04, Jun 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza
Uttarakhand is home to the Van Gujjars, the nomadic community to which I belong. We traditionally breed cows, buffalos of a special breed called Gojri, and even horses, and earn a livelihood by selling milk and milk products. A defining factor of this community is that we migrate according to the season.
In the summer we migrate, along with our cattle, from the Himalayas towards the Ganga River plains, in the month of March. In the winter season migrate to the forest areas of the lower hills of the Himalayas, and live in traditional shelters made of grass.
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Van Gujjars, when on a rest halt during migration, share their dairy produce with the local villagers. This has traditionally created a close bond between the village people and the Van Gujjar community. The Van Gujjars in exchange buy rations including salt, grains, soap from the village shopkeepers. Traveling on ancient routes in both the Garhwal and Kumaon divisions of Uttarakhand, the community chooses different routes and places during migration.
Challenges during the Covid-19 Lockdown
The isolated community has so far stayed safe from the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Lockdown that began on March 23, 2020, and continues in one form or the other, till now greatly impacted many Van Gujjar families. The most impacted were the ones that migrated to Bugyals, as they had already left their winter locations.
The 2020 lockdown was a big problem for those Van Gujjars and their cattle, as the rumor after Delhi’s Tabligi Jamaat episode greatly affected them too. Many stayed on rent in the fields of the villagers, but due to the vile rumors around Tabligi Jamaat villagers started evicting the Van Gujjars. They also stopped taking milk supplies from them, the socio-economic impact continues till date. The Van Gujjar families had to survive by consuming their own dairy products for several days.
This year, I met community elder Liaqat Chechi again, when he and his caravan reached their 10th halt at Dogra Chandi, Tehri Garhwal. Liaqat is a respected Gujjar elder, tall and stately with a turban on his head and a Riu in his hand. The Riu is a ‘stick’ or staff used to control the animals, along with verbal commands in a ‘language’ called Sauti.
Liaqat was taking his herd of 60 buffaloes and horses to the Tehri Dam, he and his family walked all day and at night slept in the open grassland of Dham region, some used a small tarpaulin for cover. Liaquat met my companions and hugged us with the traditional ‘Raji-Baji, Mesh-Katti Pucha’ greeting which means asking if we and our families and our cattle were keeping healthy and happy. Liaquat ji then told an elderly woman relative named Hussan Bibi “Mehman aaye Khend Bachch.” (Translation: We have guests, spread the special handmade bed sheet for us to sit on.) Hussan Bibi hugged me warmly, asked about my family and sat near the stone stove to heat milk for us.
I asked Liaquat, “You could not stay last year, what problems did you face?” His reply shook me, “As we could not migrate last year, many of our animals died of starvation. There has been a change in the breeding activity of our animals, due to the climate. But the worst was that we have been greatly disturbed by the village people following the Tablighi Jamaat Issue,” he said adding, “The villagers who were known to us for centuries, started discriminating against us, we faced a lot of problems.”
I asked, “Are things better this year?” Liyaqat said he was “feeling secure, like a child still in his mother’s womb,” and the clan has been migrating slowly. As we sit chatting, two locals arrive by bike and greet us with “Lambardar namaskar”, the term used by people in Garhwal to address forest Gujjars. Liaquat recognises them and invites them to join us, “Come in, you are the sons of Pyaare Lal”. The men have come with a message from their father, “He is calling you. Our cow’s leg is broken, please come with us. Mother has given some vegetables for you all,” he gives the family a bag. Liaquat in turn requests them to sit a while, “Drink milk we will go then”. This is peak Van Gujjar hospitality. All visitors are guests.
Liyaquat tells me the biggest trouble they face this year is the scarcity of animal fodder, “No one grew fodder as we did not migrate last year, so now we have to get the fodder from Rishikesh a 100km away.” We sip the hot milk Bibi has brought, just then a gust of wind blows the migrants’ little plastic tents away. The children turn it into a game running behind the tents to catch them, while the women get busy tying utensils and other household items in cloth bundles. The sky clouded over, and yet everyone had a smile on their face. It was a pleasure for the Van Gujjars to go to the Bugyals, a small storm was not a problem for them. According to Liaquat, this year the Van Gujjars and the local villagers are rebuilding bonds and helping each other. This is the ray of hope we all needed, even as the clouded sky got a shade darker above us.
This report is part of CJP Grassroots Fellow program and has been written by Mohammed Meer Hamza who is documenting the lives and challenges faced by the Van Gujjar community. Here he travels to meet Van Gujjar, families living in the Shivalik forest area which shares a border with Rajaji Tiger reserve.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Meer Hamza
Mohammed Meer Hamza (26) was born in a jungle. Literally! He hails from Uttarakhand and was born on the outskirts of the Rajaji National Park. Hamza is now pursuing a masters degree in social work. For over three years now, Hamza has been working actively as a social worker for the Van Gujjar community, helping them access education, retain their culture and know their rights. He has created a youth group and is educating them about the rights of forest dwelling communities, citizenship laws, conservation and security issues. He is also researching traditional forest produce and how to enable his community to market it effectively while retaining the balance of nature. Hamza has begun his research and documentation work. He writes to share his life, and work as a Van Gujjar youth leader.