 3500 meters, just adjacent to Danderan meadow.

By 1 pm we pitched our tents and within no time it started raining heavily for 2 hours. In the evening just before sunset when I was walking on the moist grass, I met a Shepherd namely Aziz Chopan who hails from Jabbad Branwar of Chadoora tehsil in Budgam. I had a long chat with Aziz. He told me about the problems and challenges the Chopan community was facing. In fact I was already aware about some of these problems, as I have been quite often visiting highland pastures in summers. There were some issues about which I was not familiar.

Life of a Chopan

Kashmiri shepherds or Chopans are socially, educationally and economically an underdeveloped community. The job of Chopans as mentioned above is to take care of sheep which belong to farmers. Chopans hardly have their own sheep. Farmers pay them a fixed amount per sheep per season. 30 to 40 years back the farmers would provide corn or paddy to Chopans instead of cash. Now the trend has changed. Aziz Chopan told me that he gets Rs 300 / sheep from the farmer per season. The season starts from May and ends around October. Initially the sheep are taken to local grasslands of villages and with the increase in temperature, Chopans start moving to pastureland up on the hills. By June, 1st week, they reach their final destination which is called “Bahak” (Rangeland). Every village in Kashmir has its designated Bahak or Rangeland which is registered with the Land Revenue Department.

As per 20th livestock census of 2018-19 sheep population was estimated to be around 3.2 million in Jammu & Kashmir. This population was a bit more i.e. 3.4 million in 2011-12 during 19th livestock census. Shepherds say that population of sheep is on rise in Kashmir valley from last 10 years and maybe there is some decrease in sheep population around Jammu region.

The challenges

While Chopans start their seasonal migration around May along with herds of sheep, they face immense challenges on the way. They don’t have proper tents with them as the shepherds can’t afford to buy the same. They take shelter under trees or tarpaulins / polythene during rains. Farmers get subsidies from the Govt to buy sheep, procure tractors, tillers, spray machines and water pumps, but the Government hardly bothers to provide similar subsidy to the poor shepherds.

“If a tent costs Rs 4000 government could easily provide us 50 % subsidy which they provide to apple growers or sheep farmers, but we are a neglected community “ said Aziz. Similarly in forests and highland pastures the wild animals like snow leopards, wild wolf (Bagaaid) attack sheep, but the poor Chopans don’t have proper fencing to keep their animals safe. Fencing made of wild bushes locally called “Wethhar” is used to guard sheep when they rest for night near the mud and wooden huts of Chopan’s, also called Kothas or Dokes.

After taking care of sheep from dawn to dusk, in rain, thunder storms, and other challenging  weather conditions, Chopans hardly sleep during the night. They keep blowing whistles to create a pressure on wild animals. I am a witness to all this. Chopans hardly own good quality searchlights which could be of great help. Wild animals on the other hand continue to attack sheep. For the whole night poor shepherds are awake and sleep only for a few hours after dawn. They work almost 24 hours a day but still have no recognition. Framers continue to ridicule shepherds. They call shepherds  liars and thieves. There are several Kashmiri folklores wherein Kashmiri Pohul is disgraced and dishonored as he is called a liar and cheater. There is a Kashmiri saying Fandbaaz ha Pahel Yaroo Loloo, Fandnee Chue Na Shumaar ho Loloo ( Shepherd, are tricksters, my friend, their trickts never end).

There are instances when a shepherd lies about a sheep or lamb having been killed by a wild animal while the same is sold by him. Such incidents do happen because of abject poverty of shepherds, but on many occasions sheep are actually maimed by wild animals but farmers never believe a shepherd, they keep doubting them.

Pahel Kotha

Chopan lives in a dark, dingy mud house supported by some logs. This is called Pahel Kotha. Shepherds have their families with them. The Kothas get damaged during winter months when the meadows get more than 15 feet snow. But Chopans are not allowed to repair their Kothas as Forest officials hardly give them permission to do so?  One can understand the fact about Kothas located in lower reaches wherein the owners damage green trees to repair them, but where shall a poor Chopan go? During my 3 day stay in Corag I met Nazir Ahmad Chopan from Jabbad  Branwar, his hut (kotha) has been damaged in the last snowfall, but he is scared to repair it with some old fallen kail or fir tree as Forest officials can book him? Right now Nazir and his family live with Aziz Chopan who already has a family of four with him.

Conclusion

In spite of the fact that Chopans are tribals in real sense, they have not been included under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category by the Government of India. Kashmiri shepherds or Chopans are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gadis of Jammu or Himachal but Changpas and Gaddis have been given ST status long back and Chopans continue to be discriminated against. J&K Legislative Assembly on April 10th 2010 passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under ST category but Govt of India never took that resolution seriously. According to Ashfaq Chopan, a masters student in Central University of Kashmir, and a Chopan rights activist, the literacy rate of Chopan community is less than 30 % and this is again much lower among the females. If Govt is really concerned about developing sheep sector in Kashmir, then Chopans, who take care of these sheep have to be empowered enough. If we continue to discriminate against this community, time is not far when these people would get fed up with the work they do and our whole sheep industry, which is growing and expanding at a very good pace, would collapse.

To be continued

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder / Chairman of J&K RTI Movement …