26, Dec 2020 | Mohammed Meer Hamza
Here Mohammed Meer Hamza interviews Baniyabeen, a Van Gujjar who hails from Gauhri Range Kunou, Chaurd Pauri, Garhwal, and is currently camping at Gari Shyampur, near Rishikesh, Dehradun.
They discuss the long-lasting impact that the Covid-19 pandemic on the community, and how despite facing discrimination, Van Gujjar’s hold no resentment. All they want is the safety of their animals, and just enough to feed their families.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your life and livelihood?
Under normal circumstances, during summer, we used to go to the hills. We were always at ease in the cool hills and could save our animals from the heat, and save ourselves and our children from mosquitoes. However, this summer due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the lockdown, we could not migrate to the hills. This was a massive jolt for us, since our cattle are used to migrating each summer for adequate fodder. We could then sell the milk and survive. However, this year there was the added crisis created by the discrimination faced by Tablighi Jamaat as a result of which, Muslims were blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue created a big problem for us too. Thankfully, things are getting better now, and slowly the problem of lack of fodder is also getting resolved.
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Do you still face any form of social discrimination?
Earlier there were two kinds of people we encountered. There were some people who used to call us a ‘criminal community’ but then there were some good people who gave us respect and affectionately called ‘Lambardar’, which means ‘chieftain’. However, things changed in a very unfortunate way after the one-sided news about Tablighi Jamaat spread along with the Covid-19 pandemic. Even those villagers who had known us for ages are now calling us “Tablighi Jamaatis”. They insult us like this even though they know that we follow the Sufi tradition and never attend any jamaats or such gatherings. All the villagers know this fact well, but now they have made our survival very difficult. Apart from the insults heaped on us, the villagers have stopped buying milk from us. This discrimination and economic boycott are what have hit us the hardest.
How was the availability of fodder impacted due to the pandemic?
It was impacted hugely. The biggest crisis is feeding our cattle. Under normal circumstances, we used the natural fodder for our cattle as we used to migrate, and used to get the fodder in villages that fell along our routes. During the lockdown finding fodder of our cattle was the biggest problem we faced. Our cattle are used to grazing on the grasslands, and would find food on their own, directly from the land wherever we migrated. Now that we are unable to migrate, and the lands are cleared off in the village we are at, there is no fodder for the cattle to find. Our animals are not used to eating the commercial fodder bought from the market, which we find difficult to get anyway as we are not even allowed to go and get it.
Did this happen because your annual migration also stopped? Did it hamper your income from selling milk too?
Yes, Before Covid-19 hit, under normal circumstances, we used to migrate very happily. We started migration from March 5 and continued till April. We used to go to Rudraprayag and found enough fodder on the way. But, as expected, due to the Coronavirus, our migration has been affected the most. This created a lot of problems for us. Traditionally, selling milk is the main source of our income. We sold milk to traders who used to pay us on an annual basis. Due to the Covid-19 scare and lockdown, the same traders refused to buy our milk. Some said their customers were not buying it from them due to the Tablighi Jamaat issue. Some traders did take milk from us as they wouldn’t find such quality anywhere else. However, they have not paid us yet, on the pretext that they do not have money to give. Earlier even we didn’t need as much money, but now as we have to buy the fodder for our cattle we need an income urgently.
What about the availability of rations for your own families?
Normally our ration came from some of the traders in exchange for the milk we gave them. At each exchange we got enough ration for two-three months. But in the lockdown the traders have refused to give us any ration, and we faced a lot of problems. We really want to thank Meer Hamza for speaking to the S.D.M. of Pauri and the forest department and getting the ration kits, which we are still eating from. You know, our children drink milk directly from the buffaloes, this a tradition of our Gujjar community, they stay full and it helps us stretch the ration kits longer.
Do you have access to veterinary doctors to give medical care for your animals?
Honestly, we do not know much about the animal doctors, where they sit, what kind of help we can get from them. We do know a lot about animal illnesses as a community, we can ourselves take care of our animals and treat any illness they have with herbs and few generic medicines if needed. We discovered ‘animal doctors’ after the Covid-19 lockdown. Some of our animals started falling ill as we were not able to migrate with them this year. We did not need a doctor for them before the pandemic, and only now realised that there is a separate department for animal care. A few of those animal doctors were near our village and that has helped us as well.
Have the other problems you faced during the pandemic been resolved?
Apart from the challenge of finding animal fodder we did not have a personal problem with the lockdown. We live a frugal life, and our elders remember facing such a pandemic in the early 1970s too, but us Gujjars survived that as well. This is because we live in the forests and are not in contact with many city people. We have deep knowledge of how to use the herbs we find in the forest. We always eat pure food and drink pure milk. We do not eat meat. We thank God that we are okay even in this Covid-19 pandemic.
How will you emerge from the financial crisis? What do you feel you will face now?
If our cattle remain protected, then we will also be monetarily stable. We are not greedy to earn more than what we need. Otherwise, we would have owned property and wealth. All we want is two meals a day, and for our cattle to be safe. If our cattle die, then our existence will end, our identity, our culture, tradition everything will end. Then the following generations of Van Gujjars, will also not be able to come out easily from the losses, this is all we know.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by Mohammed Meer Hamza who hails from the nomadic Van Gujjar hill tribe.
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 id 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.