October 15, 2012
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Wearing a traditional Kashmiri dress and a cloth-draped cap, Phula Bano, 40, starts her day at 5 a.m.
She performs her daily chores, including cooking, washing clothes, and trekking long distances to feed her herd of 200 cattle and horses and five wild dogs.
The only difference from day to day is the scenery. Bano and her family don’t stay in the same area for more than a few days.
With luggage strapped to her back and her 1-year-old son, Bilal Khan, in her lap, she prepares to leave for her next destination after taking a rest at Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital.
Bano is a Gujjar, a nomadic tribe found throughout South Asia. On temporary stops, which might last up to three days, she and a clan of three other families cook meals and wash clothes. They then pack their families’ bags for the next destination.
Every winter, Gujjars, who rear buffalo, and Bakerwals, another nomadic tribe that rears sheep and goats, reside in the plains of Jammu and Kashmir. Though they are separated by name, the two groups share a language, culture, a nomadic lifestyle and also intermarry. In the summer, they start their seasonal migration toward the northwestern Himalayas.
“We don’t know how city life is,” Bano says through a translator in the Gojri language spoken by the Gujjar and Bakerwal while fixing her anklet. “All we know is to spend our entire life looking after our family and livestock. We live a simple life under the open sky surrounded by nature.”
The Gujjar and Bakerwal people respect the nomadic culture of their ancestors. But the never-ending moves and unknown destinations mean nonstop chores for women. The lack of a home base also restricts their access to education and health care.
The Constitution of India labels the Gujjars and the Bakerwals as “Scheduled Tribes,” meaning national legislation recognizes their status as an indigenous people. The 12 recognized Scheduled Tribes account for 10.9 percent of the total population of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and 1.3 percent of the total tribal population of the country, according to the 2001 Census of India.
Gujjar is the most populous scheduled tribe in Jammu and Kashmir, with a population of 763,806. Bakerwal is the third-largest tribe, with a population of 60,724.
Bano says her clan still abides by customs and traditions followed by their ancestors.
“Our ancient customs and traditions are still in vogue that dates back to thousands of years, as very little changed from bygone days,” she says.
Parmeet Begum, 35, a mother of two sons from the Gujjar tribe, says that when the tribe moves from one destination to another unknown place, a woman is in charge of dismantling the tent, packing it onto the horses and reassembling it at the new destination.
The nomads live in two-room tents, one for greeting guests and one for sleeping. The women weave them on ground looms and then stitch them together.
“When we travel, we don’t know where we are heading,” Begum says. “And after getting exhausted, we stop at any place.”
Life takes place during this travel, she explains, such as the birth of babies and marriage of their children to children of other nomadic clans.
“There is no society or any modernized life,” she says. “All we know is to wander from one place to other to feed our livestock and live our life in woods due to the unavailability of permanent food and shelter.”
Traveling in remote areas in the upper hills of Kashmir, the nomadic women and girls do not have access to, or much knowledge of, educational or health facilities. They also lack other basic amenities such as clean drinking water and electricity.
Begum says that aside from education, her community also lacks access to basic health care.
“We are left at God’s mercy even during pregnancy,” she says. “You will be surprised to know that many of our women have died while giving birth to their children due to the lack of doctors and proper medication.”
Women suffer the most from the nomadic lifestyle, according to the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, an organization registered with the state government that works to promote universal understanding of nomadic tribes in India.
“Their participation in social as well as in political institutions is quite dismal,” says Javaid Rahi, secretary of the foundation.
Expectant mothers are at highest risk during travel, he explains, as they do not receive medical care or proper time to recover. Their nomadic lifestyle also denies children access to timely vaccination and immunization.
He says the cycle continues because young girls lack exposure to education.
“There are very minimal resources for the education of girls, due to which more and more girls are pushed to early marriage and other superstitions,” he says.
Zulfi Lasa, 13, a nomadic girl and her brother, Ashraf Lasa, 6, says they have no concept of education.
“All we know is to look after our livestock,” Zulfi says.
Primary education is free and compulsory in government schools in India, but the tribes’ nomadic patterns aren’t conducive to formal education. They are now asking for access to mobile schools, a growing phenomenon in the country.