J&K Shepherds Pay Price Of Terrorism
15 July 2003
Srinagar: The 13-year strife in Jammu and Kashmir is threatening the livelihood of the region's impoverished nomadic tribes, who constitute around 15 per cent of its 10 million population. The landless tribes of Gujjars and Bakerwals, who subsist on cattle rearing, constantly travelling from one pasture to another during summer, are finding survival difficult due to restrictions on movement. 'Security forces occupy most of the largest pastures, turning them out of bounds for grazing,' complains Lazzat Khan, 50, whose herd of goats has been reduced to a size of 150 from the original 400. Khan's case is typical of other members of his tribe. This year they were prohibited from entering the huge mountain range of Hill Kaka in the Himalayas, a favourite pasture land - due to a massive operation launched by the Army this April. Army authorities say that hundreds of militants, mostly belonging to Pakistan and Afghanistan, are hiding in the mountains. Explains a senior Army officer, 'We can't leave the area till the militants are killed or chased away.' Union Minister of State for Defence Chaman Lal Gupta said that during past four years around 6,000 militants have been killed in dozens of small operations carried out in the area. He said that the Army was ready to compensate shepherds who have been denied access to the pastures. But member of State Legislative Council and senior Gujjar leader Chowdhary Bashir Ahmad Naaz protests that although militant-army clashes are routine here, nomads should have been allowed access. He alleged that no compensation has been granted for the affected nomads. This year, the number of forbidden areas has multiplied. Apart from Hill Kaka, the nomads are now denied access to other high mountain pastures like Noorpore, Jamian, Gali, Godenak, Sarimastan, Girjan, Dorijan and Makhyana, informs Qasim Khatana, an elderly Gujjar fighting for justice for his fellow tribesmen. The tribes, mostly from the adjoining Jammu region, habitually depart for the Kashmir valley in mid-March every year, arriving at the pastures after a three-month travel. But for over a decade now, they are debarred from their traditional grazing grounds - virgin pastures in the remote Tulail and Gurez sectors in Kashmir and the Zanskar region of Ladakh. 'These sectors remain out of bounds for security reasons. We are directed to move along the roadsides, never venturing to the hilltops,' protests nomad, Gafoor Bajad. Apart from loss of livelihood, their lives too are often endangered. Says former minister and influential Gujjar leader Mian Bashir Ahmad, 'In 1996, six members of a nomadic family were gunned down by the Ladakh Scouts in the Gangbal area. The hapless tribes have to submit to the diktats of the security forces.' As a consequence, many nomads are abandoning their cattle to work as labourers, deprived of a lucrative alternative due to widespread illiteracy. Laments Naaz, 'The literacy rate is dismally low, but the government has no viable plans for their uplift.' While officially the State Government has established 300 mobile schools for the children of nomads, 'Most of them exist only on paper, and have proved a big failure due to the lack of vigilance and accountability,' alleges Gujjar legislator Nizamuddin Khatana. True, the Centre has declared Gujjars and Bakerwals Scheduled Tribes, but educational backwardness prevents them from reaping the benefits. Ironically, the 13 Gujjar-Bakerwal hostels established by the State Government under the aegis of the social welfare department are reported to be in a pathetic condition. The situation in other fields is hardly better. Most of the tribals lack basic amenities like drinking water, electricity and medical facilities. 'When they don't have their own land, the question of owning a house does not arise,' remarks MLC Lal Muhammad Sabir.