Anthropologist Anita Sharma writes about the little known community of the Bakkarwals

Reportedly, the world’s largest nomadic population — around seven per cent — is in South Asia. But they remain largely invisible. For instance, how many of us have heard of the sheep-rearing Bakkarwals whose population, according to Bakkarwal elders, is anywhere between two to five lakhs in Jammu and Kashmir? Out and out nomadic, they spend six months in the plains and the remaining six months on mountain pastures. “They are not part of the census. The concerned authorities don’t go to their pastures to count them in, which makes them go largely unrepresented in the state. They are also considered to be a law and order problem. A senior official in Kashmir actually said that they want to stop the Bakkarwal movement,” says anthropologist Anita Sharma who has written her first book, “The Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir — Navigating through Nomadism” with these concerns in mind.

The challenges

With insurgency taking its toll on the valley, the number of pastures available to the Bakkarwals has come down drastically. Anita, who lived in remote pastures moving with different Bakkarwal clans, says the army has taken over many of those areas. “Migrating annually from the hills of the Jammu-Poonch region through the Pir Panjal into the Kashmir Valley, they are constantly harassed. The medical provisions meant for them don’t reach them, for they are being sold by the corrupt officials to the chemists. There is no access to education. Since Abdullahs have partly Gujjar blood, they have been sympathetic to the Bakkarwals. They had introduced mobile education but that also petered out,” says Anita. The struggle, she feels, will either force them to settle at one place, thus wiping out an entire culture, or many from the community will end up as landless labourers.

The book, replete with large pictures taken by Anita herself, doesn’t raise these questions directly, but the idea that the author is trying to draw attention to the needs of the marginalised section of people comes through.

The author, through this book, documents their community life, religion, language and culture. The author also explains the difference between them and the Kashmiri Muslims. While they are Hanafi devout Muslims, the Kashmiri Muslims are Sufi Muslims. The book also gently touches upon the strained relations the community has with the Kashmiri Muslims and the bond they share with the Gujjars and the Hindus. “They have strong loyalties towards their clans which are many, like the Allahiwals, Kunharis — being the most important ones — and Khatanas, Bajrans, Lehiwals. Also, they don’t wander about aimlessly. Specific Bakkarwals go to specific pastures,” she says.

And how did she get in? “At random, I would go and strike up conversations with the women and after a few days I would ask them to allow me to spend a few days with them. In return I would give them something that I had taken along.The RAW officials had briefed me not to stay with any clan for more than two days as I was a soft target.But being with the Bakkarwals, I never felt vulnerable,” says Anita.

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