The episode of Kathua has provoked genuine outrage. This is visible on the back and front windscreens of the vehicles in Kashmir. With posters of Justice for the Kathua girl pasted on the screens one gets a real sense of joy for this camaraderie across the state. In addition to the posters and the widespread protests, there are online campaigns seeking empathy and justice for the bereaved family. A family whose whereabouts were unknown until a national campaign gave them a sense of security and they came out of hiding. However, is this campaign enough to assuage the family and the community to which they belong?
Changing the Attitude
It will be the greatest contribution towards justice if the victim and the surrounding campaign around her can help in the transformation of the attitude towards her community. There is no doubt that an overwhelming majority of people in the valley see the men, women and children of this community as well-meaning human beings who deserve the same treatment as other members of their own community. However, there is a small but significant minority who have stereotypes embedded in their minds about Gujjars and Bakarwals. It is this minority and their disparaging and pejorative opinions which overshadow the perceptions of the majority. These stereotypes range from the speech to the dress to the cuisine to the general lifestyle of these two culturally overlapping communities.
This is a common observation that the word Gujjar is used pejoratively in the ordinary conversation. It is almost like a term of abuse and insult. You are termed a "Gujjar" if you do not behave well, you are called a "Gujjar" if you do not talk well and you are a "Gujjar" even if you are fine with everything that matters but the other person does not like you, and hurls the abuse of "Gujjar" at you. You hear this word in hotels, buses, streets and sometimes even in so-called sophisticated circles. As if the abusive definition of the word was not enough there are proverbs, idioms deploying the same word to describe situations and to demean the members of the community. We have all heard them and there is no point in repeating them one by one. During the Amarnath agitation when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Chief Minister of the state, the huge protests in Kashmir were a common scene. And along with them was a slogan, not common but there nevertheless, that "Nabba Gujjar" had better leave the scene and not come in the way of "Justice" for the Kashmiris. The source of these articulations and perceptions is a certain sense of superiority and an attitude of dismissal towards people who have a different style of life, and are a little away from the centres of power.
It is true, to play the devil's advocate, that such stereotypes are common not just against the Gujjar Bakarwal community but also against other people of other communities and regions in and outside Kashmir. So we have stereotypes against provincial life, urban life, the north towards the south and the south towards East and so on and so forth. There are indeed stereotypes within the Gujjar Bakarwal community against the Kashmiris. The examples of such cases are rife. However, the stereotypes assume a particular edge and bite when they go out of the homogenous internal domain towards the outside arena. The word "Outside" is relative. However, the Gujjar Bakarwal community does to some extent come under the "outside" category given the linguistic and geographical distinction of the community. The feeling is intense and the threat of increasing gap more when the "outside" is made the butt of jokes; for the diffusers of misunderstandings born of such stereotypes and pejorations are few and far between. Even today some Gujjar intellectuals do not shy away from pointing out a photograph of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in which he is angrily ignoring a Gujjar woman who seems to be pleading with him, as an example of the attitude of the Kashmiris towards the community. Often the seasonal migrants of the Bakarwal community complain of the disturbing behaviour of people when they come to this side of the Pir Panchal along with their "maal maweishi". There are ample flaws in such an in interpretation of the photograph and the irritating behaviour of people but the shared interpretation from some prominent members of the Gujjar community, and one which they share on online fora, is emblematic of the gap between Kashmiris and the Gujjar Bakarwal community.
Removing centuries old attitudes and the social behaviours associated with them is not easy. That will require efforts at all levels. Beginning with the education of children from schools onwards, and infusing a spirit of bonhomie with communities of all hues and colours, irrespective of their geographical situation or the linguistic turn in their speech. That is to be followed by institutional endeavours to nurture such attitudes which do not demean communities. One of the ways to help elevate the image of the community is to name important milestones in Kashmir after figures of stature from the Gujjar Bakarwal community. And the same in the Gujjar dominated areas of Jammu and Kashmir. An easy way to ridicule a community comes from denying it the intellectual aspect, and by bringing to limelight the significant figures such ridicule will be returned to its owner.
The victim as an instrument
The transformation of the attitudes is needed. It should not appear as if the tragic fate of a Bakarwal girl is being used to score points against India. That Kashmiris are piggybacking on the dead body of the girl to settle historical scores against India. It will be the greatest tribute to the spirit of the ravaged girl if her painful death can bring about a change in the attitude towards the members of her community. The outpour of outrage against her rape can be the first step in the direction in giving eternal peace to soul. The second and most important step is the evisceration of the deep-set uncomplimentary attitude towards the community.